COMMENT: The virus of cultural relativism —Ahmad Ali Khalid - Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Source :

Many of the practices in Pakistan today related to women's rights and sanctioned by religious authority, are not strictly derived from religious teaching but cultural practice. Hence cultural relativism also blocks the moral truths of religious teaching

“Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West” — (Quran, 2:117).

“The East and the West belong to God: wherever you turn, there is His face” (Quran, 2:155).

The citation of cultural relativism in arguments about society, law, women’s rights and politics is frequent in Muslim societies. The common defence against criticism of Muslim societies — against the so-called ‘western liberals’ — is that every society has its own mores and ideas, and it is unfair for people of different cultures to pass judgement because these mores and ideas belong to another culture. It is as if the difference in culture should be enough to suspend critical analysis and investigation. But then this should work both ways; should it not? When Pakistanis criticise the West for being decadent, immoral and not having family values, they should also be stopped with the argument of cultural relativism.

There are two types of cultural relativism. First is the academic version used in anthropology as a matter of fact; it is a fact that different cultural communities draw up different moral codes. This is an empirical fact, it can be observed and there is nothing controversial in this claim. The second type, however, is dangerous; it argues that morality can only come from our culture, that there is no morality independent of our culture. If there is no independent way of determining morality, how can we criticise cultures for adopting certain practices such as female infanticide? This is the fallacy and danger of cultural relativism as a moral theory.

It also assumes, first of all, that cultures are discrete and autonomous units free from interaction with other cultures and that culture is a static and inactive entity. It also assumes that the national community is synonymous with a single culture. But a quick anthropological study of Pakistan, or indeed any other nation, will reveal that although modern nation states profess singular citizenship, this does not mean nation states profess a single culture. Citizens can come from multiple cultures, faiths or religions but are bound by a common civic identity.

When the mullah cries hoarse about the dangers of western society, and then in an instant criticises any attempt at a rational critique of Pakistani society by arguing that we each have a different path and have our own opinions, it becomes clear and evident how the virus of cultural relativism and its associated hypocrisy is rife in Pakistani society. Indeed, many of the practices in Pakistan today related to women’s rights and sanctioned by religious authority are not strictly derived from religious teaching but cultural practice. Hence cultural relativism also blocks the moral truths of religious teaching.

Cultural relativism is what prevents religious groups in Pakistan from endorsing international articles and initiatives aimed at improving and safeguarding human rights. The frequent complaint is that human rights are a western concept, hence they have little meaning for Pakistani society, which is Islamic. But this intellectual xenophobia is totally at odds with Islamic tradition. The lunacy of this position can be illustrated by a simple example. The question no longer is whether it is actually right to kill a person or not, but rather whether your culture allows you to kill a person. There is no room for independent thought or the individual.

Ironically, cultural relativism gnaws at the universal narrative of faith. The fact that a religion such as Islam is meant for the whole of mankind, if we strictly follow the cultural relativist’s analysis, it is meaningless. For the cultural relativist, Islam is good but only for Muslims, and indeed no morality is universal including religiously inspired morality. Hence those who cite cultural relativism as a defence for religious practices are committing a fallacy and are totally unaware of the full consequences of adopting such a moral position. Anyone who argues for cultural relativism must necessarily agree that there is no basis for moral progress as well.

The first philosopher of Islam, Al-Kindi, in the eighth century faced similar opposition when he argued for a synthesis between religious teaching and Greek philosophy, but his response was eloquent and brave in capturing the essence of the inclusive narrative of the Quran, and to affirm the value of reason. It is necessary to quote him:

“We ought not be embarrassed of appreciating the truth and of obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it.”

I am not arguing for ethical absolutism or that any one culture, religion, civilisation or society has an incontestable monopoly over ethical reasoning. However, I am arguing that we should be able to sensibly discuss moral issues honestly and engage in public reasoning within our own communities to reach logical conclusions. To simply circumvent the debate by making a crass appeal to cultural relativism is intellectual dishonesty. It also lends itself to the practice of social intimidation and persecution against dissidents and freethinkers within a given society or culture.

We should be able to have a dialogue where we can critique the views and beliefs of other participants in a civil and mature manner. On a personal note, I do not believe that the secular basis for human rights in the appeal for free standing and autonomous reason is accurate. In religious societies, we must be able to utilise religious reason to argue for human rights. Indeed, the position Ebrahim Moosa argues for, “critical traditionalism”, is well suited to this effort: “Critique of tradition is not to debunk tradition, but it is rather an introspection of what for one is a continuous questioning of one’s being” (Voices of Islam: Voices of Change). And, from the same source, fundamentally we need to: “Engage with tradition critically to constantly interrogate tradition and strive to ask productive questions.”

Moving beyond cultural relativism is not to yield to pressure from outside cultures or countries, or to yield to some form of moral American imperialism but rather to ask productive questions, to ask searching questions, to engage introspectively and be confident enough to grapple with the big questions without taking refuge in shallow moralisms. We must heed the advice of that ancient philosopher Al-Kindi whose intellectual method is more relevant than ever in today’s polarised world.

The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. He can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment