Thursday, February 07, 2008

On the limits of multiculturalism and tolerance

Saw this article on the BBC today about the Archbishop of Canterbury arguing that Muslims in the UK should have the option to be governed/ tried/ dealt with under Sharia law courts, if they so choose.

Not an easy issue. On one hand, we want not to be France, and insist everyone become French. If a little Muslim girl wants to wear her head scarf in class, as her family's religious beliefs dictate, we should probably let her. That said, if that little Muslim girl's dad wants to stone her mom to death for being seen talking to a man not from her own family, as her family's religious beliefs dictate (and this may not be a legit action-consequence pairing from Islam, but we all know such "stone a woman for inappropriate action with a man" laws are in there), we should probably not let that happen.

And this is the problem of tolerance and moral relativism. If right and wrong come down to community standards, we have the problem of micro community and macro community with different standards. Micro community says women must cover faces, macro community says no masks in public. To reverse it, micro community says a beer after work is just fine, macro says the Koran says no alcohol (a la ex pat in Saudi Arabia).

So what to do? In the case of UK law, I see a real danger of coercion, given that a woman may lack sufficient power in her community to insist on a UK civil hearing instead of the Sharia hearing, which would treat her, from our perspective, harshly and repressively. This notion of "free to chose the system they want to work under" only works if all parties in a dispute have equal power in the dispute to choose the system. A key benefit of having one law is that power differences between disputants cannot shape the outcome by shaping the terrain upon which a dispute is decided. We all must show up on one, common, regulation playing field. One doesn't get to dictate that one will defend a goal that's 2' by 3' while one's opponent defends one 20' by 30'.

Essentially, this boils down to: Live with your country's laws; change your country's laws; or leave the country. If Muslims find the French "no head scarves for little girls" policy terrible, they must work to gain support from the broader majority to change the law, comply with the law, or choose to live someplace where they can be as they like. It's the story of human history. Puritains, Mormons, early Christians, etc. all found a way to coexist, or leave. And it works this way in reverse: Western women in Muslim countries, hot as they are, don't wear tube tops. And we don't open liquor stores there any more than we'd open kiddie porn stores. We accept local law and custom. And choose to live there only for a short while.

If the UK takes on this idea of permitting community standards of law, where does it end? Do Rastafarian communities get to smoke all the ganga they want to? Do African Muslim types get to practice female circumcision? (Why not? We let Jews & others hack off bits of baby boy penises...) What about Pagans? Satanists? Branch Davidians who need some shoulder fired rocket launchers to be prepared for the rapture/ apocalypse?

This puts the state in the position of deciding which communities are legit, and which community laws can and cannot supersede state law. And it's not up to courts to do this, as they are there to interpret and apply, it's up to legislative bodies. This, then, puts communities in the position of being able to bypass the macro society's law creation process. Forget parliament, our tribal elders just decided it's okay to leave baby Ngele out in the cold to die, since he was born with a club foot, and this, as we all know, is a bad omen. And is what we do back in Africa.

Moral relativism is a temporary appeasement which only delays the inevitable Highlander style clash between mutually incompatible ideas. And the problem with moral ideas is that they're "ought" statements. Which are directable not just at one's self, but at others. Which creates conflict between groups with conflicting ideas as soon as they direct their incompatible "oughts" at each other. The conflict is inevitable. Women either ought to have a male relative with them in public, or not. It's either fine to own, produce, sell and consume alcohol, or it's not. It's fine to practice infanticide, or it's not. It's okay to mangle your children's genitals without their consent, or it's not. Yes, we have the idea of "whatever happens between consenting adults in the privacy of their home is okay". But this breaks down any time the behavior is happening between parties of unequal power, like parents and children, humans and animals, or, in some cases, women and men or younger and older people. Can't lock your toddler, puppy, wife, or great grand mother in the closet for three days and not feed them, even if it is happening in the privacy of your own home. Even if the space aliens told you to. And when you get busted for doing so, don't expect to go to your own special "talking to space aliens" court.

So I disagree with the archbishop. I think the Brits must say to their Muslim citizens:

Hi! Welcome to Western democratic society! Don't like the laws? Then you can:
  1. Work to change the laws within our system
  2. Live with the laws as they are
  3. Leave
Update: More evidence of incompatibility. This kind of Islam is incompatible with contact with the rest of the world. And isolation isn't an option. Something's gotta give.