The professor giving the course is a good scholar and a truly kind and thoughtful person. I will not cite her name here, as I am concerned with a general tendency, and not critiquing a particular individual. Nonetheless, in view of the tensions that have emerged in the last few years in the Islamic diaspora in Western Europe, efforts to erase this form of perceived otherness may be out of date. They seem idealistic, even Pollyannaish. There may have been a time when RodneyKingism (“can’t we all just get along?”) might have worked, but we seem way past that point now.
Of course scholars in the field cultivated by my colleague can point to several significant factors that indicate continuity rather than division. Both Islamic civilization and Christian civilization arose out of late-Roman society. That was a Mediterranean society, and so were, in the first instance, its two successors. Both honor such figures as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Both are “religions of the book.” Still, unless some healing occurs that we cannot now envision, we are on our way to a full Clash of Civilizations. This is something that hardly anyone wants, but such disasters have occurred in history before.
Let us look a little more closely at that fashionable expression “the Other.” It seems un-English, for one wants to ask “the other what?” That is to say, the word “other” is an adjective, and is normally followed by a noun: other people, other considerations, and so forth.
In fact the origin of the concept seems to be French. It stems specifically from the thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. The existentialist thinker oscillated between two versions. The first commendably held that we must confront and acknowledge our perception of otherness so as to overcome stereotypes and injustice. More pessimistically, though, Sartre sometimes suggested that perception of otherhood is an enduring, and perhaps inescapable part of the process of group-identity formation. “We” define ourselves as distinct from “them.”
Many years before, Arthur Rimbaud exploded the whole concept with his gnomic remark “je est un autre,” by which he meant to say, I think, that there are lodged even within ourselves alien elements, things that we shudder to contemplate. Indeed, as Buddhists sometimes assert, perhaps there is no such thing as the self, but only a loosely formed congeries of island-like elements that are always strange and never add up into a coherent whole. Be that as it may, such alternative views have gained no real leverage in our discourse. Most of those who accept the idea of the Other perceive it as the dialectical opponent of the observing subject. It is “out there.”
By a curious irony the twin of the concept of the Other is the idea of Diversity. If otherness involves stigmatizing and belittling others, then diversity is a healthy recognition of difference—or so we are told. At root, though, these two concepts come down to the same idea. Our common humanity is less important than our differences.
Returning to Islam, a very influential book about Western stereotypes of the Islamic world has been the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, first published almost thirty years ago. The many errors made by Said have now been corrected in a splendid book by Robert Irwin, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (Penguin, 2006). Yet even Irwin regards Islamic culture as something out there, not to be assimilated to our own norms.
It seems that we may expel the concept of the Other--with a pitchfork if necessary--but it keeps coming back.