In Philosophy Now (Issue 102, May/June 2014), Terri Murray (Master of Theology, Heythrop College, London) wrote an essay titled, Is Judging Islamic Culture Possible? Now I’ve touched on this topic before in various guises, but it’s perhaps more relevant than ever with the rise of ISIS or IS (Islamic State) with its self-appointed Caliphate and its barbaric treatment of anyone who won’t follow its dictates.
Murray’s article is lengthy and well-argued, so it’s a bit unfair to distill her arguments into succinct sound-bytes, as I’m about to do. Basically, Murray delineates between what she calls ‘liberal multiculturalism’ and ‘pluralist multiculturalism’: where she contends the former (of which she claims to belong) puts the rights of the individual above cultural identity; and the latter where cultural identity holds sway over individual liberty. That’s the gist of her argument, but, in particular, she compares this with feminism and LBGT rights, both of which she’s been an outspoken advocate of, or so she tells us, and I have no reason to disbelieve her.
But she also refers to the ‘pluralist multiculturalists’ as ‘relativists’, and much of her argument revolves around this, contextually. In effect, the moral or cultural relativists argue that we in the West are not in a position to criticise other cultures and Islamic culture in particular – political correctness gone mad, is how many conservatives and some liberals would put it.
Murray lives in England and I live in Australia, where cultural sensitivities are not dissimilar but not exactly the same. I both work and socialise with Muslims, some of whom I consider very good friends, which naturally colours my own perceptions and opinions, but that’s not the issue. In a post last year (Aug. 2013), I argued that there was no such thing as moral relativism, whereas Murray’s argument effectively hinges on that idea. I argued that no one can hold a moral standpoint on an issue that covers every perceived view – it’s impossible – so what she’s talking about is tolerance, as she acknowledges herself. But I’ve also argued elsewhere that the limit of tolerance is intolerance by others. Like many so-called liberals, I’m intolerant of intolerance, and that is the guiding criterion when it comes to judging Islam or variants of Islam or any other cultural practice.
Moral values, as practiced, are invariably subjective, and arise from cultural or social norms that we are exposed to from our earliest cognitive years. But in our teens and early twenties, our so-called ‘formative’ years, we can undergo changes in attitudes and beliefs and often challenge the views we were brought up with. It is my belief that many members of IS, especially those from a Western background, fall into this category. Why they are attracted to this ideology, I can neither imagine nor understand, but we know it’s happening. The point is that while many of us find their behaviour abhorrent in the worst possible way, they believe the opposite and claim that it is our lifestyle that is sinful and against the laws of ‘God’, which is how they justify what they do. As I’ve said before, when you take your morals from ‘God’ you can justify any atrocity.
The danger, as I see it, is in taking a polarised view. Murray is arguing against one of those polarised views: that we must accept and tolerate all manifestations of Islam irrespective of its consequences on individuals. Even forgetting about IS for the moment (Murray’s article was written prior to IS’s rise to dominance in Syria and Iraq), issues like female genitalia mutilation and honour killings are examples where the rights of individuals trump cultural tolerance and sensitivity, as Murray points out. But there is another form of polarisation that is equally dangerous and far more likely, which is to brand all Muslims with the same brush. We already see this with religious commentators like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, both of whom attack all kinds of religion and argue that moderate religious believers somehow support fundamentalism, which is simplistic, divisive and plain wrong. No one suffers under militant Islam more than moderate Muslims as we are currently witnessing in Iraq, but also Indonesia and other countries. To alienate moderate Muslims in a ‘war’ against Islamic extremists is a huge mistake. In Australia, at least, politicians and strategists seem to be very aware of this dimension to the issue, at least, locally.