Monday, January 01, 2007

Fear The Norseman

I have a 5:20 flight back to Minnesota today, so this will likely be the last post I write until I get in. When you think about it, the concept of Minnesota is a bit amazing. After all, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Scandinavians were the most feared and brutal barbarians ever to sweep through Europe. Who would have possibly guessed that today they would all be in placid, cooperative social welfare states, or have moved to the upper-midwest to become the most stereotypically boring farmers imaginable? Today, Thor Olafson sounds less likely to put a sword through your chest than put an extra loaf of bread in your basket at the market. And he'll do it with a cute "Fargo" accent that has come to be known as "Minnesota nice."

I observe this because, all due respect to Samuel Huntington, civilizations change, and I think we make a serious mistake when we ossify them and pretend that any one group is hopelessly and incorrigbly backwards.

TDL reader Scott Needle's queried to me over email:
Does our society's current focus on Islamic extremists place too much emphasis on the religion? At the risk of being labeled hopelessly politically incorrect, doesn't the Arab culture itself play a vital role in this "clash of civilizations?" This thought came about largely after watching the movie "Children of Heaven," a beautiful but simultaneously disturbing inside look at Iranian society. Add in some admittedly limited personal experiences/interactions and a rudimentary knowledge of tribal Arabic history, and I began to think: is it just in the "Arab nature" to be violent, dogmatic, intolerant? It seems that the cultural aspect transcends religious conviction, though the religion is admittedly a useful tool for fanning flames and channeling the culture. We obviously can't dismiss the religion as having little significance--it's clearly tied up with the culture, however. I have yet to see this thought addressed in any major newspaper or such. The purpose would be towards a greater understanding of the conflict, especially through a historical eye. I doubt it would ultimately make a difference to our current NeoCon administration, but it could eventually help towards: (1) less blame on religion, less fostering of a modern "crusade" or "jihad", and (2) better understanding of what might work/not work to bring about true peace and progress across the region.

I understand the sentiment, and I appreciate the attempt to try and reduce anti-Islamic sentiment here in the states, but this seems strikingly close to replacing quasi-religious based classifications with quasi-race based ones, an endeavor to which we should all be leery.

First, let's be careful: Iranians aren't Arabic. They're Persian. This isn't a trivial distinction: Persians and Arabs have a long history of animosity and mistrust. Grouping them together as part of the same culture is like grouping the Spanish and the Moors together. Geography can be misleading.

But more importantly, as my above Viking Raiders allusion suggests, it's a dangerous game to try and ossify the culture of any group of people as inherent and unchangeable. I would not be surprised if every group had not had its inherent fitness questioned at one point or another. Certainly, we all recall the "scientists" that were trotted out throughout the 19th century to talk about how the inherent nature of the African was simple, primitive, alternatively savage or sambo-like, etc.. Perhaps more surprising to our readers is that this same dynamic has been applied to White people too. William J. Wilson wrote an 1860 essay entitled "What shall we do with White people," forwarding as its fundamental question: "Are they fit for self government?" The evidence, of course, was the spectacular display of imperialism, colonialism, brutality, rape, pillaging, murdering, theft, enslavement, and exploitation that characterized European behavior towards non-Whites during the era. W.E.B. Du Bois, in one of his more cynical moments, also proclaimed that the vast body of evidence suggested that such brutalism was not an aberration from the White norm, but its exemplification.

Going off Arabs specifically, we can note that--were we to take the time of the crusades as our metric point--Arab culture was considerably more "gentle" (if you will) and less prone to barbarism than its European counterparts. By and large, the defending Arab states in the crusade showed much more respect for captured prisoners and wounded enemies than did the Christian invaders. On the other side of it, one might wonder if their view of the West as a perpetually threatening, invading "crusader force" is itself premised on the mirrored viewpoint that--as history shows--it is we who cannot contain our bloodthirsty, expansionist instinct as a culture. So I might agree that the belief (on both sides) that the enemy is inherently a savage might play a role in the current conflict, but I'm highly skeptical that we have any better claim to our stereotype being true than they do. Those in glass houses and all that.

The point isn't to say that there isn't a very dangerous streak running through the Arab world right now. There is, and we need to find a way to address it. But it is falling into very old historical traps to throw up our hands and say "it's their culture! There's nothing we can do!" All groups tend to submit to this fallacy at one point, and they're always wrong.


Maddy said...

History isn't one of my strengths but 'Crusaders' quests can last a century or more. Pity we can't just fast forward a couple of life times.

Dr Scott said...

I'm afraid I made the typical uneducated American mistake of lumping Iran in with the rest of the Arab world, and I do appreciate the correction. I have no intention of maligning all Arabs as violent savages, and I agree that it's all too easy to fall into that trap, to no good end.
I would also agree that, even if we were to theoretically ascribe the very worst to an entire culture, that still would not imply an immutable quality. Return to Iran: as you have referenced, Iran has had a rich and varied history, with tremendous greatness, as well as the more recent lows (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad springs to mind).
With that being said, I have nagging questions that I can't answer easily, and I suppose most others can't either. Why are the current violent hotspots around the globe concentrated in Arab/Islamic areas: Iraq, Darfur, Palestine/Israel (and don't forget the newest Hamas-Fatah violence)? Why, from what I read, were the majority of 9-11 terrorists true Arabs, and not economically disenfranchised either? And why is terroristic or group-on-group violence largely absent in what we consider "the West," at least on a society-wide scale? Is this a true phenomenon, perhaps the junction of fundamentalist Islam, Arab culture, and a few charismatic firebrands? Is it an exaggerated xenophobia overexposed in our media (i.e., would a non-American be asking similar questions about race and homicides in urban American settings?)
As always, I would appreciate hearing your take on this.

David Schraub said...

I'd imagine there are a fair amount of groups that would laugh quite bitterly at the notion that the West has no history of terroristic/group-on-group violence. I'm reading Michael J. Klarman's magisterial history of American race relations ("From Jim Crow to Civil Rights"), and every couple paragraphs or so you read something like "In Orange County, Florida, one Black man attempted to register to vote. In response, a race riot burned 30 Blacks alive." Terrorism was not just a part, but probably was the key enforcement mechanism of Jim Crow in the late 19th and early 20th century. I could write similar things about Western actions towards Native Americans or their colonial charges elsewehere around the world. The West has quite a sordid history of vicious terrorism, much as we might like to forget it.

Similarly, while there are plenty of areas where Arab/Muslims are precipitating violence (Is/Pal, Sudan [though the victims are also Muslim there], Iran), there are also places where they are the victims (e.g., Kosovo, Western China), and of course plenty of areas in recent years where they are not involved at all (Congo, Rwanda, El Salvador). I'd imagine there is a particular confluence of factors leading to increased Islamic/Pan-Arab radicalism nowadays, but I don't think its anything inherent.