Monday, August 27, 2007

Enlightenment fundamentalists & cultural relativists

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate. By now Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur, Lars Gustafsson, Stuart Sim and Ulrike Ackermann have all entered the ring. Read their contributions as well as Ian Buruma's initial response at sign and sight website.

In The view from the Vistula: Journalist Adam Krzeminski gives a Polish perspective on the multiculturalism debate and warns against oversimplified analogies between Islamic and Eastern European dissidents;

I read the debate launched by perlentaucher and between the "Enlightenment fundamentalists" and the "cultural relativists" ... in Poland there is also no argument worthy of its name about Turkish EU accession.

Not even the National Catholics are opposed to it. Too lasting an impression was made on Polish minds by the legend that the Ottoman Empire never recognised the partition of Poland in the 18th century, and that at official occasions in the Sultan's palace the Polish ambassador was ritually invoked only to be excused as "temporarily delayed".

In Western eyes the Poles are often compared with the Turks, as Norman Stone did for example in 2005 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and which was reported in Poland without provoking too much outrage. After all, Polish historians like Janusz Tazbir point out that Polish Sarmatism, that ideology of the Polish nobility which was an autistic mixture of Marianism, Polish self-sufficiency and a mistrust of the Enlightened West, assumed in the 17th-18th centuries such oriental traits that Friedrich II referred contemptuously to the Polish nobility in their Turkish skirts as "Europe's Iroquois" when explaining to the European public why the Polish-Lithuanian nobility-run republic had become so fragmented.

Historical analogies are tempting, yet they can be misleading. Take the comparison between Islam and communism drawn by Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the height of the "cartoon conflict" in her speech in Berlin. It had initial impact but is not convincing in the long run.

The back-up offered to her by Ulricke Ackermann did not make things any better. "The sympathetic reading of Islam recalls that of communism before 1989," she writes. "At the time, the West's self-hatred and invalidation of the accomplishments of free democracy were expressed in a generous interpretation of communism. A similar phenomenon is to be seen in attitudes towards Islam today, in large part thanks to its anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. Many Western intellectuals had reservations about Eastern European dissidents because they were only fighting for the so-called 'bourgeois liberties.' Many dreamed at the time of a 'third way' between capitalism and communism. The analogy is evident in the terminology: Stalinism could be criticised but communism was handled with kid gloves. Today, criticism of Islamism is common sense, but criticism of Islam has to be conducted with care."

Even if one were to argue that communism - at least in the Russian-Orthodox variation, is an instrument of political theology, it would still be a gross oversimplification to compare it – this still-born theory – with a millennium old monotheistic religion. And whatever the differences between Stalinism and communism – even in the Soviet Union it was never a deeply internalised religion that was carried by the people. It was a social promise and a belief system that was imposed top down and with force. And it imploded by itself like a soap bubble after just 70 years.