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Written by Louay Safi   
Feb 20, 2004 at 07:00 PM
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The Creative Mission of Muslim Minorities in the West
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The radicalism of the two positions summarized above can be avoided by recognizing that for legal reform to succeed, it must coincide with cultural reform.  That is, one must recognize that culture is the only mediating milieu for restructuring individual and social consciousness so as to make them receptive to, and supportive of, international human rights.  Yet even when cultural reform results in acknowledging the universal validity of human rights, a reasonable degree of cultural relativism must be allowed so the universal principles are interpreted from within the specific socio-political context of society, and are brought to bear on the particular circumstances of the various communities.[16]  An absolute universalism that ignores the essential role played by culture for the moral development of the individual suffers from “normative blindness” and is detrimental for both the dominant cosmopolitan culture, and the indigenous cultures it intends to reform.  The devastating effects of the experimentations undertaken in Australia, Canada, and the United States to assimilate the aborigines illustrate the impossibility of achieving moral development apart from the cultural tradition to which an individual belong.  They also illustrate the arrogance of the developmentalist outlook that equates moral superiority with economic and technological advancement.

 

The devastating consequences of the “normative blindness” of absolute universalism advocated by numerous human rights scholars is not limited to non-Western traditions, but extend to the tradition of modernity itself.  That is, by attempting to globalize Western modernism in the name of international human rights, the West runs the risk of preventing, or at least delaying, the development of alternative cultural forms which could enrich the culture of modernity itself, and help it overcome some of the acute problems it currently confronts, including the problem of “normative blindness”.  It seems, though, that for the latter problem to be overcome, a major reform in the dominant Western schools of jurisprudence is needed.  As Richard Falk notes, neither in positivist nor in naturalist jurisprudence “does culture enter into the deliberative process of interpreting the meaning, justifying the applicability, and working for the implementation of human rights.”[17]

 

Proponents of absolute universalism premise their arguments on either of the following two presuppositions: (1) that the notion of culture ― i.e. a normative system supported by a set of values and beliefs commonly accepted by a group of people ― is irrelevant to the debate on the meaning and desirability of human rights, or (2) that human rights are compatible with a set of moral values commonly shared by all cultures. The first premise is erroneous, and contend that for the common values to be universally valid, a non-hegemonic cross-cultural dialogue must take place among representatives of various moral communities.

 

Scholars who deny the relevance of culture to the human rights debate usually favor a unilinear view of history that equates moral with technical superiority.  According to this view, human cultures form a continuum in which primitive cultures represent one extreme while modern culture represents the other.  Primitive cultures are seen to be lacking not only in technology, but in morality as well.  Primitive cultures are described as barbaric and savage, while modern culture is seen as refined and civilized.  History, from a unilinear viewpoint, is nothing but the movement from the primitive to the modern which forms the end of history.[18]  The logical conclusion of the conception of history as modernization is that modern culture is the measure of all cultures.  The problem with this conception, though, is that it fails to account for important historical events.  The unilinear conception of history fails, for instance, to explain why the European culture was more vibrant and developed ― politically, philosophically, and artistically ― during the Roman civilization than in medieval times.  From the modernization perspective, culture is not relevant to the debate on human rights because there is nothing for modern culture to learn from other cultures.  Modern culture should set the standards for both moral and technical action, and them pass then on to less developed cultures.

 

This is in essence the conclusion of a leading advocate of radical universalism in a chapter published as part of an edited book entitled Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: A Quest for Consensus.  Taking exception to the idea of a cross-cultural consensus on human rights, she writes:

 

In this chapter I have argued against the enterprise of surveying world cultures and religions in order to establish consensus on human rights that would answer charges that such are a Western Creation.

To look for an anthropologically based consensus on the content of human rights is to miss the point.  There may be aspects of agreement worth noting among what many societies take to be fundamental to a life of dignity and what the modern notion of human rights includes as its content.  The concept of human rights is not universal in origin, however; and it cannot be located in most societies.[19]

Granted that an elaborate set of rights, purporting to protect the individual against an excessive or arbitrary use of power by the state, was first articulated by the modern West, one should not dismiss cross-cultural consensus as irrelevant.  For even if we were to assume that the West could learn nothing from non-Western cultures, a cross-cultural dialogue would still be needed to understand the implications of applying a set of extremely abstract rights in various socio-political milieus.  Such an understanding should help expand the margin of tolerance for cultural differences, and the appreciation of the complexity of cultural reform and the need to allow this process to run its natural course.[20]


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