Thirty years ago, Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his highly influential book "Orientalism" in which he accused Middle Eastern studies of being nothing more than a tool in the hands of imperialism. Middle Eastern scholars suffer from essentialism, he claimed. They suffer from the belief that the East (and/or Islam and/or Arabism) has had one fixed cultural essence throughout history, different from that of Western culture - an emotional and irrational essence, foreign to the scientific approach, based on patriarchal oppression and characterized by xenophobia.
Many Middle Eastern scholars were forced to admit among themselves that even if Said had exaggerated, their discipline has a tendency toward generalization regarding the East's characteristics. Bernard Lewis, who was a main target of Said's attacks, told me in 1983 with an ironic smile: "Something good came of it after all; because of Said we have all become more cautious."
Have we really? From time to time the old essentialist approach rears its head. In the wake of Danny Ayalon's meeting with the Turkish ambassador, Middle Eastern scholars tried to explain the deputy foreign minister's behavior in terms of "the Eastern mentality." One of them claimed on a news site that Muslim culture is dominated by what he calls the "principle of height." Islam always wants to be in a position of superiority, both metaphorically and practically, so placing a Muslim in an inferior position, certainly in public, is a severe blow to him. In fact, Muslim law prohibits the building of churches and synagogues higher than the surrounding mosques, whereas the minarets that are now cropping up in Europe dwarf the towers of nearby churches. He also used as proof the skyscrapers in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. That Middle Eastern scholar meant well - he wanted to calm rather than incite. He criticized Ayalon for not being aware of Muslim sensitivities to matters of height - anyone who humiliates a Muslim representative in this vein only exacerbates the conflict between Turkey and Israel over the past year or so.
The intention is good, but the argument is shaky. The horizons of Italian cities are full of bell towers; once again, the "principle of height," in a Catholic country rather than a Muslim one. Why? Because the Islamic countries and Italy share the same medieval past, which is expressed in what is called "hierarchical tolerance." In other words, the culture (or religion, or civilization) under discussion is the epitome of perfection, superior to all its predecessors and contemporaries, whether because of a divine mission or its material achievements. Those who say this admit that in addition to their culture there are other cultures that may be inferior but share part of the divine heritage and are entitled to a certain physical and spiritual existence.
The first signs of modern tolerance appeared in the West only in the 17th century, with the writings of Baruch Spinoza and John Locke. These philosophers developed the idea of a more egalitarian, skeptical and relativist tolerance; an idea based on the assumption that all human beings are prone to error, so there must be defects and shortcomings in every belief system. There is no monopoly on the truth. Therefore we must be tolerant toward one another and enable freedom of expression, worship and association.
These were the first signs. The process of accepting these ideas in the West was long and painful, lasting more than 300 years. It reached Eastern Europe only in 1989.
That means that the West is not tolerant and rational in its essence, but rather a dynamic phenomenon. The same is true of the Muslim "East." But in the world of Islam the process of development toward modern tolerance is slower, more tortuous and includes regressions to the medieval version; for example, the appearance of Islamic fanatics. Only certain sectors of the Muslim world are currently imbued with the values of modernity; in others we find a mixture of the old and new, or only the old. These sectors' strength differs from one Muslim country to another.
This is a complex situation further complicated by the fact that in Europe itself there has been a regression to values belonging to the past, and the "principle of height" is appearing there once again - but in a Western version. The Swiss held a referendum on minarets because according to its initiator, the billionaire industrialist and politician Christoph Blocher, "The minarets interrupt the Christian horizon," which he called "the trademark of our culture." Blocher did not mention that in Switzerland only four minarets have been built. The party of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France is now trying to ride the ugly Swiss wave. "The tangible danger to French secularism," according to Le Pen, is reflected in the construction of minarets. How many minarets have been built in France? Only 12.
It turns out that the meeting of the deputy minister and the Turkish ambassador is not a matter of Muslim mentality, but simply of humiliation - which according to any universal criterion is a blow to human dignity.