Saturday, March 03, 2007

How far we are from establishing western values

Rory Stewart's guest op-ed in the New York times [3/3/07] is exactly on target: "Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like “human rights,” “democracy” and “development” is unhelpful.
For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. “Warlords” retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops."

What Stewart is saying in fact applies to many of the other societies in which our government claims to have grand agendas. The talk about democracy and human right sells at home but in Afghanistan, and in most parts of the Middle East and Central Asia the number of people in those countries who can grasp the significance of such terms, much less embrace them, is minuscule.

American has a fundamental problem: historically this country has been so isolated from the rest of the world that it scarcely grasps what life is like for people elsewhere. The blunders of the last few years are surely to be reduplicated again and again if genuine interest in the rest of the world remains minimal in this country.

I keep wondering if this country will not have to go through the long slow decline of the Ottoman empire before it begins to focus on what the rest of the world is really like. The Ottomans at one time were so confident of themselves that they had little interest in the outside world, and insisted that all communications coming to them be in Ottoman Turkish. But as their fortunes began to wane they began to wonder why. As they lost in wars they began to want to know more. The little "translation office" that had once served the court grew into a powerful and prominent institution where many young Turks wanted to work. (Findley, Carter Vaughn. Ottoman Civil Officialdom: ASocialHistory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.)

When will this country begin to care about understanding peoples elsewhere in their own terms? What kind of price will it be forced to pay before its cultural isolation is overcome?

I fear we have many more fiascoes ahead of us like the one in Iraq and the one beginning to take form in Afghanistan.

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