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Category Archives: Middle East Policy

Ross Douthat has a post on the New York mosque controversy, arguing that in order to improve dialogue between the West and Muslims, Westerners will need to reach out to thinking Muslims, who may often hold or defend positions that aren’t perfectly aligned with Western thought:

If such bridges are going to be built, much of the work will necessarily be done by figures who sometimes seem ambiguous and even two-faced, who have illiberal conversation partners and influences, and whose ideas are tailored to audiences in Cairo or Beirut or Baghdad as well as audiences in Europe and America. That’s how change — religious, ideological, whatever — nearly always works.

Sound familiar?  In my earlier analysis of Palestinian-Israeli tension–not identical, but similar to the issue Ross is writing about–I argued for building exactly these bridges.  Douthat wants to connect the Thinking Westerners in the middle left and Thinking Pan-Arabians in the middle right of my diagram.  Because Thinking Pan-Arabians are engaged in conversation with the hard-liners in the bottom right of the diagram, they’ll occasionally say things that make Westerners uncomfortable.

Douthat’s second point is that thinkers need to be actively critical of the opposing views their engaging:

Making these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned. Instead, dialogue needs to coexist with pressure.

Pressure is implicitly a part of dialogue.  But in order for intellectual pressure to exist, it needs to be both exerted and acknowledged.  For this to happen, both sides need to be willing to acknowledge strong arguments made by the other side.  If everyone instinctively ignores or deflects any argument coming from the opposite side (the hard-line approach), then there is no dialogue and there is no pressure.  If individuals evaluate arguments critically and objectively, both those arguments raised by the opposite side and those raised by their own side (the thinking approach), then the progress Douthat describes can occur.

Earlier, I proposed a different way to view the political spectrum, placing political ideology on a left-to-right axis and willingness to criticize one’s own side on a vertical axis. I argued that, in order to improve the discourse, and eventually improve policy, the conversation needs to shift from the bottom of the diagram to the middle and top, wherein individuals with opposing views actually engage each others’ ideas.

The same improvements to political discourse, I believe, could yield vastly improved policies and results in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This conflict can be resolved only when individuals on each side actively engage people with whom they disagree, and criticize their own side at appropriate times.

Consider the diagram below:

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