The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

When in Rome

I just returned from Brazil where I presented a keynote tutorial at a software engineering conference that was Webcast to more than 5,000 viewer’s across the country. The presentation went well. On the way home, we decided to stop in Rio de Janeiro for a few days of R&R.

We stayed in Leblon, a beautiful enclave at the southern end of the world-famous beach at Ipanema. Brazilians are wonderful, smiling people managing a country that is rapidly ascending into the 21st century. Their culture reflects their psychology, free and easy with a large dose of live and let live.

And that brings me to the Number 9 beach at Ipanema. Virtually every woman on the beach -- young and old, beautiful and not so beautiful, thin and not so thin – wears a bikini -- a very small bikini. In fact, a bikini that would be considered scandalous, even in the United States.

No one thinks a thing of it, and before long, it becomes just another part of the scenery, even for an American.

I live in South Florida with a huge population of Brazilian immigrants. I know they love the beach and I suspect they visit our “Ipanemas” every weekend. Yet, I have never seen anyone wearing a Brazilian bikini. Brazilian woman may, in fact, wear them in their backyard (and I suspect they do), but at the beach, they opt for the toned-down American version. They adapt their dress to their new country. It's a little thing (no pun intended), but it shows respect and cultural assimilation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, another controversary surrounding “dress code” has surfaced in Europe and the USA. Some Moslem women who have chosen (key concept here: chosen) to live within a secular society insist on their “religious right” to wear nikabs and burkas – full face and body coverings in public –- even though these are deemed troubling by many in their host country.

An editorial in The Australian considers the danger posed by those who argue that we must bend to the “right” of any culture to express itself as it sees fit:
How tolerant must a free society be of those who are intolerant of the values it holds dear? This question is at the heart of a controversy that has flared up in Britain over the past fortnight concerning Muslim women who wear nikabs, burkas and other face coverings that allow little more than the eyes to be seen …

At its heart is the question of where tolerance should end and the old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans", should kick in. While tolerance is certainly a positive virtue that should be strived for, it cannot be a cultural suicide pact. A culture that is tolerant of those who are intolerant of its freedoms is ripe for destruction, and bit by bit will see all it values eroded. And radical Islam knows this. Just as an Australian wouldn't go to Saudi Arabia to wear a bikini on the beach and drink beer in the corner pub, those who see the proper role of women as subservient, anonymous and under cover should not expect a postmodern secular democracy such as Britain or Australia to accommodate these beliefs. Australians, who quite properly want their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers to be able to achieve anything, are right to feel uncomfortable about religiously mandated coverings and the limits they imply. We do not allow practices such as female genital mutilation simply because they are practiced by an immigrant "other". Disappointingly, those who have traditionally been a positive force for the liberation of women against oppression in other spheres have here largely been silent on the question of Islam's beliefs concerning half of humanity.

If it is true that the past is another country, then what confronts the West today is not so much a clash of civilisations as a clash of centuries. The jumbo jets that have enabled the mass immigration from Muslim countries to the West are, in effect, time machines that have brought millions of people from a pre-Enlightenment world - where men are the unquestioned bosses, stoning and forced amputation are punishments rather than crimes, and sectarian differences are worth dying over - to secular, liberal and postmodern democracies such as ours. Integration in such circumstances will be difficult but should not be shied away from, even if it means newcomers will have to adapt. Mainstream British politicians have done a great service by opening a debate on this subject. Government-supported ethnic essentialism ultimately leads to segregation - anathema to an immigrant nation such as ours whose success lies in the adoption of common values rather than the preservation of divisive behaviours. In the debate over values, far better that we appeal to our shared humanity rather than encourage behaviours that seek to demonstrate separateness and superiority.

Here’s the deal: When Saudi Arabia allows a church or synagogue in Mecca (the outskirts would be OK) and further allows those who practice in these houses of worship to do just that, the West might reconsider its uneasiness with full face masks. But until that happens, we should flatly reject any attempt by any group that demands “rights” while giving none in return.