Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Critical Thinking and the Middle East

Last year in an article in Counterpunch, an Iranian-American lawyer censured the left for not being critical enough of President Ahmadinejad during his visit to New York City at the annual meeting for the United Nations. Bitta Mostofi attended one of Iran's diplomatic dinners that was supposedly organized for the "American anti-war, social justice and peace activists" and she was dismayed that not one critical question was posed to the Iranian President. Attendees were eager to criticize the American government and its policies, but not the Iranian state. Mostofi astutely observed:

I recognize that many in the room were not there to excuse the Iranian government’s brutality, but their silence was striking. A fundamental role we have as American peace and social justice activists is to oppose our government’s threats towards Iran, while building solidarity with the Iranian people. Activists calling for solidarity at the dinner acted as though we stood in a town hall with our Iranian counter parts; however the fact is we stood in a room with the Iranian state, not its people.

While I definitely sympathize with both sides of this particular debate, I experienced a similar sense of moral outrage last year when I witnessed my university’s critical faculties disabled during a visit from the former Ambassador from Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki Faisal al Saud. Not one challenging question was posed about his brutal regime. So I was horrified when in a mass e-mail another activist openly accused Mostofi of being a Zionist collaborator because of her critique. I decided to send this activist a long e-mail critiquing this position, saying that we should all be standing together and not apart, to which the reply was "my priority is to oppose Western imperialism and if that makes me an apologist so be it."

I am reminded of this exchange today as it seems that several of my blogposts have encouraged some of my readers (and friends) to accuse me of being an apologist for the Syrian regime. This is very troubling to me because while I have not come to any coherent position on the events in Syria, not once have I even marginally supported the current crackdown. It is wrong and should be condemned, as I have repeatedly written on this blog. However at the same time I cannot unequivocally support the position that President Assad's regime should be removed from power. It is not my country. I have not spoken to enough of the Syrian people to hear their views and so ultimately I do not think it is fair for me to decide. All that I urge people to do is to listen to other voices, including those we may disagree with. This is my motivation for posting alternative articles. My reasoning is that you all have access to the normative viewpoint so I try to stress the heterodox. This does not mean that I always agree with it.

That said, reviewing the history of my posts about Syria I found that the majority are critical of the regime and do indeed come from normative newspapers. Yes some are sympathetic to alternative perspectives or are critical of the media and Western policy, especially those remarks that I have authored. But by and large the posts are deeply critical of President Assad and the crackdown. So why then am I being accused of being sympathetic to the Syrian regime? Can it be that I am just sympathetic to all sides? And is that wrong? Is the world so polarized that we are frightened of critical engagement with our own politics? Talal Asad (2003) famously observed how in modern Christian societies we tend to regard belief not “as the conclusion to a knowledge process but as its precondition.” Therefore beliefs are construed to be either true or false in a moral framework that is not historically contingent. And unfortunately the voices of the people in between true and false are what comprises historical contingency.

In any case I am listening to my critics even though I may not agree with them. Their words have affected me. I suppose consciously revisiting my previous posts about Syria and questioning future posts is the best I can do to maintain a critical approach to myself and the Middle East.

1 comment:

  1. Critical thinking in Saudi curriculum is lacking. http://www.opendemocracy.net/bobby-thomas-cameron/critical-thoughts-on-critical-thinking-in-saudi-arabia