In various places, I’ve heard and read the view expressed that trying to understand fundamentalists or terrorists is preposterous, as the very attempt at such understanding compromises Western values such as human rights, democracy, or freedom of speech.
What strikes me as peculiar about this view are two things: first, its impoverished conception of “understanding” that looks like yet another example for those weird remodelings of politics in the conceptual image of individual psychology that a thoroughly psychologized postmodernist politics has becomes so fond of and susceptible to. The second rather peculiar thing about this view is the type of stance that it embodies, which is so oddly and profoundly metaphysical that one becomes tempted to ask what the hell it has got to do in political discourse at all.
On understanding: the notion that something dear to oneself is compromised by an attempt at understanding another obviously derives from a notion of “understanding” which involves identification and empathy. Understanding fundamentalists becomes then inseparable from feeling with, identifying with, and approving fundamentalist views. Need I really spell out that this notion of “understanding” is impoverished even when it comes to accounting for how individual human beings understand one another, let alone when it comes to notions of understanding which are supposed to underlie historical analysis, rational explanation of action as well as serve as the basis for developing political strategies? There’s a slightly different version of this view, arguing that terrorism is madness and that trying to understand terrorism, well, simply makes one mad. Again, the notion of “understanding” is impoverished and besides the point: terrorism has undoubtedly social and political causes, for otherwise, it would not be possible to consistently detect it in specific social and political circumstances. Understanding those causes is rather unlikely to induce madness, I would say; on the contrary, it is likely to fuel political action which will make terrorist acts less likely.
On the stance behind this view: the viewpoint that this or that compromises Western values like human rights and so forth, which are really universal values and therefore to be followed by all human beings, usually encounters two forms of scepticism: scepticism as to whether these values are really universal or whether this is not yet another case where Western particularism sails under the disguise of self-acclaimed universalism, and scepticism as to whether the reality in Western societies lives up to the demands of these values.
Leaving the first form of scepticism aside – can’t have everything in one entry -, the second form just misses the point. For the voice of enlightenment behind this view typically places itself at the pinnacle of perfection, stubbornly insisting that values are absolute and universal, and have to be applied universally regardless of social and political context. It doesn’t care about whether these values are realized anywhere, but insists that they should be. For instance, it takes objection against the presence of veiled Muslim girls in schools. When you retort that, well, there are still crucifixes in Austrian classrooms, so it would be a bit unfair to grant the presence of one type of religious symbol and prohibit another (besides, you’d want to add that the conception of veils as religious symbols in itself is a bit dubious), then the voice of enlightenment typically shrugs: well, then we have to prohibit all religious symbols, and that’s that; it keeps shrugging when you then ask as to what should be done until this sublime state of perfection is reached.
That’s why it’s so difficult to argue with the voice of enlightenment, or, in fact, to take it seriously in political discussions at all: met with an objection, it usually just shrugs and then reiterates its dogmatic statement of this or that universal value. And when asked how this or that value is to be implemented in actual social and political life, the voic e of enlightenment just runs off and orders another pint of camomille tea, thank you very much.
The stance that actual political measures are to be taken from the viewpoint of an unrealized perfection might sound a tempting proposal – after all, it involves much less work than having to assess specific contexts and circumstances on a case by case basis -, but it generally doesn’t work, and, to tell the truth, is hardly ever really done. The question here is not the existence of universal values, or their character, but their relevance for political decisions, for devising political strategy.
In reality, it seems that rational choices are made on the basis of the highly imperfect environs that we happen to inhabit, including dirty socks and swarms of fruit-flies in kitchens. Making such choices also involves weighing the probability of success that courses of actions have, and not just discussing the tenability of the principles that underlie them. And discussing the feasibility of political measures and strategies further involves consideration of context – social, political, historical, and also psychological, though hardly within the narrow framework of individual psychology. This inevitably involves making attempts at understanding.
Denying that understanding is necessary as a fundament of reasonable political action in itself amounts to making a decision for a particular form of politics: the voice of enlightenment then turns into the arrogant snarl of a bizarrely distorted form of pseudo-reason, which impatiently insists that these backward people had better speed up their modernization, and the rest will follow.