Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in some of the world’s most strict Islamist countries, but after running away from an arranged marriage and claiming refugee status in Holland, she flourished and become a powerful political force, with a steady personal perspective and a spine of solid steel. Her autobiography humanizes the struggles in many other countries, most notably Somalia, and awakens a zeal in anyone who has even wanted to make a difference in the world. Her story is called Infidel.
The most philosophical aspect of her story raises questions of cultural and moral relativism. My initial reactions include a feeling that it is wrong to intrude and judge other cultures, especially one I know little about.

One objection is that we may judge a culture if the culture itself permits judgment, but this is quickly reduced to absurdity. It makes the two cultures equivalent in that we must submit to a higher will, but excuses us from the notion that we are accountable to our own culture, in which judgment is unacceptable. This becomes a battle of cultures, the struggle of a hare and a fox on an epic scale. We must ensure that we preserve our essential hare-ness, for it is no good to become another fox.

Another objection was a cry to the loss of the culture, a cultural preservation so we maintain our humanity, and every aspect thereof, while we abandon notions that prove incompatible or counter to an acknowledged goal. Respect for other cultures is good, but our world is a world of action. It is a temptation of many nihilist to reduce all to a state of “true nature”, to find a basic sense of rightness or meaning reflected within the Zen nature around us; but as humans we are playing a new game now. As we make rules to play with our newfound intellect and sense of individuality, above all, we must be conscientious.

But our “war”, the new “game” is unique in that victory does not preclude destruction. This is not a decision of right or wrong, good or bad, but of fit or unfit. We may carry the parts of another culture with us, as a memory, to respect each aspect, but the majority must move on, evolve. To become stagnant is to perish.

This lesson can, of course, become internalized. As one passes stages in life, one must learn new, and abandon old, recognizing the stages in others, to lend assistance where necessary, but never to degrade or disrespect, but to honor and remember in fondness. But only to remember, for if we become mired in the past, we ignore our future.