Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2002 / 24 Shevat, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- MAYBE we Westerners really are as arrogant as the nonarrogant rest of the world tells us. After all, who would dare ask Islamic militants holding an abducted Wall Street Journal reporter for the man's swift release "so that he may return home safe to his wife and soon-to-be-born child"? Only someone with an exaggerated sense of what President Bush (Arrogant Westerner No. 1) might call "the dignity of every life," a phrase from his State of the Union address. The nerve. Or "da noive," as they say in New Jersey, where the Department of Education just revised the state's history curriculum recommendations to exclude such Founding Arrogants as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
In all seriousness, I wish the Journal editor hadn't made so very personal an appeal to Daniel Pearl's captors. This most tender revelation about the American prisoner (a wife! an unborn child!) can only have thrilled his tormentors, impervious as they are to claims of mercy or justice -- or other precepts that were, once upon a time, naively thought of as coming under the heading of "common decency." It turns out that there is nothing common about them.
Certainly, there's nothing common about Western and non-Western understandings of such terms pertaining to human conduct. This is a huge problem, as our worlds -- one, generally if multiculturally Western, the other, purely and militantly Islamic -- collide in the war on terrorism. Why, even the term "terrorism" remains subject to debate.
Not, of course, in the West, where terrorism is known to be the slaughter of civilians for political gain by such groups, as President Bush specified this week, as the anti-Israel suicide squads Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Islamic world will define terrorism as the slaughter of unarmed civilians -- unless the unarmed civilians happen to be Israelis slaughtered by Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah. Such carnage counts as "legitimate resistance." And terrorism? "Islam is against terrorism," Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said recently. "Why is it not said that Israeli terrorism is the fiercest and most heinous terrorism being committed now?" To that end, interior ministers from 17 Arab countries gathered this week to call on the world to condemn "all kinds of terrorism, especially the state terrorism practiced by Israel," and to ask the United Nations to sponsor an international conference (Durban redux?) to make it official.
So much for a mutual understanding of terrorism, a cruel weapon of war against nations and peoples. How about something more basic -- the concept of cruelty itself? Take the pitiful case of Sufiyatu Huseini, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning once her 10-month-old baby is weaned. Her crime? Adultery. Under sharia, or Islamic law, adultery is a crime second only to one other offense -- and no, that one isn't murder (No. 3). The worst crime under Islamic law, which, as The New York Times Magazine explained, came to northern Nigeria because of "the loosening of federal control and the advent of democratic freedoms, is insulting Allah. (Stealing goats is also pretty bad, as several Nigerians who have had a hand amputated can attest.)
The arrogant Westerner in me finds this barbaric, which is just the kind of "value judgment" that was struck down long ago by the deans of cultural relativism. Richard Dowden, a less arrogant Westerner working for The New York Times, was able to couch things more sensitively. He asked Mansur Ibrahim Sa'id, a Nigerian law school dean who attended the local constitutional convention (or whatever you call a sharia-drafting confab), "whether stipulations in the United Nations charter against cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment conflict with amputations and stonings." Sitting beneath a copy of the U.N. charter taped to the wall, Sa'id replied, "You have to decide what amounts to cruelty and take into account the religious background. What yardstick are you using? You have to know if the people who use this law see it as cruel and inhuman."
That's the correct answer -- politically correct answer, anyway -- for a value-free, nonjudgmental world. Are we there yet? Not quite. We still have a yardstick of our own, despite those who try to slide it from our grasp with a slippery relativism that teaches that no culture is better than another. (See New Jersey's new Founder-free curriculum.) Bush referred to it when speaking of the "non-negotiable demands of human dignity -- the rule of law; limits of the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance." The non-Western world hasn't evolved with these traditions -- the deep, dark secret of multiculturalism -- and it is incumbent upon us to teach and hang onto them, as they say, for dear life -- not to mention liberty and the pursuit of
JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.