Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
So, in times of outward instability we tend to bond together internally. This is a worldwide phenomenon. But then add globalization/modernization and instantly things get even more complicated and move beyond the “merely” religious conflict. When we look back over the past hundred to two hundred years, almost all scientific progress, all inventions, all “modernization” — for lack of a better term — have come from the Western World, i.e. Western Europe and America (in contrast to the origin of prior “inventions” such as the Arabic numerals we use or where most events in the Bible take place). All of these advancements are laudable, important, note-worthy, great and responsible for much of the global progress towards modernity.
But put yourself in the position of someone who is not from this Western World that keeps throwing new things at you. In all fields of life and science, “the West” proclaims it has found a new way, a better way, the right way to do things, see things, use things. And in the same breath (although not always outspokenly) it implies that all the old ways, the traditional ways, the ways you may have been brought up with and which are part of your cultural heritage, are supposed to be abandoned in the name of progress. If you don’t want to be left behind, if you want to be part of the progress and modernize yourself, you have to “Westernize” yourself. In the twentieth century it mainly even meant: you have to Americanize yourself.
Undoubtedly the 20th Century was “The American Century”, in which America’s political and cultural influence spun the world and was mostly gladly received. Every kid in the Sahara knows Coca-Cola and Michael Jackson. Almost as many people know that Americans were the first to land on the moon. And world-wide people gobble down the American “invention” of fast food at their local McDonald’s and Burger King’s (nowadays this is regarded as a negative thing, but once upon a time no one was complaining.)
America gave the world great things, awesome things in the 20th Century. Mary Phelps Jacob gave us the bra, Paul Galvin invented the car radio, Percy Julian provided cortisone, Raymond V. Damadian contributed the MRI and so on and so forth. No one is denying the important contribution America made to the world or even how invaluable their military support was for example in World War II. Maalouf makes this very clear: he does not want to deny the importance of the innovations of the Western World, he merely wants to make us look at them through the eyes of “an outsider”.
Globalization, modernization and Americanization threaten a part of the identity patchwork within some of the people who are not from America or “the West” and so they feel obliged to defend some of the aspects of their culture, of their religion, of their personal affiliations that are being called into question by this globalization/modernization/Americanization. This goes back to Maalouf’s earlier point of a call for more tolerance towards fragmented, hybrid and fluid identities. Modernization seems to portray the attitude that either you go along completely or you will be left behind. There is no middle ground. People are not allowed to hang on to some of their traditions/culture etc. and at the same time be an integral, accepted, fully immersed part of the progress (much like Maalouf, who moved from Lebanon to France and feels an allegiance to both countries is consistently put on the spot and asked: “What are you? Lebanese or French?” He is expected to choose. He cannot have both. He will not be recognized as both.).
Given these pressures of modernization/Americanization, it should not be surprising that some people refuse to make this sacrifice and instead choose to retain their own culture, their own traditions, their own beliefs, even if in Western eyes this makes them look reactionary, archaic, anti-progressive, or even immoral. And it is also not surprising that a part of this group should then decide to lash out against those, who keep trying to pressure them into this supposed “change for the better”.
We have arrived at an explosive line of debate here. That being: who gives “the West” the right to interfere in another country’s internal affairs? When is it necessary to intervene? When is it trespassing?
When there are obvious human rights violations going on in a country, “we” might agree that intervention is necessary. But where does this end and begin? If “we” simply don’t like the political system in place in a country — for example because the leaders refuse to trade with us — is it still okay to intervene? Why is it alright to condemn the female circumcision in Africa — which they define as “part of their cultural identity” and a person’s/nation’s identity should always remain unquestioned, so is the international consensus — yet male circumcision is perfectly acceptable?
I bring up these examples, which are all debatable at length on their own, only to clarify a point Maalouf is trying to make. Because of the undeniable success and the economical thriving of “the West”, this “West” now also claims the moral high ground, the right to go around and say “Listen, we’ve done this, and we’ve found out that such and such is the only way to go, so you better listen and do it our way”. While Maalouf doesn’t deny that sometimes, indeed, the way “the West” has paved is the better way to go, he is bemoaning the insensitive and on occasion even brutish way “the Western World” goes about proclaiming this to the rest of the world. At the same time though he is also bemoaning the defiant, irreverent and on occasion even childish way “the rest of the world” reacts to these proclamations, denying them right off the bat even though they may actually be good ideas at times.
Basically, Maalouf is saying we are all misunderstanding each other and at this point in time it is beyond complicated to sort out everything that has gone wrong in global communication (reminds me a little of trying to untangle the situation in Israel, also quite impossible). Maalouf has a dream and it’s one of a “global identity”. Of an identity that allows us all to be more than one thing, feel at home in more than one country, recognize others for what they are without seeing it as a threat to ourselves. In this day and age more than ever this seems like an idle dream that can never come true.
If we, and this time I mean humanity as a whole, want to have any shot at it though, we have to take one step after the other. One of those, for us in the Western World, could be to read Maalouf’s book and really think about the points he makes, maybe stop judging “the others” so quickly, put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Even if “the others” might not yet be ready to do the same, someone has to make a start.
And there’s a Germany proverb, which loosely translated means “The wiser one gives in”. So if the Western World wants to hold on to that supposed moral high ground, how about being “the wiser one” in this, give in and admit to the faults that have been made? We can start from there.
Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.