February 22, 2005

Simons Discusses Islam, Politics

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Thomas W. Simons, Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and Poland and returning Provost Visiting Professor, explored the shifting dominance of politics and culture in Muslim and Western nations yesterday afternoon in Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium. In his lecture, entitled “Islam and the West since Iraq: The Return to Politics,” Simons examined themes from his speech last year on Islam and the West in light of recent events.

During the past year, Simons said, he has perceived “that quite a major paradigm shift may be underway in both the Islamic world and the West.”

The paradigm centers on the division between politics, which he calls “a competition of interests for limited ends and bounded objects,” and culture, which he explains as the “promotion of identities and principles that take values as their main criteria.”

Simons used this distinction as a lens through which to survey Islamic and Western history, arguing that “over the past 30 or 40 years both Westerners and Muslims, with all the immense diversity of these two worlds, have been going through the same phases where politics dominate or where culture dominates.”

However, he cautioned that “defining objectives in political terms makes conflict easier to handle than defining objectives in cultural terms, in terms of value.”

Using culture as the policy-machine, he said in response to an audience member’s question, “makes it harder to compromise and negotiate because you’re likely to feel that you’re betraying sacred principles… .”

Over the past fifty years politics and culture have see-sawed in their power over Muslim and Western countries. Separating history in four large chunks, Simons categorized the middle of this century as politics-dominated, followed by a break in the 1970s that paved the way for the ascendancy of culture in the 1990s. In the past year, politics is again on the upsurge, he said.

According to Simons, in the 1950s economic forces and the Cold War rooted Westerners in politics, while the emerging elites of the Islamic world found themselves constrained by current Western or Communist models.

“Nor should it be surprising that politics should be primarily political, as I have defined it, in both the West and Islamic world: after all, both were caught up in modernization and globalization in their mid-century forms,” Simons said.

When the Islamic world entered into more than 30 years of civil war in the 1970s, radicalism and the desire to regain the purity of the original Muslim community or the ‘umma swelled, said Simon. This ideology attracted the newly educated, many of whom joined guerilla forces.

The impact of the civil war was muted in the West, where “Americans and Europeans by and large still saw the Islamic world mainly as a checkerboard for political moves,” he continued. The true break came at the turn of the 1990s, when many forces converged to supplant the political model in the Islamic world with a cultural or value-based model.

“Across the Islamic world there was a surge of groups and ideologies calling for radical separation from the system in the name of a recreated transnational ‘umma,” Simons said, citing lagging economic growth, resurgence of the idea of humanity and alienation of second-generation Muslims living in Western cities as principal causes.

Simons paralleled the new fundamentalism in the Muslim world with the events of the West. The erosion of the manufacturing industry and the increasing mobility of the population forced politicians to change their message to voters.

“Politicians now had to build support issue by issue among shifting constituencies, and they could only do so on the basis of enduring values,” Simons said.

He explained that culture also colored the United State’s reaction to the world trade center bombing. “Many in the U.S. government and in the U.S. public chose to interpret 9/11 as an attack on U.S. values,” he said.

“The government has been extremely careful not to put the blame on Islam as such,” Simons added. “But by positing that the enemy’s purpose is to destroy U.S. values -rather, say, than to resist U.S. policies or respond to U.S. actions -we fall into his universe of discourse…”. In the past year, however, both the Islamic world and the West are aligning along a political axis.

“For the majority of Muslims the trend is now towards entering the system in order to transform it,” Simons said, as opposed to rejecting it. The weakening of militant neofundamentalism, the declining popularity of foreign fighters in Muslim nations, and the growing number of elections reflect a shift towards politics, he said.

With regards to the U.S. administration’s approach to Islam, Simons said “….policy statements are now being framed more and more in terms of careful steps to be taken with willing Muslim partners in support of their own traditions of tolerant faith and scientist excellence, as one Washington official put it to me the week before last.”

Simons listed numerous recent examples of U.S. actions driven by politics rather than culture, telling the audience, “It seems to me we may well be coming to the end of a decade in which the U.S. government defined U.S. interests in the world in terms of value…to the end of a decade that President Bush described in his Inaugural Address -accurately -as our foreign policy sabbatical.”

The audience appreciated Simons’ breath of academic and practical knowledge. “It’s good to have a professor who has been in the real world, and that shows from his talk,” said visiting fellow Prof. Benny Widyono, Southeast Asia Program.

Widyono is from Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country, and like Simons he is also in the UN diplomatic world.

“I agreed with his talk that it seemed [radical] Islam is losing ground in this world, which is good,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m not sure that just the few elections he mentioned will get rid of the problem. I’m not as optimistic as the professor.”

Daniel Kinderman, grad, praised Simons’ speech, saying it was “remarkably free of jargon.” “His talk was very clear and captured a lot of what is going on in the world of politics,” said Kinderman.

For his part Simons concluded his talk on an optimistic note.

“As Voltaire put it, war is the midwife of history,” he said. “And in this case, I would argue, it is taking history in directions that are good for us all.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer