Polly Toynbee on “limp liberals”, women’s rights and cultural relativism

December 23, 2013 at 3:50 pm (Afghanistan, Guardian, history, Human rights, imperialism, islamism, misogyny, modernism, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, religion, secularism, women)

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

Those who enjoy western freedoms excuse the inexcusable elsewhere

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.

6 Comments

  1. Polly Toynbee on “limp liberals”, women’s rights and cultural relativism | OzHouse said,

    […] Dec 23 2013 by admin […]

  2. Andrew Coates said,

    Perhaps the worst “appalling tripe” is by Laurie Penny today, who appears never to have had her bucket-load of clichés challenged.

    Under the headline, ” am infuriated by white men stirring up anti-Muslim prejudice to derail debate on western sexism” she writes (if that’s the verb),

    “I am not writing here on behalf of Muslim women, who can and do speak for themselves, and not all in one voice. I am writing this as a white feminist infuriated by white men using dog-whistle Islamophobia to derail any discussion of structural sexism; as someone who has heard too many reactionaries tell me to shut up about rape culture and the pay gap and just be grateful I’m not in Saudi Arabia; as someone angered that so many Muslim feminists fighting for gender justice are forced to watch their truth, to paraphrase that fusty old racist Rudyard Kipling, “twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”.

    We are the fools, if we believe that accepting aggressive distinctions between nice, safe western sexism and scary, heathen Muslim sexism is going to serve the interests of women. The people making these arguments don’t care about women. They care about stoking controversy, attacking Muslims and shouting down feminists of all stripes.”

    Rarely has such a load of tripe, deeply insulting to feminists opposed to gender segregation and secular democrats in countries where Islamism is a real political oppressive force, graced more than the more pitiful outreaches of Blog-world.

    Penny’s entire article is torn to shreds by the disclaimer,

    “This article was amended to draw attention to the fact that many Muslim and Asian women were involved in the “gender segregation” protests.”

    The sooner Penny fucks off, not to Saudi Arabia, but to her “mould and spider” filled flat and does some serious reading on Islamism the better.

  3. Jim Denham said,

    Any similarity to Laurie Penny is, I’m sure, entirely accidental:

    http://kingofdawah.tumblr.com/post/70829522905/polly-rouge-we-must-not-allow-my-article-to-be

  4. dagmar said,

    The sooner Penny fucks off, not to Saudi Arabia, but to her “mould and spider” filled flat the sooner she will start twittering again about sexually transmitted infections.

  5. Rebecca said,

    So Polly Toynbee thought that Israel should also have been punished for the 9/11 attacks? What a piece of crap! What did Sharon and the settlements have to do with the 9/11 attacks? Did she really seriously think that if the Americans had taken time off from bombing Afghanistan to tell the Israelis to leave the West Bank that this would have turned the Arab/Muslim world in favor of the counterattack on Afghanistan? Not everything is about Israel.

  6. Tim Childs said,

    It’s all rather Middle class and liberal, no doubt underpinned by that peculiar notion of white guilt, understandable if you are privileged and wealthy and your family was a slave trader or plantation owner or factory owner, but for many of us who live in the real would outside of ‘planet Middle class journo’ it all gets rather confusing. The tolerant excusing the intolerant?!! Feminists defending well known regimes totally hostile to women, free speech, poor people, any kind of real equality. I’m not talking about the UK now by the way. The privileged have the privilege of being magnanimous to whoever they wish to be, especially when they are affluent. It’s all ivory tower, pontificating liberal bullshit basically.

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