Monday, December 17, 2007

The Clash of Civilizations Begins with Semantics

While I continue to draw upon the BBC as one of my more reliable sources of news, I do so knowing that, every now and then, I can detect a "culture-centric" streak in their reporting. My detection mechanism started buzzing this morning while listening to their report on the radio of the pardoning of the rape victim by the King of Saudi Arabia. Those who have been following this story know that, after having to deal with the trauma of rape, this woman was then sentenced by the Saudi justice system to 200 lashes and a prison term. Nevertheless, there was something in the BBC choice of language that did not register very well with me. Fortunately, I was able to find it in the lead paragraphs of the story on their Web site:

The Saudi king has pardoned a female rape victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes for being alone with a man raped in the same attack, reports say.

The "Qatif girl" case caused an international outcry with widespread criticism of the Saudi justice system.

There is was: that phrase "international outcry." While my personal ethic felt the King had made a "right and proper" decision, I could not but wonder just how "international" the outcry was in a world that is so large and diverse and has such a substantial population of devout Muslims. Was the BBC interpreting protests from the Western world as an "international outcry;" and, if so, did this put an undesirable bias on their report?

Fortunately, the BBC Web site is not subject to the temporal constraints of their top-of-the-hour radio news summaries. Thus, I was glad to see from further reading that I was not alone in raising these questions:

The BBC's Heba Saleh says the king's decision to pardon the woman victim is already arousing controversy with some contributors to conservative websites, who say he has breached the rules of religion in order to appease critics in the West.

The US had called the punishment "astonishing", although it refused to condemn the Saudi justice system.

Human rights groups had been calling on King Abdullah, who has a reputation as a pro-Western reformer, to change it.

The justice ministry recently rejected what it saw as "foreign interference" in the case and insisted the ruling was legal and that the woman had confessed to having an affair with her fellow rape victim.

In these brief paragraphs we find a deeper story that reminds us that Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations theory is still very much with us, even if no longer in the form adopted so rabidly by neoconservative ideologues. This is not to oppose a Western value system, which reacted with such revulsion to a justice system meting out harsh punishment to a rape victim; it is just to observe that when a Western text invokes the adjective "international" in addressing a serious moral question, it usually means "Western world." Huntington's point was that such uses of language can lead to confused communications between civilizations, which, in turn, can lead to more aggressive conflicts. So it is that we now see that the backlash to the King's decision is displaying as much passion as the initial reaction of those (Western) human rights groups.

From a literary point of view, this is a case with which even a Solomon would have struggled; and, alas, King Abdullah does not appear to have such Solomonic wisdom. On the other hand I suspect that he has built up a "core competence" in what Isaiah Berlin called "political judgement;" and I am willing to credit him with bringing the full weight of that competence to bear on the conflictual nature of the relations between the Western and Islamic civilizations (to keep things grounded in Huntington's terminology). Whatever the BBC may say or its listeners may believe, if the King is sincerely trying to act as a change agent, his "political judgement" is sharp enough to recognize that "change" need not necessarily be accepting Western values to such a degree that key Islamic values are sacrificed in the process.

Back when I was active in the debates over knowledge management, trying to tease out fundamental questions of what it should be and how it should be implemented, many of my colleagues liked to talk about the goal of "shared understanding." This usually meant agreement over such matters as how we see the world, how we collect data from the world, and how we interpret those data. However, "understanding" and "agreement" are not necessarily synonymous nouns; and, in my own effort to avoid the confusion of that synonymy, I tried to change my own language. Rather than echoing that phrase "shared understanding," I start to speak of "negotiated understanding." The point I tried to make was that we could still strive to agree about how to act, even if we disagreed passionately over what things mean. In Kantian terms our actions are grounded in "pure reason," "practical reason," and "judgment;" and, particularly when we are in critical decision-making situations, we cannot afford to short-change any of those foundations.

Relations between the Western and Islamic civilizations are in just such a critical situation. We see it in the Western language of our would-be Presidential candidates; and today we saw it in a BBC News "headline" story. One of the reasons why I feel it is important to monitor Al Jazeera English is that it provides at least some opportunity to sample the language from the Islamic side. I just hope that influential figures like King Abdullah appreciate this difference between "shared understanding" and "negotiated understanding" and have both the power and the skill to exercise a "political judgement" that can move us towards a world in which Western and Islamic civilizations no longer feel obliged to clash.

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