“It is the essence of Western civilization to slice and divide”.

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I am currently reading a book by an Indian politician called Mani Shankar Aiyar. The title of this book is ‘Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist’. It was bought for me because I am pretty fundamentalist when it comes to secularism. 

For most of the book Aiyar comes across as a sensible chap. He lambasts the populists in Indian public life who want to encourage divisions and sectarianism between all the different religions that make up that country. He laments the 1947 partition that created a new state for Muslims. He loathes the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose cultural chauvinism threaten religious coexistence in India.

Remember the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when there’s an anti-Muslim riot and little Jamal Malik’s mother gets killed by a rampaging mob? Basically that is the sort of stuff that, quite rightly, really annoys Aiyar when it happens in real life.

However, another thing that seems to irritate Aiyar is ‘the West’. In one of the later chapters in the book he broadens his focus beyond the subcontinent to look at religion and politics around the world. Inevitably he has some opinions on Israel-Palestine. Whilst discussing this subject he speaks a lot of nonsense. For example:

“Hitler’s anti-Semitism was by no means an aberration in European history; he merely carried to its logical (and terrifying) conclusion the fundamental defect in Western civilisation, which is non-comprehension of cultural and spiritual plurality, intolerance of ethnic diversity and discrimination against minorities”.

Eh? Western civilisation is unable to comprehend plurality and diversity? Discrimination against minorities is integral to Western civilisation? A tad harsh, methinks.

“The inability of Western civilisation to tolerate Jews in their midst was the basic cause of the Zionist mission to colonise Palestine with a sufficient number of European Jews to establish a Jewish homeland in Arab Palestine. That the Palestinians, who had done the Jews no harm, would be displaced and disenfranchised was of no concern to the Zionist, himself a product of European intolerance and Western racism”.

Leaving aside his simplistic/inaccurate take on the history around Zionism and the establishment of Israel, Aiyar continues pushing the line that Western civilisation is essentially intolerant of diversity. Aiyar should come spend a day working with me in Stamford Hill where the Jewish community seems to be doing just fine.

“It is the essence of Eastern civilisation – specifically of Indian civilisation – to synthesise and harmonize. It is the essence of Western civilisation to slice and divide. The Western mind finds only one solution to problems of conflict: separate and compartmentalise (dressed up as ‘self-determination’). The Western mind finds only one answer to ethnicity: domination of the minority by the majority (dressed up as ‘democracy’).”

Having spent the entire book highlighting the problems brought about by communalism in India and the divisions encouraged by the BJP, it is farcical for Aiyar to suddenly start talking about Indian civilisation’s essential tolerance. Aiyar’s desire to essentialise ‘civilisations’ is only a slightly more sophisticated version of coming up with anti-foreigner stereotypes – the French are smelly, the Germans are humourless, the Westerners are racist and unable to tolerate cultural diversity, etc.

His disappointing habit of using these cheap tactics suggests that he’s actually a bit dim or he himself has an appetite for crude political populism. Bash the West, claim India is the most tolerant place in the world, please your readers and voters (the book is primarily aimed for the Indian market). Nevermind that a Western country like Britain has one of the highest rates of interracial relationships in the world, a sizeable and safe Jewish population who are given the freedom to practice their religion in peace, and fewer communal riots than India!

Apologies for yet another post that seems to go along a clash of civilisations line. I just find his post-colonial instinct to paint a largely fictitious portrait of  ‘Western civilisation’ in order to then decry it highly nauseating. The sooner that people (and politicians!) all over the world stop trying to essentialise each other the better. Less of this ‘my culture is fundamentally good but your culture is fundamentally bad’ malarkey – more recognition of our common humanity.

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