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Wednesday May 12, 2010

Need for some cultural sensitivity

While Western culture makes freedom of expression almost a religious value, many non-Western cultures – not just Muslim – balance this freedom with respect for elders, traditions and modesty.

THE Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith website recently asked me to address this question: What is the obligation of a Western, democratic government to protect individual freedoms in the light of a realistic terrorist threat?

Are the producers of South Park, a satirical cartoon show, right to forfeit their freedom of expression in the interest of protecting their employees? Are the governments of Europe right to ban burqas in the interest of fostering a more open society?

Here is my response:

Your question is about different cultural norms in a shrinking world. Western culture makes freedom of expression nearly a religious value. It protects the right to say anything, no matter how insensitive or scandalous. Everyone and everything can be insulted.

Many non-Western cultures – not just Muslim – balance freedom of expression with respect for elders, traditions and modesty. The idea of respect and honour to elders is deeply ingrained in their psyches.

When I was a boy in Malaysia, in our play we knew we could insult each other freely. That was a game. But we could never insult each other’s parents. Do that, and we were in for a serious fight.

For Muslims, respect for the Prophet Muhammad is much more sacred than respect for elders. In fact, Muslims would not insult Jesus or Moses because they were prophets of God and demand respect.

The same is true on the issue of the burqa, which covers the entire body and face, leaving just a slit for the eyes.

In the Western world now, the right to wear almost anything has become a symbol of freedom. It is an expression of women’s equality. In the Muslim world, men and women dress so they are not provocative to one another.

But it is important to note that Islam does not require the burqa, and even bans it on occasion. Muslim women performing their haj to Mecca are not allowed to hide their faces. The burqa is a custom of some – but certainly not all – Muslim cultures. The spirit of the Muslim law is about modesty.

So what is the role of the government?

Freedom of expression is the law in the United States. It is something that the government must uphold. But the people who create this insulting material about the Prophet Muhammad should not be naive. They are digging deeply at the cultural values of huge numbers of people, many of whom now live as law-abiding citizens of the United States.

In this enlightened age, would the producers of South Park insult the values of African-Americans?

As to burqas, it is the cultural norm in Belgium and France for women to reveal their faces. It is a cultural norm in Saudi Arabia that they do not. If Muslims support the right of the Saudi government to require Western women in Saudi Arabia to wear abayas that cover their bodies and heads (but not their faces), then Muslims must support the right of the Belgian and French governments to ban the burqa in Belgium and France.

Can we be upset in these times of heightened national security that the Belgians and French want to know who is walking around on their streets? And in these times when sensitivity about religion and respect are at a boil, cannot the arbiters of Western media show a little restraint?

This article first appeared in the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith website. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations (www.cordobainitiative.org). He is the author of “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America”.

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