Friday, 21 March 2008

On Culture, Stereotypes and Misconceptions.

I've always been fascinated by culture and how it affects people's perceptions of others, the way one perceives their own identity has a great effect on the way they see others, there's a subconscious hierarchy that grows slowly in the collective mindset of people around the world in terms of where they see their culture in the pyramid of world cultures, and almost always people tend to put themselves on top of the pyramid, based on what is perceived to be theirs or their ancestors' greatest achievement whether it's religious, or technological, or any other criteria, and that makes it superior to other cultures, even if this superiority is based on a benign factor, or so we convince ourselves.

I'm drawing a line between the terms culture and tradition, as although they're intertwined to a great deal, tradition usually has more of an ethnic character, whereas culture is usually more of a progressive refinement of people through historical events, conquests, the spread of faiths, commerce. All aspects of human interaction contribute to the creation of culture, and before settling..the storm of culture-building acquires and sheds many aspects of the life of people as it takes the shape of Identity; language, Faith and even tolerance or ethnocentricity.

I'm a great fan of the late Edward Said, and his books on the thought of culture and its effect on people are a great read, one notion in his book "Covering Islam" explains that the way western journalists, who tend not to know the languages, or much about the culture of the places they report from, rely on slanted academic studies for their understanding of the Islamic world, and allow it to color almost everything they write. As a result, reporting from Islamic countries is not only shallow, but often filled with insults and ethnic slurs, Islam is represented by news gatherers, experts, and policy makers. with emphasis on violence, anti-American rhetoric, and resistance to modernization, which really belie the fact that there is not a single monolithic Islam but many Islams and that what news organizations perpetuate is an undifferentiated form of cultural stereotyping - as if it were sufficient to say about the Dutch that they all wear wooden shoes!

Now, I'm again drawing parallels between culture and tradition, Islam in Malaysia is the Islam in Senegal, in the cultural identity meaning of the term, but you will definitely find different traditional practices surrounding religious practice that are completely alien to the core of the faith itself, which only proves the diversity of the believers, the compatibility of the faith with traditions, no matter how diverse, but doesn't necessarily mean the condoning of traditional practices within the faith, one reoccurring example is the practice of female circumcision in Africa, which is not condoned by Islam, and practiced by Muslim and non Muslim populations of sub-Saharan Africa.

Another impressive academic is Azmi Bishara, who in his explanation of the notion of clash of civilizations argues that The issue at hand is not one of dialogue or conflict between Christianity and Islam, since neither religion is uniform and there are many versions of both. Christians in Jordan or Syria are different from those in Poland or Latin America, and both are different from American Protestants. Islam also changes from rural to urban areas, across social classes and over time. which according to these facts voids the inevitability of a clash of civilizations as predicted and even advocated by its main theorists Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, and robs them from their prophecies of an Armageddon, where God stands with the Good against the Evil, which brings to mind the famous statement: "you're either with us, or with the terrorists" in turn based on the teachings of the neo-conservative think tanks, a clear cut black and white world, void from shades and colors. What is most worrying though is that a third color is taking prominence; Red.

One last thought: Both Said and Bishara are Christian Arabs, speaking about Islam in the first person's narrative, which only proves the virtue of the notion of cultural identity, against the notion of religious and ethnic separation advocated by antagonists both in the East and in the West.


  1. very well written post, thank you, i hope people grasp the content and act accordingly.

  2. Thanks Anonymous, I hope so too!

  3. Great post, and so true about the third color being red. What is this world we are living in?

    It is funny to me to watch those movies from the Cold War era, depicting the biggest enemies to "modern civilization" as the Soviets, or sometimes the IRA. No, funny is not the right word. It's refreshing. It's sad. It's tragic.

    Allah help us!

  4. Yeah Ummfarouq, movies are a great indicator of the collective psyche, enemies in movies are always evil and ruthless, they even look creepy, but this is to feed the ego of the movie makers' cultural background, wars now are like movies, us v them, we're the ultimate good, they're the ultimate evil. that's the fruit of cultural Arrogence!

  5. Ammar

    Well I see it part our fault, we miss represent our selves. and in part that is due to the unhealthy and unrealistic opinion we have about other cultures and religions. it is only human to put yourself at a higher value, and quite important as I see it. but it should not dehumanize others just because they are not part of our culture and\or religion.

  6. I agree Tamara, that's why I said that there are advocates of cultural conflicts both in the east and in the west, my use of Arab examples is actually my basis for the argument, it is the ignorence of the other, that will lead to conflict, whether this other is on the other sife of the planet, or next door, there has never been a clash of civilzations throughout history, and there will never be, even if it seems to be the case.

  7. I too beleive that we are providing the material to the west and they are having a blast with it..They weren't interested in fair reporting to begin with..We are making a mockery of ourselves and we became fair game and target..
    The daily endless debates and analysis on TV and radio not only full of insults but painting a totally different picture of us to the point that they created a different unrecognizable Islam that doesn't exist anywhere..
    I don't know if we have the power or the people to reverse this image..