Saturday, October 17, 2009

Islam and the West A Conversation with Jacque Derrida (A Book Review)

The title of Mustapha Cherif’s Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacque Derrida caught my attention especially with the name of Derrida the deconstructionist on the cover page. The book is published in 2008 and translated from French to English by Teresa Fagan. The title, however, does not resonate with its content which appears to be more political with a subtle hint of philosophy.

“Ignorance is the primary cause of hatred,” Jack Derrida states in his interviews with Cherif in Spring 2003, a recurrent idea in most of modern philosophers’ discussions. The conversation opens with Derrida’s wish to be remembered as an Algerian expressing his deepest feelings about Algeria prior to his death and wanting the reader to believe that, even as a master of deconstruction, he had a dream of an Algeria in which French and Algerians could live together in harmony. “Nostalgerie” was a term he developed to describe his affections to Algeria. Growing up as a Franco-Algerian Judo-Arab Jew, Derrida admits that the cultural heritage he received there inspired his philosophical orientation. He was deprived of the chance of learning Arabic language or history because it was a ban in schools in Algeria at that time.

He stresses the clash between the Northern and the Southern shores. Considering himself part of the southern shore, Derrida assumes that it is shocking to see the dominant rationalist atheist discourse in the North makes inappropriate criticisms of Islam. A certain West orders others to line up along with their dehumanizing model, which in his opinion is an “unbalanced restrictive model.” The universality of democracy, he assumes, can not be achieved by imposing it with violence, but with an open dialogue of equal partners without one having un upper hand. The major problem of the West according to him is that westerners are led to believe that belief in general is an obstruction to modernity, and only secularism and scientism can replace faith with emancipation. However, all the concepts of modernity and civilization are created according to western standards, with an utter “refusal of dialogue and negotiation.” “ The law of the UN, the Security Council, are founded on Western concepts” he says, “and I have a tendency to challenge that. I’m thinking of Aznar, Berlysconi, Blair, have attempted to drag all of Europe behind the United States.” Derrida ironically questions how westerners now confuse Islam with terrorism, when only a few decades ago no one confused the Colonial State with Christianity. The current international system led only to more poverty and fake democracy:

The Third World has become a Fourth World, and poverty there has become extreme poverty. For a third to a quarter, it is almost a Zero World, a sort of ‘absence of world’ people that we have before our eyes. The gap between rich and poor countries sometimes reaches a difference of one to ten, which makes them often incomparable… In the North, we witness the creation of wealth and policies followed by societies of unlimited consumption without any control over their needs. In the South, we experience the impoverishment of many populations deprived of the conditions of even a decent life… this leads to harmful imbalances, to inequalities and fractures, and reinforces the law of the strongest, while at the same time we hear of globalization, human rights and democracy.

The western awareness of its superiority over the underdeveloped eastern world is party due to the western supremacy in technology that has widened the gap between the two worlds. Derrida thinks it is unfair to contrast cultures because it eventually leads to “questionable political divisions through violence.” The international law should be universal and not a monopoly of one part of the world. Both parts, East and West, should take parts in discovering a common universal law:
The will of domination and the egotism of certain Westerners, fed by technological supremacy, the imperatives of the market, and the retreat of interknowledge, make our burdens the following: the deformation of our values, the politics of doubles standards; the refusal and hesitations of the Northern shores to engage in a true dialogue, to imagine true negotiations, and finally, the insufficiency of aid to the South.

After spotting some aspects of the problem, Derrida suggested in what in his opinion could be the possible solutions. Starting a dialogue, regardless of who takes the initiative, should be the first step. Yet, this dialogue has to be conducted under certain conditions in which no constrains or use of force are practiced. A dialogue can be reestablished when each party tries to understand the other within its own religious and cultural background. “I cant not address the other, whoever he or she might be, regardless of his or her religion, language, culture, without asking that other to believe me and to trust me. One’s relationship to the other, addressing the other, presupposes faith, ” Derrida states.

The key argument of the book is the necessity of accepting the plurality in Islam as well as in the West, and accepting the idea of plurality and not unity as the source of advancement and harmony. His deconstructional point is clear in this part: he attempts “to deconstruct the European intellectual construct of Islam” and emphasizes that civilization and community are not about sameness but difference.

Derrida did not say much about Islam in this conversation as he was trying to objectively state a philosophy of any kind of clash between civilizations of the past, the present, or the future. However, he viewed Islam and Muslims without external prejudice. He thinks that West and East are now living in a state of intolerance of their differences, or at least in an absence of dialogue. The propaganda of the clash of civilizations and the ambition of the primary world power creates a situation of disorder and hatred towards Islam. He expresses his sadness that today, extremists from both sides have more influence than men and women of peace. “The majority of Muslims live their faith peacefully; they refuse the howling of the wolves who call for intolerance… We all are, believers and nonbelievers, caught up in the same movement of the world.” Muslims of today are attempting to resists against injustice and “de-signification” of the world. To some, this resistance is an intolerable dissent.

The book was a short strip and pleasant to read. It is always good to read some positive thoughts when the world is full of contradictions and negativity. As human beings, there is always a chance for us, no matter how vast the gap between us is, to eventually think alike and to come to the same conclusions. After all, and I am quoting Derrida here, “one can not happen without the other.”


zetagirl said...

hey my sweet girl
i am really happy and proud that i have such talented friend
wish you you the best
Huda Sadis

Dalal.T.Sh. said...

Thanks alot dear Huda