Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Overcoming the Limits of Us-Them Politics

The expression "eastern religions" is frequently used to dismiss that which is seen as strange and less frequently to name that which is exotic and fascinating.  Many have seen the former Cold War and the present continuing struggle with a few Muslim-majority countries as a "clash of civilizations" between a Western and Eastern Bloc.  The famous work to deconstruct how Europe and the USA imagines the East is Edward Said's Orientalism.  Yet it is not just the Western hemisphere stereotyping the Eastern, as shown by various works Said inspired that study the Near Eastern and East Asian imaginaries about the Occident.  These important works have shown that stereotyping the other is not just an issue of individual ethics but has had powerful international consequences in the decision-making of national governments in foreign affairs.  A few positive responses to this tradition of othering can be found in 1) research that re-evaluates the religious and ethnic history of one's country in pluralistic terms, such as those that re-conceive American religious history as not new-comers that need to 'fit in' (e.g. Chinese, Levantine Muslims, South Asians) but can be themselves and still be (and have been) important contributors and participants of what it means to be American (Here I'm thinking of as examples GhaneaBassiri's recent History of Islam in America and Prema Kurien's A Place at the Multicultural Table on American Hinduism); 2) global studies that conceive of world histories as not a study of one's own civilization in competition with others but a history of humanity that critiques the important developments to human flourishing generated in the sundry parts of the planet that we can learn from and is part of our collective legacy - an approach I call "world citizen scholarship" (e.g. Marshall Hodgson's Rethinking World History and John Huddleston's Search for a Just Society); 3) philosophical reflections on how to enter into ethical and authentic relationships with the 'other' that is a true, egalitarian, meeting of souls in which one is neither extenguished in the other nor destroys the other in trying to make him/her as oneself (Martin Buber's I and Thou and Levinas's work set the standard of this genre).  Each of these approaches have much to offer if we are to overcome parochial, tribalistic, dichotomous thinking to universalistic and pluralistic kinds that empower us to learn from each other, fashion broader and deeper visions of life, construct national and global ethics and laws that guide and rule each nation and people without discrimination or exception, and cooperate to build societies with more equity, justice, freedom to realize human potentials, compassion, harmony, health, happiness, and holistic prosperity.

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