Monday, March 7, 2011

The Nicholas Kristof Controversy

Nicholas Kristof's most recent New York Times column, "Is Islam the Problem?", has stirred much controversy.  In the column, Kristof addresses the issue of, preeminently, capitalist development in the Middle East.  He begins with the position that the Arab world historically served as the seat of scientific and intellectual preeminence and has, since 1200, declined to a secondary position to the West.  Kristof's column is largely a summary of the research of Timur Kuran, who examines various Islamic rationale for the lack of capitalist economic development in the Middle East, much of which Kristof, using Kuran, debunks.

Kristof's critique then, for what it is, is a fairly mild one.  He concludes, quoting Kuran, that:
"Islam isn’t the problem and it isn’t the solution, it’s simply a religion."
Despite this, Kristof was taken to task on Twitter by Devika Bakshi.  Bakshi argues that much of Kristof's piece relies on "obscured assumptions and specious claims".  She notes that Kristof's piece advances Western-style economic development as a logical and desirable end-outcome without considering cultural differences.  She also accuses Kristof of unfairly asserting the Arab-world to be backwards, stating:

Easy to call another system backward when one assumes one's own as civilizational apex and measures all others else against it.

This may be a bridge too far, as the sole point at which Kristof uses the term 'backwardness' in his column is as follows:

Many Arabs blame outsiders for their backwardness, and cope by rejecting modernity and the outside world. It’s a disgrace that an area that once produced outstanding science and culture (giving us words like algebra) now is an educational underachiever, especially for girls.

Despite this, much of Bakshi's critique seems to ring true.  Kristof seems to be guilty of using Orientalist precedents about progress in history betraying a notably Western-centric orthodoxy.  Further, Kristof seems to have developed a complex whereby he expends many words in defense of Islam (as he did in this column and in his critical review of Ayan Hisri Ali's most recent book) while taking a jaundiced view of Arabs and Arab leadership as a whole (as he did, most famously in his attack on Yasser Arafat, linked here and previously critiqued by me here).

Kristof seems to lack genuine cultural understanding of Arab political or cultural positions in general. He does raise some important considerations: I agree with him that inequitable treatment of women - especially in an educational system- needs to be addressed, as despite various cultural justifications for it, it undermines self-determination and self-efficacy for women in many Arab countries.  

This does not necessarily mean that simply defending Islam from its critics represents anything of a more nuanced position. Kristof seems to have conflated not critiquing Islam with genuinely understanding Arab peoples, culture and motivations. It also ties his hands in adequately rending critique in cases where particular reads of Islam may be suspect.   His emphasis on using 'white savior' figures in his narratives further undermines his credibility (as per the rationale suggested in my "Troubles with Foreign Aid" series of posts).

In the end, it is almost as if Kristof has adopted the trappings of developing wider cultural understandings without actually doing so.


Devika said...

Kristof's is a "fairly mild" critique, certainly, and a well intentioned one too, yet rife with the residue of several stale assumptions about Arab/Islamic civilization.

Great, balanced analysis on your part.

Arkan said...

Hey Alex/Devika

I just posted a comments about your respective critiques on the Google Group for Ken's list. It would be great if you guys could stop by and expand on your position.

Devika said...

Long time since I've been received any updates from the Google group. Is there a new one? Can either of you send me a link? Thanks.