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Deconstructing Western Discourses on Islam and Muslims Today Mac 9, 2006

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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Oleh: Farish A. NoorWe live in an age of dangerous generalities. The necessity of discourse and dialogue is nowhere more evident than it is today; yet the process of dialogue itself has to take place on the register of discourse, and there can be no terrain more treacherous and laden with pitfalls, traps and obstacles than that.

In the wake of the global furore over the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and the predictable reaction from both the Occidental and Muslim worlds, the task of the cultural bridge-builder has become more difficult, if not downright dangerous.

The Occidental world was taken aback by the reaction of Muslims the world over: From mass protests (that quickly turned violent in many instances) to calls for all-out boycotts of Western goods, it became clear that there now exists such an entity as a Muslim world that was increasingly integrated, connected and capable of concerted action. Bewildered by resounding ‘No!’ that emanated from the Muslim street, the Western liberal conscience recoiled and retreated to the salons to ponder awhile. The frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was re-drawn once again as a thin line in the sand that kept the two worlds apart.

Yet this frontier was drawn – as it has always been, time and again – as a reaction to a reaction. The border of the Western and Muslim worlds (if we can even talk of the two as distinct, which itself is a claim that needs to be interrogated further) has always been contingent and historical, rather than essential and ontologically predetermined! . Hav! ing retreated to the relative comfort and security of settled assumptions about what is great and good, liberal, tolerant and free, the Occidental intelligentsia now pose the question once again: “What is it with Muslims? Why do they hate us?”

Had they paid a little more attention to the voices that were being raised on the other side of the fence, these Western liberal thinkers might have realised that the same questions were being asked by the other side as well.

So, with our feet dirtied in the grime and chaos left in the train of the Muslim protests of late, we are now left with the task of bridging this self-imposed chasm of our own making once again. The calls for dialogue and inter-religious understanding are making their rounds and on both sides there is the fervent search for credible speakers and spokesmen who may lay these fears to rest. The controversy over the cartoons of the Prophet illustrates the necessity for constant, sincere ! and frank dialogue. But on whose terms and on whose register?

For such a dialogue to take place, we need to accept and address some plain facts truthfully ourselves. It would be a mistake to think that there is such a thing as a ‘Western discourse’ on Islam and Muslims. In the same way that Muslims resent being typecast as a singular homogeneous entity bereft of internal diversity and difference, so should they resist the easy temptation to present the West as equally uniform and static. There are many ‘Western worlds’ to speak of, and many yet to be truly discovered.

While the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten is indeed one of these voices, it has to be emphasised that it is only one of many. The shrill, almost hysterical rhetoric of the right-wing daily was more a reflection of the anxieties and fears of its relatively small right-wing readership, many of whom probably have not come to terms with the realities of living in a multi-! cultur! al Europe today, and who cannot accept the fact that with the rise of China, India and the economies of Asia, their treasured Europe will eventually be provincialised and parochialised in time.

But one right-wing newspaper does not a ‘Western world’ make: Are our memories so short and selective that we have already forgotten the images of millions of Europeans who took to the streets to denounce the military aggression against Iraq and the abuses of Iraqi prisoners following the recent American adventure in the Middle-East? And can the xenophobic editorials of a single Danish newspaper discount and render worthless the countless articles, reports, exposes and critics of Western intervention and exploitation of Muslim countries and economies elsewhere?

The selective focus on the singularity of this event – the publication of the offensive cartoons by a single Danish newspaper – has distorted our understanding of the West to such an exten! t that! we now produce and reproduce the very same negative stereotypes of the West as Muslims have been wont to accuse the West of doing to Muslims. Worst of all, it has facilitated the slip back to the register of generalities that allow us to speak of the ‘West’ and ‘Muslim world’ in casual, sloppy, over-generalised terms once again.

Therefore back to the dialogue table we go. Moderate voices on both sides have called for greater understanding and dialogue on terms that are equally acceptable to both sides. But by now the fatal impasse has been reached and we no longer talk together but rather at or to each other. The frontier has come between us, and we are trapped in our respective solipsistic corners.

Under such circumstances it is doubtful that any meaningful discussion or dialogue can ever be achieved. For here lies the trap of discourse: For discourse to get off the ground, it needs an object to discuss. And the object of discourse is as mu! ch an object to be discoursed about as it is an object created by the discourse itself. Having framed the relation between Muslims and the West in binary terms, we are now left with two discursive universes – the Occidental and the Muslim – that operate on two different registers. The moderates and liberals among us call for both sides to be fair and objective towards the other, yet we have relegated ourselves to our respective corners and can only look upon the other as the outsider, the stranger to ourselves.

As long as dialogue operates along these dialectical lines, there can be no common universal discourse that brings Muslims and Westerners together as equal partners in a shared dialogue. Our discourses have become parochial and provincialised ourselves, as we entertain the quaint and rustic impression that the other is somehow instrinsically different to us. Thus even the most positive appraisal and appreciation for the other remains tainted by the! unsta! ted assumption that ‘they’ remain different to ‘us’.

Can we really hope for any meaningful shared dialogue between East and West, the Occidental and Muslim worlds, under these circumstances? The critical point of entry has been lost, bartered for the sake of political convenience and communitarian interest. It is for this reason that the skeptics among us would prefer for a more radical gesture of deconstruction altogether. Rather than trying to analyse ‘Western discourse’ on Islam and Muslims, I for one would call for a deconstruction of the binary opposition between the West and Islam in the first place. This may jeapordise the realpolitik interests of the conservatives and neo-conservatives among us, but it also free us from the trap of discursive parochialism and open the way to a universalism that is inclusive to all.

Nota: Dr Farish Ahmad-Noor adalah seorang akademik berlatarbelakang sains politik dan falsafah. Dia sedang bertugas sebagai penganalisa akademik di Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, German. Buku-buku yang dikarang beliau termasuk ‘New Voices of Islam’ (ISIM Institute, Leiden, 2002), ‘The Other Malaysia’ (Silverfish, Kuala Lumpur 2002) dan ‘Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of PAS 1951-2003’, (MSRI, KL, 2004, 2 jilid). Beliau juga seorang pengarang bagi siri radio ‘Letters from Abroad’, BBC Radio World Service. Impian beliau ialah untuk mendirikan suatu madrasah moden yang bisa menghidupkan kembali dinamika Islamisme progresif zaman Syed Sheikh al-Hady dan Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy.

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