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The Creative Mission of Muslim Minorities in the West PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Feb 20, 2004 at 07:00 PM
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The Creative Mission of Muslim Minorities in the West
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Communal pluralism has been criticized for its tendency to revert to hierarchy. Rodinson termed this pattern of social organization as “hierarchical pluralism,” since, despite their relative autonomy, confessional minorities were subordinated to the dominant Muslim majority.[11] Rodinson argues that under the communal system that prevailed in the Ottoman Empire (a similar system flourished in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the central government was controlled by the Muslim majority. Yet he and other critics seem to for­get that even under modern democratic systems, state institutions are usually run by members of the dominant social group. In those countries where the population is differentiated along religious lines (i.e., India, Pakistan, or Israel) the dominant religious group tends to control state institutions. Like­wise, countries where ethnicity is the basis of social differentiation (i.e., Canada and England), the state is run for the most part by the ethnic majority. The difference between the communal and national systems, however, is that while in the latter the majority imposes its values and ideas on the rest of so­ciety, the former system protects its minorities from the majority’s ideological and moral encroachment.

The communal system that flourished under the Ottomans was not without its own problems. Yet the transformation from a multinational empire into a system of nation-states fashioned after the European model has proven to be disastrous. It is true that the Ottoman Empire’s problems had become so large by the beginning of the twentieth century that one could hardly begin to imagine how they could be solved without dissolving the empire. Never­theless, the creation of numerous nation-states out of the ruin of the Ottoman Empire did not solve the problems, but rather gave rise to a host of new problems that tended to exacerbate the ones already in existence.

In The Making of the Modem Near East, Yapp takes issue with the widely accepted description of the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe. He argues that contrary to the claims of many Western historians, the Ottoman Empire was engaged in a process of profound reform. Yapp con­tends that some Western sources tend to perpetuate this image of the Otto­mans for four reasons: 1) The Ottomans’ image has been constructed mainly on biased information obtained from the archives of their enemies; 2) The Ottomans’ history has been written by Christians who are either prejudiced against Islam or have little insight into the functioning of the Ottoman sys­tem; 3) Authors of books on the Middle East are committed to nationalism and liberalism and therefore have a negative view of multinational empires; and 4) Those Europeans primarily responsible for giving the final blow to the Ottoman Empire wanted to believe that it was doomed to extinction anyway.”[12]

It is beyond the scope of this paper to determine whether the Ottomans would have been able to reform their empire if the Allied forces would have left them alone (I tend to think that the Ottomans were already on an irrever­sible course towards dissolution).

The Modern State’s Predicament on a Global Scale

Modern political structures have a tendency to impose the social morality of the dominant political groups on the rest of society. The moralizing role of state was confined early on to national societies, but most recently a systematic and concerted efforts have been directed at imposing the social morality of modernist societies on the rest of the world. The moralizing role of the state is premised on two basic notions: The superiority of modern norms and the irrelevance of culture to human values and social institutions.

Two main positions can be clearly distinguished: absolute universalism and absolute relativism.  The former holds that culture is irrelevant to the moral validity of human rights, while the latter insists that culture is the only source of moral validity.[13]  Both positions fail to capture the full scope of the intercourse between culture and universal values, and both have been used to advance self-serving interests.

Absolute (or radical) cultural relativism cannot be theoretically maintained, given the fact that one can hardly find today a society that still maintains a homogenous culture.  Besides, considering the dynamic nature of culture no community can claim that the cultural tradition it espouses is either eternally static, or is not involved in a process of cultural exchange with outside cultures. Absolute cultural relativism is often advanced by authoritarian regimes to shut off external criticism of the excessive use of power to silencing internal opposition.

Absolute moral universalism, on the other hand, is oblivious to the fact that moral values and legal systems are the outcome of the rationalization of a specific charismatic vision or worldview.[14]  Practically, radical universalism is often used by hegemonic cultures for imposing their morality on anothers, as Donnelly explains:

The dangers of the moral imperialism implied by radical universalism hardly need be emphasized.  Radical universalism is subject to other moral objections as well.  Moral rules, including human rights, function within a moral community.  Radical universalism requires a rigid hierarchical ordering of the multiple moral communities to which individuals and groups belong.  In order to preserve complete universality for human rights, the radical universalist must give absolute priority to the demands of the cosmopolitan moral community over all other (“lower”) moral communities.[15]


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