Here’s an uppercut, say Islamophobes. Well, here’s a body punch followed by a head butt, say Muslims. No one will go the distance here, say the cool-headed cognizanti, so let’s back off. The Muslim world and the Euro-American world do not need this unnecessary fight.
The only consistent theme in clashes that dominate the global dialogue of cultures is misunderstanding. That’s where it all begins. One culture misunderstands another’s language — the semantic fashions of perception that embody social values and politics — and conflict ensues. Consider the line from the iconic 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, where the prison warden, Strother Martin, hollers at Paul Newman: “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. The line also appears in the 1990 song, Civil War, by the rock band Guns N’ Roses, who appropriated it to highlight the notion that one’s inability to decode the sensibility of the “other” often results in mayhem.
The US and the world of Arabs, alas, have failed, ever since they first made contact in 1801 during the Barbary Wars, to find a medium where the intended message of one is accurately conveyed to the other. To be sure, the two worlds have communicated, but they have failed to connect. Upon receiving a message from the one, the other simply filters it through its own cultural paradigm and extrapolates from there.
A buffoon and a convicted felon of Egyptian extract living in California, who was granted citizenship by the US, opts to take advantage of, or more correctly to exploit, an American citizen’s right to the First Amendment — that includes the privilege to decimate hateful speech — and puts out a reprehensible video about Islam and its Prophet (PBUH). Muslims in the Arab world and beyond organise anti-American demonstrations that in several places turn deadly. They not only burn the American flag, but burn down an American embassy, killing the ambassador (an idealistic diplomat who had the interests of the Arab people at heart) and three of his colleagues.
Why the vociferous response to an ostensibly cheap and privately released video? Simple answer: Arabs, socialised to believe that the public debate is regulated from above, where free speech that goes against the grain of officially sanctioned discourse is an anomaly, simply extrapolated from their political culture, namely that an odious video that denigrated the Prophet (PBUH) simply must reflect the sentiments that Americans, along with their government, must harbour towards Islam.
Americans, conversely, were shocked, perplexed and angered by the outpouring of Arab rage. They did not understand the role that the Islamic faith plays in the Arab peoples’ lives, a faith anchored intensely in everyday teleological values. Whereas the Euro-American-world, since the Renaissance, has pivoted its sensibility in science, which demands a syntax of rigour and proof, a kind of mirage of certitude, in the Arab world, the temper of the age is penetrated with manners of ceremonial exchange derived from Islam, which is at once culture and religion.
Thus, for Arabs to communicate with Americans and Americans with Arabs, both have to be at an order of remove from each other, to “step back”, as it were, much in the manner of a person stepping back from a painting on a wall in order to perceive it better. The fact that there are dozens of different, mutually incomprehensible cultures extant on our small planet today is but one example of the enigma of the human condition — the metaphoric curse, if you wish, we have inherited at Babel.
You want communicative unintelligibility between cultures? Then recall the so-called Hainan Island incident on April 1, 2001, when a midair collision took place between a US intelligence aircraft and a Peoples Liberation Army fighter jet the Chinese were furious and demanded an apology from Washington. Washington obliged by sending a letter in which the American government said it was “sorry” about the incident. To Beijing, that was not good enough, since in Chinese, to say simply that you are “sorry” about something wrong you have done constitutes not an apology, but an expression of mere regret and sorrow. They wanted the Americans to say that they rather were “very sorry”, which is the appropriate response in Mandarin. Washington readily sent an amendment.
While on the subject of culture as encoded in language — language is culture as much as it is consciousness — I.A. Richards, a noted professor of linguistics, wrote this in a piece, collected in the anthology, Studies in Chinese Thought (1953), about the possible transfer into English of Chinese philosophic thought: “We have here indeed what may very possibly be the most complex type of event yet produced in the evolution of the cosmos”. And Richards, a dour Cambridge don, is not likely to be given to hyperbole.
The difference between cultures in the West and the Arab world is clearly not as vast as that between the West and China. But we still have a long way to go. In his speech in Cairo in 2008, US President Barack Obama pledged to use his power to “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear”. (And trust me on this one, there will always be pockets of prejudice in American society against Muslims, just as there had been in the past against the Irish, Jews, Italians, Catholics, blacks and others.) But he also urged Muslims to reject the “crude stereotype of America as a self-interested empire”.
Americans, who I know from experience are a good-hearted people, do not, I say, sanction bigotry, but nor do they sanction the suppression of free speech, regardless of its content. We have to understand that.
Is what we have here a failure to communicate? If we do, let’s work on it. And guess what? It may, unwittingly, take a little fool with a video in California, hell-bent on pandering to Islamophobes, to make us do that.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.