The Politics Behind Cultural Relativism

International TV Interview with Fariborz Pooya and Bahram Soroush

Maryam Namazie: We received an email from an irate ‘concerned happy Muslim Iranian’ critical of your [Bahram Soroush] statements on the incompatibility of Islam and human rights. He said, ‘it is obvious that you hate your own culture and religion and have a vendetta against anything Iranian and anything Islamic’. He made a suggestion: ‘if you hate our culture and our religion, then I suggest that you go and change your faith and tell people that you have no country and leave us alone’! Now this is something you hear a lot from cultural relativists; that it’s ‘our culture’ and ‘our religion’. Can you expand on that?

Bahram Soroush: They are trying to say that there is one culture and one religion and they put everyone together. They say the whole country and the whole population is religious, it’s Islamic, and that they have one culture. The reason they do that, I think, is because they want to justify certain things, since it’s very straightforward to understand what we are talking about. We are talking about fundamental values, which transcend anything religious or cultural. They are universal values. For example, human rights. Those rights are not something that can be conditioned by cultural considerations. Or the rights of children, which override everything else – political, cultural or religious. It is the same with political freedoms.

Such characterisations and generalisations don’t tell you much. They are unscientific and don’t tally with the facts. In any society, you have people who think differently, who have different political and ideological attachments. Secondly, I think, it serves a certain political purpose. Many of those who are fond of such characterisations, at the same time want to give concessions to certain religions or cultures.

In response to the person who has written that e-mail, I would say that I don’t have the particular culture or religion that he is attributing to me. We have criticised the Islamic regime in Iran, why does he feel hurt?! …

Maryam Namazie: He’s taking it personally!

Bahram Soroush: Exactly! 90% of the Iranian people are against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Are they ‘self-hating Iranians’ too? I think it is a question of differentiating between religious systems and organisations, on the one hand, and the people. That fact is that in Iran you have a religious sect that has come to power. They do not represent the people. I understand that there are people who have religious beliefs too, but that is different from what is being targeted.

Maryam Namazie: This is something that comes up a lot when you criticise a cultural practice or norm or religion. You hear people say that it is offensive to do so and that you need to respect cultures and opinions. That is something that you often hear about from the perspective of cultural relativism. What is your analysis on that?

Fariborz Pooya: Cultures and religions are not harmless concepts. They are institutions; a part of the organisation of society. Usually, people who advocate those views, reduce it to an individual level and individual choice. But in reality, culture is part of the institution of the ruling class. Religion is an establishment that practises and advocates a certain way of life. As part of society’s organisation and institution, it forms and regulates the way society functions. And various political movements and social movements intervene all the time and criticise it constantly. They try to improve or change the shape of the society that exists.

So to argue that we need to respect those institutions, effectively you are saying, keep the status quo; you don’t have the right to criticise it. However, society does that all the time. I don’t think the problem is limited to individual choice. After the 1970s and with the advent of the ‘New World Order’ in later years, fundamental rights, universal rights, have been chipped away. You have the movement to undermine those concepts. You have the movement, organised by the states and by the ruling class, to remove the basic standards in society. And as part of that, suddenly they have found ready-made friends in cultural groups and religious groups. In Iran, there is an Islamic government that has taken power and has been challenging those universal norms. In the West, you can see how those rights are being eroded. This is a strong political movement… I don’t think there’s anything sacred…

Maryam Namazie: Except for the human being.

Fariborz Pooya: Absolutely, the only thing sacred is humanity. But everything else is subject to criticism and that is a very healthy thing for society. Apart from the individual level, there is a political movement that is constantly hammering and battering established standards that humanity has fought for over many decades and which is largely the result of the socialist movement and the progressive and workers’ movements. You need to criticise and stand up against the reactionary movement that is trying to eliminate these fundamental rights. So it’s not a question of respecting this movement, but about our strategy to give it a bloody nose.

Maryam Namazie: You mentioned earlier that there is a political reason behind the depiction of Iran or other ‘third world’ countries as having one homogeneous culture. That it is ‘our culture’ and ‘our religion’. It’s interesting that when you look at the West, for example, you don’t see one homogeneous West, you see different opinions, different movements, different classes, religions, atheism, socialism, etc. But when it comes to countries like Iran or Afghanistan, it just seems that everybody is very much the same as the ruling classes there. Why is that the impression that is always given?

Bahram Soroush: You are absolutely right. When you talk about the West, it is accepted that there are political differentiations, that people have different value systems, that there are political parties. You don’t talk about one uniform, homogeneous culture. But why is it that when it comes to the rest of the world, suddenly the standards change? The way you look at society changes. It doesn’t make sense. But it makes political sense. We are living in the real world; there are political affiliations; there are economic ties; there are very powerful interests which require justifications. For example, how can you roll out the red carpet for the Islamic executioners from Iran, treat them as ‘respectable diplomats’ and at the same time dodge the issue that this government executes people, stones people to death, carries out public hangings, and that this is happening in the 21st century. It’s a question of how to justify that. So, if you say that cultures are relative; if you say that in Iran they stone people to death and they veil women because it is their culture, your conscience then is clean. This is the reason that we are seeing that something that doesn’t really make sense to anyone, and which they would not use to characterise anyone else in the Western world, they use it to characterise people from the third world. In fact it is very patronising, eurocentric and even racist to try to divide people in this way; to say, it’s OK for you. For example, to say to the Iranian woman that you should accept your fate because that’s your culture. This is part of the larger discussion of what lies behind this sort of thinking, but the motive is very political.

Maryam Namazie: You hear this also from the progressive angle as well. People who like what we say – for example, that we are standing up against political Islam – immediately assume that we are ‘moderate Muslims’. In the interview that you Bahram Soroush gave on the incompatibility of Islam and human rights for example, you clearly said that you were an atheist. But it just doesn’t seem to register, even among progressives. Why is that? I understand the political interests of Western governments, but why do even progressives have that opinion of us?

Fariborz Pooya: Part of it is ignorance. Purely ignorance. And it’s our duty to show the facts of the society in Iran and in the Middle East. To show that, for example, Iranian society is not Islamic at all. It’s deeply secular. It’s anti-religious. If you remove the dictatorship of the Islamic government from Iran, within a week or two, you will see the depth of secularism and the depth of the anti-Islamic movement. You will see the backlash that will have a major impact in the Middle East and the world, and not just within Iran. There is a strong socialist and workers’ movement in Iran. There is a history and tradition of the socialist movement. There are fights for workers’ interests; there are fights for improvements of living conditions.

So part of it is ignorance, and it is our duty to speak to our friends who are misinformed and to show them the realities of life in Iran. That’s part of our responsibility. I don’t think we have done enough work on that. We need to do more, and this sort of TV programme and our publications and activities are partly geared towards clarifying this and showing the reality of Iran and the Middle East. The other side of it, as Bahram clearly said, is political interest. To divide people based on religion, based on nationality, serves certain political interests. Because then it’s easier. You have similar movements in Western societies as well; ghettoising people and dividing people based on ethnicity, which is part of controlling society as well.

The above is a TV International English interview dated July 26, 2004.

Maryam Namazie hosts International TV English. TV International/English is a weekly hour-long news analysis and commentary programme that focuses on the Middle East and rights and freedoms from a progressive and Left standpoint. The programme also plays music selected by Mona Razani, the programme’s VJ. Prior to the English programme, Maryam Namazie also hosts a half-an hour long Farsi programme. Fariborz Pooya is the co-editor of WPI Briefing and Bahram Soroush is a civil rights activist.

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