Us against Them

The longer we talk about identity conflicts in the West and the Islamic world, the more certain we can be that they will come about, writes journalist Robert Misik in his anatomy of a war psychosis

It smells of war. At least we are gradually getting the idea of what it must have been like in former times. When we suddenly stood face to face with the enemy: us against them.

How entire peoples arrived at a point where they assumed that their existence was at stake because it was under threat from those with a completely different existence. Later, such behaviour would be described as "war psychosis" or "collective pathology".

Field, tilled by extremists

Whatever one calls it, it is back: "Us" and "them". "Us" and the Muslims. Or the other way around: "Us" and the West. "Us" against … Of course everything is much more complicated today. Caricatures in a Danish provincial newspaper lead to violent demonstrations in Gaza and Lahore. People in Tripoli lose their lives when a provocative Italian Lega-Nord Minister appears on television in Rome.

When Hamas wins elections in Palestine, people look sceptically at men with beards and jellabas in DIY stores in Vienna. Anti-Western films produced in Turkey are box office hits in Berlin-Neukölln.

This confrontational status-quo has created a maelstrom that is even exerting a pull on "normal people" on both sides. During the caricature dispute, many devout Muslims ran into the field that had been so carefully tilled by extremists, while in western left-wing liberal circles it has become the norm to argue that "we" have to defend our values, our civilisation's achievements, against "them".

Collective pathologies

Some of the arguments that are being put forward are the most astonishing combinations imaginable. On the one side, the feelings of humiliation harboured by the Muslim world in general and by the supposedly second-class migrant communities in particular merge with the anti-Western furore created by the fundamentalists.

On the other side, the liberal discourse of freedom, human rights, and freedom of speech merge with the arrogant, supercilious tones of a western rhetoric of superiority. It is fashionable and acceptable to say that western, enlightened tolerance and liberality must draw the line when it comes under threat. And it doesn't sound bad either.

But yet the liberality that is both claimed and denied at the same time, is battling with the cutting manner in which the words are spoken. But maybe this is a characteristic of such collective pathologies: even the best motives are capable of being combined with the worst ways of thinking.

Every side has its truth and the most unpleasant thing about this truth is that it is not usually wrong. Writing in the Egyptian al-Ahram-Weekly, Ayman El-Amir proclaims that "anti-Arab, anti-Muslim prejudices have become part of western culture".

"Avoid infection with hysteria"

As if wanting to confirm this assertion, violence researcher Wolfgang Sofsky writes in Die Welt that "this mass of devout people wants to take possession of its deadly infidel enemies; it wants to slaughter them and burn them." American strategists are already talking about the "Fourth World War" (the Cold War is neatly filed under "Third World War").

Writing in Die Zeit, Jens Jessen warns the West "not to be infected by its opponent's hysteria". Essentially, he is advising us to desert the frontline of the "clash of the civilisations" only to refer to the West a few sentences later as the "far superior social system". But is it possible to formulate such a sentence without taking sides in this conflict? What is happening here? Are we confused? Are storms raging in our heads?

But not taking sides at all is not the solution either when the liberal pathos of freedom brushes painfully against anti-Islamic agitation and when, at the same time, anti-racist or anti-imperialist rhetoric is not infrequently used to make totalitarian religious madness look harmless.

Muslims are starting to resent the West, while people in the West are becoming generally suspicious of Muslims. Suddenly, little Turkish boys kicking a ball around a football pitch are seen with different eyes. The world is rearranged.

As ever, the rhetoric of cultural superiority is an expression of fantasies of powerlessness and threats. A mixture of excitement and fear dominates both sides. The panic attack precedes the actual attack.

Increasing anti-western cultural awareness

When identities feel threatened, insanity thrives. So is this the clash of the civilisations predicted thirteen years ago by the US political scientist Samuel Huntington? Huntington wrote that the world's major civilisations were the stable elements in the world order. That being said, he added that these civilisations, or cultures, are merging with one another because the world is moving closer together.

Moreover, with the hegemony of western culture, anti-western cultural awareness is increasing in non-western civilisations. At times when people are searching for an identity, he wrote, the probability of people interpreting the situation in terms of "us" and "them" increases.

The transformation of "real existing" Islam - this jig-saw of Koran traditions and local ways of life blended together to create a uniform, pure, global protest Islam - needed the adoption of influences from western culture and could be said to have even doubled its tendency to homogenise.

In this way, re-Islamisation is just as "artificial" as western consumer culture. But that doesn't mean that Huntington was wrong in his diagnosis. If someone considers himself or herself to have a certain identity for long enough, they will in the end assume that identity.

One feature of discussions about identity is that they make people ignore their own concrete personal characteristics and drive them into an opposing camp or, in the best case scenario, into a camp alongside the one in which they find themselves.

Discussions about identity blur the vision. The West denies being a culture in the first place; it claims to be the norm. Culture? Others who deviate from the norm have culture. And whenever the West talks about "culture" the word always seems to imply backwardness.

"Identity goes to war"

These cultures are treated with a type of respect that often bears a strong resemblance to condescension. The multiculturalist defends the right of immigrant communities to live according to their own traditions (and would even do so for colourfully painted natives on remote South Sea islands); the militant liberal demands that "they" become like "us".

Discourses about identity always have the potential to become aggressive. "Identity goes to war" was the headline of an article in the most recent edition of the US magazine The New Republic. In this article, Amartya Sen, who has won the Nobel Prize for Economics, called for more attention to be paid to the multiplicity of identities.

This also means checking one's own rhetoric to see whether it helps tone down the clash of civilisations or in fact exacerbates it. We must learn to see things through other people's eyes. Should we defend human rights, freedom of speech, and civil rights and liberties? Yes, by all means! But we should always make sure that what we do does not bring about the opposite of what we claim to do.

Robert Misik

© 2006

Translation from German: Aingal Flanagan

Robert Misik lives and works as a freelance journalist in Vienna and Berlin and has worked for the Austrian magazines Profil and Format. Genial Dagegen, his study of critical thought from Marx to Michael Moore, was recently published in German by Aufbau Verlag.

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