Cultural relativism – this era’s fascism

Maryam Namazie

Speech given at a forum on women’s rights
November 28, 1998
Toronto, Canada

* In Germany, in August 1997, an 18-year-old woman was burnt to death by her father for refusing to marry the man he had chosen. A German court gave him a reduced sentence, saying he was practicing his culture and religion.

* In Iran, women and girls are forcibly veiled under threat of imprisonment and lashes, and cultural relativists say that it is their religion and must be respected.

* In Holland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that Iran’s prisons are “satisfactory for third world standards,” allowing the forcible return of asylum seekers.

Cultural relativism serves these crimes. It legitimizes and maintains savagery. It says that people’s rights are dependent on their nationality, religion, and culture. It says that the human rights of someone born in Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan are different from those of someone born in the United States, Canada or Sweden.

Cultural relativists say Iranian society is Muslim, implying that people choose to live the way they are forced to. It’s as if there are no differences in beliefs in Iran, no struggles, no communists, no socialists, and no freedom-lovers. If so, why have 150,000 people been executed for opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran? If it’s the entire society’s culture and religion, why does the Islamic regime need such extensive tools for repression? If it’s people’s beliefs, why does the regime control their private lives – from their sexual activities, to what video they watch, to what music they listen to? If the entire society is Muslim, why did Zoleykhah Kadkhoda enter a voluntary sexual relationship for which she was buried in a ditch and stoned? If it is people’s culture, why did the residents of Bukan revolt against the stoning and save her life? Why are thousands of women rounded up in the streets for “improper” veiling if its their culture and religion? How come, after two decades of terror and brutality, the universities are still not Islamic, according to an official of the regime? Though it’s untrue, even if every person living in Iran had reactionary beliefs, it still wouldn’t be acceptable. If everyone believes in the superiority of their race, does that make it okay?

Cultural relativists say that we must respect people’s culture and religion, however despicable. This is absurd and calls for the respect of savagery. Yes, human beings are worthy of respect but not all beliefs must be respected. If culture allows a woman to be mutilated and killed to save the family “honor,” it cannot be excused. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, religion rules and has become the mass murderer of people. If religion says that women who disobey should be beaten, that flogging is acceptable, and that women are deficient, it must be condemned and opposed.

The struggle against misogynist and reactionary governments is inseparable from the struggle against reactionary and misogynist beliefs. Of course individuals have the right to their own beliefs, however offensive, but freedom-lovers are duty bound to expose and condemn reactionary beliefs and relegate them to the garbage cans of history.

Cultural relativists go further to say that universal human rights are a western concept. How come when it comes to using the telephone or a car, the mullah does not say it is western and incompatible with an Islamist society? How come when it comes to better exploiting the working class and making profits, technological gains are universal? But when it comes to universal human rights, they become western. Even if rights are western, it is absurd to say that others’ are not worthy of them. In fact, though, rights are gains forcibly taken by the working class and progressive social movements. Therefore, any gain or right obtained anywhere is a gain and a right for all humanity.

Some, even among the “left” say that exposing reactionary beliefs serves racism. Opposing the rape of a nine year old girl who is forcibly married does not serve racism. Opposing the sexual abuse of a child even though the Islamic Republic of Iran’s court says the father was forced to abuse the child because his wife did not satisfy him, does not serve racism – just like opposing anti-Semitism doesn’t make one a Zionist. Culture for the sake of culture is not sacred. Racism and fascism also have their own cultures. A culture that cannot defend human beings to live a better life is worthless.

Struggling for universal human rights means condemning and disrespecting reactionary beliefs. The struggle against dominant reactionary ideas is a struggle against the ideas of the ruling class. After all, the ruling class must justify the barbarism of capitalism. It must make the intolerable seem tolerable and natural. It must create differences to facilitate profit. Cultural relativism serves that purpose. The idea of difference has always been the fundamental principle of a racist agenda. The defeat of Nazism and its biological theory of difference largely discredited racial superiority. The racism behind it, however, found another more acceptable form of expression for this era. Instead of expression in racial terms, difference is now portrayed in cultural terms. Cultural relativism is this era’s fascism. Cultural relativists are defenders of this era’s holocausts.

In an era of unprecedented barbarity we must defend the universal rights of human beings who daily hope for freedom and equality. Though a better life is only possible when this world is turned right side up, anyone who respects humanity must immediately struggle for the abolition of all backward and reactionary beliefs which are incompatible with human freedom and progress and a secular and modern society for all.


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