The tragedy that unfolded in Paris recently has created unity and division at the same time, at various strata of global conversations on freedom and respect. An amorphous category often termed "the West" seems more united against extremism. The terrorist acts by the jihadists must be unequivocally condemned, and such unity is commendable, but it should also not be at the expense of those who might not fit such stereotypes of modernity. It should also not lead to self-hatred on the part of modernized Muslims, which is also becoming increasingly fashionable. One of the chapters in a book by Muslim Canadian scholar Irshad Manji is titled "Thank God for the West" and is emblematic of a certain "savior" quality of Western societies that many modernists have started to embrace. No doubt there is much to admire about Western cultures, but in times of trauma, we seem to become too simplistic about valorizing a particular worldview.
Indeed, there has been a revival of this view of Western supremacy from different quarters. The conservative commentator Charles Murray, (in)famous for his earlier co-authored book The Bell Curve, authored a book in 2003 called Human Accomplishment, in which the laurels and "creative explosions" of Western society are enumerated with ostensibly rigorous analysis. Some commentators have gone so far as to congratulate Western powers for their 19th-century invasions, as another of South Asian ancestry, Dinesh D'Souza, does in an article titled "Two Cheers for Colonialism." To be fair, such indulgence in exclusive ascendancy can be found in many other societies as well. Muslims claim to have invented algebra; Hindus and Mayans both claim to have invented the concept of "zero"; the Chinese have their own set of claims to fame around hydraulic engineering and silk; and indigenous communities claim special connectivity with natural systems.
So why must we be particularly careful about giving the West some special status when it may well deserve to be recognized for its contemporary pluralism? The main cause for caution is that history reveals similar patterns of prejudice in the West, just as much as in the East, and there can still be a resurgence of such impulses if we are not careful and fail to ward them off. The challenges facing Muslims living in Western societies currently are not new, even in the "New World" of the United States of America. What is most surprising, however, is that the fear and demonization of immigrant populations that occurred earlier on was first and foremost within Western immigrant populations in America. During World War I, German Americans, Irish Americans and Italian Americans endured immense discrimination by the majority, which was of English ancestry. The music of German composers such as Beethoven was banned in cities like Cincinnati. Italian Americans endured similar discrimination during this period, and the racist behavior toward Irish immigrants is well-known in New England. So was "the West" ever a monolithic entity with mutual civility and values worth emulating, values that so captivate many well-meaning revisionist scholars, including those of Muslim origin, such as Tarek Fatah or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?
Several years ago, I attended an international environmental conference that concluded with a keynote speech by an articulate and pleasantly provocative former member of the European parliament. His parliamentary pedigree shone through with comments about the upcoming elections, though not in Europe but in America. With a forceful expression of impending doom, he asked the audience to consider the consequences of the election in terms of how "the West" might be divided if the the Democrats won the election: "That will be the end of the West as a united bloc," he warned.
How the West was one! Was this realistic nostalgia, I wondered? Indeed, when it came to environmental issues (the topic of the conference), we should perhaps be thinking globally, but the speaker dismissed this "globe think" as synonymous with "group think." So was he for Western (Euro-American) unilateralism and not global multilateralism? As I grappled with my own maelstrom of multiple identities -- Muslim, Pakistani-American -- I responded to him with an emotional diatribe about European self-righteousness and my own pride in being a multicultural American. Perhaps this was subconsciously a response to having just read an article in which he voiced opposition to the acceptance of Turkey into the European Union. The organizers quickly transitioned to a pleasant closing lest we get too acrimonious and off-topic.
What the final exchange between me and the distinguished parliamentarian revealed, though, was that certain territorial temptations always compel us to think in terms of our "tribe." Sometimes we move from one tribe to another but still want to stay within a tribal paradigm. I was just as guilty of this with my statement about nationalistic pride as he was in being wistful about a disunited "Western" axis. We both meant well and warmly shook hands after the conference, realizing that unfettered nationalism and ethnocentrism were compelling forces that must be contained.
While communities should certainly be willing to criticize themselves, this should be done with great trepidation to avoid the prevalence of prejudice. Linear reasoning about "the West" or "the East" as primrose ways to salvation from strife is tempting but not the way toward conflict resolution. The challenge we face in confronting global crises and conflicts is how to overcome these temptations. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, regardless of what we might think of their work, certainly pushed us to think outside our tribal comfort zones. The most telling tribute to them would be to always continue to question our actions and our primal but primitive supremacist impulses.