December 2007
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Extremism and the culture defense

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

“I don’t approve, but it’s their culture.”

Oh, if only it were possible to fine everyone who says that a dollar or two — then there might be enough money to help people who find themselves victimized by “their culture.”

But the defense is cropping up all over, and not just from the mouth of Whoopi Goldberg, who suggested Michael Vick’s animal cruelty was part of “his culture.” The culture defense is being used to justify — at least in part — the crimes human beings commit against one another.

Case in point: Polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs.

"I'm not saying polygamists are right or wrong, but what they are doing is part of their culture, their religion," St. George, Utah, resident Randy Shaw told Time magazine in September. Shaw wanted to know why the government was suddenly interested when polygamy had “been going on forever here.”

His question is a fair one, but it’s the opening statement that gives pause. Because we shouldn’t give a damn whether something like child rape — to which Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice — can be seen as part of a culture. We should give a damn that it happens and we should stop defending it out of a reluctance to offend its practitioners.

Not all polygamists are Jeffs’ brand of polygamist, of course, and polygamy’s “rightness” when it occurs between truly consenting adults is a matter of opinion. The issue is Jeffs’ particular practice, in which very young girls become the plural wives of (usually) older men. They are frequently put on the state’s dole, along with whatever children they produce, since the man may have only one legal marriage. They can, at Jeffs’ whim, be “given” to another man. And that is because, to Jeffs and “their culture,” they are nothing more than breeding stock.

You bloody well should have a problem with that.

You should also have a problem with people inclined to protect radical Islam (also called Islamism) as “cultural.”

Debating the particular merits of Islam is beyond the scope of both this piece and its author’s knowledge. And — anticipating critics here — fighting Islamism is not why we truly went to war in Iraq; it’s merely one of the everchanging justifications for both this war and the ongoing assault on civil liberties. (Indeed, if the latter is taken to its logical conclusion, America will be no freer than an Islamist state. But take comfort. The rest of the world will acknowledge it as our “culture” and won’t dare criticize.)

But the debate isn’t beyond the knowledge of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born and raised a Muslim. In both “Infidel” and “The Caged Virgin,” Ali eloquently tells the world how the strictures of Islam are abusive to women and how the Islamist “culture” itself is in need of enlightenment.

She says it’s critical for Muslims living freely in Western countries to push that enlightenment, but it hasn’t been pushed hard enough.

Only a comparatively few Muslims are trying and “these attempts to liberate Muslims in the West are being frustrated by vehemently negative reactions, from, of all people, secular Westerners. The few enlightened Muslims run into direct opposition from Western cultural relativists who say, ‘It’s part of the culture, you shouldn’t detract from that.’” (Emphasis added). “Or ‘If you criticize Islam, you hurt your people and that makes you a racist or Islamaphobe.’”

Ali nonetheless takes issue with quite a few “cultural” practices within Islam that specifically affect women.

Hers is not a theoretical argument. Ali is opposed to forcible, arranged marriages (at which the bride need not even be present — it’s purely a transaction amongst men); female genital mutilation (not remotely comparable to male circumcision, by the way, as it involves the excision of genitalia and sometimes infibulation, or sewing together of the vaginal walls); physical abuse and so-called honor killings.

Ali suffered the first two practices mentioned. All practices mentioned are specifically about female obedience and a religious obsession with “purity” that falls completely on the backs of women. Ali argues the practices are sanctioned by Islam, even those practices (like FGM) that began as non- Islamic tribal traditions.

Bear in mind, too, that even though she’s now “safely” in the West, Ali’s views have brought her death threats. The murder of her filmmaking partner, Theo Van Gogh, proves those threats are not idle.

The least we can do is consider Ali’s fundamental question: Why can’t we talk openly and honestly about Islam?

Indeed, why is there so often an attempt to rationalize the unthinkable? Cultural differences make for gray areas, but there are some things that are black and white.

Forcing girls to become sex slaves as part of “plural marriage” is wrong. Tying it to religion is wrong. Treating women as brood mares that can be rotated to another stud whenever the pen-keeper decrees it shall be so is wrong. Cutting girls’ genitalia is wrong. Viewing them as nothing more than dangerous sexual objects that must be rigidly controlled, lest the world come to a screeching halt, is simply insane.

And, guess what? We don’t have to tolerate it. We should, as Ali counsels, reject it outright and emphatically.

This does not mean we have to make a point of spitting in the face of anyone who believes differently. It means we have to be strong enough to defend our own beliefs and to counter insanity with reason.

Even if it’s offensive.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.


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