Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reading Vali Nasr and Pondering US Policy

Few books, recently, have prompted me to question my own mindset more than Vali Nasr's The Heart of Islam.

I'd like to think of myself as an open-minded person. Although I am an atheist I willingly recognize that Islam, with its emphasis on truth, charity, and peace, has a lot to offer to anyone's personal philosophy. I know that the Muslim organizations with whom my country is at war only represent an extreme component of the faith. I understand that the Muslim world, while distinct from my own in many ways, has a vibrant culture which deserves the honor and respect of all who are exposed to it.

Yet along with that understanding, I have to say there are aspects of Islamic culture that strike me as simply wrong. The example of the hijab comes to mind. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the veil is mandated by law. Many women in that country wear it willingly and as a source of pride, yet many others struggle against at as an imposition by the state. To my mind the imposition of the veil is wrong, not because the veil itself is oppressive, but because the garment itself is imposed - the choice of whether to wear the article of clothing was removed from the person. I believe that this imposition is an injustice - I believe something should be done about it.

The obvious rejoinders include the fact that Iran does not represent the whole Islamic world, that the mandatory veil is an "invented tradition" that twists the words of the Prophet, and that it is unfair to hold the world's billion plus Muslims accountable to the policies of one authoritarian regime. These are all valid points. Nasr, in his book, adds one to the list - who am I, as a westerner, to determine what is just and unjust in any Muslim culture, even one that exists on the fringes as Iran does? Towards the end of his book, Nasr makes the argument that it is arrogant and ignorant of western observers to try and impose their own values upon the Muslim world. Nasr presents the possibility of a debate over values between Westerners and Muslims.

"The debate could continue for a long time, but at the end the Muslim interlocutors would thank their Western counterparts and state that they were grateful for their concern, but that if they really wanted to be friends and fellow human being,s the should not impose their views but ask the Muslim team what they considered to be the rights that were most missing in their lives and that their Western friends could help to realize." (pg 289)

Essentially, its the argument for self-determinism. Nasr isn't stating that he's against letting women choose whether veiling is right for them - he's arguing that it is up to Islamic culture, not the West, to make that judgement. He's not angry at countries with Muslim populations who walk about unveiled - he's angry with the model of forced unveiling represented by the Western-emulating Ataturk and Reza Shah. Ultimately Nasr is making the point that it is not the West's responsibility to intervene and force change, even when it genuinely feels that real injustice is being done.

It's an eloquent argument, and I wrestle with it. The track record of the West is hardly pristine, for one thing - I often need to remind myself that the founding of my own nation coincided with the mass occupation and usurpment of hundreds of millions of Native Americans. And, for another, I have to remember that the values of human rights are not always my nation's chief priority in the modern day.

A few paragraphs after that argument, Nasr touches upon another point that hits directly home.

"Anything less than mutual respect in understandingthe other side makes a sham of the question of human rights. And when the issue of human rights is used as a tool for policy by Western powers, it tends to nullify the efforts of those in the West who, with sincerity and good intention, are seeking to help others all over the globe to preserve the dignity of human life." (pg 290)

It might not have struck me so pointedly if I had not, the night before, prepared a briefing memo advocating that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's abuse of human rights should be used as a justification for applying targeted sanctions in the midst of the nuclear dispute.

It's a complex issue - In one context, both human rights abuse and nuclear proliferation are bad, and it is justifiable and right to advocate against them together. But it is also very important to make sure that one's condemnations against the abuse of human rights are genuine and not simply politically salient. My country supports the regimes of how many authoritarian but pro-western leaders, who, if free and fair elections were today held in their country, would immediately be shown the door and replaced with someone less friendly to our own interests? Can the US claim to be acting on behalf of the Iranian people, standing up for human rights, if last October it cut funding for multiple NGOs that documented and publicized instances of human rights violations? While the administration didn't comment on precisely why it took the action, many folks up on the hill argued that it was a decision in keeping with Iranian activists own wishes, and to prevent the impression that the U.S. was attempting to intervene in in Iranian domestic affairs.

This is all well and good, but there is something hypocritical about claiming that the United States wishes to "let the Iranians determine their own fate" on Monday and then on Tuesday citing domestic injustice as justification for sanctioning the Iranian regime. Especially when sanctions just happen also to be levied on the basis of our own security interests.
So, I am torn. On the one hand I heartily believe that we should criticize Iran for oppressing its own citizens, and, for that matter, that we should go further in promoting human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia, a nation which many forget has even less of a claim to democracy than does Iran. But at the same time I also believe that we in my country need to recognize that the US, as great as it is, does not have a direct connection to the "Ultimate Truth" hotline. (Or, if we do, we haven't really been following its advice to the letter.) We need to be conscious of our own failures and hypocracies, even while we campaign for the greater good.

So, on one level we need to figure out just what we believe about the world. The US can't claim to stand for justice if the only times we act against injustice are when the "unjust" are acting against our interests. We should mean it when we say we support freedom and democracy, we should be willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal, and we should be willing to be criticized when we fail to live up to that goal.

And we need to consider the point Nasr is making - that engaging the Muslim world on, as Obama said in Cairo, the basis of "mutual respect and mutual interest," actually does require a change in our own behavior. We need to recognize that the much of the Middle East does not feel as though it needs American saving, and that our own cultural history is hardly earns us authority to preach. While advocating the values that we genuinely hold dear, we should also be conscious of our nation's imperfections, and act towards the rest of the world with a bit of humility as well as pride.