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Berlusconi Revisited - Emily Monroy

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Berlusconi Revisited: The West Versus the Middle East

Italy doesn't generally make the headlines beyond the usual political scandal, but in recent months the country was propelled into the limelight by its Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Berlusconi announced the superiority of Western society over Islamic civilization. His rationale: while the former has managed to guarantee its citizens freedom, prosperity and human rights, the latter is still "stuck where it was 1,400 years ago." He expressed confidence that the West would eventually triumph over Islam the way it did over Communism.

Berlusconi's remarks caused quite an uproar. European political leaders, understandably embarrassed at a time when they were trying to garner Moslem support for the war on Afghanistan, reprimanded their colleague. Middle Eastern commentators didn't hesitate to call him a racist. Venezuelan journalist Tulio Hernandez likened Berlusconi's penchant for comparing cultures to Adolf Hitler's similar tendency, which is rather ironic since virtually no one - including Hernandez - would have second thoughts about declaring Nazi Germany inferior to virtually any other society in history.

My biggest beef with Berlusconi's statements lies less with their political implications than with their historical inaccuracy. Islamic society has not remained unchanged over 1,400 years. In fact, at one time Islamic civilization was more technologically and socially advanced than the West. The Moslem rulers of medieval Spain, for example, showed far greater tolerance towards non-Moslems than the Catholic monarchs who succeeded them did towards Jews, Moslems and Christian "heretics." Furthermore, it's somewhat difficult to define "Islamic society." Islam after all is the majority religion of countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Lumping them all together as "Moslem" is like equating Lithuania and the Philippines because both happen to be Catholic.

In addition, customs frequently labeled "Islamic" may have no basis in the Moslem religion at all. For instance, conservative columnist Don Feder, who lauds the Italian Prime Minister as a "bright light on a continent of dim bulbs," credits Islam with traditions such as clitorectomy. However, the procedure is not mentioned in the Koran and actually pre-dates it, is absent from a number of Moslem countries like Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and has been practised by non-Moslems as well - including nineteenth-century Western doctors who prescribed it for women deemed "hypersexual." Feder also adds honor killings, in which women are murdered by family members for engaging in illicit sex, to Islam's list of dubious achievements. But in reality, honor killings are not unknown among non-Moslem groups in the Middle East, like the Druze, for example.

I strongly suspect that attitudes like Feder's stem not so much from an aversion to Islam as a religion but to the Middle East as a culture. I also suspect these misgivings are shared by many Westerners, even by those who do not necessarily subscribe to Berlusconi's "West is Best" philosophy.

Right-wingers find it easier to express such misgivings. A conservative friend of mine agreed completely with Berlusconi, claiming the Prime Minister had merely stated what others lacked the courage to admit. For Western left-wingers, though, badmouthing the Middle East presents a dilemma. On one hand, they are critical of the Occident and what they believe it stands for: racism, capitalism, greed, and imperialism among other things. But how do they defend a culture that at least in its present form goes against pretty much every ideal they hold dear? How does an opponent of capital punishment go to bat for societies that routinely execute people for adultery? What can a Westerner who might pillory former Vice President Dan Quayle for his condemnation of the fictional Murphy Brown say about countries that imprison women for getting pregnant out of wedlock? Questions like these test leftists' much cherished principle of cultural relativism. Yet for all my quarrels with cultural relativism, its promoters may have a point. It's very difficult to compare Middle Eastern and Occidental culture because they differ so much from one other. Concepts that strike Westerners as bizarre, archaic or even barbaric appear normal to Middle Easterners. For instance, the distinction Westerners make between private morality and public law is much less clear in the Middle East. Take the issue of non-marital childbearing. Even in the most conservative Western country in this regard, the United States, where according to a recent Gallup poll almost half the respondents disapproved of unmarried couples having children, few people would want to return to a Scarlet Letter-like scenario where women pregnant outside the bounds of matrimony were punished by law. On the other hand, women and girls in some Middle Eastern countries who find themselves in this situation can be jailed - even if the pregnancy was caused by rape.

The Occident's boundary line between public and private morality limits the power of religious leaders. Their Middle Eastern counterparts by contrast lack such brakes. The Taliban in Afghanistan has been able to force women to wear burqas in the name of Islam (even though such dress is not mandated in the Koran). Granted, women's clothing or lack thereof seems to be a ubiquitous concern among clerics of all stripes. For instance, Father Ener Glotario, a parish priest in Barranquilla, Colombia, denied communion to scantily clad female parishioners because in his view such attire in church was an affront to the Lord. Most Westerners would understand Father Glotario's reasoning (I mean going to church half-naked may not be a "sin," but it isn't very socially appropriate either). It would be another matter, though, if Glotario demanded a similar dress code in shopping malls on the grounds that God could see inside malls and might be displeased by skimpily dressed shoppers. That would be overstepping his boundaries as a religious leader. But in places like Saudi Arabia women are legally obliged to dress "decently" (in long robes and veils) so as not to offend public morality.

Many Westerners look with horror on Middle Eastern customs such as the burqa, honor killings, and the public flogging and execution of adulterers. Even a relatively conservative Western woman like myself, who if forced to choose between the miniskirt and the burqa would probably select the latter, would feel uncomfortable being ordered to dress a certain way. Then again, Middle Easterners might regard Occidental women's freedom to have premarital sex, bear a child out of wedlock, and walk around in scanty attire as a degradation and insult to the woman herself. And some conservatives in the West might agree. Yet even the most prudish Westerner would probably stop short of trying to enshrine this opinion into law. The notion that others should be allowed to do things that one might personally find immoral, offensive or degrading does not seem to have entered the Middle Eastern consciousness as of yet.

Cultural relativism has become almost an article of faith in some left-wing circles. In a sense, it's a legitimate reaction to the "West is best" mentality promulgated by Silvio Berlusconi and his ilk. Nonetheless, leftists lose a great deal of credibility when they refuse to admit that the traits they decry so much in the West like sexual repression, the oppression of women and religious fundamentalism are much more prevalent in the Middle East than anywhere in the Occident. To be fair, many right-wingers are hardly more consistent. Some conservatives who lament the Taliban's treatment of women, for example, don't have any compunction about criticizing their own women for wanting a life beyond hearth and home. In the end, left- and right-wingers alike might acknowledge that judging the Middle East by the standards Westerners of all political stripes have set for themselves is difficult and perhaps even impossible.

- March 2002



Emily Monroy is a freelance writer and lives in Toronto, Canada. She wrote a serie of essays on racism and identity, published on various on- and off-line magazines.

Read another essay on the subject of White Guilt.


Notice © 2002 IP and the author

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