"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cultural equivalence?

I attended a talk last night given by Senator David Norris to the Law Society here at UCC. He is a most articulate, humourous and charming fellow (not to mention well-dressed). I enjoyed listening to him. He is one of the few genuinely charismatic and unpredictable Irish politicians. His main topic was the civil partnership legislation he introduced in the Senate. However, as his wont, his speech (and his responses to questions) roamed considerably. Among some rather predictable remarks about Shannon, Iraq and so on (and an interesting anecdote about him verbally castigating Tariq Aziz in Baghdad), he made one rather curious remark. Question ended too soon for me to raise it the point with him. I am paraphrasing, but these were more or less his words: "Asked to choose between Islamic and Western cultures today, I confess I would find the choice a difficult one." He said this in the context of remarks about the decline in (religious) spirituality in Europe.

Now, admittedly, the question his remark raises is something of a loaded one. For one thing, in comparing Western and Islamic values we should be careful to distinguish between the values of citizens of Islamic countries and their governments. It would seem fair to say, however, that the oppression of women in much of the Middle East, to take one example, is culturally accepted. Women are usually second-class citizens. For example, honour killings are practiced in certain states; forced marriages are common; the disgraceful practice of female circumcision (i.e. genital mutilation) is widely practised; Sharia law allows women to be legally beaten. The example of Afghanistan suggests as much. Even though the Taliban regime is now defunct, women remain in largely the same position in that society. Admittedly a number have been elected to the new Afghan parliament, but theirs is a difficult (and sometimes dangerous) career. In many such countries homosexual relations are punishable by death. Senator Norris referred to the recent case where two Iranian teenagers were hung in public for the crime of having had a homosexual relationship. One might equally refer to the reactionary nature of the criminal punishments handed out in, for example, Saudi Arabia. For centuries Western culture has required that the punishment should fit the crime and that punishment should be at least roughly proportionate to the offence.

Western culture professes a belief in parliamentary democracy and pluralism. Can we justifiably say that this culture is superior to a culture that allows (or requires) some of the brutal treatment of women and others that Islamic cultures seem to sanction? I think we can. To quote Ibn Warraq, the (pseudonymous) Muslim dissident (I suppose he could be called a lapsed Muslim), who was educated in and now lives in the Western world:
"On the world stage, should we really apologize for Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe? Mozart, Beethoven and Bach? Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Breughel, Ter Borch? Galileo, Huygens, Copernicus, Newton and Darwin? Penicillin and computers? The Olympic Games and Football? Human rights and parliamentary democracy? The west is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty,political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom. It is the west that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience."
Of course, Western societies do not always act as those values might require. But we do believe in them, and have engrained them in our laws. I think that suggests that our culture is a more developed and a better one. I think it is legitimate to make such choices, in a way that would not be the case where race or religion is involved. I would be interested to hear readers' thoughts.

P.S. For the sake of balance, I should refer to "Trends and Flaws in Some Anti-Muslim Writing as Exemplified by Ibn Warraq" by Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D, which is linked to on the wikipedia profile of Ibn Warraq.


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