If, as Talal Asad reminds us (2003:169), Islam is the primary alter of Europe, then “Muslim” is the site of that primary alterity. Alterity is the meeting place of two opposites, not just one. It is where the Other’s signal quality – whether irrationality or backwardness or fundamentalism or religion – gives rise to the very quality of the Other’s Other (that is Europe). The “I” and “us” and “we” of Europe, and of Euro-American provenance, reflects into itself, by means of the Other, qualities – whether rationality or progress or enlightenment or secularism – that are essential to its identity (since the Hegelian master is constituted out of the slave’s recognition, in a dual movement). What I am saying is a re-articulation of the some of the ideas that have gone before us to take account of our present moment in history (as we know, a la Foucault, that every new historical period is configured by specific conditions of possibility that have continuities and discontinuities with the past). Euro-America cannot conceive of its central (imaginary) qualities without its Other. Euro-America (whose Other gives birth to these qualities from its hapless bosom) depends on its very existence – philosophically, ideologically, existentially – on its Other. Euro-America’s very identity is based on acts of Othering.
Now, to consider for a moment the history of this binarized approach to the world, it is rooted in the modern approach to knowledge and to the self. The modern self is derived from Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. When Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” which followed from his radical skepticism, he declared his own self as the source of all knowledge. This was in contrast to a premodern understanding of the self as being rooted in God as “the ground of Being,” whereby there was a fundamental inseparability of the known, the knower, and knowledge (Nasr 1989:49). Descartes marked the modern break of the object from the subject and the birth of the modern self. According to Heidegger “at the heart of [Western] modernity is the rise of an absolute subjectivity, such that the world appears to man as if it were ‘for’ him […] as picture” (Seth 2007:67) - that is, as an externalization.