Not the Only Category

Amartya Sen makes an excellent point, one I’ve seen him make often before (but it needs to be made over and over again, because it goes against a very strong stream of current opinion and it doesn’t make much headway), in this article in the New York Review of Books.

The richness and variety of early intellectual relations between China and India have long been obscured. This neglect is now reinforced by the contemporary tendency to classify the world’s population into distinct “civilizations” defined largely by religion (for example Samuel Huntington’s partitioning of the world into such categories as “Western civilization,” “Islamic civilization,” and “Hindu civilization”). There is, as a result, a widespread inclination to understand people mainly through their religious beliefs, even if this misses much that is important about them. The limitations of this perspective have already done significant harm to our understanding of other aspects of the global history of ideas. Many are now predisposed to see the history of Muslims as quintessentially Islamic history, ignoring the flowering of science, mathematics, and literature that was made possible by Muslim intellectuals, particularly between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. One result of such a narrow emphasis on religion is that a disaffected Arab activist today is encouraged to take pride only in the purity of Islam, rather than in the diversity and richness of Arab history. In India too, there are frequent attempts to portray the broad civilization of India as “Hindu civilization”—to use the phrase favored both by theorists like Samuel Huntington and by Hindu political activists.

Exactly. I think I’ve made a similar point here quite a few times – but again (and considerably less surprisingly, what with my not being a Nobel economist and not writing in the NYRB and all) it doesn’t do any good so I just go on making it. This radical simplification has a lot of disastrous consequences, some of which are very noticeable indeed in what one might call contemporary hegemonic discourse. I wouldn’t call it that, but one might. One of the most noticeable is the intense reluctance on the part of a lot of leftists to criticise Islam, for fear that that will be taken as criticising Muslims which will be taken as criticising brown or Third World people – with the immensely dreary and discouraging result that leftist, feminist, gay, secular, atheist, dissident people from e.g. Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and the like are ignored or even rebuked by people who ought to be their allies. Another is probably the (mostly unexamined, unaware, taken for granted) idea that religion is and should be and must be immune from criticism in a way that other systems of ideas are not. The over-developed sensitivity and caution and tact about saying any religion and especially Islam might have some truly bad ideas right at its core.

Where did this contemporary tendency that Sen mentions come from, anyway? Is it just a short-cut? Just journalistic laziness? Is it just that it’s faster to say ‘Muslim countries’ than it is to say ‘countries with large or majority Muslim populations’? Or is it more to do with underlying ideas about identity politics? Or is it both? Or both plus more? I don’t know, but I wish everyone would point it out and disagree with it every time it appears until it stops appearing.

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