Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads: Jason Burke

About Jason Burke

Jason Burke is a leading British journalist and the author of several non-fiction books. A foreign correspondent for the Guardian he is currently based in Johannesburg, having previously been based in New Delhi as the same paper’s South Asia correspondent. In his years of journalism, Burke has addressed a wide range of topics including politics, social affairs and culture in Europe and the Middle East. He has written extensively on Islamic extremism and, among numerous other conflicts, has covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jason Burke on Amazon:
The Guardian:

Q1: Is there some essential difference between West and East as some would maintain?

It depends how you define East and West! and which direction you are looking in and from where! No, i think not, in short. I’ve spent a lot of time in my work reporting how people form communities and then sometimes fight and sometimes enrich each other’s lives. And those communities are formed in a multitude of different ways, and involve people who define themselves in multiple ways too. And i’ve very rarely heard anyone talk about themselves in terms of being “Eastern” or “Western” as such.

I think we all instinctively know that these are very artificial constructs that don’t really make sense in a tangible way. I mean what would East or West actually signify? some kind of broad empiricism against mysticism, reason vs spirituality, the secular vs the religious, the rich vs the poor? Most of these divisions are pretty obviously derived from 18th or 19th century western ways of seeing the east, and certainly not vice versa. and how do other factors – gender, education, economic situation, age,  values of one sort or another – fit into the binary east-west schema? they don’t clearly which is why u think its nonsense.

If there was one thing that I suppose might be a common distinction, it might be that there are two very different historic narratives about western dominance over the last 500 years. In the places that did the colonising, empire is seen, broadly, as a natural expansion which at worst was unfortunate but inevitable and had some ill effects on the ground which may have been mitigated by some benefits to the subject people. Among the colonised, it is seen as  catastrophe resulting from the naked greed and brutal aggression of Europeans. But even that has to be nuanced too, with different views on every side.

So, basically, whether right wing clash of civilisations stuff or starry-eyed modern day new age rubbish about mystic Indians, no.

Q2:  We hear less about Al Qaeda these days- have they been eclipsed for good or simply transformed?

Both. In  2011, once Osama bin Laden was dead, the new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, basically abandoned the spectacular propaganda by deed strategy pursued over the previous 15 odd years and the attack on the ‘far enemy’, i.e. the US and went for a new strategy that involves a slow build up of support and acquiescence from communities on the ground in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, the Maghreb and the Sahel. This was reinforced by the need to distinguish the organisation from ISIS, which took a very different approach, looking to use direct or threatened or broadcast violence to enforce its authority. Inevitably, ISIS has got most of the attention in recent years because it set up its very ambitious caliphate – which was opposed by the al-Qaeda leaders – and because it inspired people and sent people to commit attacks in the west. But there has long been a number of serious scholars of radical Islamic militancy who see al-Qaeda as the stronger in the long term, the tortoise to the ISIS hare. Certainly the group has been around for more than 30 years now which is a long time in terrorist terms.

Q3: What was a surprising thing you learned while living in Delhi?

That a human being can actually survive the air at Diwali. And that the sound of the horns of the  night trains pulling out of Nizamuddin station still moves me 20 years after I first heard them and that there is nothing quite like a bihari mango in mid-summer (except perhaps a bahawalpur alfonso)

Q4: What is a main misconception Europeans and Americans have about Islamic extremism?

One of the more encouraging things of recent years is that people in the west are much much better informed now about Islamic extremism than they were, which means a lot of the earlier misconceptions have gone. So no one sensible really now thinks that everything is controlled by bin Laden or Abu Bakr a’Baghdadi sitting in a cave somewhere, nor that a few judicious air strikes and a special forces raid or two will end the problem. Probably the biggest obstacle to understanding Islamic extremism remains the idea that it is somehow an activity is somehow extraordinary.

Actually, everything we know about violent Islamic extremism anyway is that it is as mundane as most other social activities. People become involved for the same reasons they become interested in all sorts of activities that are seen as extreme: cults, far out music scenes, even some sports, and so on. If your dad did it, if your peers at school are into it, if it answers a particular personal need at a particular time in your life, then it becomes attractive. People still seem to think violent extremists have been ‘brainwashed’ somehow, whether on the internet or in reality. Some are, but not very many. It’s a comforting thought that if we do away with the brainwashers the problem will disappear, but its misplaced.