Irshad Manji: 'When we sanctify cultures, we get group-think'

From a contribution by the author and broadcaster to a discussion on 'Notions of Identity in a Multicultural Society', held at the Canadian High Commission in London
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In Canada, it is Muslim women - many of them - who have hit the streets to protest what they term this abuse of multiculturalism. But they found it quite difficult to draw non-Muslims to join them. This leads not just to a lack of solidarity but also to a lack of integrity.

According to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, last year alone, in that country, 1,200 women were murdered for alleged breaches of their families' honour. That's twice as many detainees than [there are] at Guantanamo Bay.

But honour killings have generated far less public condemnation. Why? I think a large part of the reason is cultural relativism. Now, there are many who would say "but surely we can have it both ways. We can embrace the equality of individuals and the equality of cultures". Yes, if we convince the gatekeepers of cultures to soften their own identities, allow more voices in and voices, in particular, who can and will reinterpret certain traditions.

But here's the key. Even that requires challenging traditions which risks putting people on the defensive, which risks hardening their identities. Is this a worthy risk to take? I would argue that if you believe in universal human rights as I do, then it is not just worthwhile, it is integral. As in integrity. Because if you believe that all human beings are entitled to a certain set of dignities, then those cultural practices which violate such dignities cannot, by definition, be justified.

The universality of human rights is premised on the dignity of the individual, not on the sanctity of cultures. When we sanctify those constructs called cultures, we make them static. We drain them of their dynamism. We wind up with group-think. Otherwise known as fundamentalism.