I’ve mentioned before that a few years ago, I took train from Leeds to China. It was a life-changing experience for many reasons, not least being the number of challenges to assumptions and perceptions I had held. I kept journals throughout the trip, and on my return made a lot of art on this experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how it has underpinned much of my work ever since.
So I was delighted to get the opportunity recently to revisit some of the work for a new book later this year. I have spent the last few weeks immersed in memories and notes and imagery, but then in one of those “synchronistic” experiences beloved of The Artist’s Way, a month ago I picked up and began to read Edward Said‘s magnificent Orientalism which has done a lot to formally explain why I found my trip such a mass of absurd and contradictory encounters. Despite never having studied the ‘Orient’ in any formal sense, I had clearly been influenced by Western culture’s framing of the Orient, and held a specifically Western set of assumptions and ideas. The absurdities and contradictions were only there because of this paradigm view.
Because of globalisation, it is very easy to gloss over difference, and even easier to believe that Western values and ideas are now the norm in most places. It is very hard to try and adopt the mindset of another culture, and generally very little real listening takes place between people.
I was intrigued therefore this week that of the three academic panelists on In Our Time discussing sharia law, only one, Mona Siddiqui, was a Muslim. Well, I think that was the case: I can’t be sure about the other two contributors, albeit with their impeccable academic credentials. In any event, all three had been primarily educated and are teaching in the west. Despite the erudite and balanced air of discussion, it set me wondering what sort of discussion on sharia law we were listening to? I wondered what difference it would have made if an academic immersed and educated in and practicing in middle east had been on the panel?
Maybe none at all. The three contributors clearly had extensive and wise knowledge of their subject, and I don’t wish to suggest they were looking at it solely through a western paradigm, but there is no way of knowing without testing the assumption.