According to one popular narrative, the 9/11 attacks inaugurated a new era of global conflict between two groups (perhaps even Civilizations) with radically opposed worldviews: one thoroughly globalized, envisioning a world community cooperating according to universal principles; the other narrowly tribalist, animated by a prerational affection for the local and parochial, committed to the superiority of its own group mores.
It has not, alas, always been clear which group is which.
It's a propitious time, then, for Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Drawing heavily on his last, more academic work, The Ethics of Identity, Appiah makes the case for a resurgent cosmopolitan ethos that navigates between the relativism of hardcore multiculturalism and the arrogant colonialism of some forms of liberal rationalism. Appiah's cosmopolitanism seeks to fuse a healthy pluralism with a commitment to the universal rights of the human community.
As important, Appiah pegs the radical Islamists who stand as the most obvious threat to that liberal cosmopolitan vision not as evidence of an anti-modern tribalist backlash—a view made popular by works such as Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld—but as "counter-cosmopolitans," not the leaders of a reaction against globalization and modernity, but offspring of those forces.
It has been observed that terrorists are often drawn from the most affluent, modern, and westernized classes of their societies. Appiah draws on the work of French sociologist Olivier Roy, whose insight-rich Globalized Islam explains that this is no coincidence, that Salafist doctrines, despite their veneration of the "pious ancestors" for which they're named, bear at their core the imprimatur of both modernity and globalization.
What is in many ways radical and dangerous about these new doctrines is that they reject the local and national accretions that the varied local Islams have picked up over the years. Islamists promote what they consider a purer, trans-national, trans-racial version of Islam that has been drained of folk traditions and local customs—an Islam that is not embedded in any local or national culture. In a perverse way, it is more individualist than traditional Islam. And while the popular moniker "Islamofascism" may be apt for the more traditional, nationalistic Islamists who seized power in Iran, Roy argues that the neo-fundamentalists' "quest for a strict implementation of sharia with no concession to man-made law pushes them to reject the modern state in favour of a kind of 'libertarian' view of the state: the state is a lesser evil but is not the tool for implementing Islam."
Appiah's liberal cosmopolitanism provides an appealing counterpoint to the alluring idea of a unified Muslim ummah. It is more a metaculture than a comprehensive community, but it has enough of a whiff of the transcendent to command allegiance as an ideal.
Both proponents and opponents of the war on terror have botched this possibility. While President Bush has actually been admirably insistent that democracy and human rights are "universal" rather than specifically "American" values, the rhetoric (and, on television, imagery) of much domestic advocacy has eschewed such nice distinctions. One thoroughly universalist credo signed by a number of prominent American scholars was issued under the aegis of the unhelpfully named Institute for American Values. Critics of America's approach to that war, meanwhile, feel obligated to wed their objections to protestations of superior (or, in more defensive moods, less than faulty) patriotism—protestations that ring oddly coming from people who, one suspects, never saw what was supposed to be so terribly virtuous about patriotism in the first place.
The late philosopher Robert Nozick once quipped that there was something faintly paradoxical about Timothy Leary's professed desire to be the "holiest" man alive. A genuine American patriotism is a similar sort of hot ice. Not, of course, because Americans can't indulge in familiar affection for place, history, and song, but because the content of those symbols points so resolutely away from the local and parochial. What we share as Americans, as opposed to as Manhattanites or Angelenos or Witchitans, are principles that trumpet our community with the rest of humanity.
Liberal universalism is, for instance, a running theme in our founding documents. The introduction to Thomas Paine's Common Sense reminds readers that "The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested." The Declaration of Independence asserts equality not merely among Americans but for "all men," and purports not merely to justify the necessity "for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another," but to lay out universally valid (if highly general) principles of both legitimate government and resistance to unjust rule.
Our own historical narrative, too, is most often told as an object illustration of universal principles. The wars that are most definitive of the American identity—the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II—gain their purchase not just through their excessive bloodiness but through their fit with an American self-conception that makes universal human liberty and equality lodestones. That which is most quintessentially American points beyond America; the most authentically American patriotism, then, would be the abjuration of patriotism.
Still, we too often insist on branding the war on terror with an American flag, reinforcing the portrait of a conflict between the ummah and one insular tribe, rather than an alternative global community. (There are some heartening exceptions: President Bush eschewed national if not religious parochialism when he insisted in his 2003 State of the Union address that "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity.")
In short, we needlessly encumber values whose very virtue is their "thinness": The strength of liberal values such as freedom of speech or religious toleration is that they gain support from so many (often contradictory) sources. I may value free speech out of regard for the dignity of an unfettered human mind; or because of a Millian faith in the power of unrestricted discourse to seek truth; or simply as a modus vivendi, because I lack confidence that I'll get to decide who's censored in a pluralist society. To bind those values too closely to any one people, or even to "the West," is to shrink and atrophy them.