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The Perils of Cultural Absolutism

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Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in their film Submission, depicted a naked female ‎with verses from the Koran painted on her body. They received death threats, but Van ‎Gogh refused to accept police protection. More wisely, Ali agreed; Van Gogh was ‎murdered and Ali lives under 24-hour guard. ‎

In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, she observes: "cultural and moral ‎relativists sap our sense of moral outrage by defending the position that human rights are ‎a Western invention (http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0404/p09s01-coop.html?s=hns)".



Oddly enough for a cultural absolutist, her argument is utilitarian: "In the past two ‎centuries, those in the West have gradually changed the way they treat women. As a ‎result, the West enjoys greater peace and progress. It is my hope that the third world will ‎embark on this effort." ‎

The argument is that societies that promote human rights including and especially the ‎rights of women enjoy greater peace and prosperity than those that do not. Therefore, ‎we should promote human rights to bring about greater prosperity and more enduring ‎peace; not because human rights are a good thing in themselves that is, not even if the ‎consequences are devastating, but only if they are benign (as they are bound to be, ‎according to Ali). ‎

Now, one of the rights that western civilisation granted to women was the right to vote. ‎That is, presumably, a human right. I shall only touch on the question of whether there is ‎or can be anything abstract like "rights" intangible as unicorns, existing nowhere like ‎King Solomon's mines, and endlessly disputed like works of art as opposed to objects, ‎like chairs or mountains. That is a philosophical conundrum and this is not quite the place ‎to raise the problem it is the old realism-nominalism debate. I would merely like to ‎observe that if rights were objective entities like mathematical equations, there would be ‎no dispute regarding them - yet even western civilisation disagrees about rights: the rights ‎of a foetus, the rights of animals used in experiments, the rights of workers to job ‎protection, the rights of prisoners captured in war, the rights of immigrants, the right to ‎assisted suicide, the right to same-sex union....‎

Now, the question is: has the westernisation of societies for that is her intention: "...we ‎need a worldwide campaign to reform cultures..." - led uniformly to "greater peace and ‎greater prosperity", as Ali claims? Since her proposition is universal, one need provide ‎only a single counter-example to falsify it, and that is precisely my aim here. And the ‎counter-example is that of Central Africa in the early 1990s, when "...the cold war's end ‎prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start ‎insisting on democratic reforms" (The Economist, December 18th 2004, p. 69). ‎

In June 1993, Melchior Ndadaye a Hutu won Burundi's first democratic election 'by ‎virtue of being a member of the biggest tribe in a country where a free vote naturally ‎meant a vote along ethnic lines', as The Economist observed (April 9th 1994, p. 49). In ‎October, 1993, Ndadaye was murdered by the Tutsi-dominated army. Over 250,000 ‎people were killed in the subsequent massacre. General Habyarimana, since grabbing ‎power in a bloodless coup, had run Rwanda for 21 years. Tutsi rebels who had fled to ‎Uganda earlier invaded Rwanda as the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1990. Under the ‎‎1993 peace deal both sides agreed to form an integrated army and to share power in a ‎new national government. Hard-liners shot down Habyarimana's plane on April 6th, ‎‎1994, and a well-planned pogrom ensued. 800,000 Tutsis were butchered. The RPF ‎captured the country, and 2 million Hutus fled, mostly to Zaire. In Burundi, a Hutu-led ‎coalition that had won power in the 1993 election was overthrown by a Tutsi-led coup in ‎July 1996. Both Rwanda and Burundi, 80% Hutu, were now controlled by Tutsis. 'For ‎Tutsis after 1994, "democracy means death"' observes David Reynolds in his book One ‎World Divisible.‎

The Tutsi-led government in Rwanda was afraid that the Hutus in Zaire (now Congo), ‎sheltered by Mobutu Sese Seko, would rearm and return. Rwanda organised a rebellion ‎and toppled Mobutu. They replaced him with Laurent Kabila, who turned against his ‎backers and armed the Hutus. Rwanda tried, and failed, to topple him, despite help from ‎Uganda and Burundi Angola and Zimbabwe, among five nations, came to Kabila's ‎rescue. Nine national armies and their rebel proteges shot, hacked and starved over 3 ‎million people to death in Congo.‎

Now, why didn't the Tutsis want to accept electoral defeat? Because electoral defeat ‎reduces one to insignificance in African culture. ‎

‎"Democracy...simply has no proper role for political losers in Africa....," observe Patrick ‎Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their contemporary classic, Africa Works. "Politicians ‎are expected to represent their constituents properly, that is, to deliver resources to them. ‎It is, therefore, comprehensively useless to be an opposition politician....(Oxford: James ‎Currey, 1999, p. 56)". The "individual" is part of the patron-client nexus. ‎

Chabal and Daloz's observations would explain why the 1990s was such a bloody decade ‎for sub-Saharan Africa. An alien culture, imposed through western financial coercion, ‎resulted in the death of roughly 4 million people and in just one part of Africa. ‎

In a lighter vein, when I was at Kuakata in the south of Bangladesh, I went out into the ‎sea in a fishing-boat. It was evening, and there were periodic power failures on the now ‎‎- distant coast, so I couldn't at times tell where it was without my compass. I asked the ‎fishermen why there was no lighthouse. There used to be one, but it had broken down. ‎And they were sceptical of getting another lighthouse. Why? Because their MP was a ‎member of the opposition. A member of the opposition in Bangladesh is so ‎comprehensively useless that he can't even provide a lighthouse for his loyal ‎constituents. ‎

The episode also explains why corruption under democracy has soared in Bangladesh. ‎Since there are two families vying for power, they must reward their clients with ‎whatever resources are available. For, with democracy, the rewards of disloyalty have ‎increased, so the price of disloyalty has multiplied. Small wonder, then, that Bangladesh ‎scored highest in Transparency International's corruption perception index for five ‎

When the state in Africa and Asia ceases to be the sole patron, the competition for lucre ‎plainly gets out of hand. ‎

Cultural relativism can take forms not usually associated with the subject. Dr. ‎Kamaluddin Ahmed, a psychiatrist in Bangladesh, observes that in "eastern cultures ‎mental disorders tend to be somatised". A mental condition may appear as physical ‎discomfort. In western cultures of which he's had first-hand experience as a doctor in ‎Australia a patient clearly distinguishes between the mental and the physical, and so ‎does society. In Bangladesh, for instance, patients with the depressive condition known ‎as dysthymia (a low-level form that does not incapacitate the sufferer, but lasts a long ‎time) are usually found popping vitamin tablets instead of taking anti-depressants. ‎According to Dr. Shahrukh Ahmed, a physician, the bulk of his patients have no physical ‎ailments: they should be seeing shrinks instead of coming to him! Indeed, according to ‎Dr. Reza Islam, a consultant psychiatrist in Britain, the tendency to report feelings of ‎depression is very high in western society the individual feels no inhibition about ‎checking himself or herself into a psychiatric ward at the first sign of depression (real or ‎imagined). Furthermore, in his experience, British patients tend to suffer more in one ‎respect than their Bangladeshi counterparts for the simple reason that the former attribute ‎all disasters and setbacks to their own shortcomings. I asked him if the notion of "kismet" ‎or "fate" helped his patients in London; not at all, he said, and he never even broached ‎the subject to his patients, so counter-productive would it be. On the other hand, when he ‎was a psychiatrist in Bangladesh, he routinely used to appeal to the notion of "kismet" to ‎assuage the individual's feelings of guilt: some things are just beyond our control, ‎whether westerners admit it or not! ‎

Had Dr. Islam clung to cultural absolutism, he would have treated his English patients to ‎equal doses of "kismet" as he did his compatriots: he would, then, have been ineffective ‎in London, and ineffective in Bangladesh had he clung to the opposite set of values: "I ‎am the captain of my soul". We meet another undesirable consequence of cultural ‎absolutism, which psychiatrists steer clear of. ‎

‎"Every year, between 1.5 million and 3 million women and girls lose their lives as a ‎result of gender-based violence or neglect," observes Ali, with the mandatory comparison ‎with Hitler's Holocaust. According to her utilitarianism, this sort of inhumanity should ‎lead to loss of peace and prosperity. ‎

Consider South Korea: despite years of democratic practice, the ratio of male to female ‎births increased with democratic progress! "Sex-selective abortion appears prevalent in ‎families having only daughters" observes an expert (Elisabeth Croll, Endangered ‎Daughters: Discrimination and Development in Asia, Routledge: London, 2000, p. 42). ‎In 1987, the year of democratic transition in South Korea, the sex ratio at birth was 109; ‎by 1992 it had soared to 114: there were 114 male births to 100 female births. Similar ‎statistics can be adduced for India, Taiwan, and China. Sex-selective abortion in Asia ‎needs to be kept in perspective, though: the rate of abortion per 1000 women in Asia (33) ‎was on a par with that in Latin America and lower than that in Europe (48) in 1995; in ‎Eastern Europe it was a staggering 90 (‎‎‎www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/25s3099.html)! ‎‎ ‎

Taiwan and South Korea are both stable, prosperous countries despite the obvious son-‎preference that Ali finds repugnant. The son is still the centre and later as father, the ‎head of the family. Clearly, Ali's utilitarian association between "rights" and "peace ‎and prosperity" is chimerical, to say the least. In Africa, we have seen that the promotion ‎of western notions of "rights" has led to Holocaust-comparable figures, whereas in East ‎Asia we find that the denial of those notions has not prevented a rise in income levels ‎comparable to the west a rise that was, in fact, achieved under military or one-party rule

Yet Muslim women whom Ms. Ali affects to represent - are the safest in the world. ‎This is not my opinion. The disability-adjusted-life-years (DALYs) lost to a Muslim ‎woman are given in the World Bank report on health published in 1993 (page 217). The ‎overall figure for women in the Middle Eastern Crescent (a huge area, stretching from ‎Morocco to Kazakhstan) is 22.8, and that for established market economies (i.e., the ‎developed word) is 9.2: it would appear that their European sisters are better off until ‎you break down the figures. Most of the hundreds of thousands of DALYs lost by ‎Middle Eastern women is due to war (16.5), compared to nil for her richer sisters (the ‎figure pertaining to war must have soared since the invasion of Iraq ); homicide and ‎violence take a toll of only 3.6 hundred thousand life-years (compared to 4.3 for women ‎in market economies); and the most surprising figure is that related to self-inflicted ‎violence: women in mature economies lose 4.9 hundred thousand DALYs compared to ‎women in the Middle East, who inflict wounds on themselves measuring up to 2.7! In ‎sub-Saharan Africa Ayaan Hirsi Ali's original constituency war (of the kind ‎described above) deprive women of 29.2 hundred thousand DALYs, while self-inflicted ‎violence and homicide account for the loss of, respectively, 3 and 4.7. ‎

It seems a curious omission on the writer's part that she never faults her adopted ‎‎"civilisation" for fomenting war and for being the world's biggest seller of arms: between ‎them, the so-called democracies supply 80% of the world's arms (The Economist, July ‎‎20th 2002, Survey of the Defense Industry, p.6.). Thus, if a woman is shot outside ‎America or Europe, the chances are 4:5 that the bullet came from one of those two places. ‎It is fascinating to note that the global burden of war for women, according to the World ‎Bank report, is born almost entirely within Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle Eastern ‎Crescent; the figures for India (0.9), Latin America and the Caribbean (1.9), and "Other ‎Asia and islands" (1.3) are dwarfed by those for the two regions. ‎

It would appear that Middle Eastern women are not only safe from men, but also from ‎themselves, testifying to a high level of mental well-being. They are not safe, however, ‎from men and women in mature economies who wage constant war against them that ‎is to say, the civilisation that Ms. Ali extols causes her Muslim sisters to lose hundreds of ‎thousands of years of life, while American and European women lead comfortable lives ‎behind the barrage of artillery. ‎

As for the anti-women Islamists Ms. Ali takes to task, perhaps she should compare clergy ‎with clergy. I refer to the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, who preach against ‎abortion no matter what the circumstances, and against the use of contraceptives, again ‎irrespective of the outcome be it unwanted pregnancy, AIDS or any other form of STD. ‎We noticed above that the rights of the foetus versus the rights of women is one set of ‎disputed values in western society, giving the lie to the idea of universal values, or even ‎of "universal western values". Most western women, however, have chosen to ignore the ‎Church in these matters (except for the Latin American women, who comprise 20% of ‎baptised Catholics). What must surely invite Ms. Ali's censure is the fact that the Church, ‎having lost influence in the West, seeks to impose its will on a passive east, the third ‎world, in collusion with the United States government. According to the Economist: "The ‎Catholic Church is often better at influencing the decisions of third-world governments ‎either directly, or through its influence over the United States than it is at guiding the ‎behaviour of ordinary people, including its own flock....Vatican diplomacy is more likely ‎to dissuade governments in the developing world from allowing legal abortion than it is ‎to stop desperate women from trying to have them. As a direct result of this, critics say, ‎the number of women who die as a result of botched, amateur terminations goes up (April ‎‎9th, 2005, p. 19)." ‎

Another set of religious figures who should receive Ms. Ali's opprobrium (reserved, ‎regrettably, solely for Islamists) are the Christian fundamentalists (the word, after all, ‎came from America's Bible belt in the 1920s). Like the Church, they influence the world ‎through their control over the United States government and George Bush apparently ‎stood to garner 4 million fundamentalist votes in 2004 if he attacked Iraq (The ‎Economist, May 4th 2002, p. 39). "'The last presidential election saw about 4m ‎evangelical conservatives, once reliable Republican voters, staying at home. Mr Bush ‎may be able to re-engage evangelicals by getting cloning banned. But this will count for ‎nothing if they conclude that he is putting pragmatism above principle on Israel, a ‎country evangelicals revere both as a home for God's chosen people and as the scene of ‎the "end of days"." Cultural absolutism again threatens, this time, not just a couple of ‎million lives, but the whole of mankind. ‎

The upshot seems to be that, pace those irksome anthropologists, sociologists and sundry ‎other relativists, the West did not invent the chimerical idea of "human rights": or if it ‎did, it doesn't care much for its own invention. ‎

And in twenty years when China becomes the richest country in the world, what will ‎happen to the notion of a universal set of human rights not backed by superior that is, ‎western - financial prowess or military hardware? ‎

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 
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