North Waging Cultural War against South
New Straits Times (Malaysia)
July 1, 1996: 12
In this new climate of Northern moral intrusion, all forms of Southern cultural practices become subject to scrutiny. Western aid agencies, including the World Bank, have emerged as champions of Third World children and women. Campaigns, such as those against female genital mutilation in Sudan and child labour in India, have been harnessed to the perennial crusade against Third World fertility.
Such sensitive subjects often acquire a voyeuristic obsession with exotic sexuality. "Regarding Muslim societies, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Islamist discourse is its excessive (almost obsessive) emphasis on matters of sex, the family, and social morals", observed one account of radical Islamism (Ayubi,1995, p. 81).
Since in many of the campaigns around the issue of fertility, women and children are presented in the vocabulary of rights, they often enjoy the endorsement of Western liberal, left-wing and feminist circles. And yet it can be argued that such campaigns of moral intrusion represent a form of cultural warfare against societies of the South.
This tendency is particularly evident around the issue of population control. Western population policies are not merely about the provision of services but the transformation of cultural practices and individual attitudes. For example, Bongaarts and Bruce, two leading experts working with the Population Council, argue that "an effective programme is frequently one that goes beyond the provision of family planning and contraceptive services by addressing social or familial disapproval" (Bongaarts and Bruce, 1995, p. 57). Bongaarts and Bruce are so convinced about their cause, that they never pause to ask "who gave them the right" to undermine what they euphemistically refer to as the psychological and cultural barriers' to contraception in an African or Asian society.
For family planners the cultural norms and values of target societies are obstacles that need to be overcome through a variety of techniques. A central emphasis is placed on encouraging women to adopt aspirations, lifestyles and identities which are at variance with the prevailing norm. "To reduce unwanted sexual contact and pregnancy, we must assist girls to envision future identities apart from sexual, marital and mothering roles," argue Bongaarts and Bruce (p. 72). The far-reaching implications of this perspective of social engineering is rarely spelled out. This project, designed to foster new aspirations and identities, would systematically undermine the moral foundation of the target society. Whether such societies have a capacity to absorb the effects of such changes is an issue that is simply evaded by the proponents of the new morality.
Population control literature contains an implicit - sometimes explicit- moral condemnation of the culture of fertility that prevails in target societies. It contains a clear assumption of moral superiority, which is expressed routinely in the moral condemnation of practices deemed to be unacceptable.
UNFPA's The State of World Population contains a variable catalogue of practices and beliefs which are confidently dismissed as unacceptable. The report sometimes assumes the tone of a sermon, which runs through a list of practices that should be abolished and which ought to be adopted. Female circumcision is represented as a "major public health issue". The need for later marriages is stressed because of its beneficial effect on the rate of population growth.
The report advocates Western-type male participation in pregnancy and sex education for young people. Adopting the tone of moral superiority, it lists a series of practices in a manner which invites the reader to react with obvious horror. For example it notes: "For the women of the Bariba tribe in Benin, having babies is a test of will. Enduring labour and childbirth alone and in silence is a sure route to social respect; asking for help is considered a sign of weakness and shameful. As a result, many women who could have easily been saved died of complications during delivery" (UNFPA, 1995, p. 45).
The idea that concepts of shame and respect are bound up with a sense of dignity and integrity of a people is not even entertained. From the tone of the report, there is the expectation that all concerned and civilised readers will demand that the Bariba change their standards about respect and shame in the interest of health.
That many of these practices have existed for hundreds of years, that they are integral to the moral and social code of the societies concerned and that these societies ought to have an opportunity to determine their lifestyle, is paradoxically ignored by a publication which continually advertises the importance of human rights.
The right of people to live according to the custom and practices that they have evolved over hundreds of years is one right which population activists can casually reject. The issue at stake in not whether one approves of a particular idea or practice.
There are many practices in all parts of the world which offend different groups of people. The issue worth considering is from where do a group of Western population professionals get the authority to decide what is in the best interest of people in societies around the world. The casual manner with which they condemn other peoples' social practices is only matched by the uncritical way in which they project their own values on people living under very different circumstances. Regardless of their intentions, such campaigns of moral intrusion reinforce the notion that the West knows best.
Such campaigns help construct a consensus about North-South relations, which embraces virtually the entire political spectrum in the West. That there are two kinds of societies - problem ones and those that provide solutions - is now an accepted fact in international relations. In fact, this mood is so pervasive that acts which would have been condemned in the past as oppressive are not even worthy of comment.
For example, whether or not an election in Asia or Africa is democratic, is these days determined not by the indigenous electorate, but by a commission of Western election monitors. It seems that only Western officials can be trusted to recognize a fair election when they see one. Monitoring elections in non-Western societies is so common that it does not even merit any serious discussion.
Nobody asks how the British people would react if the verdict of Cambodian or Brazilian monitors was required to pronounce on the outcome of their election. No doubt it would be considered an impudent intrusion into a purely British affair. Yet when it comes to Western interference in their' elections, national sovereignty ceases to be an issue. It is not considered to be case of foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of another nation.
The moral denigration of Third World societies helps contribute to the creation of a climate where intervention is rarely spoken of as such. We live in an age of "peacekeeping" and "humanitarian" missions. Today's humanitarian colonialism explicitly avoids the language of realpolitik and presents itself as non-interventionism. Indeed, Western ministers continually argue that they do not want their troops to intervene in the affairs of another country.
And when a military operation is sanctioned, it is invariably promoted as a sacrifice, carried out with reluctance by a selfless power. Few Americans would have disagreed with the New York Times when it described the invasion of Somalia as "a turning point in American foreign policy", since this was the first time that the charitable motive of feeding "starving people" inspired a major military operation (Dec 5, 1992).
This rhetoric of non-intervention has led many experts to speculate about the new isolationism in the West. The discourse of isolationism has led to the situation where often it is those associated with liberal causes who are most vociferous in demanding intervention.
The mission to save them from their Governments or themselves excites the imagination of the morally outraged. In Britain, it is publications like The Guardian and The New Statesman that have been the most vociferous proponents of military intervention in Iraq - on the side of the Kurds - and in Bosnia. In the United States, liberal and left-wing writers were in the forefront demanding intervention in Haiti. Their support for an intervention was no doubt motivated by humanitarian and moral concerns.
But its effect is to legitimise the right of the West to dictate the rules of international affairs. The conversion of some of the most critical observers to the stance of interventionism indicates that today the right of the West to intrude and regulate the life of other societies is virtually unquestioned. It also suggests a new fault line between North and South on the moral plane. The New Moral Consensus
The establishment of a new moral equation between the North and South has helped legitimise a two-tiered international system. It is a system where few ask questions about who gave institutions like the Allies', Nato or the UN the authority to militarily intervene in different parts of the world. These institutions - which have become Western diplomatic conveniences - can de facto abrogate conventional notions of national sovereignty.
It is now routinely argued that issues like the environment, ethnic violence, female genital mutilation or fundamentalist intolerance are too important to be hidden behind the principle of national sovereignty. The right of the West to intervene has become a moral imperative. The consensus behind Western intrusion is underwritten by the acceptance of the moral differentiation of the world into two kinds of people. This differentiation has become intellectually acceptable at all levels of Western society.
The uncritical acceptance of the term of fundamentalism by conservative, liberal and radical commentators is symptomatic of the way in which a "them" and "us" outlook on the world has become intellectually plausible. At its most banal, this outlook proposes that they are irrational while we are rational or that they are intolerant while we are tolerant. The fundamentalist label provides a moral and cultural condemnation of millions of people. At its simplest, the fundamentalist label helps to recycle the old Orientalist stereotypes about fanatical, frustrated people. "Muslims are frustrated and frustrated people snarl", concluded the editor of The Economist (August 1994).
The Guardian opted for the more liberal version of the schema. It drew the line between those who are tolerant and those who are not. Taking sides against the fundamentalists in the civil war in Sudan, it observed that "the tolerance exhibited in the Nuba mountains is the mirror image of Khartoum's intolerance" (July 22, 1995). For the reporter of this story, the discovery of an example of tolerance in Africa, was itself, nothing short of "remarkable".
Serious liberal and leftist theoreticians and social scientists are no less prey to the attractions of the two-tier moral system that underspins the fundamentalist concept. The concept plays a central role in the recent writings of Anthony Giddens. According to Giddens, fundamentalism represents a refusal to dialogue. In some cases it "demonises the alien". At times Giddens' diagnosis sounds suspiciously like the bearded irrational fanatic of the Western media. It does not occur to Giddens that fundamentalists may not have a monopoly over demonising aliens (Gidden 1994, p. 190).
The mechanistic counterposition of the fundamentalist to the non-fundamentalist continues to perpetuate the sociological legacy of the rational/irrational couplet in a new form. Even Fred Halliday, usually a critical observer of international affairs, has come to accept the new moral consensus. Perturbed by the "intolerance" and "antidemocratic character" of fundamentalism, Halliday argues for taking sides against them. "Politically, it is not possible to ignore the threat that these movements pose to the citizens of the countries in which they live and, by extension, to the world", he concluded (Halliday, 1995, pp. 46 and 55). This diagnosis of the fundamentalist threat to the world necessarily invites the response of some form of intervention.
The absence of any clear intellectual differentiation among the Western intelligentsia on this elementary aspect of North-South relations is one of the most disturbing evelopments of our times. Our aim is not to celebrate political movements characterised as fundamentalist or any particular cultural practices prevalent in the South. The argument of this contribution is that the discovery of certain objectionable practices in the South by people from the North cannot be explained as the outcome of humanitarian and altruistic motives. Regardless of the motives, the effect has been the manipulation of such practices to strengthen the moral authority of the West and to morally condemn societies of the South.
The acceptance of this moral division of the world in the West, has helped encourage a culture of international intrusion into the affairs of the South. Such intrusion, of course, has a long history. What is new is the silence of critical voices in the North. In Europe and America, the right of the West to intervene is simply not in question.