Americans are once again surprised to learn that the rest of humanity doesn’t always share their hopes and dreams — or even their basic set of values. Hence, in the aftermath of the massacre in Afghanistan of 16 people in the hands of an American soldier, some pundits have been trying to resolve what they consider to be a paradox of sorts.
While the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. government employees in Afghanistan last month triggered violent protests outside NATO that took at least 29 lives, the intentional mass murder of Afghan civilians, including nine children in Kandahar on March 11, have led to a few mostly peaceful anti-American demonstrations.
That most Afghans seemed to have supported the February 2006 decision by a judge to execute an Afghan aid worker for converting to Christianity or that many Pakistanis refused to condemn the assassination of leading politician Salman Taseer by his own security guard who disagreed with Mr Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, are two other examples of incidents that have dramatised the wide gap between what we tend to regard as the American secular tradition and the continuing powerful role that religion tends to play in the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis and other people who, on paper at least, are considered to be America’s allies in the war against terrorism.
Indeed, it is difficult for Americans to understand that the so-called Enlightenment Project of the 18th Century — with its rejection of the received truth of religion and faith, of church and traditional authorities and its emphasis on individual rights and the liberating power of reason — which sparked a major philosophical and political revolution in the West and provided the ideological foundations for the establishment of the United States — has never become a unified and universal undertaking.
In fact, the growing power of the theocratic political right in the Republican Party, represented by presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his supporters among Christian Evangelists, conservative Catholics, and ultra-Orthodox Jews — who have expressed strong opposition to abortion, homosexual relations and even contraception — is a sign that even in the American Republic that enshrined the separation of religion and state in its Constitution, religious faith and traditions continue to play a major role in public life.
At best, even in the U.S., in the Anglosphere and in much of Europe, the Enlightenment Project and the philosophical traditions, political movements and social and economic systems it sparked (secularism, liberalism, democracy, capitalism, socialism) has been a work in progress, adapted in different ways by different national and cultural traditions.
Hence, advancing women’s rights, religious freedom, racial equality, political rights, and free markets has certainly not been uniform process in the West. For example, Catholic nations like Italy and Ireland had banned abortion and divorce and blacks suffered discrimination in the United States until the 1960s.
And the American version of democracy and capitalism have not been cloned in the rest of the West, including in Canada which, with its government-controlled health care program and European-like parliamentary system, is probably regarded as “socialist” by the leading Republican presidential candidates; while Canadians and west Europeans believe that the continuing American practice of executing convicts is not very, well, enlightened.
At the same tine, non-Western nations such as Japan, China or India have embraced some elements of the Enlightenment Project that seem to respond to their history and traditions as well as their current needs — while rejecting others. Call it Enlightenment a la carte.
Yet since the end of the Cold War, members of the American political and intellectual elites have been operating under the illusion that the rest of the world should and wants to be like them.
Promoting the free-market economic model aka Washington Consensus in the emerging markets; celebrating the so-called Color Revolutions in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet empire; and pressing the Freedom Agenda based on liberal-democratic values in Afghanistan, Iraq and the entire Middle East were all part of an American-led ideological crusade that seemed to recall in its ferocity — including through the use of military power — the global revolutionary campaigns launched by the Soviet Union not so long ago.
But the fact is that many non-Western societies are either not ready or are not interested — or both — in being “like us.” The notion that Afghanistan — a society where the family, the tribe, and religion dominate the lives of most individuals, recalling Europe on the eve of modern age — was going to transform itself into a Western nation thanks to American assistance and guidance helped create the high expectations that were never going to be fulfilled.
Moreover, Americans have deluded themselves into thinking that if non-Western nations adopt some of the instruments that were employed in the West as part of the process of democratisation and liberalisation — for example, free elections in Iraq and free markets in China — they are signalling their intentions to embrace the Enlightenment Project and become, indeed, exactly like us. But democracy and free elections in Iraq was seen by Iraqis as a means to empower the majority religious sect (Shi’ite) and dispossess the ruling minority group (Sunnis), a process that would be mirror imaged in Syria if and when free elections there would allow the majority Sunnis to come into power and repress the minority Alawaites who run the country now.
And, if anything, much of the celebrated Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is strengthening political Islamist groups whose commitment to respect the rights of women and religious minorities is questionable.
Similarly, pursuing the capitalist road to creating wealth and strengthening the economic base of the country is not a reflection of the commitment on the part of political elites in East Asia and elsewhere to the ideals of Adam Smith. It is, in many cases, part of a national economic strategy that helps China and other countries to compete more effectively with the US.
It is true that free markets and free elections can help create the foundations of a middle class whose members challenge the old ruling elites. But as events in Russia demonstrate, that process can be slow and uneven, or like in the case of Turkey, it could even set back secularisation and other forms of Western-style liberalization.
Americans are free to celebrate, cherish and preserve their values of democracy and liberalism that have helped attract millions of immigrants to their country and make their nation economically prosperous and politically stable.
But they should recognize that the most effective way to spread their ideals worldwide is not by forcing them on other nations, but by perfecting their own political and economic model and making it more attractive to other nations.
This article originally appeared in The Business Times.