The “Limit of Tolerance” of a white, privileged, non-Muslim man

I wrote a post last week on the flogging that took place in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and my thoughts on the video. This week, Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote a piece on the ethics of what took place in Pakistan, as well as the recent law proposed in Afghanistan. While I thought the premise of the essay was not terribly bad (“what do we deem to be tolerable and intolerable?”), the angle at which Cohen looked at the flogging and Muslim women in general had an air of white privilege which was troubling.

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The image accompanying the NYT article. Image via Nadeem Khawer/European Pressphoto Agency/

Before taking on Cohen, I must admonish The New York Times for once again relying on the cliched “veiled” woman image whenever there is a feature about Muslim women. This time the image accompanying the piece (featured right) is of a Pakistani woman protesting the flogging with a newspaper covering her face. I know this point may sound redundant to some regular readers, but I say it in the hope that someone at the Times is reading this and gets the message!

Back to the actual essay. Cohen’s first paragraph made me question the rest of his article. The first sentence was wildly incorrect: “Online images recently showed a 17-year-old girl in Pakistan’s Swat Valley being flogged in public for going outdoors with a man not her father, a violation of Islamic practice.” Ignoring the fact that different media outlets have provided vastly different reasons for why the whipping took place, it isn’t correct that Islamic law requires a woman to be flogged for going outside with a man who isn’t her father. If someone is writing a piece on Muslim women, I don’t think it is too much to expect a little research on Shari’ah and whether leaving the house with a man who isn’t a woman’s father, relative or husband is punishable by lashing. This point seems minute compared to my bigger issue with the article, but I think it does relate to a bigger issue in Western media outlets when journalists and columnists write pieces on predominantly Muslim societies without doing much research on what they actually write.

Further in the paragraph, we’re asked:

For us, gender equality is a fundamental value. But we also profess tolerance for other people’s culture and religion. Which principle should prevail? Should we respond to these developments with tolerance?

I understand that Cohen is looking at cultural relativism in juxtaposition to ethics, but the question still has an air of privilege to it. The statement presupposes that that Muslim cultures and Islam are antithetical to gender equality. This overlooks Muslims who fight for gender equality and and Muslims, especially women, who do not see a contradiction between Islam and gender equality.

More importantly, it puts American readers in the position of judging Muslim cultures once more: “We [Westerners] have to balance our ‘tolerance’ for another religion and culture with gender equality.” Cohen’s statement assumes that Americans have the right to do this. It also assumes that all Americans want gender equality, and that Muslims and Americans are exclusive categories. Instead of having Muslims and non-Muslims come together over shared ideals of gender equality, Cohen’s statement and entire post assumes that Americans must take some type of action, instead of supporting Pakistanis and Afghans in their existing actions for gender equity.

In an update to his blog, Cohen wrote that he did not mean to generalize about Islam, and that we have to speak out against sexism in every society. However, even with this update, I still felt that gender inequality in Muslim societies is always treated worse than the “softer inequities of America’s mainstream faiths”. There’s still this idea of comparison to an American ideal, and the reader is still being forced to look at gender issues among Muslim societies from an American perspective.

I do wonder if we would have to decide if tolerance for our own religious traditions and culture should have to prevail over gender equality as a fundamental value. I have never seen this dilemma ever presented in the media, except in cases involving Islam. That’s because serious gender inequality existing in the U.S. isn’t presented as religiously or culturally sanctioned. If Americans–and by extension, people in Western societies–can see gender equality as a fundamental value, but never have that principle conflict with tolerance for other cultures and religions, why is is it different when discussing Muslim societies?

Discussing tolerance is well and good. However, a discussion of tolerance shouldn’t allow us to be comfortable with thinly veiled privilege.

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