Rights Trump Culture and Religion
Cultural relativism is not only a prescription for inaction and passivity in the face of the oppression of millions of people struggling and resisting in the Middle East and here in the west but is in fact racist in and of itself
Cultural relativism and its more seemingly palatable multiculturalism have lowered standards and redefined values to such depths that not only are all cultures and beliefs deemed equally valid, they seem to have taken on personas of their own blurring the distinction between individuals and beliefs (whether theirs or imputed).
As a result, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.
This is why any criticism and ridiculing of or opposition to beliefs, cultures, religions, gods and prophets are being deemed racism, disrespecting, inciting hatred and even violence against those deemed believers. Moreover, the social inclusion of people into society has come to solely mean the inclusion of their beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas and nothing more.
The above is particularly applicable to and spearheaded by Islam and political Islam as it is a religion in state power like in Iran or vying for political power in the likes of Britain and Canada. Cultural relativism has become the channel through which it and its apologists have sought to deflect criticism of its inhumane nature and at the same time undermine the very fabric of society here and elsewhere.
Needless to say, cultural relativists have it all wrong.
The distinction between humans and their beliefs is of crucial significance here. It is the human being who is sacred, worthy of the highest respect and rights and so on and so forth not his or her beliefs.
It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs.
Of course, people have the right to their beliefs no matter how absurd they may seem but that is a different matter. Having the right to a belief, culture, or religion does not mean that the belief or culture or religion must be respected or that those who disagree, oppose or choose to mock said beliefs must refrain from doing so because it is unacceptable to believers. (As an aside, given that much is unacceptable to the Islamists – including holding hands and dancing to music – there wouldn’t be much left to say or do if they had their way.)
The demand of cultural relativists for ‘sensitivity’ and ‘responsibility’ (whilst thoughtfully reminding us that we have the right to mock and criticise – at least for now – in the west) are savvy attempts at actually restricting expression on and opposition to religion and culture and its adverse effects on people’s lives. After all, cultural relativism is brisk business for the many self-appointed cultural and religious ‘leaders’ working hand in hand with the state.
But are we really expected to respect, for example, a belief that women are sub-human, that ‘disobedient’ children need to be exorcised, or that gays are perverts because someone or some religious groups believe it to be so? How about the belief that girls who date non-Muslim men should be murdered in the name of honour? Or that little girls should be veiled and not mix with boys or swim? And does anyone in their right mind really think that such beliefs are equal or equally valid to humanist, secularist, left and progressive ideals fought for by generations?
This is of course not to deny that racism, including against Muslims, exists, but racism exists because of the profitability of racism for the class system and not because of critical thought and freedom of expression however offensive and insulting it may seem to those who hold those beliefs.
And anyway, how can criticising or mocking or opposing a belief, culture or religion be racism against or disrespectful of those who believe them? Firstly, you cannot be racist against an idea or belief or ideology. Racism is distinctions, exclusions, restrictions or preferences based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin (albeit constructed) of individuals – of human beings – not their beliefs. Saying a criticism or mockery of Islam, Mohammad, or political Islam is Islamophobia or racism against Muslims is like saying condemnation of Judaism and Zionism fans anti-Semitism.
Clearly, there is a big difference between Muslims and political Islam – as a contemporary right wing political movement like many others, as well as between Muslims and Islam, which is the ideological aspect of this contemporary movement and a belief like many others.
Blurring the distinctions between the two and the use of rights and anti-racist language here in the west to do so are devious ways of silencing criticism and opposition – criticism which is particularly crucial given the havoc that political Islam has inflicted in the Middle East and North Africa and more recently here in the west. Needless to say, the language calling for restraint rapidly becomes one of threats and intimidation when Islamists has some form of political power. In Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, they kill and maim indiscriminately, tolerate nothing and no one, hang the ‘unchaste’, ‘kafirs’ and ‘apostates’ from cranes in city centres, and say it is their divine right to do so.
Cultural relativism is not only a prescription for inaction and passivity in the face of the oppression of millions of people struggling and resisting in the Middle East and here in the west but is in fact racist in and of itself.
This is because it implies that masses of people choose to live the way they are often forced to and imputes on them the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class, imams and self-appointed leaders. I am supposedly automatically Muslim because I was born in Iran as if that is the only option available; the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the rest of them supposedly automatically represent me – though I wouldn’t touch any them with a ten foot barge pole.
Cultural relativism also implies that Islam and political Islam represent all those who are considered Muslims – whether they were born or living in the Middle East, Asia or North Africa or once came from there umpteen generations ago. It would be similar to assume that the Catholic Church (that is during the inquisition) and the right wing British National Party represent all British.
It’s as if there are no classes, political, social and rights activists, communists, atheists, progressives, humanists, rationalists or secularists among this group – all are Muslims and the most reactionary of Islamists at that!
In addition, for society, cultural relativism promotes a policy of minoritism where people deemed to be different because of their culture are ghettoized in regressive fragmented "minority" communities where they continue to face apartheid and Islamic laws and customs. Their rights are not the highest standards available in the given society as one would expect but the most regressive and reactionary ones. They live in Bantustans with somewhat separate legal, social, cultural, and religious systems. They are compartmentalised to the lowest reactionary denominator and are relegated to second and third class status. They are forever minorities and never ever equal citizens. They are denied access to universal standards and norms. They are denied equal rights and the secularism fought for and established by progressive movements over centuries.
The idea of difference has always been the fundamental principle of a racist agenda not the other way around.
The defeat of Nazism and its biological theory of difference largely discredited racial superiority. The racism behind it, however, found another more acceptable form of expression for this era. Instead of expression in racial terms, difference is now portrayed in cultural terms.
In the face of this onslaught, secularism, universalism and values worthy of 21st century humanity have to be defended and promoted unequivocally.
We must not allow any more concessions to cultural relativism; we must no longer allow the respect for and toleration of inhuman beliefs and practices. We must hold the human being sacred. We must start first and foremost with the human being. We must stop sub-dividing people into a million categories beginning with religion and nationality and ethnicity and minority and not even ending in Human.
At a minimum, we must have the complete separation of religion from the state and educational system. Secularism is an important vehicle to protect society from religion’s intervention in people’s lives. A person’s religion has to be a private affair. All religious and religious-inspired notions and references must be omitted from laws. No reference must be made to them in any official documents or in the media, whether as individuals or groups.
Faith schools, religious education and religion in assemblies must be abolished. Child veiling and religious symbols in schools and public institutions must be prohibited. Children and under 16s must be protected from all forms of manipulation by religions and religious institutions. Cultural and religious practices or ceremonies, which are violent, inhuman, or incompatible with people’s rights and equality must be banned. Any kind of financial, material or moral support by the state to religion and religious activities and institutions must be stopped. All religious establishments must be registered as private enterprises, taxed…
And it is the state that is duty bound to implement these. Everyday, the state intervenes to protect people whether they want it or not (e.g. in domestic violence or child neglect cases). It has to do so with regards to religion as well. Not necessarily because it likes to but because civil society and established norms force it to.
Civil rights, freedom and equality, secularism, modernism, are universal concepts that have been fought for by progressive social movements and the working class in various countries.
That people worldwide, including in Iran, continue to struggle for equality, freedom, secularism and to overcome their lack of rights and repressive regimes is a confirmation of this universality.
Of course, cultural relativists have said and will say that universal rights are a western concept. This is just more deception on their part. When it comes to using the mass media to broadcast their decapitations, or using the web to organise terrorist attacks, and the internet to issue fatwas and death threats, the Islamists do not say it is western and incompatible with an Islamist society. It is only when it comes to universal rights, standards and values, and secularism, that they suddenly become western. Even if such rights and values are western, it is absurd to say that others’ are not worthy of them.
In fact, though, rights are gains forcibly taken by the working class and progressive social movements. Therefore, any gain or right obtained anywhere is a gain and a right for all humanity.
Only an unequivocal defence of universal rights, secularism and the de-religionisation of rights and values will challenge cultural relativism and its racism head on and relegate it to where it belongs – the dustbins of history.
Maryam Namazie is the host of TV International English, is a Central Council Member of the Organisation of Women’s Liberation and Director of the International Relations Committee of the Worker-communist Party of Iran.