Culture Talk Six Debates That Shape the Discourse on “Good” Muslims

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Mahmood Mamdani

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Abstract

In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: Free Press,
[c1952]), Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago political philosopher, analyzed
the technique of writing under repression. He discussed medieval
philosophers who had written under repression – al-Farabi, Maimonides,
and Spinoza – but this was not an esoteric exercise. The cold war had begun
only three years before, and American officialdom tended to see a communist
behind every book. “In a considerable number of countries which, for
about a hundred years, have enjoyed a practically complete freedom of discussion,”
wrote Strauss, “that freedom is now suppressed and replaced by
a compulsion to coordinate speech with such views as the government
believes to be expedient, or holds in all seriousness.”
Persecution, Strauss noted, “gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing,”
one “in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively
between the lines.” But what if only some are conscious of the growing
repression and thus write between the lines, while most have so internalized
the repression as common sense that they translate it into a narrow agenda?
Surely, in such a case the most appropriate response is to broaden the parameters
of the discussion in order to not just read between the lines, but also
beyond the margins. In what follows, I will try to do so by identifying and
commenting on the issues driving the debate between participants.
Debate One: Culture and Politics
One of the most amazing news items I read in the weeks following 9/11 was
in The New York Times: Sales of the Qur’an had soared in the United States
as more and more Americans sought to read it for clues as to what had motivated
the hijackers. In the months and years that followed, I wondered if the
people of Afghanistan or Iraq, even Fallujah, were reading the Bible for an
explanation for the bombs raining upon them from on high. I doubt that any
of them really did. I wondered what explained this difference.
I am convinced that the difference lies in how the public debate on
9/11 has been framed by public intellectuals in the United States. Most
public intellectuals, especially the quasi-official ones, share assumptions
that I call culture talk. The core assumption is that you can read some people’s
politics – the politics of those who are not “modern” – from their culture,
for culture is not something that they make; rather, it is their culture
that makes them. Even those who accept that all cultures are historical
assume that cultures grow in separate containers called “civilizations” that
talk and exchange, but only do so at the margins. Since they all develop
along the same lines, you can tell who is more and who is less developed.
In addition, it is characteristic of the less developed that they require an
external impulse to get out of a vicious circle. The historical responsibility
of the more advanced culture, then, is either philanthropic – to bring
“development” or “democracy” to those less fortunate – or that of policing
the world by imposing a quarantine on those likely to act out of resentment
or anger.
Culture talk has a history. It is about taking the moral high ground and
is as old as colonialism. Democracies have always had to justify colonialism
to their populations as a selfless and philanthropic endeavor. Not surprisingly,
the justificatory literature on colonialism typically identifies vulnerable
groups in the target countries – those who need to be saved – and
turns them into so many proxies. This is how one needs to understand the
nineteenth-century British preoccupation with the talk of saving Indian
women (by ending practices like sati, polygamy, and the ban against widow
marriage) and children (child marriage), or entire populations in Africa
from possible enslavement, as well as the contemporary American preoccupation
with female genital mutilation. It used to be called “the White
Man’s Burden”; now it is called “humanitarian intervention.” ...

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