Dialogues

The Importance of Optimism

Dear Dr. Sen,

Thanks very much for your thoughtful response. I don’t expect you to furnish the definitive answer to my somewhat rhetorical questions regarding the lack of evidence to refute the “clash of civilizations” metaphor. You’ll be pleased to know that since our correspondence began, I have been receiving many e-mails attempting to provide answers—quite reasonable and well-argued e-mails, at that. Many have rightly pointed out the manifest ability of Indonesians to display their multiple identities, including in particular both their Muslim heritage and their democratic convictions. Some have suggested that the problem is less acute outside the Arab world and more troubling inside the Arab world, although even there one can perhaps point to Lebanon, surely a place of multiple identities if ever there was one. I will leave it to experts on Islam and Arab history—which I am not in the slightest—to explain the specifically Arab dimension to the problem, assuming there is one.

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But I reiterate my concern that at least in that part of the Muslim world, the self-identification of most community leaders as Islamic rather than as democratic is quite troubling and certainly fuels the idea that we are in a clash of civilizations. The elected leaders in Palestine seem to be interested in identifying themselves only as Islamists and not at all interested in declaring themselves adherents to and proponents of the democratic ideal. We have all looked in vain for a strong movement of what we like to call “secular liberals” in places like Iraq and Egypt. But I have been mostly persuaded by the Islamic scholar Reuel Marc Gerecht that we will not find them. His argument, which I will now undoubtedly mangle in oversimplification, is that the best hope for democracy in this part of the world comes, in fact, from Islamists who see democracy as their only viable path. But whether they view democracy as merely an instrument to take power or as a timeless principle that may require defending, even from themselves, is hard to know at this point. I favor taking the risk of allowing Islamists to come to power through democratic elections in Palestine and in Egypt and elsewhere, in the hope that they will be true democrats as much as true Islamists. In the long run, I doubt there is a choice in any case. But I cannot deny that there is a risk that their goal will be the promotion of Islamism, not democracy.

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Nevertheless, like you, I choose to be optimistic. And not only for optimism’s sake. To look at the world today is to see not only a dispute between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also a growing conflict between liberalism and autocracy. The course being taken in Russia and China today suggests that this old struggle is by no means over. You mention the international community’s inability or unwillingness to promote democracy in Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. As you know, the fecklessness of the international community is compounded by Russian and Chinese efforts to protect and support these regimes for a variety of reasons that include both self-interest and an opposition to liberalism more generally. I believe we make a strategic as well as an analytical error if we take a one-dimensional view of the present international system. We should conduct our policies in the world not as if we are doomed to slug it out in a clash of civilizations but rather as if we could appeal to what we regard as the basic human desire for freedom and the protection of individual rights.

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This is why I support your efforts in this book and wish you every success. Others may suggest you take an overly sunny view of the present era, but I don’t believe that is your intention. I think you are struggling against an excessively narrow view of humanity and of the international system and are appealing to us all to have a broader and deeper understanding that goes beyond culture and “civilization.” As it happens, your appeal is in the tradition of enlightenment liberalism on which the American nation was founded and that also undergirds the institutions of modern Europe. So, while the present intellectual and political climate may not be receptive to these ideas at the moment, the correlation of forces, as the Soviets liked to say, is on your side.

With all best wishes,
Bob

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