Tuesday, December 18, 2007

outrage at islamic law

Over the last couple of weeks we've been following the stories of the teacher in Sudan who was sentenced to prison and lashing after she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed as part of a school project. A story from Saudi Arabia involved a rape victim who was herself sentenced to lashing for being out in public with a man who was neither a relative nor her husband. The teacher was released early from prison and flown home to England. The Saudi woman was pardoned by the Saudi king.

Of course the sentences are outrageous. But the more interesting question to me is are the sentences only outrageous from our point of view, or are they objectively outrageous? Are the sentences unjust only in a relativistic way, in which our culture has no standing to critique a foreign culture? Or are the sentences unjust in an absolute way?

To hold that the sentences are absolutely wrong, regardless of cultural differences, requires that there be a larger sphere of ethical norms that applies cross-culturally. It is this fact that leads some to make the claim that the existence of God is necessary to create universal ethics. I do believe in God, but you needn't go that far. All that is required is that both cultures share a sphere of ethics that includes both cultures and that both recognize as authoritative. A world community or an appeal to our common humanity would suffice, and indeed it was in part the expression of outrage from the world community that led to the reversal of these sentences.

2 comments:

Bill Baar said...

From Nick Cohen writing One Women's War in The Guardian back in 2005 on the awarding of Seclarist of the Year to Maryam Namazie ,

Namazie is on the right side of the great intellectual struggle of our time between incompatible versions of liberalism. One follows the fine and necessary principle of tolerance, but ends up having to tolerate the oppression of women, say, or gays in foreign cultures while opposing misogyny and homophobia in its own. (Or 'liberalism for the liberals and cannibalism for the cannibals!' as philosopher Martin Hollis elegantly described the hypocrisy of the manoeuvre.) The alternative is to support universal human rights and believe that if the oppression of women is wrong, it is wrong everywhere.

The gulf between the two is unbridgeable. Although the argument is rarely put as baldly as I made it above, you can see it breaking out everywhere across the liberal-left. Trade union leaders stormed out of the anti-war movement when they discovered its leadership had nothing to say about the trade unionists who were demanding workers' rights in Iraq and being tortured and murdered by the 'insurgents' for their presumption.


Most Liberals in the US haven't even figured out there's a gulf.

Point it out to them, they call you a neo-con, in service to Bush and Cheney.

It's the Devil theory and no need to think much harder than that, and just call out the nearest devil.

Rev. Ricky said...

the trick is finding the larger ethical sphere that both sides consider authoritative.

Your quote points out the problem on the liberal side. The problem on the conservative side is proposing a larger ethical sphere such as "God" (meaning the God who wrote the Bible and/or the Koran) and then saying "homosexuality is an abomination" or "women should obey their husbands" because "God says so."

Both are working from too narrow ethical spheres. Thus the liberal fails to condemn when he ought to and the conservative side condemns when he shouldn't.