Monday, February 12, 2007

(Un)holier than thou

I was planning on leaving the Sign and Sight debate behind me, partly because there are other things I’d really rather write about but also because the tone set (and approach employed) by those who have attacked Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash has been so frustrating, dispiriting and needlessly overblown that it seems pointless to continue in this vein.

For instance, in a follow-up discussion at Butterflies and Wheels, we find the following quote from Ian Buruma (which was written in response, remember, to the tiresome diatribe of Bruckner's which I commented on here):

Bruckner mentions the opening of an Islamic hospital in Rotterdam and reserved beaches for Muslim women in Italy. I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists, but to Bruckner these concessions are akin to segregation in the southern states of America, and even Apartheid in South Africa.

Buruma’s statement receives the following commentary:

Well, that's quite a failure. Bruckner is right. These concessions are akin to southern segregation because - yo, Mr Buruma! - segregation is what they're about. An Islamic hospital is 'Islamic' primarily via sexual segregation of doctors, nurses and patients. Reserved beaches for Muslim women are - hello? - segregated beaches. They are, indeed, a form of apartheid, of apartness.

The comments section then features some outraged huffing about oppression and segregation, references to Brown vs. The Board of Education (the Supreme Court decision that helped desegregate the south and rightly dismantled the notion of ‘separate but equal’) and a not altogether convincing discussion of nudist beaches. The assumptions seem to be, amidst all of this, that 1) any reference to ‘tolerance’ is illegitimate since its just a cover for capitulation to religious fanatics 2) that expanding freedom of ‘choice’ is the only valid measure of social policy and 3) Muslim sensitivities regarding modesty are simply imposed on oppressed women by men and therefore do not need to be taken into account.

I have doubts that any of this is all that simple. And I’ll expand upon that in a moment.

First, however, I must say that this argument (like Bruckner’s) is undermined from the start by its extravagant analogies. There is not only something inaccurate but also something offensive, I find, in comparing the opening of a religious-oriented hospital or the re-writing of beach ordinances to Apartheid and Jim Crow.

‘Apartheid’ may literally mean ‘apartness.’ ‘Segregate’ might indeed derive from the Latin for ‘apart’.

But while words are important, context and history (not to say a sense of proportion) matter too. A great deal. ‘Apartheid’ was a brutal, organised system of oppression, torture and economic exploitation by which a minority maintained its dominance over millions of people. ‘Segregation’ in the American south was the result of a century-long attempt to maintain white privilege over an oppressed minority group which, recall, had been enslaved, brutalized and exploited in that region for nearly three hundred years, and it was accompanied by heinous, murderous violence.

Consider this carefully.

Buruma suggests an Islamic hospital or a reserved beach is not ‘so much more terrible’ than Kosher restaurants and Catholic hospitals. So, he thinks that they’re not necessarily the same thing and even leaves open the possibility that they might in fact be somewhat more troubling. Still, he finds them to be far more comparable to Kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals or reserved beaches for nudists than to segregation and Apartheid. Is he really that wrong?

Let’s take a closer look at the two issues in question.

An article on the ‘Muslim beach’ appeared in the Guardian last year. Here is part of it:

The council of Riccione on the Adriatic riviera was reported yesterday to have altered its bylaws to allow a section of its famed beach to be closed off and made women-only. That way Muslim women on holiday in the area could swim and enjoy themselves on the beach while respecting Islam's injunctions against mixed bathing and displaying their bodies to members of the opposite sex. Some women-only beaches already exist along the Italian coast, but they are visible from mixed areas.

Loretta Villa, the councillor responsible for the initiative, told Corriere della Sera newspaper: "Riccione is a city that lives off tourism. We need to be in a position to respond to the demands of our guests. And in this case the motives are not superficial, but cultural and religious. We have already had some indirect requests for separate beach areas."

The proposed beach zone would also have an all-female staff, including women lifeguards.

The initiative appeared to have been prompted by a sharp increase in the number of free-spending tourists coming to Riccione from the Arabian peninsula.

The horror. The horror.

So, the ‘Muslim’ beach, at least in this case, is actually a ‘women-only’ beach (which also makes the reference to ‘Sharia’ in the article’s title somewhat gratuitous). Rather than evidence of soggy cultural relativist traitors in our midst, or a sign of growing Muslim aggression, we have a rather more mundane market-based decision intended to attract tourists. They wish to respond, as a service provider in the public sphere, to the expectations being made by an important segment of its customer base.

One may scoff, of course, at the reference to ‘cultural and religious’ motives with regard to modesty. One may also be as outraged at a ‘women-only’ beach as at a ‘Muslim-only’ beach. Perhaps for some people, this makes no difference to how Absolutely Outrageous this all is.

However, every culture has different standards of what it wants to accept in terms of revealing the body or what activities of the sexes are ‘segregated’. These distinctions are significant even among Western nations (and even within them), but let’s stick with the topic in question.

Topless women are a common sight, for example, on French beaches, but this is something which is less acceptable in Spain or Italy. Most saunas in Germany have a Frauentag (‘women’s day’) or at least certain hours of operation during which only women are allowed to use that facility. (The new local sauna near where I live – built partly with public funds – does not have such a rule, but there has been an active and vocal campaign by women to establish a period when men would be prohibited.) By contrast, sauna-going in parts of Scandinavia, I believe, is normally done separately by men and women, making this issue moot. We also ‘segregate’ toilets and changing rooms by sex – something which, I think, most people would wish to maintain – without thinking much about it. (But is there any purely logical reason for it? I’m not so sure. Clearly, a silly 'cultural' attitude and therefore not to be considered.)

And then, compared to continental Europe, most Americans (and Britons) are rather more modest when it comes to public nudity. (I recall a sign on a beach in New Jersey which was written in stark red letters: ‘Warning! Beyond this point you may encounter nude sunbathers’. Thanks for the information…but is a ‘warning’ really necessary?) Nor is the much discussed ‘nudist’ beach always, simply or unequivocally an advance of ‘choice’ or freedom. They are, mainly, an accommodation with a group with a desire to engage in activities that exceed a publicly agreed upon standard of modesty. The compromise is that this activity is allowed but only within particular limitations.

Some beaches are indeed simply ‘clothing-optional’; others, however, are not, and either through mandate or informal pressure among the users, remaining clothed is often prohibited or at least frowned upon. An American friend of mine who lived in Freiburg always spoke fondly of her favourite local public pool there, where there was a rather strict distinction between ‘Textil Zeit’ (lit.: ‘textile time’), when clothing was required, and the ‘Textilfreie Zeit’, when it was prohibited.

Moreover, the expansion of ‘nudist’ or ‘naturist’ beaches is not always an increase in ‘choice’ or freedom. In the former GDR (hardly a hotbed of freedom in other contexts), a culture of naked bathing developed which became a fully normal part of beach culture. Since reunification, the east has been slowly forced to adopt western sensitivities: whereas one could previously strip down to nothing on any beach, it is increasingly so that only particular ‘FKK’ (Freikörperkultur) beaches allow nude bathing. In this context, then, a certain loss of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ is involved.

Nevertheless, German democracy seems to be less than endangered.

I apologise for this rather long digression into the topic of saunas, ‘women’s days’, and nude bathing.

However, I’m not the one who compared the opening of a ‘women-only’ beach to ‘Apartheid’, and, as I feel this comparison is a travesty of logic, I wanted to suggest that there is nothing new or all that alarming about differences in standards of modesty nor in conflicts over them. There are a lot of fully modernised, western women who don’t feel comfortable sharing a sauna with men. They want their own sauna hours. Many saunas, partly for economic reasons (they don’t want to lose customers), accommodate them. There are nudists who want to spend all day in the altogether. Excellent; however, not everyone wants to see them, so such activities are confined to particular locations.

There is, however, a curious assumption being made in this debate that the person with the lower standard of modesty is automatically, somehow, more free and more enlightened. Are naturists more ‘free’ than people who prefer to conceal their bodies to varying degrees at the beach and who would rather not be subjected to looking at their neighbour’s privates? Are the women who want a separate sauna period ‘for them’ in a public facility imposing a form of ‘segregation’, even ‘Apartheid’? Are they in any way less ‘free’? In part, of course, these are personal decisions, but there are also such things as cultural norms, and they vary (Go topless on a French beach and you’re normal; do it in most of the US and, oooh, you’re daring...and may be subject to arrest. The British, for their part, seem to find the human body an incredibly embarrassing and silly thing; an attitude which I have long thought was embarrassing and silly.)

While there is no single ‘Islamic’ standard (as with head-covering, interpretations and contexts vary, whatever the Cairo statement might say), many Muslims (both men and women) have a different standard of modesty. It’s not one that I share, and it’s linked both to religious attitudes and to a view of relations between the sexes that – depending on the specific issue – I find to be anything ranging from odd to abhorrent.

But we’re not talking in this context about wife-beating, forced marriage or honour killings. And I don’t think that providing a ‘women-only’ beach implies acceptance of those other things. Not every ‘segregation’ of the sexes leads us down the road to oppression and Sharia (if so, then the best weapon the West might have in the clash of civilisations would be to introduce the unisex toilet). Likewise, I think the opening of an Islamic hospital is less than crisis for Enlightenment values and even less evidence of ‘Apartheid’.

As described here, the hospital is not only defined by ‘sexual segregation’, but also by the provision of a halal diet and will offer religious services. Nope, this is definitely not my thing. But it is something which, most likely, a lot of Muslims living in the Netherlands actually would want. They are, after all, part of Dutch society. Their wishes, as long as they do not unacceptably violate Dutch law or norms (I think it goes without saying that I think that, but considering this debate so far, I can't be too sure), can and should be taken into account. This is partly what ‘tolerance’ – and democracy – is about.

Might not this hospital, additionally, lead to greater ‘choice’ for Muslims (and, in theory, for non-Muslims: like the ‘Muslim beach’ it doesn't seem that non-Muslims would be forbidden from using it)? It may, in particular, benefit Muslim women, who, for a variety of reasons (including, but not limited to, their own wishes or preferences) may not currently seek out medical attention they require. One might find it abhorrent that such a woman would be treated exclusively by female staff at this particular hotel. I don’t like or agree with this kind of sexual division either. Nonetheless, it would seem to me that there are other benefits which might be had here which help to balance out those concerns.

A commentator at Butterflies and Wheels suggests that ‘tolerance’ means being allowed to practice one’s religion in private or at church but ‘IF you bring it on to the public place (the agora), then you must obey the same rules as everyone else.’ Very well, that’s an important distinction, but, interestingly enough, ‘everyone else’ seems here to, by definition, include only non-Muslims. If we define those who contribute to making the rules about public space by excluding everyone who disagrees with us, then reaching consensus is, of course, easy. But at which point do minority groups get to participate with ‘everyone else’ in drawing up the ‘rules’ of the public space?

‘If you want the law changed,’ he or she adds, ‘there are methods for doing this.’ Well, this seems to be exactly what happened at the dreaded ‘Muslim beach’ in Italy. In the case of the Islamic hospital, the entrepreneur who seeks to open it (who seems to be both non-Muslim and motivated more by exploiting a potentially lucrative market niche than in bringing Sharia to your doorstep) has assured that the hospital will meet existing legal standards in the Netherlands. If this is so, I fail to see how either case represents anything even remotely like ‘Apartheid’ or US-southern-style ‘segregation’, labels which seem to have been applied without any significant interest in context or the facts of the matter.

Here, we might have a point on which I simply differ substantially with others. If so, that’s where we’ll have to leave it.

But I do think its worth saying a few good words for the concept of ‘tolerance’.

‘Tolerance’, of course, doesn’t mean that anything goes, nor does it mean that one loses the facility to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not. Buruma (like Ash) clearly knows this; to suggest otherwise is being needlessly belligerent (or requires making all kinds of assumptions about what he ‘really’ meant which are not sustainable unless one is primarily interested in scoring rhetorical points rather than having a reasonable discussion).

Once a commentator has established the unacceptability of violence and oppression, is he or she required to repeatedly footnote their references to ‘tolerance’ so that it’s clear it does not include all those truly heinous things? I suggest not. Nor do I think that when Buruma says combating violence is ‘a matter for law enforcement’ that he ‘seems to deny’ other forms of persuasion or campaigning would be in any way useful. It takes, I think, a great deal of effort to make these assumptions, and it is bizarre to act as if such things were mutually exclusive. (What sends a better signal that such behaviour is unacceptable than a nice long jail-sentence?)

Even if liberal-minded people need to use the concept more carefully (which is true, though I suggest Buruma is already doing so), it remains a vitally important issue.

But what’s strange is that some commentators seem to presume that the European population consists merely, on the one hand, of aggressive, identity-politics obsessed minorities and fundamentalists and, on the other, mush-minded multi-culturalists ready to sell-out to them. There are also, however, parts of the population who object to the Muslims (and other minorities) in our midst on grounds which have nothing to do with reason and the Enlightenment. They object to them simply as Muslims, or as people with browner skins who have strange customs and who ‘don’t belong’. (There is also a much larger population who doesn’t care much about the issue one way or another, though who are at least somewhat latently uncomfortable about foreignness.)

Muslim fundamentalists are not the only preachers of hate, nor can one say that the current problems in integration are simply the result of ‘multiculturalism’. Nor is integration (and I think this is being forgotten here) simply about religion. As Buruma eloquently describes in Murder in Amsterdam, many European immigrants, despite genuine efforts to integrate, have continued to be discriminated against and rejected. He also, of course, acknowledges that some immigrants seek to isolate themselves from the broader culture. Too many advocates of a multicultural approach forget this. But to let the issues of discrimination and intolerance disappear from the discussion is irresponsible. It is in part this frustration and exclusion which has helped to make hateful death-cults and religious madness so appealing to some people. (But, in case it’s necessary to spell it out: to explain is not to excuse.)

Most versions of multiculturalism are inadequate as a response to the problems Europe faces. They deserve to critiqued and even mocked. However, how we got here also has something to do with a history of indifference, discrimination and outright hostility. Managing real integration is demanding task which will inevitably, require some mixture of backbone and compromise. (It's results will probably always remain ambiguous, as they always have been.) Analysing the shortcomings of integration in a realistic way (while also condemning the religious madmen) might be equally difficult.

But it is something that Buruma does far better than Bruckner, Kelek or Cliteur.


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