Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The Culture: A question of Faith

As many of you know, I'm a big proponent of college Objectivist clubs. I was introduced to Objectivism via the George Washington University’s Objectivist Club, which I later came to lead myself. I think campus clubs are a great way to both learn about Objectivism and engage in intellectual activism.

My friends at the George Mason University Objectivist Club, (I frequently attend their meetings and in my view, they are one of the most focused and active clubs in the country) sent me the following article by a Muslim student that appeared in their campus paper:

Islam is not merely a religion. Islam is a complete and comprehensive way of life. Ideally, its teachings encompass all of a Muslim's actions and dealings in life.

The teachings of the religion extend from the simplest notions, that to smile in the face of your brother or sister is considered charity, to the most sophisticated understandings of inheritance law.

Included in the teachings of the religion is a heavy focus on preserving the integrity of the family as well as maintaining a healthy environment for the children of a society.

Gabriella Gabrielsen seems to indicate in her last Broadside column ("Puritanical Islamic Beliefs in Nigeria Need Reform," Sept. 29) that human rights violations are a concern to her. However, what must be understood is that the Western model of human rights cannot and should not be superimposed on the rest of the world.

For example, in Islam, it is considered a violation of the child's rights not to know who her parents are, whereas this is not the case in our own country, here in the United States.

Our understanding of the concept of "law" should also not be superimposed on other countries. These people have fought to live under these laws because they believe that its principles befit their society. As such, we should let people live the way they want to live, instead of being closed-minded and labeling their choice of life as "ancient" and "barbaric."

In fact, according to the Associated Press, Amina Lawal has herself said, "It is a fair procedure, and so I was never afraid throughout my trial." Lawal understood that she would have a fair trial and has chosen to go back to Katsina, one of the states in northern Nigeria that implements Shari'ah, the Islamic legal code that she was originally tried under.
Well what do we have here? Don’t judge Islam—it’s our right to live under Islamic law. Our way is as good as yours. Don’t superimpose your views on the rest of the world. Classic faith and multiculturalism.

As most of my readers know, trouble is, not all ways are equal. There is a difference between a culture animated by faith and a culture animated by reason. It’s no accident that the West is happy and prosperous and the Islamic world is suffering and poor, both cultures are the product of their core values.

But what I found most interesting about this piece is that its author attempted to use a western argument to justify her claim for Islam. I wager the author of this piece got her Islam they way most people get their religion (from their parents), but I wonder where she picked up her cultural relativism. I doubt it was from Islam—cultural relativism is a Western innovation. I wager the author picked it up in college.

I’ve encouraged the GMU Objectivists to write a reply to this piece—I’ve even sent them a draft of my own ideas. For those who may be interested, this is what I wrote:

Shaimaa Alazzawe argues that the Western model of individual rights should not be forced on the world and the practice of Islamic law should not be denigrated as "ancient" and "barbaric." She’s wrong.

Under Islamic law, women are stoned to death for the ‘crime’ of adultery and murder is served to those who speak against Mohammad. It’s no coincidence that every Islamic state is a dictatorship and that Islamists hate the West. Under Islamic law, it’s blind faith to the edicts of Mohammad and Allah that reign supreme.

In contrast, the West is dominated by reason. Individual rights and scientific and technological achievement are respected because the human mind and reason are respected. The result has been an increase in freedom, wealth, health, life expectancy and happiness unprecedented in human history. The Islamic world has not shared in this advance because it rejects the very things that make it possible. If peace, freedom and happiness are the standards, there is only one honest conclusion: Islam is barbaric. The faith-driven ravings of the followers of Mohammad that claim otherwise are not an argument.

And that Alazzawe states her claim for Islam from the comfort of a modern and civilized Western university named after a pioneer in the advancement of mankind makes it all the more ironic and absurd. It is not faith in Allah that makes institutions like George Mason University possible. Let Alazzawe claim that Islam is equal to the West and ought not to be judged from within an Islamic slum; here in America, we know better.
Notice that as much as it I think it was wrong, I didn’t come out and label the author as a cultural relativist and leave it at that. Cultural relativism is something that is too well accepted to refute just by identification. I attempted to show how cultural relativism is corrupt by contrasting the two cultures in question, and let the reader make the broader conclusion.

At best, in a letter to the editor, you can attack one argument and support another. I think the best letters are ones that lay the foundation for the right conclusion, but rely on the reader make it himself. I reduce the author’s article to a question of faith vs. reason and the view that both are equal. I don't have the space to examine the different attributes of faith and reason, but I can list their consequences. Yes, the West is superior to Islam, so much so, that the basic case can be encapsulated in a short four-paragraph letter. (I think it would be a mistake to say much more. The author’s argument is so ridiculous, to exhaustively refute it would give it a credit it ought never enjoy. She more or less admits that the Islamic world is barbaric; Islamists just have a different sense of justice, so we ought not to judge them. I say to hell with that.)

I think the only dicey line comes in my conclusion. I say “here in America, we know better.” Well, not really, or the original article would never have found newsprint. But I do make a proper implication, albeit with a little audacity: Islam is a mess, I know it, and you (the reader) should know it to.

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