'Othering' Islam and Muslims is a growing trend, not only in the West, but also throughout the Muslim world
The French Revolution gave the world three slogans: liberty, equality and fraternity. Are they still relevant today?
Given the growing injustices of our day, one would assume they are.
Yet they mean very different things to different people. Ask anyone in New York, Paris, Tehran, New Delhi or Kuala Lumpur and you will get wildly different answers.
The problem is not only social relativism.
These values are undermined by the growing injustices and impotencies of the current world-order.
Before taking its current form, the French motto had one more word in it: death. In its complete form, it was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death." These values were a matter of life and death, at least in theory and in the France of 1789.
Liberty was defined as the ability "to do anything that does not harm others." Equality was defined along judicial lines in that the law "must be the same for all… All citizens, being equal, shall be equally eligible to high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents." Defined as such, equality was the principle of judicial fairness and merit-based governance.
European colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries changed the meaning of these words forever. While the French preached equality, secularism and freedom at home, it colonized and proselytized to millions of people in Africa and the Middle East.
Philosophers James and John Stuart Mill wrote about liberalism but worked as officers of the British Empire in India, legitimating and internalizing colonialism. Europeans intellectuals spoke about the Enlightenment promise of reason and freedom while European armies invaded nations from North Africa and India to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Fraternity has been a troubling term from the beginning because it implied a moral responsibility whereas liberty and equality sought to ensure legal rights. The disparity between what is legal and what is moral became wider as morality, in the secular spirit of the age, was relegated to religious law and psychological sentiment with no legal basis.
Yet the secular age has not erased fraternity in toto. From secular Masonic organizations to religious groups, numerous fraternities persist in such diverse places as university campuses, churches, all-male elite clubs and high politics. Things are never as simple as they appear.
In her incisive book "On the Muslim Question", political scientist Anne Norton takes up the question of how the social and political anxieties of Western societies twist and displace the ideals of classical liberalism and present a distorted picture of both Islam and the West.
In the 19th century, "On the Jewish Question," as formulated by none other than Karl Marx, was a test case for the limits of the Enlightenment. The fulfillment of the promise of Enlightenment rationalism and the three ideals of the French Revolution was predicated upon the acceptance of the Jews (and similar non-Christian, non-European groups) into the new European society as free and equal human beings, not as subordinated and violated minorities. Given the horrors of the Holocaust, this project tragically failed.
Today, the Jewish question, Norton argues, has been replaced by the Muslim question. Norton's basic insight is key to her thoughtprovoking analysis. What is at stake in regard to the "Muslim question" is not Islam and Muslims per se but the West itself, and its commitment to reason, freedom, equality, justice and pluralism. The background to the debate about Islam is shaped by domestic anxieties about urban life, migration, capitalism, unemployment, party politics, sex, race, consumerism, religion, morality and all other issues one can discuss in principle without any reference to Islam, Muslims, or the Middle East.
Referencing Islam brings convenience because it projects the problem to some "other" in a distant world, creating a misleading context to avoid real issues.
The situation is not any better in the Muslim world, which engages in a similar type of projection and "othering" when dealing with its own domestic problems and anxieties.
Liberty, equality and fraternity as well as justice will maintain their meaning and relevance only when they are taken seriously and free from political machination.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey