One of Andrew’s readers chided him for for describing Afghanistan as a place with an “an utterly alien culture, institutions, religion and polity,” and in this follow-up post Andrew qualified his claim. This reminded me of the Ralph Peters column that I mocked for its “thought experiment” that Pashtuns were for all intents and purposes from another planet. Without question, Peters’ “experiment” is far, far worse than Andrew’s overstatement and it is significantly different from it, because Peters’ column was not an attempt to acknowledge profound cultural and religious differences, but on the contrary was a very clear effort to essentialize those differences and claim that they were practically differences according to nature. The purpose of this was to vilify Pashtuns in the Taliban to such an extent that their humanity was in question, which is another way of claiming that anyone who does not happen to embrace our “values” or our power projection into their part of the world cannot really share our nature, because we “know” that our “values” are universal.
Recognizing vast, significant differences between cultures and religions is sane and necessary, and I can understand very well the impulse to push back against the fantasies of universalist theories that hold that these differences are superficial and unimportant, but it is vital that we understand the distinction between what Peters was arguing and what Andrew is arguing. Essentialist arguments betray their basic hostility to history and culture in that they are blind to the possibility of change over time within and across cultures, they cannot fully accept that culture is a human invention, and hold instead that cultural difference must be rooted in essence rather than in will, which in turn denies the importance of human agency in history and endorses one of a variety of determinisms. The equally fantastical universalist notion that traditional tribal societies from a very different religious tradition can and should be molded and remade into a post-modern managerial democracy, because such a regime represents the inevitable, single model of human progress, substitutes an ideologically-defined determinism for other kinds. These two fantasies, the essentialist and the universalist, seem to co-exist in complementary tension with one another in their shared antipathy to real respect for culture and historical contingency. Andrew was indulging neither fantasy, and Peters was to some extent indulging both.