The Quest for Synthesis: An Interview with Ziauddin Sardar

1) Welcome to the LIP. What does multiculturalism mean to you?

Multiculturalism, as I argued in my book The A to Z of Postmodern Life, is essentially about two things. First, it is an issue of power in all its aspects. The fear of many right wing critics is totally justified: multiculturalism is all about subverting the power of western civilisation. This was obvious from the moment multiculturalism became a movement in America. That crucial moment occurred in 1987 at Stanford University when Reverend Jesse Jackson led a march by about 500 students chanting ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go’. The students were referring to a specific course and seeking its replacement with one that stressed the cultural accomplishments of women and ethnic minorities. I wouldn’t say that Western culture per se has to go but its power to define what it is to be human, different, rational or ethnic, what is valuable, worthwhile, successful and proper, certainly has to go.

Second, multiculturalism is all about transformation. Here we are not just talking about transforming the poor inner city blacks and Asians by providing them with economic and educational opportunities. But also of transforming Western society itself so we move from the irrational premise that ‘they’ – all the ethnic others – see the errors of their ways and become more like ‘us’ to the humane idea that Western culture is as deeply flawed as all other human cultures. Multiculturalism does not require more commitment to liberal values in Western societies. Rather, it requires a transformation of liberal values to more inclusive forms. It demands that ‘we’ change as much as ‘they’.

2) In Why Do People Hate America? you argue that, ‘For America, the multicultural debate seems like a fight for survival, and that’s the essence of the problem.’ Do you believe the UK views multiculturalism any differently?

America sees multiculturalism in terms of survival because its very purpose is to undermine Western civilisation in general and the power of the ruling white male elite in particular. Like America, we in Britain are too obsessed with celebrating difference – festivals, ethnic art and different varieties of food: that kind of thing. What we really need to do is to create space for difference to exist as difference. Which brings us back to the issues of power and transformation.

3) As a post-colonial studies professor, are you concerned that the field may be rendered obsolete by American expansionism?

No. It makes the field even more important. Postcolonial discourse has to expand from analysing how the historical fact of European colonialism continues to shape the relationship between West and non-West to incorporate how American expansionism now shapes a new neo-colonial relationship between America and the rest of the world. The process of resisting both Western hegemony and American expansionism must now be described and evaluated even more vigorously. And the experience of suppression, resistance, difference, displacement in relation to both the master narratives of the West and the new hyper-imperialism of America has to be explored with keener determination. We need to discover new and innovative ways of preventing the world from being totally rendered into the image of America. And postcolonial studies, with all their shortcomings, are one way amongst many of resisting American expansionism.

4) The US and Britain claim to be liberating Iraq. Do you think there is a possibility that the end of this conflict could herald a new era of stability, democracy and freedom in the Middle East?

I don’t think democracy can be imposed. It has to have indigenous roots and different peoples in different countries must find their own way to establish democracy. US and Britain have rid Iraq of Saddam; they have not established stability and democracy. Worse, the Americans are now planning to introduce a new kind of imperialism in Iraq by handing all the reconstruction contracts to US multinationals. So one day the Iraqis will wake up to find that they are buying their electricity, gas, communication services, even their water from American corporations. I doubt they will see this as freedom. Imposing a pro-American regime in Baghdad does not amount to giving the Iraqis freedom either.

This is exactly the kind of imposition that the world hates. The world hates the uses and abuses of American power. Not least American insistence on imposing its vision of freedom as a non negotiable, one size fits all, irrespective of condition and circumstance. America is entitled to its freedoms. People everywhere tend to seek ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as the American Declaration of Independence terms its central values. The problem is the rest of the world reserves the right to define and determine the content and form of these values according to its own history and culture and most serious of all often finds American power and influence a practical obstacle to attain them in their own terms in their own countries.
A new era of stability, democracy and freedom may come to Middle East if the US leaves without delay and lets the Iraqi people form the kind of government they actually want. The Iraqis are amongst the most educated and sophisticated people in the Middle East. An accountable and representative government in Iraq would have a strong influence in the region. And can usher in much needed changes in the Middle East.

5) Much of your argument about why people hate America balances on the unpopular foreign policies of the country. Given the prominent support the UK has provided for US military action in Iraq, do you think it is only a matter of time before somebody writes a ‘Why Do People Hate Britain?’

I am afraid it is already happening. As we saw with the recent demonstrations in Athens, during the EU Summit, anti-Britain slogans are becoming as common as anti-American slogans. Britain needs to distance itself from the US; particularly the current administration dominated by neo-conservative imperialists. Otherwise, people around the world will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between US and British foreign policies.

6) You have suggested that, ‘[T]here are many Americas,’ and wonder, ‘Can one America see the other America?’ Which America do you think is strongest in the perception of Americans today?

There are indeed many Americas. The vision of George Bush contrasts sharply with, say, the vision of Noam Chomsky. Seattle, to give another example, is a radical city that totally rejects the neo-conservative notion of America that is so deeply endorsed by a city like Houston.
There are equally significant differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. But US media does not reflect this diversity of America. Judging from what one sees on US television, or hears on mainstream radio stations, or reads in the newspapers, the dominant perception of Americans today is that we are right, virtuous and innocent people and with the help of God and History and our Military Might we will impose our will on the rest of the world. But there are also deep currents of a different America: and the humane and critical voices of this America are seldom heard within the US. I think this is a growing tendency – and it consists of all those people who did not vote (around 50% of the American population) or did not vote for Bush (around 26%). I am waiting for this America to stand up and transform America from the inside.

7) Were you not concerned, in writing Why Do People Hate America? that you were projecting upon the United States precisely the sort of outsider’s analysis that Orientalists have been so heavily criticised for in their assessments of foreign cultures?

Demonisation is wrong – whether of Islam or of America. Orientalism treats Islam as a monolith; and does not distinguish between different varieties of Islam and different kinds of Muslims. We consciously and constantly distinguish between Americans and America, and different kinds of Americas. Moreover, we make it clear that the world-wide hatred of America is directed towards the coalition of American corporate, political and military interests; and a kind of globalisation that makes American culture the norm for the rest of the world.

It is worth noting that it is not anti-American to disagree with America. Criticism, anti Americanism or even hatred of American power, its use and abuse, are not one monolith. The range of reaction to America arises from different circumstances, the detail of different American interactions in different parts of the world. However, there are underlying connections between these reactions to America, they share common traits because there are common threads in American policy, in American attitudes and outlook in its various interactions with the rest of the world.

Moreover, anti-Americanism is not an emotional reaction. It grows from substantive issues, acts of commission and omission, things America has done that cause harm, devastation and difficulty around the world. Its foreign policy has operated overtly and covertly to bring to power authoritarian regimes that abuse human rights. It is ironic that Chile was one of the swing votes on the Security Council. In 1973 America conspired to overthrow a democratically elected government in Chile and bring to power the Pinochet military junta notorious for murder, torture and abuse of human rights. It supported Suharto’s regime in Indonesia for 30 years, trained his army which was the central institution of the state oppressing and suppressing Indonesian democratic movements. The list is long, including selling chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein and supporting him as the lesser of two evils during the Iran-Iraq war. American foreign policy is framed to follow and support American economic interests which are global. America earns its wealth and affluence from its engagement with the rest of the world and acts to protect both its profits and its ideological economic predilections everywhere. American influence at the IMF has urged narrow, one size fits all policies of privatisation, liberalisation of financial and trade flows that have impoverished many Third World countries, devastated their social welfare gains and resulted in large sections of their economies being bought up by multinational and American corporations. By these policies American elites get rich from the poverty of the poorest. Anti-American feeling rises as poverty and lack of economic autonomy increases.

Why Do People Hate America? explains why people actually do hate America; it does not argue that they should. Indeed, we wrote the book because we believe hate is the worst basis for human relationships and it must be overcome by debate and dialogue. We wrote the book to argue with America’s monolithic simplistic view of the rest of the world. Therefore, we quote American critics of American policy throughout our book, because it is important not to reduce America to a simplistic monolith.

8) Do you still maintain that the West is ‘culturally, morally and intellectually bankrupt?’

I do. A worldview that assumes it is the yardstick for measuring all other cultures, and insists that all other cultures, to be judged as ‘civilised’, must conform to its dictates is, by definition, bankrupt. Such a perspective on humanity cannot conceive that there can be other, different, ways of being human. I believe that there are numerous ways of being human; and the Western way of being human is only one amongst many. Because the Western civilisation is the dominant civilisation we automatically assume that this dominant way is the only way and the right way to be human. By suppressing other ways of being human we do not allow other, different ideas, notions, concepts, to come to the fore. I think that radically new ideas will come from Other cultures – once we have created enough space for them to exist as Other cultures and flower.

9) Does not your own ability to partake in cultural, moral and intellectual debates and discussion – indeed to have such an influence on their course – counter that argument?

Where does that leave me? Somewhere between Western and Islamic cultures struggling to create new ideas from a synthesis of the two worldviews and trying to transcend the limitations of both. My own position is not a counter argument but an illustration that new ideas, as well as new forms of criticism, emerge from different perspectives on humanity. Those who have read Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader would have realised that my work aims at persuading the West to move forward from its current impasse and bankruptcy to recognise, appreciate and explore other ways of knowing, being and doing and different ways of being human.

10) Finally, as a futurist, are you optimistic about our abilities to avoid Samuel P. Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and instigate a ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’ in its stead?

The first thing to note is that the Clash of Civilisations thesis is essentially a theory of hate. It focuses on the antagonistic history of Islam and the West and projects it into the future. There is, of course, also a great history of collaboration, exchange, enrichment and mutual cooperation between Islam and the West. Islamic Spain would be a good example of this. Why do we insist on sweeping that history aside as though it was totally irrelevant to contemporary times?

But a clash requires at least two civilisations. Given the current state of the Muslim world, Islam can hardly be described as a civilisation. Contemporary Islam consists of nothing more than a string of fragmented and disenfranchised states, mired in despotism and dependency. Civilisations are shaped by coherent worldviews, consistent social and political organisations, and a reasonably articulated set of norms and values – elements that are conspicuous by their absence in Muslim societies. Moreover, the clashing civilisations have to be quite distinct. In the contemporary globalised world, nothing is distinct. Western civilisation, if it still has some kind of unique identity, is integrated and enmeshed with the rest of the world. There are as many Muslims in the West as there are in many Muslim countries. A genuine clash of civilisations is thus rather impossible. The only clash that is actually possible is between American hyper-imperialism and the rest of the world.

As a futurist, I have always argued for, and worked towards, multi-civilisational, and multi-cultural futures. I am not an optimist; I do not think that things will simply get better; that we would end up – somewhat magically – towards a pluralist world of diversity and different ways of being human. But I am hopeful. Hope is the belief that we can all work together, and through dialogue and real effort, we can shape the kind of futures we desire. Optimism is passive; and does not require effort or courage. Hope is active: it insists on cooperation, dialogue, work and compromise; and is therefore ultimately a courageous stance. Yes, I am hopeful that we can work together to instigate a dialogue of civilisations and cultures that leads to a fair and just world for all.

Why Do People Hate America? is published by Icon Books.
Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader is published by Pluto Press.

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