Monday, 4 October 2010
The Critical Mistake of Difference
Posted by Taufiq Rahim | 2:42 am
We are taught many inalienable falsehoods. They are in our history books. They are promulgated in the media. They are touted by political leaders. Almost always, they rest on the lack of imagination and acquiescence to the status quo. Within states and in international relations the perception and actualization of ascendent difference is the greatest threat to peace and prosperity in the modern world. It inhibits collaboration, thwarts agreement, and undermines unity. Diversity is a reality of society and politics. The fatal flaw, however, is to continuously emphasize the gulf of dissimilarities rather than embrace the pool of what is shared; the latter is often far greater and deeper than the former.
One of the most prominent examples of cited historical difference is the chasm between the Israelis and Palestinians who are alleged historical enemies, fighting for a thousand years. How could they ever make peace? The Israelis and Palestinians, however, have been fighting since the 20th century not the 10th century. Prior to that, the Jews who lived in the proverbial Holy Land, were in fact Palestinians (at least in political nomenclature). Moreover, the conflict that led to the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem involved the Roman Empire, who destroyed the Second Temple in 70AD. In fact that very Second Temple, which was built to replace the First Temple (of Solomon), was constructed by decree from a Persian king (Cyrus the Great). After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and their subsequent expulsion, the Jews were finally allowed back into Jerusalem in 638AD. Why? The Muslim Caliph Omar, who had conquered Jerusalem, insisted on the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. The highlighting of a complex history that demonstrates the possibility of cooperation and commonality should not gloss over other sometimes ugly truths. Yet, there is also a world beyond the ugliness.
Today, we are lectured to by a detached voice that Shiites and Sunnis are at war and will be at war for time immemorial. It is as if there was nothing shared. Then, what is the implication for Bahrain? For Lebanon? For Iraq? For Saudi Arabia? For Pakistan? For Afghanistan? For so many Muslim countries with both significant Shiite and Sunni populations. Are these two groups irrevocably opposed to one another? Are their religious views antithetical? To be a Sunni is to follow the path of the Prophet, which no Shiite would deny. To be a Shiite is to extol the leadership of Ali, who any Sunni would venerate. Are there variations in practice and ritual? Of course, but look at what is shared? The fundamental tenet of the faith, the shehada; the Qur'an; the prophets from Adam to Muhammad; and these are just several key examples. What about the principles that underpin the religion of Islam? For starters - Justice. Peace. Humility. Honesty. Forgiveness. Are these not shared? Why is it that in Lebanon, it must be the Shiite versus the Sunni? What made the interests of these two groups oppositional?
Related to this divide is the cultural line between Persians and Arabs. Iran and the Arab world. There is a history of conflict, wars, death. In the 1980s it was Iraq against Iran. In the 980s BC it might have been Assyria against Persia. Who can fight fate? Is that what the Germans said to the French in 1946? How can the dangerous divide between France and Germany be the line of unity for the entire European Union? Those who are fixated on the status quo will be fixed on living in the past. Somehow, Persians and Arabs have less in common as neighbors, than with countries in alliance from thousands of miles away? We could start at baba ghanoush but that is only the start of the ties that bind. Who is synonymous with modern medicine in the Arab world but Ibn Sina, a Persian. What script is the most poetic of Rumi's poems written in but Arabic? We can parse Pars to find evil, but we may find the same hospitality in the homes of Tehran that we do in Baghdad.
Further East, we see a Subcontinent submerged in confounding conflagration since the 1940s. India and Pakistan are mortal combatants. Except in 1857. Except in the 1920s. Of course, there was no India and Pakistan then. Who are Pakistanis and Indians but one another? When the soldiers line up for their trademark face-off in formality at the Wahga border, it is Punjabi on one side - oh, and Punjabi on the other. There are about as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan. It would belabor the point to belabor much more on this (read my previous post), but what a useless and pointless conflict.
Alas, the greatest of the pitched battles is the so-called clash of civilizations theorized and conceptualized by the Huntington of Harvard. Islam take your position. West go to the opposite corner. But wait! Why are they apart? What about Ibn Rushd, who was in fact known as Averroes, and portrayed by Raphael in the School of Athens in the Vatican, as one of the key scholars of the West because it was he who translated the great ancient works into modern literature? That was then, this is now. But wait! Adam. Abraham. Moses. Noah. Jesus. Are they not men of God in both Christianity and Islam? It is not about theory but about actual belief. But wait! In poll after poll, don't Muslims in the East and citizens of the West both extol democracy and share the same basic tenets? And, why is it that it is a geographic divide, when there have been Christians 'over there' and Muslims 'over here' part and parcel of the respective societies of whatever is called the 'West' and the 'Muslim world'?
When you and I look for what is different in each other, we will find it because it exists. When you and I look for what is shared between us, we will find it because it exists and because it is more prevalent than what is different. There is no homogeneity of race, ethnicity, religion anymore in this globalized world. We cannot crawl into false comforts of sameness. Not in the United States. Not in Afghanistan. Within and between societies there will be diversity. That cannot be an excuse - for strife. For avoidance. For disagreement. That is simply a recipe for perpetual conflict. One could attempt to dismiss such thoughts as naive and idealistic. They are not. It is in fact the realist and pragmatist that realizes that conflict can only be avoided and security and stability achieved, when we emphasize what binds us and what we share, rather than what divides us.