Culture Clash

Not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I sat at a Dupont Circle cafe with a friend who had lost her brother-in-law in the the World Trade Center. I was holding forth on my belief that American ignorance played no small role in creating the conditions for the attacks, when she became extremely agitated.

"How can you say that?" she cried. "It's like you're blaming those people [in the towers] for their own deaths!"

"That's not what I mean," I tried to explain, but was cut off.

"They hate our way of life," she continued. "That's what this is about."

In a certain sense, she was right. But five years later, I think it's clearer than ever what's missing from the "hate our way of life" explanation. Serious Muslims do in fact hate many of the values on which American life is based -- individualism arguably first among them. But that's not why the extremists who killed nearly 3,000 innocent Americans that day enjoy the support of a great many Muslims. Things got this bad largely because "they" hate our way of life when it's shoved down their throats in such a way as to demean their culture and cause them shame. And that's what the United States is believed to be doing. It's long past time we took that fact seriously.

On 9-11's fifth anniversary, we'd do well to think about the years and events leading up to the attacks (events you won't find in that ABC movie), because the shaming and resentment that outside powers provoked in the Middle East is a constant theme of that history. It could be said that the Taliban, for instance, would never have come to power in tribal Afghanistan were it not for two factors: the attempts of outsiders to "modernize" Afghan culture, and the disgraceful lack of acknowledgment granted the mujahadeen fighters who believed, not without reason, that it was they, and not Ronald Reagan, who handed the West its Cold War victory over the Soviet Union.

Though the arms race forced on the Russians by Reagan no doubt taxed the Soviet system, that system was already destined to collapse under its own weight, and hastening the collapse was the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan. Enlisting the aid of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the United States moved materiel into Afghanistan via the same tribal lands in which Osama bin Laden is now believed to dwell, providing armed tribal fighters with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Our CIA worked closely with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which went on to be the prime sponsoring agency of the Taliban. But how did the Taliban first garner any popular support in the country?

The Soviet war in Afghanistan took a calamitous toll on the Afghan people, not only in blood and treasure but in the all-important sense of honor. While women suffered varying degrees of oppression, depending on tribe, ethic group, and social class, they were and continue to be the ultimate symbols of honor among Afghan peoples. A woman can bring shame upon her entire family by dint of her own behavior, a condition that requires, within this system, her control by the men of her clan.

Ironically, while the Soviets created havoc in the Afghan countryside, their influence was something of a boon to the women of the Afghan intelligentsia who, for the first time in the nation's history, obtained jobs in the national government, and donned Western clothing. Many stopped wearing the loosely flowing veil that was traditional in many Afghan villages. The "liberation" of women, then, became the symbol of the shaming of a nation by its oppressor, a circumstance that beckoned a ferocious backlash.

When the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan and their union disintegrated, American leaders heartily congratulated themselves for having defeated the Evil Empire, without so much as a "Hey, thanks, guys" to the Afghan warriors who had won the West's day. And America never looked back, even as Afghanistan descended into chaos, its warlords turning those Stingers against each other over an already devastated terrain.

If the Westernization of Afghan women by the Soviets became a symbol of imperial control to the tribal leaders of Afghanistan, the Taliban one-upped the Soviets as they consolidated their control of the nation in the late-1990s. At first, many traditional Afghans welcomed the Taliban and their severe (and imported) interpretation of Islamic law because of the order it imposed on the nation's landscape. Yet, the country was anything but united behind the largely ethnically circumscribed movement -- so the Taliban took a page from the Soviet book by imposing its values on the women of Afghanistan, regardless of the decrees of village elders or clerics.

When the Taliban began beating women in public, writes Nancy Dupree, the reigning dean of Western Afghanists, they were committing an act designed to shame into submission any man who would defy their rule. Before the Taliban, you see, only the male relatives of a woman had license to beat her.

This is to say that culture, indeed, matters. Today, we hear much talk of a clash of civilizations; in his portent of a third World War, Newt Gingrich has identified the enemy as “the irreconcilable wing of Islam." By "irreconcilable," Gingrich apparently means "hostile to Western values." But that definition encompasses most of the Islamic world since, as explained by Robert Merry in his provocative recent book The Sands of Empire, the fundamental values of Islam, and the cultures that gave birth to today's Muslim societies, are largely antithetical to such Western ideas as individualism and separation of church and state.

No doubt, I will catch hell from fellow liberals for making such a sweeping statement, but it is fundamentally true. The only indictment implicit in that statement is the assumption that Western ways represent a superior form of civilization.

No, I would not like to be a woman living under Muslim rule, but I also would not have liked to have been a white woman living under Western rule 100 years ago, when I would have enjoyed fewer rights than many of today's Muslim women. And I surely would not liked to have lived in the oppressive environment under which African-American women toiled then, and many continue to today.

What's all that got to do with the price of tea in Kabul, you ask? Well, if the evolution of Islamic culture had not been thwarted at several junctures by the imperialist machinations of the West, who knows to what humanitarian and sophisticated heights it may have reached? The Koran grants far more rights to women than do either the Christian or Hebrew Bibles, so the possibility well exists that an Islamic culture could have evolved in such a way to set the pace for the liberation of women and the creation of its own form of modernity.

So, while Newt argues that we must "win" what he calls "the long war against the irreconcilable wing of Islam," I argue that if we set aside our arrogance -- our impulse to force Western democracy on other cultures at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, and then call it "humanitarianism" -- we might avert the acceleration of the tensions that turned the 9-11 hijackers into the heroes of many Muslims. Cultural differences are real, and millions of Muslims really do "hate our way of life." But it's only a clash of civilizations if you pick a fight.

Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, AddieStan.com, and the book, Debating Sexual Correctness.

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