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Mr Buruma's stereotypes

Turkish German author Necla Kelek responds to Ian Buruma in the debate on multiculturalism and integration in Europe.

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate (here). Below Necla Kelek stakes out her position.

Reading his response to Pascal Bruckner's essay "Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?" one is tempted to say to Ian Buruma, "If only you had kept quiet!" He clearly felt himself caught out, and despite his insistence to the contrary, his reply only leads him further into the swamp of cultural relativism. If Mr Buruma were alone in his views, one might have left things as they were and simply referred the reader to Bruckner's essay, a response to Timothy Garton Ash. But both Ash and Buruma are quite typical in their argumentation, and virtually exemplary in their politically dubious cultural relativism.

Both make ample use of stereotypes. The first is: "Islam is diverse." Buruma writes, "Islam, as practised in Java, is not the same as in a Moroccan village, or the Sudan, or Rotterdam." That may be true in the details, but not in the fundamentals. For Buruma, however, the details justify criticism that is as devastating as it is false. He maintains that one cannot make generalised statements about Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does. That is a rather astonishing statement from a man who is an academic at Bard College in New York, and a professor of democracy and human rights. With that brief assertion, Mr Buruma attempts to reduce the West's confrontation with Islam to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's personal problem.

Islam is a social reality. Despite all differences of detail, in its writings and its philosophy it constitutes a cohesive view of mankind and the world. Let us look at the question of human rights and women's rights, for example. In those areas, Muslims are very united indeed. On August 5, 1990, 45 foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the highest international secular body in the Muslim world, signed "The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam." In that document, Muslims from around the world expressed their common attitudes towards human rights. It was intended as an appendix to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Cairo Declaration is not binding under international law, but it illuminates the global attitude of Islam with respect to fundamental rights. The fact that it constitutes a minimal consensus, rather than an extreme view, makes it all the more illuminating.

The most important statements of this document are to be found in its two final articles:
Article 24: "All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia."
Article 25: "The Islamic Sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification [of] any of the articles of this Declaration."

And in contrast to the UN Declaration, the Cairo Declaration's preamble states that the members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference reaffirm "the civilizing and historical role of the Islamic Ummah, which God made the best nation that has given mankind a universal and well-balanced civilisation..."

Unlike in democratic constitutions, there is no talk here of the individual, but rather of the Ummah, the Community of the Faithful, the collective. As a logical consequence, the Cairo Declaration acknowledges only those rights specified in the Koran and, in keeping with Sharia, regards only those acts so judged by both the Koran and the Sunnah to be criminal. Article 19 of the Declaration states: "There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Sharia." Article 2 Paragraph D maintains: "Safety from bodily harm is a guaranteed right. It is the duty of the state to safeguard it, and it is prohibited to breach it without a Sharia-prescribed reason." That would be the case, for example, according to the Koran's Sura 17, Verse 33: "And kill no one, for God has forbidden killing, except when you are entitled to do so"! The Koran also says: "When a person is killed unjustly, the nearest relation has authority to take vengeance." What is that if not a blessing on blood vengeance by Muslim foreign ministers?

Equal rights are not proposed in this Declaration. Rather, in Article 6 it states: "Woman is equal to man in human dignity" – in "dignity" not in rights, since the Koran's Sura 4, Verse 34 stipulates: "Men are elevated above women, for God has placed them so by nature." Thus men are given authority to exercise social control over and to denigrate women, as is made clear by Article 22 of the Declaration: "Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Sharia" – that is, the Koran, issued in the seventh century of the Christian calendar and still binding for Muslims today.

And so it continues. Islam is declared the One True Faith, and "no one in principle has the right to suspend ... or violate or ignore its commandments, in as much as they are binding divine commandments, which are contained in the Revealed Books of God and were sent through the last of His Prophets... Every person is individually responsible – and the Ummah collectively responsible – for their safeguard." So states the Cairo Declaration. That statement not only runs contrary to human rights in general, it is an indirect justification of vigilante justice. Mr Buruma is aware of this problem; he writes about a case of such vigilante justice in his book, "Murder in Amsterdam."

The Islamic states formulated this Declaration to assure themselves of their own unity. Beyond that, it is also a political programme designed to defend the identity of Islamic culture against capitalist globalisation. The Sharia is declared to be the basis of that cultural identity. And criticising that is supposed to be Ayaan Hirsi Ali's personal problem?

But Mr Buruma has still more stereotypes up his sleeve. The next one: Islam is a religion like any other, or all religions are equal (or equally awful?). This time it is aimed against his critic, Pascal Bruckner. Mr Buruma writes: "In another typical fit of exaggeration, designed to tar by association, Bruckner mentions the opening of an Islamic hospital in Rotterdam and reserved beaches for Muslim women in Italy. I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists."

I can tell you, Mr Buruma, why Italian beaches reserved for Muslim women are "so much more terrible." Unlike kosher dining or a case of the flu requiring hospitalisation, the beach is a Muslim attempt to bring about change. Whether it is headscarves or gender-specific separation of public space, political Islam is trying to establish apartheid of the sexes in free European societies. A Muslim hospital is fundamentally different from a Catholic hospital. In a Muslim hospital, patients are separated according to gender. Men may be treated only by men, women only by women. Muslim female nurses, for example, may not wash male patients, they may not even touch them.

In Germany a growing number of doctors complain of Muslim men trying to prevent their womenfolk from being treated, or even examined, by male physicians in hospitals. I know of Muslim women who are permitted to visit a doctor only when accompanied by their son. In Islamic hospitals the husbands decide whether a caesarian will be carried out, or whether their wives may have themselves sterilised after bearing four children. A recent article (excerpt in English here) in Le Monde gives the startling details. And not long ago the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet carried a news story about a woman radiologist in Istanbul who refused on religious grounds to examine a young man who had been injured in his lower body. That is terrible, Mr Buruma.

Love of one's neighbour is as alien to the Muslim religion as pastoral care. But that is another matter. I regard it as tasteless to denigrate the work of Catholic nuns by this "all religions are alike" relativism. It seems Mr Buruma does not know whereof he speaks when he speaks of Islam. The Islamic propagators of beaches and hospitals and mosques are not concerned with humane issues nor with religious categories. Their objective is to establish the vertical separation of men and women within democratic societies.

Buruma's third stereotype goes: Critics of Islam are denunciators. He writes that Hirsi Ali's "denunciations" are not very "helpful". Would he also consider citing historically proven cases, such as Mohammed's marriage to the six-year-old Aisha, whom he then bedded at age nine, among the "not very helpful denunciations"? In her book "The Caged Virgin," Hirsi Ali speaks of this in order to criticise the Islamic sexual morality which developed post-Mohammed. In Mr Buruma's view, she should not have done so because as an "avowed atheist" - next stereotype - she could not contribute to the reform of Islam. Another astonishing position for an academic specialising in human rights and democracy.

Cultural relativists prefer not to hear about arranged marriages, honour killings (25 deaths in Istanbul last year alone) and other violations of human rights. These things are burdensome. What else can it mean when Mr Buruma writes: "Condemning Islam without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate." If Mr Buruma wants to take a serious look at the disregard of "variations" in the Muslim world, he's set himlsef a large task. To cite just one out of many possible examples: What to do with all the women living in the over 60 countries where Sharia law oibtains, who are not allowed to marry without a Wali, that is, without the permission of a parent or guardian? Where are the variations there, Mr Buruma?

Mr Buruma boasts that he knows the world of South Korean rebels. But the Muslim world appears alien to him, and the values of Western society relative. Thanks to Pascal Bruckner, he rightly fears for his intellectual reputation. The fact that in his reply to Bruckner he tried to rescue that reputation at the expense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali does not make matters better. It didn't work, Mr Buruma.


The article originally appeared in German on Perlentaucher on February 5, 2007.

Necla Kelek was born in Istanbul in 1957 and moved to Germany at the age of 10. Her books include "Die Fremde Braut" (The Foreign Bride) about arranged and forced marriages of Turkish migrants, and "Die verlorenen Söhne" (Lost Sons) about the socialization, violence, and faith of Turkish-Muslim men.

Translation: Myron Gubitz

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