Dear Dr. Sen,
Let me begin our little correspondence by congratulating you on your wonderful book. It is (with apologies for the following string of back-cover-blurblike phrases) elegantly written, powerful, convincing, humane, and necessary. No doubt our hosts at Slate will be unhappy to hear this, but I agree with you about almost everything. I agree entirely when you insist that to interpret the present era as a “clash of civilizations” is both mistaken and dangerous and that it is important to view people not by a single identity—as Muslim, “Western,” or Asian—but as a bundle of identities. Your keenest insight may be that we need to avoid falling into precisely the trap that Osama Bin Laden has deliberately laid for us: to divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim. Above all, I share your conviction that liberal democracy is not a cultural phenomenon but a basic human aspiration. I may perhaps go even further than you in arguing that liberal democracy—which does not separate peoples by cultures but unites them in common devotion to the principle of equal rights—is the only durable answer to the present crisis.
I wish I were more optimistic that your arguments will have an impact on the present discussion. You have restated the core of the liberal enlightenment worldview, with its belief in the universality of human nature and in the inherent ability of all peoples to transcend their cultures and their histories—the conviction embodied in the American Declaration of Independence. But these are not very fashionable ideas these days. The metaphor of a “clash of civilizations” has taken hold of the popular imagination, and once such metaphors take hold they are easily reinforced by events—the fracas over the cartoons of Mohammed in Europe, for instance, or the violence in Iraq—and even, as you argue, by well-meaning efforts to ameliorate the confrontation by “building bridges” between the cultures. In intellectual circles, meanwhile, self-described “realists” are temporarily back in vogue arguing that the attempt to “impose” democracy in places like Iraq (or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, etc.) is doomed to failure. We are told that Iraqis and other peoples are not “ready” for democracy. And even the successful elections in Palestine are cited as evidence of the failure of democracy because the “wrong” people were elected.
We would both dispute these claims, I think. You’re right to argue that the shortcomings of the democratic process in Iraq are less the failure of the Iraqis—who have shown an extraordinary commitment to the idea of democracy despite horrendous obstacles—but of an American intervention that succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein but then failed to provide adequate security and stability to rebuild the country. And I would like to hope that the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections can promote the idea of multiple identities that you describe: that people can be both Islamists and democrats. But I find very few people who believe those two identities can coexist.
Certainly, one problem we face is that there often seems to be so little evidence to contradict the “clash of civilizations” explanation of our era. Why, for instance, do we not see more Muslims publicly insisting that their other identities be given greater prominence? If it is true that liberalism is not a Western phenomenon—and I agree that it is not—why don’t we see more Muslim leaders, intellectuals, and opinion-makers pressing for it? You offer a good explanation for some of this reticence: The non-European world, after a long history of colonization, harbors resentments and “anti-Western” sentiments that tend to shape identity. But when will we see more people break out of this straitjacket? Or is that already happening, and I’ve just been missing it?
In Iraq, for instance, you are right that there has been an increasing tendency to treat the country as if it were nothing more than a group of sects. But, on other hand, there does not seem to be much insistence on the part of Iraqis themselves to be treated differently. At least this does not show up very noticeably in the political process. No doubt the United States is partly responsible for this: Because the intervention force did not provide sufficient security, as Noah Feldman and others have argued, Iraqis had to find their own means of security, and they turned naturally to their ethnic groups for protection. And, as you argue, our political policies may have reinforced the tendency toward sectarian identity. But I wish one could see more evidence of a countervailing desire on the part of Iraqis to transcend this sectarianism. And in the Muslim world more generally, who is standing up and demanding to be seen as more than simply a Muslim?
If there was one thing missing from your book, it is a deeper explanation of this failure. Perhaps in your response to this note, you can offer your thoughts on the dog that does not bark loudly enough to be heard.
With great admiration and all best wishes,