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Stopping the rot in multiculturalism

RottenapplesIn the hands of today’s students, multiculturalism is a fruit that has over-ripened. The fact that all human beings are born equal has thoughtlessly become confused with the myth that all cultures are born equal, writes Irshad Manji.

10 October 2010

Good ideas, like good fruit, can ripen until they rot. The question is, how do you keep ideas fresh?

You can pickle them, but that’s the illusion of freshness. In fact, you’re preserving only the shell. Little by little, the vitamins inside disappear.

Multiculturalism was an idea rich with flavor and juice 40 years ago. Since then, its vitamin content has been sapped by the lax attitude that my teachers passed on to my generation, and that we’ve bequeathed to today’s teens and 20-somethings.

“All cultures deserve respect,” I relentlessly hear from students. Anything else isn’t just racism; it’s unthinkable. Therein lies the rot.

We’ve stopped thinking. And, in the process, we’ve stopped feeling for those who tell us that they need to escape their cultural caves, or risk death.

That’s what happened to 16-year-old Canadian Muslim, Aqsa Parvez. Recently, her control-freak father and cowardly brother pleaded guilty to strangling the young woman in the name of tribal “honor” — the kind of honor widely observed in their homeland of Pakistan.

I mustered the emotional gumption to read through the “statement of facts” about Aqsa’s case. So many pathetic details leaped out at me.

But one has been gnawing away at me: A month before her murder in late 2007, Aqsa “confided to her closest friends that her father had sworn to her on the Koran that if she ran away again, he would kill her. Her friends tried to assure her that her father could not be serious[emphasis mine].

Her friends were dead wrong.

Teenagers tend to be shrewd. Many are downright clever. And some are bloody smart. Not in this case. I can’t claim it’s all because multiculturalism has pulverized their legendary suspicion of parental power.

What I can claim is that gooey sentiments about colorful cultures, developed over two generations, have helped make it inconceivable that a brown-skinned tyrant who lords it over his entire family might very well mean what he says.

In the hands of today’s students, multiculturalism is a fruit that has over-ripened. The fact that all human beings are born equal has thoughtlessly become confused with the myth that all cultures are born equal.

Truth is, cultures aren’t born. They’re constructed by people, and people are fallible.

Which means there’s nothing blasphemous about taking seriously the horrifying aspects of any culture. To do something about the terror that power-holders can inflict under the banner of tradition, we must first acknowledge that tradition isn’t sacred. It doesn’t give you a pass to terrorize.

In my NYU course, Public Leadership and Moral Courage, I devote a session to the perils of cultural relativism. But with each case like Aqsa’s, I’m inclined to ratchet up the amount of time I spend teaching my students to distinguish between culture and torture. Not just the kind of at torture at Abu Ghraib (which my students are more than happy to denounce). Torture, also, that immigrants like my family can experience at the hands of our own.

All to say: Friends don’t let friends under-react. The next time a Muslim girl tells you that she’s petrified to go home, listen.

If you’re truly a fan of multiculturalism, you’ll treat her like an individual who “represents” because, after all, she has experiences that you don’t.

Let’s call it “Aqsa’s Law” of keeping it real — and stopping the rot.

Irshad Manji is a Muslim, lesbian, feminist, Canadian author, journalist and advocate of reform and progressive interpretation of Islam. She is Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, which aims to develop leaders who will challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.

She is the internationally best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith and is the founder of Project Ijtihad, a global campaign to popularize Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking.

Irshad is the creator of the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, Faith Without Fear, which chronicles her journey to reconcile Islam with human rights and freedom, which can be viewed at her official YouTube channel, IrshadManjiTV.

Her columns appear frequently in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Times of London, and other major news sources, and she writes a regular feature for Canada’s Globe and Mail.




0 #1 Phoebe 2010-10-18 04:51
I'm not sure how principles of multiculturalis m work outside of the UK, where I live, but the principle that I am familiar with isn't that all brown people, Muslim people, or people with cultural roots outside of Europe are somehow full of magical sunshine and light that makes them much incapable of doing vicious and unpleasant things.

It's more (as I understand it) that traditions of violence, hatred, domestic abuse, and numerous other issues are not as general things unique to any particular culture, and that the multiculturalis t who opposes these traditions seeks to do so in co-existance with the diversity of cultures that forms our social and cultural environment. If I had a friend who was being threatened with domestic abuse or violence or murder I'd do what I could to support them to escape, and that goes for Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Christian or whatever else friends.

I don't think Multiculturalis m is rotten, but bashing entire cultures (particularly Islam) for the violent and abusive activities of a few Muslims seems to be profitable business these days.

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