Sunday, May 20, 2007

Martha Nussbaum: The Clash Within

“The clash of civilizations.”

That phrase, first coined by Arabist Bernard Lewis in his 1990 book The Roots of Muslim Rage, and subsequently popularized by Samuel Huntington in a 1993 article for the journal Foreign Affairs, has led to no end of mischief and tragedy post 9/11.

University of Chicago polymath Martha C. Nussbaum — who holds professorships in its law and divinity schools, as well as its philosophy department and college — deftly lays bear the oversimplifications of the Lewis-Huntington humbug in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s May 18 issue. Her article is entitled “Fears for Democracy in India.”

With American (and much of European) attention focused on the war in Iraq, where the Bush administration is prosecuting a nebulous “war on terror” to “defend” Western civilization against radical Islamic nihilism, the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, particularly in the province of Gujarat, and its attendant terrorism against that nation’s Muslim minority, receives only sporadic attention in US news media.

Nussbaum, after having studied the Indian situation for several years, skewers the nationalists’ claims, observing that much of their founding ideology was imported from European fascist sources during the 1930s.

The real ‘clash of civilizations,’ ” she writes

is not between “Islam” and “the West,” but instead within virtually all modern nations — between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single “pure” religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external “axis of evil.” The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination. Americans have a great deal to gain by learning more about India and pondering the ideas of some of her most significant political thinkers, such as Sir Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, whose ruminations about nationalism and the roots of violence are intensely pertinent to today's conflicts.
And she concludes:
It is comforting for Americans to talk about a clash of civilizations. That thesis tells us that evil is outside, distant, other, and that we are perfectly all right as we are. All we need do is to remain ourselves and fight the good fight. But the case of Gujarat shows us that the world is very different. The forces that assail democracy are internal to many, if not most, democratic nations, and they are not foreign: They are our own ideas and voices, meaning the voices of aggressive European nationalism, refracted back against the original aggressor with the extra bile of resentment born of a long experience of domination and humiliation.
There is much more fascinating detail and analysis in the complete article, available at The Chronicle of Higher Education Web site by clicking <here>.

Adam Simms

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