In view of some appalling tripe that’s appeared recently on the subject of gender segregation, cultural sensitivity and (alleged) racism, this 2001 Graun article by Polly Toynbee is worth revisiting. Come to think of it, it’s probably the best thing she’s ever written, and quite surprising that the Graun agreed to publish it:
Above: the traditional custom of Suttee
Limp liberals fail to protect their most profound values
A 19th-century general in India confronted an angry delegation complaining that the suppression of suttee was an attack on their national culture and customs. He replied: “It is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre and beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your national custom – then we shall follow ours.” No moral or cultural relativism there: a burning widow feels the same pain whatever her culture.
Swirling about in the sea of debate on this war there is a fuzzy idea on the soft left of an Islamic cultural otherness that supersedes basic human rights. There is a plea that in respecting certain customs, beliefs and punishments in some Muslim countries, we should somehow overlook the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Some on these pages protest about “intolerant liberalism”, calling for greater understanding of other cultures and accusing secular liberals of neo-colonial, cultural supremacist attitudes towards some Muslim countries. But that risks something worse – a patronising anthropological view of interesting natives who are not people like us, quaint in their time-honoured habits that must remain undisturbed by outside influence. This soft tolerance permits faraway peoples to persecute women, gays, free-thinkers or unbelievers as part of a way of life to be respected and preserved. Apologetic about the brute force of the west, those who themselves enjoy freedoms of every kind excuse the inexcusable in other cultures, romanticising them as more spiritual, less materialist. It is a kind of limp liberalism that will not defend its own most profound values.
Hard-headed liberals have no problem in opposing the Taliban, Bin Laden and equivocators who start with a cursory side-of-the-cigarette-pack homily that says September 11 was atrocious before piling on the “buts” that imply the US had it coming. Hard liberals have always been very tough on the moral failings of the USA at home and abroad – without blurring distinctions between the Taliban and America. Hard liberals hold basic human rights to be non-negotiable and worth fighting for. They do not turn the other cheek, understand the other guy’s point of view or respect his culture when it comes to universal rights. Promoting liberal values everywhere from Burma to Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Chechnya is not neo-colonialism, but respect for a universal right to freedom from oppression. That was what Tony Blair’s conference speech implied.
On Afghanistan, limp liberals only distinguish themselves from the old left by adding rather more hand-wringing. Limp liberals are always on the side of peace because it is more morally comfortable. They claim a monopoly of pity, castigating the other side as heartless armchair warriors. They hesitate because the outcome is uncertain: no one can guarantee things will end well. But they will never be to blame for anything, because they never stood up for anything, always seeking third way escapes from hard choices. “If only people would just sit down and talk…”, though conversation with Bin Laden is not on offer. All sane people worry that this war may not be proportionate, may not stop terror attacks or make life in Afghanistan better. But the pacifist position this time is exceptionally odd. What would they do? When G2 asked a string of people recently, the alternatives were hopeless to non-existent. On these pages, there has been much flailing about, lack of alternatives hiding in anti-US bluster. A Gandhian response is a possibility – until you listen to Bin Laden. Understanding racial and cultural diversity is essential, but this time understand what?
What is now alarming is the united opposition to the war from almost all British Muslims. The shocking fact is that barely a single leading Muslim is to be found who supports it. Thought for the Day speakers (always the moderate of every faith) are against it. One of them, Dr Zaki Badawi, president of the Muslim College, calls Bush a warmonger, says Bin Laden is a random target picked off a shelf and no good will come of it: he fears greatly for relations between Muslims and others when this is over. The head of the moderate Islamic Council brought into Downing Street with the archbishop and the Chief Rabbi came out declaring the war unjustified. The Muslim News, which features pictures of Tony Blair giving away their annual awards, is full of nothing but angry opposition to the war, (plus the suggestion that Israel attacked the World Trade Centre). So however often the prime minister declares this is not a war on Islam, to them it feels so. However much they detest the Taliban, they cannot support an attack even on these hated Muslims.
Despite sects and schisms, Islam is united in feeling threatened and it is not just extremists on the streets of Pakistan and Palestine, it is almost everyone. For Britain this has a lethal potential. It underlines how alienated most still feel from the mainstream, how threatened, how culturally uncertain. Unfortunately it unites the peaceful with the violent. On my screen emails full of casuistry attempt to explain away warlike parts of the Koran as allegory: “In classical Arabic idiom the ‘cutting of hands and feet’ is often synonymous with destroying one’s power.” That is not how the Taliban read it, hacking away at limbs. So while the peaceful fail to separate their faith utterly from this violence, Bin Laden gets perilously close to creating his Armageddon war of the cultures.
What went wrong? Why was the Downing Street/ White House tea and sympathy with Muslim leaders of no avail? The crucial missing ingredient was turning on Sharon and Israeli extremists at the same time as the onslaught on the Taliban. What is needed at once is this world coalition to press Israel back inside internationally agreed borders, to shut down the settlements and to establish a permanent UN force along the border with a free Palestine. Then it is for Palestinians to create a non-corrupt government that will not waste the generous aid they need. No doubt horrific suicide bombings of Israelis would try to destroy any peace, but reprisal by Israeli tanks would be forbidden and prevented. The world would again guarantee in blood and money the rights of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. Like Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t work any magic: fighting would continue, but little by little, despite recurring outbreaks, it would gradually subside over the decades.
What matters is that the Islamic world should for the first time see the west act even-handedly. It matters that the west admits its past errors and draws a line under much shameful history. This shaky global coalition offers a chance to do better in many places, through international joint action. It means demonstrating that human rights values are indeed universal and not western.