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19 September 2002

The good captain of USS Clueless suggests that the West, led by the U.S., should undertake cultural genocide against radical Islam. While his particular phraseology was a bit, uh, ill-considered (a point he acknowledges in a follow-up post), he is correct insofar as saying that some elements of some Islamic cultures need to be ruthlessly annihilated as the pathogens that they are.

Steven den Beste's only error, I submit, was sloppy application of the umbrella term ''culture.'' It's not his fault, though, since many people across the ideological spectrum make the same mistake. The problem is that any given ethnic or national culture you care to specify will in fact turn out to be multidimensional, composed of several interrelated but independent sub-elements. A few that come to mind are:

Material culture: The food we eat and the clothes we wear
Artistic culture: The literature we read, the music we enjoy listening to and distinguish from "noise," the artworks we consider pretty
Linguistic culture: Do we speak Danish or Chinese or Swahili?
Epistemological culture: What are the valid routes for obtaining knowledge? Are mystical insights authoritative, or only the reproducible outcomes of science?
Familial culture: Where do "relatives" leave off and "all those other people" begin? And how do we treat those within the household?
Political culture: What are the rules of engagement for dealing with people outside the family? (As an example of how this is distinct from familial culture: consider the notion, accepted in many traditions, that it's not ''rape'' if a man happens to be married to the woman he forces himself upon.)

The list could be longer, but you get the idea. Notice, first of all, that within the context of a specified national or ethnic culture, each of these elements can be split further: We can group speakers of a given language into different regional and class dialect communities, for example. Moreover, a particular cultural inheritance can be considered to fall into more than one of the above categories: For English speakers, the King James translation of the Bible profoundly affected subsequent development in the Artistic, Linguistic, and Epistemological fields.

Now, the failure to recognize that culture is composed of these sub-elements explains not only the unwarranted accusation by den Beste's critics that he wants some sort of Final Solution to the problem of Muslim extremism, but also the endless, unproductive debates between the pinkos and the fascist pigs about "multiculturalism" in our schools. Proponents of multiculturalism are enchanted by diversity in the Material and Artistic categories, and rightly so -- who could object to more choices in the food court or those fabulously garish costumes that folk-dancing troupes gad about in? Meanwhile, opponents of multiculturalism generally sense that such issues as moral standards and political structures also fall under the rubric of culture, but frequently fail to separate these strands from the food 'n' folkart in mounting their objections, and so end up tarred as cheerleaders for white-bread WASP homogeneity.

Diversity's glamorous luster dims just a bit when we get to language, because here there would be an obvious boon to communication and commerce if everyone on the planet spoke the a common tongue. Still, there's no practical reason why a hundred different home languages can't continue to thrive and coexist as long as a lingua franca emerges from the Babel to facilitate cross-cultural exchanges. And there is positive value to maintaining diversity in this category, since some concepts may be more readily expressed in one language than another, and each language has its own distinct features that marry especially well with certain literary or musical forms but not so well with others. Overall, then, diversity remains a winning concept here.

It's when we get to Political culture that diversity loses serious ground to uniformity as a goal worth pursuing: can anyone seriously argue that the world is a richer, more appealing place because it houses not only cultures where Church/State separation is the law (as in the U.S.), but also cultures where people can be made to forfeit their lives for blasphemy? (Blasphemy, incidentally, against a sky-creature who is alleged to be omnipotent and who therefore could effortlessly settle his own scores if the occasional ''Al-Laah swallahs'' really pissed him off as much as his worshippers think.) And would it be a loss to future generations if the legal conceit that a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man's were made extinct? Even without his follow-up clarifications, a careful reading of den Beste's original essay makes it clear that he was concerned precisely with those elements of Islamic culture that deal with individual rights and interpersonal relations. It's sharia that he would see driven from this world, not thoughtful Sufi speculation or couscous or Omar Khayyam or all that marvelous geometric tilework.

Granted, the project is not as easy as it appears on paper, because as I noted above, the different elements of culture are inter-related -- and from an Orthodox Muslim's perspective, inseparable. To this mindset, an attack on sharia -- the laws that govern interpersonal affairs -- is also an attack on the validity of revealed scripture, on the whole body of literature that explicates and defends this scripture, on the superficial trappings of fashion that evolved to meet the requirements of sharia. In short, on the Muslim's entire way of life. But the Muslim who perceives himself as so attacked is myopic. For other Muslims -- Muslims like the ones who testify here -- have concluded that a benign, secular, and distinctly un-Western culture can be distinguished and extracted from from the oppressive politics of sharia and the mental stagnation of Quranic literalism.

And we in the U.S. already have a model to prove that these interwoven strands of culture can be teased apart, the evil elements removed, and the good threads braided back together: a recognizably Southern literary and social culture survived the eradication of Slavery and Jim Crow laws, after all.

posted by Throbert | 9/19/2002 09:40:00 PM |
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