Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lauryn Oates on the fight for a little more freedom in Afghanistan

What do Muslims really believe? As I have argued here before, that is a question for which the Koran is at best a partial guide. What anyone really believes is really only revealed when push comes to shove, and choices must be made, in the context of a particular place and time.

Lauryn Oates who spoke in Vancouver on her work in Afghanistan, and whom we were pleased to watch give an intellectual beating to chief nihilist, Derrick O'Keefe, a year or so ago, on the question of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, has a powerful column in the Ottawa Citizen which reveals to us something about what Afghans believe, something we could never have learned if Canada and other nations had not engaged that country and its people in the way we have. She also tells us something we have learned about Canadian nihilists:
Every year, all over South Asia, hundreds of women have acid sprayed in their faces for committing the offence of going to school, or for going to work, or for merely walking down a street without covering their faces. In Bangladesh alone, an average of 228 women are subjected to such acid attacks every year.

But there is an important and very specific lesson to be learned from the Kandahar incident.

More than a dozen of the young Kandahari women were seriously injured, two of them blinded, and the victims have all defiantly returned to their classes at the Mirwais Mena school. One of the girls who suffered severe eye injuries is 17-year-old Shamsia: “I will go to my school even if they kill me,” Shamsia said. “My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies.”

The lesson here is that millions of brave Afghan schoolgirls are dedicated to pursuing their studies, in sometimes perilous and hostile circumstances, and their devotion is heartfelt, homegrown and hardy. It has not been “imposed” upon them by the “West.”
Our focus should be on how we can do more, and better. Instead, a bizarre kind of cultural relativism has come to infect national debates about the Afghan mission, clouding our judgment and entirely obscuring the very meaning of universal human rights.

I first noticed it when I was in high school, in 1996, when I was circulating a petition to protest the Taliban’s brutal oppression of women. One of my teachers refused to sign the petition, saying, well, that’s their culture, and we have no right to interfere.

Two years ago I spoke on a panel organized by Carleton University’s Students Coalition Against War, in Ottawa. I was accused of exaggerating the suffering of Afghan women, but even if I had a point, it was an “internal cultural matter,” and certainly none of my business.

Human rights are culturally relative, the thinking goes, and the universality of human rights is some sort of western imperialist construction. It is as though girls have no right to read if their “culture” forbids it. It is a rarely scrutinized assumption, but it is ubiquitous in Canadian universities, and it reaches its most toxic concentrations in “anti-war” debates.

The result is that the once great cause of fulfilling the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rendered merely a “Eurocentric” enterprise, and necessarily something shabby.

Years from now, when our own children look back on us, what will they make of how Canada, one of the richest countries of the world, lived up to the promise of universal human rights? In Afghanistan, where those rights are only now being extended to the people, and are still just nominally available to the women of that country, did we uphold our commitment?

Did we not see in the Afghan people our shared humanity? Did we recognize death-cult misogyny for what it really is? Did we have the courage to call fascism by its proper name, or did we excuse ourselves and retreat into the comfortable, false virtues of pacifist isolationism and cultural relativism?

Afghanistan is not just a theatre of war in the conventional meaning of the term. It is also a battleground of values. But it is not a clash between “western” and “eastern” cultures. The Afghan people want their girls to go to school. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban. But in Canada, it has nonetheless become necessary to point this out, over and over, and also to point out what it is that the Taliban actually do want.
Read it all... (HT: Terry Glavin)

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