Eclectic Grounds

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Archive for the ‘Clashing Civilisations?’ Category

Logic, harmony & foolishness: a look at Indian and western mythology

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Another great talk from TED, this one just up today from TED India.

Devdutt Pattanaik of Future Group aims to explain common misperceptions and misunderstandings between Indians and westerners. To do so, he takes a look at the mythology that underlies western and Indian culture. He explains why western linear thinking isn’t a universal logic, why there is no concept of harmony in Indian music – and he tells the story of Alexander, the conqueror, and the Gymnosophist, a naked wise man, who thought of each other as fools.

Watch the clip here

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Written by henrik

November 19, 2009 at 11:19 pm

There is no “Global War” on Terror

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The notion of a “global war on terror” has always been nonsense. It has manufactured a threatening picture of an alleged global ideology of hatred for the western world. But the “global war” image obscures the fact that every crisis zone has its unique context and that most people who join or support insurgent groups do so for their very personal reasons which are far from ideological.

This still seems to be a perspective shared by but few officials in the US military:

Matthew Hoh, a senior US state department official and former marine who was based until recently in Zabul province [of Afghanistan], explained his resignation on 10 September 2009 by referring to his experiences in the Korengal valley and elsewhere. These, he is reported as saying:

“taught him ‘how localised the insurgency was. I didn’t realize that a group in this valley here has no connection with an insurgent group two kilometres away.’ Hundreds, maybe thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few ideological ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign intruders and maintain their own local power bases. ‘That’s really what shook me,’ he said. ‘I thought it was more nationalistic. But it’s localism. I would call it valley-ism'” (see Karen De Young, “U.S. official resigns over Afghan war“,Washington Post, 27 October 2009).

Found here.

“Third World” – Stop saying it, stop thinking it!

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The term “Third World” is the issue of a post in an interesting new blog I recently discovered. Author Mar writes:

Hate the state in which your office bathrooms are kept? Liken it to a Third World country. Annoyed that your hotel only offers three varieties of cream cheese at breakfast? Call it a Third World diet. It’s an exaggeration, see? So it’s funny! Lawl and stuff!

Implicit in these comparisons is the realization that the speakers not only have no idea about the reality of life in the so-called Third World, but further, don’t give a crap. They’re able to so flippantly refer to the poverty and lack of opportunity in some of these nations because they’re comfortable – not with the actual state of things, of which they have only a vague knowledge, or none – but with the fabled state of things.

While I agree with much Mar says, I differ with her in that I think the generalisation ‘Third World’ is often used with apparent positive intentions, by politicians, aid advocates or in every other Sunday’s sermon. The inherent negative, patronizing and racially charged character of the word, however, is all the same.

Its division of the globe into three distinct “worlds” makes it particularly ugly. But replacing “Third World” with “Global South” or “underdeveloped countries” doesn’t make things much better.

One might wonder which term to use instead, and it seems like there is no solution because the problem is not the term itself but how it is charged. If a new, “politically correct”, term might arise of the discussion over the word “Third World”, it will soon be charged with the same demeaning and orientalist stereotypes as the former.

Is a generalisation like “Third World country” really necessary? There is no homogenous group of countries that can be classified with such a term. Countries with, say, a comparable GDP level, differ fundamentally based on their region, their political system, their cultural history, even their economic structure.

Writing a comparative macroeconomic study, it makes sense to group countries in relation to the indicator used: HDI, GDP, GNH, any other index (which all reveal quite different results, by the way). “An analysis of countries with HDI indicators between 0.35 and 0.40 reveals…” – this sounds like a promising start of a sentence. Using the term “developing countries” instead would be a pretty arbitrary step away from the former set.

From the perspective of dependency theory, it appears that “underdeveloped” vs. “developed” is a necessary dialectic to describe world systems. Yet it seems to me that it would make much more sense to focus on the system parameters that create dependency (terms of trade, political and military power) than to use detached and de-politicised language such as “Third World” or “Global South”.

To me, such a distinction is utterly useless for anything beyond grossest economic theory . There is no essential cultural, political or historical insight that can be derived from such a terminology. What’s the similarity between North Korea, Botswana and Colombia, please?

In the end, the classification of “Third World countries” or “developing countries” does not evoke anything more useful than obscure colonialist fantasies. So let’s drop it altogether.

Written by henrik

October 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Can Germany ‘afford’ a gay foreign minister? Or will it hurt relations with Muslim countries?

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– two often-debated questions in Germany after the recent federal elections. Following the victory of the conservative-liberal coalition, it is customary for the head of the smaller coalition party (the liberals) to become vice chancellor and foreign minister.

The head of the liberals is Guido Westerwelle. Now, in my opionion, there is a lot that is wrong with Westerwelle becoming FM: Be it his inexperience and previous indifference to international affairs, his political stance and style, as well as his apparent gaucheness on the international stage.

The more central question for many commentators, however, seems to be whether Westerwelle as an openly homosexual political can represent Germany as a Foreign Minister in Muslim countries.

Why wouldn’t he?

Diplomacy is probably the most pragmatic policy field. Quite regularly, countries or groups who are in the midst of the fiercest political conflicts, still maintain diplomatic relations. Just think of the close political contact of the US and the USSR throughout the Cold War, despite their existential ideological battle. You see the point: diplomacy is about interests and therefore mostly blind to ideology.

Why would that be any different with two countries that maintain friendly relations like, say, Germany and Saudi Arabia? Simply because of the sexual orientation of one country’s representative? Should the Saudi foreign minister be criticised at home for shaking the hand of a homosexual, his answer would simply be: do you want to jeopardize trade relations with one of our most important partners?

A statement from an official of the Turkish foreign ministry seems to confirm this. He told the Turkish paper Milliyet that, while there is no rule of protocol in case Westerwelle as German FM would bring his partner, “a middle way will be found”.

As much as I disagree with Westerwelle representing my country from a political point of view, I would love to see his appointment create some cracks the foundation of the alleged Gay/Muslim faultline.

“Sharia courts” in Europe – what’s your opinion?

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Should “sharia courts” (i.e. Muslim laws within the legal framework of the state) be allowed?

A sensationalist question, but a more sober discussion in the English version of NRC Handelsblad.

Find the pro side here: “Let Muslims have their sharia court
and the con side here: “Help Muslims escape the tyranny of sharia law

I think this is a valuable and fair discussion on the limits of secular societies – as long as it does not resort to the bashing of Muslims using the buzzword “sharia”, and Islam is treated equally to other religions. As one of the authors notes:

So even if the Muslim community in the Netherlands wanted sharia courts, it would be difficult to deny them this privilege, given that Catholics and Jews have their own ‘courts’ too. And Catholic and Jewish courts also have rules that contradict Dutch law: the Catholics don’t allow divorce, and the Jews require the man’s permission for divorce.

What’s your opinion? What do you think of the arguments put forth?

Written by henrik

July 10, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Migration as conflict and reflection: Scheffer’s ‘The Unsettled Land’

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I recently saw a panel discussion involving Dutch sociologist and politician Paul Scheffer. In 2000, Scheffer published an influential article called “The Multicultural Drama“, in which he criticised the system of migration in the Netherlands and Europe in general. Indifferent ‘pillarisation’ of societies, he argued back then, leads to segregation and conflicts between migrants and settled society.

Now, Scheffer has published a book called “The Unsettled Land” which offers a comparison of the process of migration and its consequences in several countries of Europe and North America. He argues that, besides different systems and different responses in all these countries, the process of migration is quite similar. According to him, there are three steps that can be identified:

Step 1: Avoidance. Initially, the arrival of new immigrants causes “white flight” and segregation, until open conflict breaks out.

Step 2: Conflict. At this stage, the receiving society starts to question its own values and cultural identity to be able to cope with a reality that has outlived the society’s self-conception.

Step 3: Accomodation. Societies develop mechanism to cope with the new demographics. Examples of accomodation include symbolic politics and recognition (monuments, arts, etc) as well as more egalitarian social politics (such as role of religion in policy-making, etc).

What’s remarkable in my view is that Scheffer develops a very sober, almost mechanic, analysis that he deems to be generalizable. First, this perspective removes fear and hysteria from the debate. Migration is seen as a social change;  and while change naturally causes conflict which can be painful, it will eventually lead to a new social formation that is workable. On the other hand, it emphasises strongly our ability to manage this process by finding our ways to come to an accommodation, which, according to Scheffer, will necessarily happen.

In the process that he describes, conflict that migration causes will always lead to the receiving society questioning itself. If we want to integrate newcomers, we have to become clear into what they will be integrated. Migration can therefore also be seen as a reflection for a society

Scheffer’s book was criticised as banal in the discussion I witnessed, but I think it is useful as it sets a ‘frame’ to view the debates in that are fought daily in newspapers and discussions. Surely there are weaknesses, like overgeneralisation and a strong emphasis on the nation-state. Yet, it points to the importance of ‘management’ to be able to accommodate and emancipate newcomers within societies, and it gives a hint as to how societies benefit from it simply be reflecting upon its core values and by redefining what makes up the community that people live in.

 You can find Scheffer’s presentation of his thesis and the following panel discussion online. While the debate was in German, the presentation was in English. It starts at around 2:15. Since I still haven’t figured why I can’t embed external videos here within the blog, please click here for the video.

Despite crisis, more tolerance toward immigrants and Muslim citizens

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Contrary to the 2008 “Racism and Extremism Monitor” in the Netherlands which observed a hightening negative climate towards Muslims (see my post here), the latest quarterly survey by the Social Cultural Planing Office has revealed a changing attitude of the Dutch towards immigrants.

Over the last 3 months, the amount of people stating that the Netherlends would be better off if it had fewer immigrants sunk from 41 to 35%. The number of people who see a presence of different cultures as an asset increased  from 36 to 44%.

At the same time, a student initiative made headlines that handed out 5,000 headscarfs in orange, the Dutch national colour, for the Queen’s Day celebrations on April 30. Their goal was “to allow Muslim women to express loyalty to their faith as well as to the queen.

Source: Radio Netherlands [1] [2], via Crossroads.