An open letter to some ‘Western liberals and leftists’

An open letter to some ‘Western liberals and leftists’

I am sick and tired of all those “well-intentioned” Western liberals and leftists who constantly pose as the most understanding of “the oppressed Orientals,” especially because I was one years ago. No, I was not a Western intellectual who ceased to be so; I was one of their counterparts in societies such as ours. Coming from a Westernized bourgeoisie family, and equipped with Western education, all that I needed was “moral superiority” and self-righteousness – or at least that is how I see it nowadays.

I needed “to understand” the conservative majority in Turkey, partly out of a feeling of guilt, coming from the “oppressive class of Westernized, secular elites.” I defended the rights and freedoms of not only ordinary religious folk, but also of Islamists. No, I did not regret it, it was also a matter of principle and I would do the same under the circumstances of the secularist hegemony that we had in Turkey until the 2000s. It is not that I did not realize the shortcomings of Islamism or conservative politics until the ex-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) turned authoritarian after it won three consecutive elections. Nevertheless, I realized that mine was a very bourgeois attitude as well as a justified effort by a left democrat. I realized that my effort to find excuses for all the shortcomings of Islamists/conservatives was quite “patronizing” in the sense that I was not seeing them as equals but as “oppressed victims.”

I think that most of the Western left and liberal intellectuals display a similar attitude. Once again, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, these intellectuals started to come up with narratives of “oppression,” “exclusion,” “alienation,” “traumatic memories of Western imperialism” and the like. Needless to say, I really appreciate those narratives in comparison with Orientalist, racist and arrogant Western views, but such views are not immune from the basic assumptions of Orientalism and Western supremacism.

No matter that they refuse to categorize Muslims or their religion as evil, they also categorize Muslims as a timeless and coherent community and Islam as an ahistorical culture. It is true that Islamic dogma and the sacred text is ahistorical for believers. Nonetheless, the historical experiences of Muslim societies, of different segments of those societies and indeed their understanding of the text changes all the time. Islamism is an ideology to be questioned in terms of its basic tenets, not a theology to be debated. Finally, Muslims, their politics and indeed the politics of their states should be scrutinized in critical ways in the same way that Westerners, their politics and the politics of their states are held responsible for evil outcomes. Therefore, Islamists should be invited to political debate rather than being reduced to being the subjects of anthropological understanding.  

Besides, ordinary Muslims who live under Muslim states are firstly the victims of their states’ policies as well as being the victim of Western politics. Recently, Seumas Milne of The Guardian reminded us of the outcomes of “a form of violent fundamentalism fostered in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan” (Jan. 15, 2015). It is true that Western powers promoted Islamism against communism, and then jihadism against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it was also Pakistan which promoted this policy for its own political interest concerning Afghanistan and India. It was also Saudi Arabia which sponsored the rise of Islamic radicalism for its own interests. It was even secularist Turkey which played with Islamists and conservatives for its politics of anti-communism.

It was not only that the states in Muslim countries and Islamist ideologies and politics that were in alliance with Western politics in pursuit of power and wealth, it was also political and intellectual incompetence which played a considerable role in the formation of radical and then violent politics in the name of Islam. After a certain point, it is becoming another sort of “Western supremacism” and a kind of “politically correct Oreintalism” to condemn the West and its imperial legacy in Muslim countries since such a view refuses to recognize the “agency” of Muslim individuals and their states, but sees thems as passive subjects of Western history and politics.

The last essay by Pankraj Mishra (The Guardian, Jan. 20, 2015) was a typical example of that kind of patronizing language of the cherished theories of culturalism and relativism in the name of “post-modern political correctness.” The culturalist-relativist discourse entails the criticism of the universal claims of the Enlightenment tradition as a form of suppression of multiple traditions of thought and belief, but it turns into the uncritical acceptance of different discourses of truth in the name of culture or faith. Moreover, skepticism concerning universal values and individualism paves the way for the suppression of individuality and individual freedoms in the name of cultural traditions. As Mishra’s Enlightenment criticism is well-justified, he says nothing new but repeats well-known arguments against Enlightenment-centered modernity and is above the mentioned shortcomings. Mishra’s reference to “The Need for Roots” by the controversial conservative essayist Simone Weil is the most unfortunate, since she can easily be regarded as the ultimate culturalist who believes that human beings are bound by their roots “which is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings.”

Weil’s and Mishra’s emphasis on roots or culture is another form of suppression of freedom of speech in the name of community values. As Mishra argues that “freedom of speech does not require that we deny cultural difference and inequalities of power,” he seems to dismiss the freedom of individuals who do not want to be bound by cultural values and traditions of thought. Besides, as Mishra talks of “inequalities of power,” he seems to refer to asymmetrical power relations between the West and the rest, but never questions power relations within each and every society.

In short, those Western intellectuals who pose as the advocate of “the weak non-Western,” do not consider the possible outcomes of their benevolent and politically correct views on the individuals who live under the suppression of “different cultures” and of power relations which are established in the name of those different cultures. This is what I called the idea of “democracy bon pour l’Orient” years ago. After all, there are those who want to live their lives without feeling the pressures of different cultures that they happen to be born into.

There are those who want to be free from their “roots” without being accused of being “alienated” and the like. I should support their noble cause against Western racism and discrimination but I also need to remind some Western intellectuals that some may need roots while others need “freedom from roots,” especially in societies like ours where a lot of suppression is enforced in the name of cultural, historical and religious values.