Farhat Taj is a Pakistani researcher living in Norway. She carries out research in the south west of Pakistan. Blighted by terrorism, it is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Neither the Geneva Convention nor the ruling norms of international law operate there, let alone Pakistani law. There are no western observers to be seen: they are unwelcome guests in the eyes of both the Taliban and the Pakistani army. Journalists are murdered. And both the Taliban and the army systematically violate human rights. This is Farhat’s home. It is where her friends and family live. She visits often and wrote a book about the region in 2011, Taliban and Anti-Taliban.
In a lecture hall at the University of Oslo, Farhat speaks of what she saw in Pakistan first hand. The audience is mainly academic. There are participants from Egypt, Iran, China. It seems I am the only one who can return home safely. Not to my new home, to the places where I have found refuge – New York, London or Oslo – but to my own home, Kyiv.
EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton attends a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (not pictured), Tehran, 9 March 2014. Photo: Behrouz Mehri / European External Action Service. Source:Flickr
Masih Alinejad sits next to me. The day before, Masih had caused a stir (both at the conference and on Norwegian television) by criticizing the Norwegian ambassador in Iran for wearing a traditional Norwegian shawl to a meeting with the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani. As Masih put it, the ambassador was demonstrating her assent to a regime that forces women to wear the hijab. Other western female politicians (such as Catherine Ashton) have also covered their heads when meeting the leaders of Iran. Masih finds this infuriating:
Apparently it is a sign of respect for Iranian laws. But wasn’t slavery once a law too? This isn’t respect, it is a demonstration that economic and political relations are more important than our freedom. At international meetings, Iranian leaders leave official receptions if there’s alcohol on the table.
Masih Alinejad lives in New York. Several years ago, when Masih was studying in London, she posted a picture of herself on Facebook without her headscarf. Later, she posted another picture of herself at home, in Iran. Hundreds of other Iranian women began to follow her example, publishing photos of themselves without their hijabs. In doing so, they were risking their lives. Iran’s religious leaders regularly call on the public to harm women who go out without covering their heads. They remain unprotected from persecution and violence. Many women have suffered acid attacks because they dared to break the rules. Regardless, Iranian women continue to publish photographs online. The Facebook group “My Stealthy Freedom”, created by Masih in May 2014, now has more than 850,000 followers, both women and men. I’d like to see Naomi Wolf in this group. She claims that the hijab liberates Muslim women from the pressure of conforming to standards of beauty. The hijab forms part of their sexual appeal, says Wolf. And so the privileged continue to tell the oppressed about the advantages of slavery.
When people like Masih or Farhat speak about the problems of their communities and countries in the West, they can be more pointed in their remarks than outsiders. No white non-Muslim woman would criticize customs in Iran as sharply as Masih. We speak freely only when we talk about our own societies (as well as America – criticism of which many people consider to be le bon ton). On occasion, insiders make statements that are unacceptable to western journalists, politicians or researchers. They find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from people who are happy, white and wealthy.
However, we have to define what we mean when we say “the West”. Despite the arguments that the term is inaccurate, out-dated and unjust, not to say discriminatory, we continue to use it. We say “the West” because, regardless of our attempts to adapt our speech to our self-perception of ourselves as “the good ones”, we continue to focus our attention on resources, power and security (which, for us, stem largely from the rule of law). Today, western countries and their imitators are nothing but a combination of these elements. The “West” is the “West” according not to geographical parallels and meridians, but to the scale of achievements in these areas. In this sense, the “West” includes Japan and Australia, Poland and Estonia, as well as, to a lesser extent, Bulgaria and Hungary, given that they are full members of the European Union.
We have certain expectations regarding the “West”. The most important is that the West bears the burden of responsibility for the suffering of the persecuted and hungry in the world. This is a question not only of resources, but of decisions. The West is expected to approve or condemn while we, the citizens of countries that do not belong to the West, are expected to applaud this approval or condemnation. Even the fiercest critics of the West assume that the West has a duty to be fair, while somewhere like China doesn’t.
Farhat Taj is bringing her speech to a close. Humanitarian aid has little effect, she says, when it comes to helping people suffering under the Taliban. The international community supports Pakistan, providing resources to develop territories affected by terrorism. It is precisely this approach that Farhat opposes: there can be no development until every terrorist network is destroyed. But Pakistan benefits from these networks, or at least some of them. Pakistan uses them to create “managed chaos” on the other side of the border in Afghanistan – at least until a pro-Pakistan government comes to power in Kabul. As Farhat asks: “Why build schools and hospitals if the Taliban are just going to blow them up again?”
I shuddered at that question. Five days earlier, I’d heard something similar. In November 2014, the audience at TEDxKyiv gave a standing ovation to Elena Styazhkina, professor of history at Donetsk National University. Both Elena Styazhkina and Farhat Taj had made statements that only they could make. Outside Pakistan, nobody can question the wisdom of providing humanitarian aid to territories controlled by terrorists. Not even an observer from from Kyiv, let alone L’viv, could say something about Donetsk in the vein of Styazhkina: it would sound hostile.
In her talk, Styazhkina described the people who live in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Twenty per cent of the population supported or continue to support the Russian invasion, whether passively or armed (surveys in Donetsk in Spring 2014 showed that between 65 and 67 per cent of residents wanted to live in Ukraine, and close to a third in the Donetsk People’s Republic, Russia or the Soviet Union). Referring to Franz Boas and Friedrich Engels (specifically Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State), Styazhkina explained that 20 per cent lived in “another chronological period”, in an era (to paraphrase Lewis Henry Morgan) in which products are appropriated in their natural state. They are an outpost of the old world in post-modern Ukraine:
The voice that we hear today and which we cannot understand […] that is the voice, to use Engels’s term, of an economic system that does not produce anything and perceives the world around it as hostile – either it can give you something, or it can’t. Here a sewer grate is sustenance. A cemetery fence, factory metal – all this can be cut down and sold. In this place, property neither exists, nor is understood. Nature gives, we take, we do not steal. Where do restrictions come from if there is no property? He who is the strongest. The Leader. He’s also a policeman. If you share with the leader, bring him an offering, then the hunting will be good. […] Here there are gods which have broken free of the leaders, the police, prosecutors, judges. Some gods have even obtained the rank of president.
No foreign god can take root here, not even if it is benevolent, says Styazhkina. “No one has seen any good here.”
So what if Elena Styazhkina is right? Why do we – the citizens of relatively peaceful “mainland” Ukraine, who want the country to remain united, who supported the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime – declare that we are ready to “listen to the Donbas”, knowing that we will be reproached in return? Why do we imagine the “Donbas” (a misleading term that Styazhkina suggests we move away from) as the Other – incomprehensible, stuck in its otherness and incapable of change? Are we secretly afraid that the “Donbas”, with its internal contradictions and pluralities, presents us with a question that we are unable to answer?
These fears are not unfounded. After all, there is no sign of anyone else being able to answer this question. No matter how much we scoff at declarations of our European-ness, in this regard, Ukraine is just as European as any other country: we too lack intellectual courage.
The “Rushdie Affair” was not the first test of that courage. Yet in Rushdie’s case, this test was “fair”: in contrast to western intellectuals’ adoration of the Soviet Union, their silence over the communist regime’s millions of victims, there were no information barriers, nor was there any temptation of recognition for co-operating with the Kremlin: their role in this persecution was entirely voluntary and selfless.
The era is also important in this regard. Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Salman Rushdie to death in February 1989, a year in which the map of the world began to change rapidly. The collapse of the Soviet Union took its toll on numerous “friendly” regimes on all continents (with only Australia remaining untouched). An ironic coincidence it may be, but the Free World, that favorite Cold War euphemism, began to lose its relevance there and then.
Nevertheless, in May 1988, Rushdie witnessed the first serious public conflict between Russian and Central European writers. It was during a conference organized by the Wheatland Foundation. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoirs published in 2012, the author recalls imperialist statements made by Tatyana Tolstaya and Joseph Brodsky, as well as the latter’s quarrel with Czeslaw Milosz. Rushdie describes the conference as “like watching a preview of Communism’s fall”:
In this new world, in the dialectics of the world beyond the communism-capitalism confrontation, it would be made clear that culture could be primary too. The culture of central Europe was asserting itself against Russianness to unmake the Soviet Union. And ideology, as Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts were insisting, could certainly be primary. The wars of ideology and culture were moving to the centre of the stage. And his novel [The Satanic Verses. Rushdie writes about himself in Joseph Anton in the third person. – O.F.], unfortunately for him, would become a battlefield.
From the anger of people who hadn’t even read The Satanic Verses (like in India, where it wasn’t on sale) to the numerous interpretations in the press (academic and otherwise), the “Rushdie Affair” was a watershed moment: in the modern world, it is not only religious figures, but secular intellectuals who decide what the foundations of democracy and civilization are, who tolerate calls to physical destruction of an individual by referring to other people’s “feelings”. And paradoxically, the institutions of democratic states not only refrain from condemnation, but encourage the language of hate. Iqbal Sacranie, then leader of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (a precursor to the Muslim Council of Britain), was responsible for one of the many public attacks on Rushdie: “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him.” In 2005, on the recommendation of Tony Blair’s government, Sacranie would receive a knighthood.
In Joseph Anton, Rushdie describes the public discussion surrounding The Satanic Verses in meticulous detail. As the twentieth century came to a close, in the western world, the “affront to religious beliefs” became a serious accusation once again – serious enough to outweigh all the values which the “western world” draws on to justify its break from barbarity, its comparatively secure and wealthy existence in the second half of the twentieth century: “But now the victory of the Enlightenment was looking temporary, reversible. Old language had been renewed, defeated ideas were on the march. In Yorkshire, they had burned his book.”
That said, the sheer mass of mutual reproach and accusation to be found in Joseph Anton contradicts the author’s conclusions about the conflict between ideologies rather than economic systems, which he made back in 1988. Whether you defended Rushdie or attacked him (often in the most callous terms) had nothing to do with ideological preferences. People of all stripes joined in the Muslim spiritual leaders’ accusations. In the UK, people from the Labour Party and the Conservatives, Pope Jean Paul II and Prince Charles, Joseph Brodsky and Jack Straw (the British MP who, it was recently reported, has spoken in favor of “dialogue” with the Putin regime). At the same time, though, writers, specialists on Islam and civic activists of the Muslim world came out in support of Rushdie – often publicly, putting themselves at risk. More than 200 prominent Iranians in exile signed a letter in his defence. In other words, your position on The Satanic Verses did not emerge directly from your fundamental ideological beliefs, your ideological identity. Though such a relationship between ideological belief and position is possible (and this is the principal focus of this article), Rushdie was supported by those who knew the price of freedom, who were unmarred by egotistical self-love. This explains why Rushdie received fierce support from former dissident Vaclav Havel (just as he became president) and the insulting (and insulted) attacks from Brodsky.
The concept awkwardly referred to here as “self-love” is the key to the conflict between freedom and the “affront to religious feelings. The “affront to feelings” is the successor to the feeling of being threatened, which is unnatural for the modern world. That is, this feeling of risk, uncertainty and self-hate is something completely opposed to modernity. This feeling of risk in the “Third World’ is a shadow of the First World’s obsession with the individual – an obsession which the West itself has fostered via the euphemistic “respect for identity”. In his book “Ill Fares the Land”, Tony Judt traces the genesis of this obsession back to the 1960s:
What united the ’60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each. “Individualism” – the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large – became the leftwing watchword of the hour. […] The politics of the ’60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. “Identity” began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism. Curiously, the new Left remained exquisitely sensitive to the collective attributes of humans in distant lands, where they could be gathered up into anonymous social categories like “peasant”, “post-colonial”, “subaltern” and the like. But back home, the individual reigned supreme.
The border separating tolerance, respect for the individual (virtues lionized in the West, and cornerstones of the post-war western world after it parted ways with racism and colonialism) and egoism and self-obsession is a subtle one, often blurred. It’s good that it exists. It’s bad that the definition of this border is under an increasingly serious threat.
One of the thousands of people who took part in demonstrations calling for the ban of The Satanic Verses and the execution of Salman Rushdie in 1989 was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the daughter of Somali opposition leader Hirsi Magan Isse. At the time, Ayaan was an activist in the Muslim Brotherhood. Not long after, Ayaan’s father organized her marriage to a cousin who lived in Canada – Hirsi Magan Isse may have been a political prisoner, a fighter against the despotic regime in Somalia, but he had conservative views on women’s rights (and his daughter’s, in particular). Clearly, Ayaan’s opinion on the matter didn’t count for much.
In 1992, at her father’s request, Ayaan left Nairobi. During a stopover in Germany, she fled to the Netherlands and claimed asylum as a refugee from Somalia. With her knowledge of English, Arabic, Somali and Swahili, the 22-year-old Ayaan began helping refugees – and the people who work with them – as a translator. Eventually Ayaan learned Dutch, went to high school and then to higher education, later finding a job at a research institute linked to the Dutch Labor Party. After 9/11, she started to publicly criticize Islam and the Netherlands’ migration policy. At the same time, Ayaan broke not only with Islam, but with religion as a whole, declaring herself to be an atheist. After her first public successes, she received threats and required personal protection. The Dutch liberals (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) offered her a place on the parliamentary list, and Ayaan became an MP.
In November 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri shot and stabbed the director Theo van Gogh to death in the middle of an Amsterdam street. Bouyeri left a letter addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali pinned to van Gogh’s chest with a knife. Together with van Gogh, Ayaan had authored Submission: Part One, a film about the subjugation and violence experienced by Muslim women. Since then, every time Ayaan makes a public appearance, she requires increased security.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference in 2016. Source: Gage Skidmore / Flickr.
Now Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands in solidarity with the person she once wished was dead. Ayaan has since asked for forgiveness from Salman Rushdie and, chuckling, they begin their joint presentation. Both in Infidel (her second book) and Nomad (her third), there are story lines reminiscent of Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: attacks, sometimes incredibly aggressive, from western intellectuals – attacks which are close to real and terrifying physical violence.
In ten years, Ayaan Hirsi Ali went from being a highly subjugated person (an unmarried woman) in the least successful country in the world (Somalia is often given as the first example of a failed state) to an MP in one of most successful. She is the target of fierce criticism – often rude and dishonest – from two poles. And she is the target of threats from one of them.
At the end of 2013, the question of who people listen to when we talk about repression, oppression, violence and despotism became central for Ukraine. The world is full of injustice, but there are few injustices as risky, unpleasant and amoral as attacks by western intellectuals on dissidents. Of course, intellectual audiences love a rebel – but only when those rebels have been approved by someone else.
It is easy to come out against the US government, safe in the knowledge that this criticism not only poses no threat, but brings dividends in the public and academic spheres. It is easy to criticize the West when you live there, using the advantages and opportunities on offer – from the rule of law to the respect for human rights. It is easy to convince others “not to become disenchanted with Europe” and “to be critical” when repressions and atrocities take place far away. Michael Moynihan, cultural news editor for The Daily Beast, took the time to monitor messages on Twitter after the renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in November 2014. Amidst all the data available, Moynihan focused on tweets belonging to leading editors and journalists (that is, the people who formulate opinion on a global level): correspondents at the Wall Street Journal, the editors of Der Spiegel and Financial Times, a producer at the BBC and a Fox News broadcaster. All of these people lamented the disappearance of “pre-McDonalds” Cuba (as if they’d already been there), wishing to get there as quickly as possible – before the Americans arrive. Clearly, the interests of Cuban people, living in a poverty-ridden dictatorship, aren’t important here. The poorer the population, the cheaper the booze and the hookers. The more grief and despair, the better your vacation.
A significant portion of Infidel, first published in 2007, is devoted to survival in the western world and learning about its fundamental ideas. This is not just a biography of a refuge from Somalia. Infidel is more of an intellectual history of the West through the prism of a single private journey from the archaic world into the post-modern. But this is no Cinderella tale. And Ayaan does not hide her admiration, which may seem naive to those who were given freedom and respect for the individual without asking.
Far from every critic had the tact to recognize Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s candour, and not to use the opportunity for self-assertion at her expense. Over time, she was branded an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” (word choice is important here – after all, white people are reserved even when they’re on the side of obscurantism: black people, it seems, are fundamentalists even when they’re defending the legacy of the European Enlightenment). For instance, even when writing about her student years in Leiden (practically Ayaan’s first real contact with young people in the West), she notes the obsession with individuality, as highlighted by Tony Judt. But in contrast to Judt, Ayaan was excited. She lamented her own youth, bereft of anything remotely similar to the possibilities for self-expression found in the West.
Just as unashamedly, even relentlessly, Ayaan writes about the domination of the simplest things – a feeling familiar to anyone who grew up in the Soviet world, and who discovered these “simple things” thanks to travel, or even via films and TV: the understanding of ethical norms, interpersonal relations, money, everyday existence, the sense of tact. It seems as if Ayaan sometimes chooses stories about herself and other migrants that would sound racist if told by white Europeans. Ayaan is openly critical of her fellow Somalis and her closest family. For instance, she describes, in detail, discovering Europe as a refugee, as well as other migrants and their resistance to the new reality around them, the lack of desire to learn and move away from old customs, how (with time) she began to avoid them, her neighbours, her sister’s mental health issues, which, although present back home, deteriorated in Holland, with tragic consequences. Once again, only an immigrant could write the following about immigrants:
We had always been sure that we, as Muslims and Somalis, were superior to unbelievers, and here we were not superior at all. In day-to-day life, we didn’t know how the cash machines worked or that you had to push a button to order the bus to stop. […] It was the same sort of defensive, arrogant attitude that I had often seen among people from rural areas who emigrated to the city, whether Mogadishu or Nairobi. Here in Holland the claim was always that we were held back by racism. Everyone seemed to be in a constant simmer of anger about how we were discriminated against because we were black. […] There was still a lot of clan feeling in me; I felt somehow responsible for their actions. I didn’t like how they denied misdeeds, even if they were caught red-handed. I didn’t like how they boasted, or the myths and transparently false conspiracy theories they propagated. I didn’t like the endless gossiping or the constant complaints that they were victims of external factors. Somalis never said “Sorry” or “I made a mistake” or “I don’t know”: they invented excuses. All these group strategies to avoid confronting reality depressed me. Reality is not easy, but all this make-believe doesn’t make it any easier.
More than once in Infidel, Ayaan writes that her family and fellow countrymen see themselves either as “victims” (clearly written with disdain) or as “conquerors”. That is, they find themselves constantly swinging between emotions: superiority or subjugation, victims or victors. The very situation of equality, of balance, is painful.
When pronouncing the word “balance”, something permanent, frozen, appears in our imagination. To be sure, in human societies, balance is a constant movement, the creation of a plethora of human relationships. But this movement is a product of the modern era, and for pre-modern societies, it is a challenge.
And this is why, when we speak of the “trauma” of the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, which apparently gave rise to the People’s Republics and Russia’s invasion, aren’t we really talking about the traumatic loss of status? Have we forgotten that, under Yanukovych (and right up until the uprising on Maidan), people from Donetsk were appointed to the most important positions in the country precisely on the basis of clan membership? Have we forgotten that the power ministries were controlled by natives of a single region? As soon as that hegemony was lost, the 20 per cent came out in solidarity with the elites, taking on the status of victims without any transition. Rinat Akhmetov’s call (“Listen to the Donbas”) last year was not the voice of the subjugated. This was the cry of a feudal lord to a band of rebels: “Get back!” The whole ressentiment embedded in the phrase “Kyiv doesn’t listen to us” has the same provenance: in this instance, to speak is to command, and there is yet to be any equal dialogue. How can we listen to the Donbas when the loudest voices in the room belong to the elites, to the clans, to people who can set the agenda? How can we differentiate between the different voices? And not only the voices of those who, like an African clan, desire to identify themselves with “their own people” further up the ladder, rather than horizontally, the people going against the grain?
The danger of the Ukrainian situation lies in the fact that the mainland, which does not support the artificial republics, accepts this scheme and thus creates clans on a regional basis, rather than on the basis of values. We are dealing with a process of normative Othering (even if it is one of genuine compassion). But is this real respect? Or is this infantilization, a specific and covert form of alienation, just like that which Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls the “racism of low expectations?”
The West tends to respond to the social failures of Muslim immigrants with what can be called the racism of low expectations. This western attitude is based on the idea that people of colour must be exempted from “normal” standards of behaviour. A well-meaning class of people holds that minorities should not share all of the obligations that the majority must meet. In liberal, democratic countries the majorities are white and most minorities are people of colour. But most Muslims, like all other immigrants, migrate to the West not to be locked up in a minority, but to search for a better life, one that is safe and predictable and that holds the prospect of a better income and the opportunity of a good quality education for their children. To achieve this, I believe, they must learn to give up some of their habits, dogmas, and practices and acquire new ones. […] What comes packaged in a compassionate language of acceptance is really a cruel form of racism. And it is all the more cruel because it is expressed in sugary words of virtue.
If we are going to truly “listen to the Donbas”, then we have to ask ourselves: are we ready for horizontal relations, are we ready to apply those same expectations and standards to the Donbas which we apply to, say, Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, Odessa or Chernihiv? And if not, then why? Do we understand that indulging and constructing “uniqueness” imprisons our fellow countrymen in a “special” status – whether they’ve been forced to flee their homes, or remained on the territories of the People’s Republics, whether they support the DNR or remain loyal to Ukraine?
We have to realize that our “mainland” perception of the people who live in the People’s Republics – whether it includes compassion, irritation or something else – is a reflection, albeit rough, of the West’s attitude to Ukraine under Yanukovych. From the outside, it would look as if Ukrainians wanted Yanukovych and that the usurpation of power from 2010 onwards took place with the silent consent of the majority. But there was an active minority, thanks to which, at the end of 2013, Ukraine managed to avoid a countrywide DNR, or “Malorossiya 2.0.”
Let’s imagine that western governments, research centres and press listened not to the despairing civic opposition, but to, say, Hanna German, the seemingly “thoughtful” representative of the “Family?” The opposition’s statements may have, on occasion, sounded too radical in the West, but they saw the tension coming in relations with Yanukovych – a headache nobody needed. Perhaps we should be more courageous and listen more closely to the “radical” voices – the voices of those who say unpleasant things about their neighbours and family?
If we are really searching for answers to the question of who has the right to be the voice of “problematic” communities, then we should draw on experience. In the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, this is the experience of growing up – beginning with a traditional clan-style upbringing by her grandmother and the influence of her dissident father (a member of the Somali elite before the 1969 coup, educated at Columbia, and eventually one of the leaders of the opposition, particularly in exile); the passing on of her family’s nomadic experience and the trauma of circumcision at the age of five (this moment is a challenge even for readers with strong nerves); life and study in a religious school in Saudi Arabia at the end of the 1970s (the oil boom and the medieval customs of public stoning and beheading in the background); the experience of radical Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the constant violence in her family, the refugee camps on the border of Somalia and Kenya; and the lives of her brother and sister (her brother’s talent was squandered by his clan upbringing as the heir to the leader of the nation), and mother and grandmother, and the thousands of stories of refugees in the Netherlands which she translated for social services and the police. It is this experience (in particular, the experience of fanaticism) which legitimizes her right to speak in the name of the community, but most importantly the right to condemn the customs and practices of that community. Having tried both options (life in a pre-modern community and the super-modern), Ayaan makes a choice in favour of the latter. Criticism coming from outside this community would have made quite different reading.
But can this criticism really be “from without?” This is a key question, one which will define the parameters of discussion – whether you’re discussing the DNR or Charlie Hebdo, or any other collision of modern and pre-modern worlds. Do western countries have a monopoly on modernization and what we call the “values of the Enlightenment?”
Together with the hypocritical ideologies of modern dictatorships, the West’s indulgence has created a toxic convention: certain communities are, it seems, more prone to building free democratic societies than others as a result of their “cultural specificities”, and others are better off staying in the grey zone of “sovereign democracy” and “state capitalism”. But insofar as “all cultures are equal”, then these “cultural specificities” – whether it is religion, tradition or cults and heroes – are sacred and unchangeable, and any attempt to criticize or deconstruct them transforms an unfortunate individual into a colonizer, a western imperialist, a rightwing conservative and even a fascist. The discussions surrounding Charlie Hebdo are focused on the last link in this convention and, for me, this is where they come unstuck.
The notion that some “cultures” fit into modernity, while others should preserve their “authenticity”, is far more significant. But then we would have to agree that all communities should develop according to the “western ” model of transition from barbarity to civilization, that the success of western countries can be repeated and reproduced and that the anachronisms of others are a result not of faults yet to be exorcized, but rather the accumulation of many impediments which can be overcome. In other words, civilization is not a western phenomenon, and barbarity belongs neither to the East nor to the South. Civilizational boom or bust are universal scenarios for any human community, big or small. The West was able to implement the model of a free society quicker than the rest, but speed itself is not inherently “western”. In the end, over the last 50 years, the experience of Libya, Afghanistan and even Iran (regardless of the history of Nazism, Fascism and Communism on the European continent), shows not only how quickly a country can rise from defeat to success, but that the return journey can be even quicker. We can despair at the public execution in Iran, but not forget that some 300 years ago, Europeans went with their children to watch public executions in cities which today are considered strongholds of civilization. They needed time, but Europeans have come to choose more sober ways to spend their free time – though this did not save them from descending into barbarity in the twentieth century. The West has the symbolic value of the “West” because it achieved its desired aim, and not because it was more deserving of it.
The instrument which gave the West the opportunity to gain this advantage of speed is precisely the ability to constantly criticize, evaluate, mock, to overturn authority and re-examine norms – precisely the instrument which liberated Europe from the dictatorship of religion and absolutism, which guarantees social dynamism and makes society open. Ayaan Hirsi Ali looks to the figure of Voltaire as a symbol of that ability and, beginning with her first public appearances back in Amsterdam, tries to communicate this message in everything she does:
Most people seemed to agree with the speakers who had criticized the West in some aspect or another. I decided to speak. I raised my hand for the microphone and said, “Look at how many Voltaires the West has. Don’t deny us the right to have our Voltaire, too. Look at our women, and look at our countries. Look at how we are all fleeing and asking for refuge here, and how many people are now flying planes into buildings in their madness. Allow us a Voltaire, because we are truly living in the Dark Ages”.
If we really wish to respect the Other, its “specificity”, then what prevents us from respecting the Other’s similarity, its derivative nature, its banal desires. What is stopping us from having our own Voltaire?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote Nomad after moving to the United States. The book is, to a certain extent, a generalization of her experience rather than a story. One of the chapters is a letter to her Grandmother, who taught Ayaan Hirsi Ali how to survive in the desert, how to defend herself from hyenas, how to start a fire and know her family tree off by heart. The very same woman who, against her father’s will, circumcised her and her sister, who beat her, who took her to shamans to cure her (as a result of which Ayaan still has scars from the burns). “I do not wail your passing” is one of the refrains of this letter.
Gone with you are the rigid rules of custom. “Repeat after me: I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, who is the son of Magan, who is the son of Guleid…” Gone with you is that bloodline, for better or for worse, and gone is the idiot tradition that meant you cherished mares and she-camels more than your daughters and granddaughters.
This letter is a posthumous attempt to explain to her grandmother, who kept goats in the bathroom of their home in Nairobi, that she still has not completely reconciled herself with the modern world, with life in the city. It is an attempt to explain how the western world is organized and why it is better. No, it is not different, as it would be declared in accordance with the modern norms of that self-same western world, nor alternative, but just better. A world in which there is less suffering, violence, degradation, arbitrary rule. In essence, the letter is a declaration of departure from the archaic world – with pain, but without sorrow.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story about the fate of her grandmother, mother and sister resonates in texts about a huge country on another continent – the Soviet Union. Liudmila Petranovskaya, a Russian psychologist, has explained the inherited problems of post-Soviet societies as follows: the women who survived Stalinist repression, famine, war and its aftermath (often as widows) turned into “iron ladies.” In order to survive, they had to suppress their pain and expunge a certain part of their emotional spectrum, which inevitably had an effect on their children. Deprived of love, their children became pathologically attached to their own children (particularly in mother-daughter relationships) and, like children themselves, demanded their love and complete devotion in return. In turn, these children grew up in a relatively safe world of “Soviet stability” and, as the Soviet Union collapsed around them, found themselves unprepared for the challenges of modernization. Under the influence of demanding mothers, these children created dysfunctional families which gave birth to the next generation – the children of Perestroika, hyper-responsible “fathers to their own fathers” who faced up to the demands of the Soviet collapse and turbulent 1990s. The “hyper-responsible” are, in effect, the first post-Soviet generation, shaped by globalization, and which parted so decisively with paternalism – these are the agents of change.
In Ukraine, it is these people who are now going into politics. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s emotional portrait of her grandmother recalls Petranovskaya’s portrait of the “iron lady”. Two generations younger, Ayaan’s grandmother lived on a different continent and, as the author of Infidel reports, in the “Iron Age.” Somalian nomads had no written culture, lived in clans, the men had several wives who obeyed them and carried the burden not only of home-making, but the responsibility for the family and its “assets”. In practical terms, British and Italian colonizers changed nothing in their lives.
Infidel and Nomad are full of descriptions of domestic violence, constant arguments, a lack of opportunity to control one’s own emotions, and helplessness when faced with any challenge which required individual responsibility. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her journey to personal responsibility, finding the strength to control herself and fend off her close family, as well as many of her countrymen at home and in emigration. We find similar scenes in countless Soviet and post-Soviet texts, films and even theatrical productions, just on a different stage – an eternal communal kitchen, which is filled with a never-ending cry of despair. It is this cry we hear when we talk of an “affront” or “insult” to “religious feelings.” Here, “insult” is the key term, and can be followed by religion, language, identity, even the sacrifices made in the Second World War (dedy voevali). This is a cry of fear for one’s own “I” when its external support disappears – a cry in search of internal support.
The problem of modernization lies in the family. It is impossible to modernize a society without breaking the old ties, without departing from the old visions and conventions. This is why the line of division in Ukraine runs through the family, through generations, rather than regions. Ideologies and religions are not a cause, but a life-jacket, and people who aren’t ready to jump, who resist change, scramble for it. Fundamental here is not this or that marker, Islam or the “Russian world”, but an internal need to channel one’s anger, to give it form, to verbalize it, to transform emotion into discourse. The myth of all-powerful propaganda and the media’s boundless ability to manipulate people appears convincing in the cases of Donetsk and Luhansk, but does not stand up to scrutiny. The endless criticism of the barons and corporations, howling reportage pieces and investigations, from the minor to the international scandals a la Abu Ghraib in the West, have destroyed the reputations of real politicians and governments, but not the confidence in social contracts and state institutions as such.
The issue is not in the constant flow of certain kinds of information (and even disinformation), but the fact that people are receptive to it. To be sure, lies and the language of hate present a serious challenge, but the stacks of anti-Semitic literature do not force a reasonable and educated person to become an anti-Semite. Different people perceive the language of hate and inhumane ideology differently. People who cannot give counsel to their emotions and instincts fall into these ideologies, find shelter and comfort from everyday frustration. Just as trained muscles can protect a person from injury when they fall, disciplined thinking (for which we should thank, first and foremost, the philosophers of antiquity and the Enlightenment) protects against barbarity and fanaticism.
Archaic societies and despotic regimes do not provide this internal protection. Instead, they provide external protection – if only through religious fundamentalism or totalitarian ideology: the whole mass of strict rules and norms (and the unavoidable punishment for deviating from them) simplifies the process of self-control. Losing this support and finding oneself in the modern world, which demands responsibility for emotions and instincts, the archaic individual (and Soviet citizens, as well as certain parts of post-Soviet societies, were and are archaic individuals) either finds the inner strength to jump into the modern world or searches feverishly for support from without.
This dynamic explains the sudden religious fervour of post-Soviet countries, as well as the incredible success (beginning in Perestroika) of charismatic churches, totalitarian sects, fortune tellers, psychics, astrologists. It is this which explains why migrants are so susceptible to Islam in western Europe, particularly those who weren’t overly religious at home. It is this mechanism which is used to masterful effect by Russian television, described so brilliantly by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, as he dives into the world of Russian media and propaganda as a television producer in Moscow. One of the people featured in Pomerantsev’s book, Ruslana Korshunova, killed herself after coming into conflict with “Rose of the World,” a totalitarian sect. In intricate detail, Pomerantsev describes how the sect operates, and its instruments of influencing people. Such a detailed description is initially surprising in a book that features Vladislav Surkov, ideologue of the Putin regime, but it becomes apparent that “Rose of the World” works exactly like the Kremlin’s televisual empire, playing on the same fears and desires, and the “trainers” of the sect differ little from Russia’s leading TV personalities.
The safety, stability and freedom enjoyed by the “Golden billion” (a Russophone term for wealthy people in the West) have their price. And this price is the painful, often bloody separation from the customs of archaic society, children and parents, relatives, family and friends. In Ukraine, this process is only just beginning. Ukrainians are only now beginning to realize that the streams of hate which pour from Russian television, which are foisted on them by television serials and shows (where everyone is constantly shouting and arguing), do not create, but amplify existing habits. They ramp up their emotional amplitude and resonate with anachronistic practices of interaction rooted in tradition. It is impossible to jump into the global world and leave the tiny island of the Soviet Union behind for “home consumption.” The civilizational jump is incompatible with clan ethics – whether we’re talking about Ukraine or Somalia. And the fact that Somalia has already become a synonym for “failed state” should make us more decisive. In the end, we are all nomads, merely traveling at different speeds.