Code Pink, multiculturalism and relativism

The actions of Code Pink may be a natural consequence of the endorsement by many on the left and amongst feminists of multicultural values. Indeed, it may also, and more insidiously, be a consequence of some recent initiatives on the part of the UN, says Alison Assiter.

The significant piece of writing by Meredith Tax, on Code Pink and the Taliban, pointing out the one -sidedness of the protest at the presence of US drones on Pakistani soil at the same time as effectively turning a blind eye to atrocities committed against women by the Taliban (even though Code Pink did act in solidarity with Malala Yousafzai), is merely the tip of the iceberg.  Rather,  the actions of Code Pink may be a natural consequence of the endorsement by many on the left and amongst feminists of multi-cultural values. Indeed, it may also, and more insidiously, be a consequence of some recent initiatives on the part of the UN.

First, a comment on the notion of ‘sisterhood’. In a response to Tax's article by Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, the latter accuses Tax of being 'unsisterly' in writing her piece. Benjamin suggests that Tax ought to have contacted Code Pink before writing her piece. I think it is very important that women do not prevent each other from commenting on and disagreeing with one another about major political questions on the grounds that to do so is ‘unsisterly’. Meredith Tax was not criticising the Code Pink activists for protesting about US drones. She was rather pointing to a crucial omission in their tactics. For anyone, as many have pointed out, who has experienced, either directly or indirectly, the effects of fundamentalist policies, these policies are also horrific and deserve to be treated as such by activists.

A few years ago, prompted by concerns that the notion of  human rights was Eurocentric and gender biased, writers like Bikhu Parekh (Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory) and others rejected both political and comprehensive liberalism. Many in the world, Parekh argued, failed to share the view of the major defender of political liberalism – John Rawls – to the effect that all social and economic inequalities should be judged on the basis of what they do to the worst off. For Hindus and Buddhists, for example, Parekh argued, their talents are the products of an agents’ meritorious deeds in a past life. Parekh further claimed that, for example, John Locke's British colonial justification of the colonisation of India showed the limitations of universal theories of human nature and of human rights. (Locke had argued that since the Indians he was discussing did not own their land, but freely roamed over it, then the land could be taken over without their consent). Locke was clearly wrong and racist in his view. However, I submit that it is the claim that was derived from this, on the part of a number of thinkers on the left, largely in the western world, that may have led  to positions such as that of the Code Pink group referred to in Meredith’s article. Parekh, as one ‘multi cultural’ thinker, drew the conclusion from his view that Locke was wrong, that human beings are culturally embedded and a culture gives meaning and structure to human shared capacities. Moral life, Parekh argued, is necessarily embedded and cannot be isolated from the wider culture.

I mention Parekh as one forceful exponent of this form of cultural relativism but I could have referred to many others. One example of the relativising of the concept of a right is the  2012  Russian sponsored UN resolution affirming ‘traditional values’. A further example of the kind of relativist thinking that renders criticism of some practices difficult to make is the Human Rights Council adoption in 2007, of  a resolution condemning ‘the defamation of religion’. This was an  attempt by the OIC countries to introduce what was effectively a resolution on blasphemy to the Human Rights Council.  Whilst it is clear that incitement to religious discrimination  is inappropriate and wrong, the resolution blurred the distinction between protecting a religion or protecting followers of the religion; and the only religion that was mentioned in the context was Islam.

After many years of campaigning by over 200 civil society groups, including by the daughter of Salman Taseer, a Governor in Pakistan, who was murdered for his support of a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, the resolution was finally stopped in 2011. Now there is consideration being given to a resolution to protect believers rather than belief.  Cuba and Russia have been supportive of OIC efforts. Russia’s attitude to the Pussy Rioters gives some clue as to what might happen to those who offend against religious belief, and are given no comparable protection for their freedom to criticise religion.  Given the widely divergent interpretations of what might constitute ‘ incitement to religious discrimination’ it becomes, in the context, very difficult to criticise practices, such as some of those espoused by the Taliban, when those doing so might be accused of ‘incitement to religious discrimination’. Is it not surprising, therefore, that Code Pink may have found it difficult to criticise what might have been viewed by some as a ‘local’ interpretation of human rights? Jane Reynolds, in responding to Meredith, confirms this reading in her comment on Meredith Tax's blog when she writes:

            ‘It is true, that many of us who live in the countries that have launched the "war against terrorism" and the various "humanitarian wars" (Kosova, Iraq, Libya,......Syria?) are reluctant to join in condemnation of the regimes that are obviously being targeted by our governments for a new military adventure, seeing that our criticisms of those regimes will be used as a justification for a war. This is obviously not the right response, but even so I ask our sisters to not condemn us all as imperialists, but to help us with suggestions about what can be done without contributing to the push towards war’.

Such criticism might have been viewed, indeed, as ‘incitement to religious discrimination’. If this, in the context of the piece sounds far fetched, it might seem less so if we compare it with those who have argued that Islamic law:

            ‘(Was) in harmony with the deepest moral and religious convictions of the people .. and most representative of the traditional  cultural, religious and moral beliefs of the Iranian society… The UN declaration of human rights which represented a secular understanding of the Judaeo -Christian tradition , could not be implemented by Muslims and is not in accord with the system of values recognised by the Islam Republic of Iran’.(UN Session, 1984, the Iranian representative. Said Raja’i-Khasani).

Of course there are millions of followers of Islam worldwide who would reject, perhaps in the name of those ‘Judeo- Christian’ human rights, the kind of human rights violations found in the Islamic Republic of Iran. These include arrests for improper veiling, public hangings and a view that women and men are ‘different forms of human’.

However, when respected academics like Bikhu Parekh and many more have endorsed the kind of relativism described above, it is difficult for women in the US and Europe to stand against values that they think might be endorsed by those promoting multi-culturalism. It is even more difficult for them to condemn some of the extreme sexist practices of the Taliban, when doing so might lead them to be condemned for ‘incitement to religious hatred’ or even worse, as Jane Reynolds wrote, as incitement to war.

It has always been important to recognise the simple point that our enemies’ enemy might not be our friend. Sometimes, standing up for justice and equality might lead to challenging friends as well as enemies. Has the time not come to recognise that although the concept of a human right is not a perfect tool and it may indeed have residues of sexism and racism, it is a nonetheless an important one to use to critique both the US drone policy and the fundamentalists in Pakistan. This form of universalism is necessary and vital in the context described.

 

 

 

About the author

Alison Assiter is Professor of Feminist Theory in the History, Philosophy and Politics department at the University of the West of England (UWE). Her most recent book is Kierkegaard, Metaphysics and Political Theory (2009 Continuum Press)