By: Sonia Mansour Robaey *
1. Values and the West’s double standards approach to ethical pluralism.
Ethical pluralism is focused on individual preferences in modern pluralistic societies. It does not dictate what is ethical or what is not. It only creates a space for rational dialogue on the diversity of values aimed at reaching a consensus within the limits of reason. Ethical pluralism is practised in West for controversial moral issues like abortion, gay rights and Euthanasia. Although laws are legislated on these issues in some western countries, in many cases they do not constrain those who oppose them to live by them. It is believed that ethical pluralsim creates more tolerance and more freedoms for the individual. The essence of ethical pluralism is that moral codes cannot be forced, they emerge by consensus through a rational discourse and dialogue on values. Ethical pluralism represents the culmination of many centuries of western thinking in political Philosophy, moral Philosophy and Ethics. Ethical pluralism in western democracies is assumed for example in Jürgen Habermas’ ‘Discourse ethics’ where, within western societies, ethical diversity and pluralism require a commitment to rational discourse and dialogue.
However, wide dialogue, based on rational discourse and leading to consensus on moral values in western societies, is denied by the West to others when advancing its own set of values in non-western societies,
As such, western moral values, having emerged by consensus, are forced on other cultures and societies who did not participate in the rational discourse leading to a consensus on these values. Another difficulty in implementing western moral values in most non-western societies is related on the status of the self in society. Most non-western moral values are anchored, not in individual preferences, but in community norms, elders’ wisdoms and local laws, which ancient Greeks used to call ‘nomos’. In non-western societies, core values are transmitted between generations where intergenerational dialogue and closeness are strong, contrary to western societies. They are not discussed in the public sphere where they play a cohesive role in which the individual self identifies more with the community than with the ego.
There is a tension in the West’s approach to values which allows the individual a greater space of liberty within western societies but denies this liberty to individuals in other societies attached to their traditions and the norms of their communities. In fact, there is a faulty assumption in West that the individual Self in non-western societies is modeled on the western Self, despite historical and cultural differences. This tension has become palpable with the advent of the globalization of markets, cultures and ideas. The West stands as the promoter of one set of values, its own, over others, without regard to context, History, and culture. The West’s hegemonic approach to values is being tackled differently in non-western cultures, either by total assimilation, peaceful but active resistance, distrust and retreat, or violent resentful extremism directed against the West in the case of Sunni Islam. Colonialism was built on the assumption that the colonized were different in humanity while globalization is built on the assumption that ‘there is no such thing as society’, only individuals exist, as Margaret Thatcher famously said. Both colonialism and globalism approach non-western cultures with models of the individual self-forged in West and imposed on non-westerners, incompatible with many cultural and religious identities.
Ethical pluralism then, although unequally practiced by West, is not part of the relations the West establishes with other societies, where it is assumed that only individuals exist and that they must consume the product of the ethical consensus built by other individuals in West. Since 911, as the assumption grew for a ‘clash of civilisations’, there was an upsurge in this approach and the forcing of western values through military campaigns, invasions and occupations preceded and followed by violent backlashes from extremist fundamentalists. Post 911, international relations have become a domain of confrontations thought to be confrontations of civilisations and values.
2. A broken dialogue on values feeds terrorism and simulates for us a ‘clash of civilisations’
Many Muslims today live in communities, societies and countries which emphasize traditional values and the supremacy of the community over the individual. Although Muslims are not the only ones who live in traditions which are antagonists to western values, they are currently the main culture and religion to react and to be targeted by this confrontation and it is mainly Sunni Muslims who are engaged in this confrontation which has claimed many lives and wrecked many countries and their social fabrics through terrorism and the war on terror.
This is the reason why a dialogue on values is urgently needed between the West and Muslims. Some in the West as well as in Muslim countries do not believe in the dialogue on values, firmly standing on both sides of the values divide, committed to wars. But others believe in this dialogue. President Obama articulated his desire for dialogue with Muslims in his Cairo’s discourse early during his first mandate. But due to many factors, including America’s previous war commitments and voices of confrontation inside his own administration, Obama wasn’t able to act on his Cairo’s discourse. We will never know if Obama was sincere about this dialogue. But what we know is that he did not blindly follow those who wanted a confrontation to the end with Iran. Recently, Ayatollah Khamenei wrote on his twitter account that Obama wrote him a second letter in 2009 full of affirmative accounts about Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei said he had the intention to reply to the letter but after Obama supported the protests against the government in Iran in 2009 he refrained from doing so. Obama acted against the voices of confrontation with Iran, but not before the failure of the 2009 colour revolution for regime change. He finally succeeded in reaching a deal with Iran that, if its implementation is unhindered by more confrontation, should naturally open a dialogue on values between Muslims and the West.
On the Iranian side, the deal reached between Iran and the West silenced the voices of confrontation and opened possibilities to initiate a dialogue between Muslims and the West. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was first to open this dialogue on the values of Islam with his two letters to western youth (January 2015 letter and November 2015 letter). Khamenei’s initiatives came in a context of a renewed wave of Sunni terrorism by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), more barbaric and more sectarian than the terrorism witnessed since 911, and threatening this time the Near East, the Levant and Europe.
While the nuclear deal was being worked out between the West and Iran during the year 2015, many terrorist attacks by Sunni Muslim extremists hit Muslim countries, especially Iraq and Syria, as well as Europe. Most notable were the two attacks in France in 2015, both claimed by ISIS, attracting wide and sustained attention in western media. ISIS is virulently anti-Iran and anti-Shia. It promotes a return to the Sunni Caliphate. Khamenei’s first letter spoke of a different kind of Islam in an attempt to educate western youth on the real sources of knowledge on Islam, away from the terrible and negative image that was being presented to the West by ISIS. The letter was deliberately addressed to youth because, as Khamenei argued, dialogue with western leaders was futile since they were the ones promoting the kind of Muslim extremism embodied by ISIS through the stigmatisation of Muslims and the religion of Islam. There is unwillingness in West, especially among those who fear and stigmatise Islam, to learn about the true religion of Islam and Muslims beyond the terrorists clichés. Ayatollah Khamenei’s second letter to western youth was published two weeks after the attacks on the Bataclan concert venue in Paris that claimed many youthful lives. In it, Ayatollah Khamenei chides the West for its double standards towards the victims of terrorism and for the imposition of western culture by force uniformly on Muslim societies.
Learning about the true religion of Islam, lifting the peaceful image of Islam and Muslims against the hateful image propagated by terrorists, finding common ground among differences in values, reaching out to youth, were also the main topics of Obama’s speech, and the first, in an American Mosque in Baltimore On February 3, 2016. Obama’s speech at the Mosque was in many ways a foreign policy speech too in which he condemned sectarian policies implicitly criticising Saudi regional policy. At some point he addressed his critics who say his policy against ISIS is not clear by stating that clarity against terrorists can be found only in countering their message of division, sectarianism and hate. Obama quoted passages from the Qoran more than once during his speech. Only two years ago, such a move by Obama, going to a Mosque, delivering directly to Muslims a message of peace and quoting the Qoran, was unthinkable. What happened between the Cairo speech and the Baltimore Speech? The hate didn’t stop, the terrorism didn’t stop, the divisions and the confrontations didn’t stop. To be fair to Obama, the Cairo speech was meant to inaugurate an era of dialogue between the West and Islam, but Obama couldn’t act on this alone, he needed partners among Muslims leaders in the ME. The Baltimore speech comes after the nuclear deal with Iran, Iran’s participation in the fight against ISIS, and the endless possibilities for finding common ground between the West and Islam these events may produce. Obama also realized that an American Mosque and the Muslim American community are the best place to start this dialogue, not Cairo.
3. A clash of values is not a clash of civilisations.
Although the lives lost to terrorism in France and the West in general aren’t more precious than other lives taken by blind terrorism elsewhere, the attacks in France and the West create a greater wedge between European and Muslim populations at large, inside and outside, in neighbouring countries around the Meditterranean basin, and beyond in the Asian and African continents where the majority of Muslims live. While American neocons, who so much wish for the clash of civilizations, rejoice of the increasing wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims far from their own shores separated and shielded from this clash by two oceans, Europe is increasingly becoming the theatre of the clash.
What is the nature of this clash? It is important to make a distinction here between the clash of civllizations and the clash of values. While the clash of civilizations includes also a clash of values, it is about more than values. The clash of civilisations leads to wars because civilizations aim for self preservation and fight against their annihilation. The term ‘civilisation’ implies not only values but a geopolitical, economic and military space. The clash of values can be approached differently and resolved through dialogue. Even inside western societies there is a clash of values. This is why western societies practise ethical pluralism. Values can intersect between two civilizations and common ground can be found amid differences. Many values evolve from the inside, but also from contacts with other civlizations. In the ancient times, these contacts were mostly established through wars. The citizens of ancient Greece considered non-Greeks as barbarians and non-humans because ancient Greece was a ‘closed’ civilisation, that is until the advent of Alexander’s conquests and the Hellenistic period that followed.
The term ‘clash of civilisations’ is greatly misleading. It implies a geopolitical confrontation. It is both a testimony to the neocons’ warring agenda as well as to their backward thinking. Wars aren’t needed today to establish contacts between civilisations or resolve differences in values between civilisations. Today’s means of communication are many, multi-level, fast and easy. The fall of the former communist bloc countries should have led us to a more cooperative, less confrontational world, militarily speaking. Instead, the neocons created the clash of civilisations set-up to produce more wars and more confrontations to advance American hegemony in a unipolar world. With 911 and its aftermath, Sunni Muslim terrorism, initially born out from the collaboration of America’s cold war ideology and Sunni Wahhabism against the former communist bloc, set the scene worldwide for a spectacular and threatening clash of values with humiliations, provocations and blasphemy of religious symbols. A clash of values enacted amid wars, fear and mongering on the world scene, leading to greater divisions, erasing the common ground between civilisations, fulfilling the ‘clash of civilisations’ prophecy.
It is Europe and Asia where most people on the planet, and most Muslims live, that are set to take the full impact of this clash being prepared for decades now by the neocons. The neocons’ game in Europe is to treat Europe’s woes resulting from a clash of values between east and west, between north and south, with more confrontations and wars. The neocons who are the promoters of the clash of civilisations are the new enemies of the Open Society.
This is the post 911 reality created by the neocons. A world that has every possible tool to make communication and dialogue on many issues, including values, easy and natural, yet is locked in confrontations and wars. As it takes two to dance, the neocons’ project to produce a clash of civilisations is greatly helped by Sunni Muslim resentful extremism and its state sponsors.
Fortunately for us, the majority of Muslims do not want this clash of civilisations which has been hurting Muslim countries and Muslims more than others. Fortunately for us too, Iran refuses to engage in the clash of civilisations. Amid the tensions created by 911, Iran has shown the world it can make peace without losing its dignity by not responding to the humiliations and provocations of those who want wars for the sake of wars. I have argued before that both the nuclear deal and Khamenei’s letter to western youth form a coherent approach by Iran to treat the woes of Islam and show the West that there is an alternative to confrontation with Islam and Muslims through dialogue on values and the respect for the dignity of others.
Those in the West who want a dialogue on values with Muslims to peacefully resolve differences instead of a clash of civilisations and wars can now count on Iran’s leadership. A dialogue on values can be much more enriching than the forcing of western values on Muslim societies. A dialogue on values doesn’t and shouldn’t end by one set of values taking on another but by finding common ground amid differences. That’s the essence of communication and diplomacy and the respect for the dingity of others and our common humanity.
Russia, which has worked hard to end Iran’s isolation, has a diplomacy which instinctively understands the potential of resolving the issue of the clash of civilisations that feeds today’s devastating terrorism eating at the heart of all civilisations. Because Russia’s neighbour, Europe, is by excellence the theatre for this clash. And because a clash of civilisations that counts on terrorism for self-realization will undoubtedly lead to the end of civilisations.
The US however, despite the nuclear deal and the recent détente with Iran, is still very much sitting on the fence, between war and peace. Hesitations and mixed messages, as well as Obama’s end of mandate, risk annihilating the dialogue that the Iran deal is promising, putting the initiative back in the hands of the neocons. Obama’s last year in office must prove decisive in its open approach to the ills born out from the confrontation with Islam and Muslims if we are to bend the arc of History definitively away from the neocons.
As I wrote in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, only a dialogue on values can silence the voices of confrontation.
* Sonia Mansour Robaey, PhD, teaches Philosophy and Ethics, does counselling in Ethics. She is an observer and analyst of Middle Eastern and Levantine politics. Follow her on Twitter @les_politiques