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The Perils of Cultural Absolutism

Follow Me on Twitter     Message Iftekhar Sayeed
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 (".

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 prote'ge's 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 (‎‎‎! ‎‎ ‎

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? ‎
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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