Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The elephant in the room

Bhikhu Parekh imagines a dialogue between Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi in the latest issue of Prospect Magazine.

Ever since the Satanic Verses debacle, the British press has usually walked on eggshells when dealing with Islam for fear of accusations of Islamophobia. Comparison with the American or Continental press brings this into sharp relief. So the following passage was something of a surprise:

You present a sanitised picture of Islamic history. All conquests and empires involve bloodshed, oppression and injustice, and yours was no different. Muslim rulers in India destroyed Hindu temples, looted Hindu property and converted vast masses by a combination of inducement and force. They also destroyed traditional African cultures and social structures and sought to obliterate memories of their pre-Islamic past. And although they treated Christians and Jews better, they never granted them equal citizenship.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, Islamic imperialism is the elephant in the salon of Western intelligentsia, in particular the left, which has yet to shake the legacy of Edward Said and postcolonialism. One would have thought that the strongest intellectual response to an Islamic terrorism that claims to retaliate against Western imperialism would be to point out the Islamic world's own imperial history. One would have thought that, since Islamic imperialism slaughtered, enslaved and persecuted poor brown-skinned peoples, this argument would bring the left on board. After all, it's nothing more than the postcolonialist critique as applied to the Islamic world. For the most part, the left has not bothered to challenge claims that Islamic imperialism is free of the sins of Western imperialism even though, by neglecting to doing so, it dismisses centuries of suffering by millions of poor brown-skinned people.

It should not be surprising that those brave enough to publicly remember are often Indian. The hypocrisy of condemning Western empires in one breath and praising the glories of Islamic ones in the next must grate particularly harshly on the ears of Indian non-Muslims, who suffered under both. I suspect that the accusations of intellectual neo-colonialist, "scavenger" and "native informer" that Edward Said levelled at V.S. Naipaul had less to do with Naipaul holding the developing world responsible for its own failures and more to do with Naipaul's application of Said's own postcolonialism to the Islamic civilization he so romanticized. In Said's own words, "on the basis of his being a Trinidadian, [Naipaul] has had ascribed to him the credentials of a man who can serve as witness for the third world." What Said does not say is that, on the basis of his being an Indian, that is, a victim of Islamic imperialism, Naipaul has the credentials of a man who can serve as a witness against the Islamic world. By the logic of postcolonialism, the credibility of a victim's condemnation is beyond question.
Since all this occurred a long time ago, there is no point in lamenting it and apportioning blame, but we do have a duty to acknowledge the full truth of the past and resolve never to repeat it.
Without Muslim acknowledgement of the full truth of the past and the resolution never to repeat it, there can be no true victory in the war on terror.