Ethnocentrism – The Fatal Flaw in Modern World Politics?

Perhaps the most important concept I learned in college is that of ethnocentrism.

My first major was psychology, and my first year curriculum required me to take both Physical Anthropology and Cultural Anthropology. Physical Anthropology studied the development of human beings as a species, while Cultural Anthropology studied the development of human societies and cultures. Ethnocentrism popped up during the latter course, and essentially reflected the tendency of adventurers from one group to judge the actions of another society or culture within the framework of their own moral and ethical beliefs, rather than using those of the group being observed. Merriam-Webster Online defines the word, ethnocentric, as something that is characterized by or based on the attitude that one’s own group is superior.

The Western history of exploration is riddled with examples of this type of behavior. When missionaries first arrived in Hawai’i, they forced the bare-breasted Polynesian women (surprised to find they were being immodest) to cover themselves from top to bottom. Europeans arriving in the New World, and the first Americans to move west, viewed Native Americans as inferior primitives, which allowed them kill with impunity and snatch acre upon acre of land once under the dominion of these backward and uncultured savages – regardless of such advanced political notions as confederacy, found among the Six Nations on the upper East Coast. English dominion of India (now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and part of Nepal) is riddled with examples of British snobbery along the same lines as what was seen among America-bound Europeans – despite a couple of thousand years of extant Indian culture and the birthing of two major religions.

The Chinese and the Japanese have been guilty of this in the past, too. In fact, one of the major impediments to Japan making contact with Western people was their sense of superiority over the fair-skinned folks who rode the waves around the world – not to mention their ultimate exploitation of Chinese and Korean populations as they sought to expand their lands and acquire essential natural resources necessary to bolster that superiority.

Probably the most infamous examples of this type of behavior were the exploitation of Africans for slavery in the New World and Hitler’s politically manufactured Aryan superiority over the rest of the world – particularly the Jews.

Living in Saudi Arabia has raised the specter of ethnocentrism for me once again.

On the one hand, the West approaches relations with the Islamic world with an eye jaundiced by 1500 years, or so, of Christian religious domination. Even if we are non-Christians, we are culturally Judaeo-Christian. Our approach to business, our sense of right and wrong, our politics – are all governed by morals and ethics developed within a Judaeo-Christian framework. Perhaps most importantly, how we deal with the rest of the world is guided by a firm belief springing from our religious background that we are right from a moral and ethical standpoint. Because Christianity is an exclusive religion – that is, there is no other way to commune with God – we view any group who may not come from the Christian influenced world with great suspicion and as being inferior.

Conversely, the very affirmation (shahada) that Muslims make to become devotees of Allah, the First Pillar of the Faith, states: ʾašhadu ʾan lā ilāha illā-llāh, wa ʾašhadu ʾanna muḥammadan rasūlu-llāh (“I bear witness that there is no god except for God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”). This statement is so important in the Islamic world that it comprises the whole of the Saudi Arabian flag (representing the land of Islamic origin), and it is ubiquitously displayed in artistic calligraphy within the Kingdom and other Islamic nations. As such, Muslims view anyone who is not Muslim, who has not affirmed this central tenet of the Faith, as inferior and with suspicion equal to that which Christians view non-Christians.

I’ve spent the last couple of months studying Islam. I am by no means an expert on it (nor am I likely to convert). But, I have come to understand a couple of things, which I find of great importance. First, faith in Allah is daily life. Islam permeates the essence of living: how one deals with one’s family, how one deals with one’s society or nation, and how one deals with the rest of the world. Secondly, there is no real sense of Separation of Church & State. That Attaturk managed to create a lasting secular nation in Turkey is an attestation solely to that man’s charisma, vision, and ability to inspire his followers to cling to his beliefs. If one studies the history of the Islamic lands, one will not find another example of a government totally cleaved from the Islamic religion. Just as medieval monarchs in Europe justified their ascendancy as Divine Right, so do the Muslims believe that no nation arises lest by the Hand of God. Thus, there can be no Separation of Church & State.

Now, let’s backtrack a bit and take stock.

In today’s modern world, we find ourselves with a clash of Western ideals versus Islamic ideals – both politically and economically. The West, led by the United States and the influence of Judaeo-Christian ethics and morality finds itself clashing with much of the Islamic World, whether radicalized or mainstream. The West stands firm that its code of democracy, capitalism, and view of God is superior to that of the Islamic world’s tendency toward despots, authoritarian regimes, and unsophisticated economic prowess. The Islamic World looks at the West as debauched, greedy, and ego-centric in its paternalism.

The West believes it is superior to the Islamic world. The Islamic World believes it is superior to The West.

How is it possible to overcome such staunchly held views and move toward what is right for the World as a whole? This is the key issue with which our politicians and diplomats must deal over the next several years if we are ever going to arrive at a point of peaceful coexistence.

(NOTE: I highly recommend everyone read Crisis in Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, by Bernard Lewis, noted historian of the Middle East, if you’d like a very balanced look at how things got to where they are today. A brief volume, the book offers tremendous insight into the Islamic mindset without skewing it with a Western political and religious agenda, something wholly lacking in the education of most Westerners.)


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