Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
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The kiss, the pen and the word
Ria Lavrijsen


Rachid had got up in a good mood that morning. Occasionally, a film was shown during social studies class. He liked a bit of distraction.

'Another asshole film', said Johnny.

'Art film man, she always shows art films', said Rachid.

If it was up to the blond Johnny, every film had to have as much blood, bullets and speeding cars as possible and there had to be at least a pair of - in Johnny's words - good solid tits on show. Rachid, a somewhat poetic and introverted boy, thought that these films were not up to much. He preferred to go to the cinema to see a sensitive American film about a divorcing couple who, to make the disaster complete, lose their only child in a car crash. Rachid liked 'tearjerkers' and was often teased for this.

'Hey sissy, had a good cry with your mother at that film', shouted Johnny then. He hardly cared that Johnny called him a sissy, but bringing his mother into it could make Rachid furious. How dared he, they should stay away from his mother, that was a question of honour for a Moroccan. But Johnny and his friends had no respect for that. Rachid then withdrew into himself. After all, how could Rachid explain to Johnnie that it was out of the question for him to go to the cinema with his mother or father. They thought films were objectionable. Johnny would just make him even more ridiculous.

Today a film was shown and Rachid was right. Halfaouine, the debut by Tunisian director Ferid Boughedir, was an art film. He was to see a film about a boy who goes with his mother to the bath house. A film about my culture, thought Rachid with some pride. Yes, that morning Rachid had woken up in a good mood, he was looking forward to it. He had never forgotten the image of himself as a little boy with his olive-coloured skin clinging to his mother's scented, wet skin.

At eleven o'clock Fatima, social studies teacher, drew the curtains in the classroom and turned on the video. Johnny whispered to his neighbour, just loud enough so that everyone could hear: 'Did you know that those Arabs could make films, I thought they could only cook couscous.'

Ahmed, who often joined Johnny in teasing the girls in the class, calls: 'Shut up blondie.' After a bit of murmuring, it's silent.

Two big dark brown boy's eyes stare at Rachid from the white screen. Noura is about eleven, on the border between boy and adolescent. Ferid Boughedir filmed the women in the bath house, the place where women are free of insistent men's gazes, through the eyes of Noura. The little boy cannot help the fact that he is about to enter the world of the men and that his curious eyes are losing their innocence. His awakening sexuality will not leave him alone. Noura's looks and the camera wander searchingly along well-shaped wet breasts, bellies and thighs. A woman notices and feels spied upon. Screaming, she chases the boy out of the Hamam. However, another woman takes the little 'innocent' under her wing.

Rachid breaks into a sweat. 'I'm not allowed to see this', is what he's thinking. He stays sitting for a while, beads of sweat appear on his forehead. Then, on impulse he stands up and walks to Fatima who is sitting at the back of the class. 'This is sinful', he says, panting. Fatima looks at him expectantly. 'This is sinful, I can't stay here', whispers Rachid hoarsely.

'The film maker is from Tunisia. They're Muslims there, just like us', tries Fatima, but Rachid will not listen.

'Leave then', says Fatima. 'We'll talk at 12.30.' Rachid rushes out of the class.

Not so long ago, a similar situation had got completely out of hand for David, a Surinamese colleague. With his class he went to a theatre performance in which there was a scene where two boys kiss and sensually touch each other. Two Moroccan pupils had demonstratively sat back to front on the theatre seats and started messing about. After the show David had spoken sternly to them. He wasn't having that messing about, not from them, not from anyone. One of the boys turned red and shouted: 'No one's going to force me to look at a bunch of queers prancing about.' Tempers were rising and one of the two Moroccans attacked David. The porter and another male colleague had to separate them. In the teachers' room David worked it off and called a little too loudly to a colleague: 'Bunch of hypocritical sheepshaggers.' Fatima heard it and asked what was going on. She tried to explain to David that the first generation of Moroccans came from the countryside. The open display of affection and warmth between a man and a woman was already difficult enough for them, but showing love between a man and a man was absolutely taboo and haram. Those were codes of honour and decency and you couldn't break them. For some second-generation Moroccans, staying true to certain principles of their parents was also a question of honour. Looking at a homoerotic scene in the theatre could mean that you were betraying your parents.

'And', asked Fatima in an irritated tone, 'are Surinamese always so tolerant of homos?'. David had to admit that his family found it hard to accept that he lived together with a friend. 'And that expression sheepshaggers, is that really necessary?' added Fatima, somewhat sadly. David had mumbled 'sorry' and, ashamed, made himself scarce.

Fatima, the social studies teacher, was proud that she could show Halfaouine in her lesson. She was very impressed by the integrity with which Ferid Boughedir had handled such a delicate subject as unfolding sexuality. Yes, there were naked women in the film, but that didn't bother her because to Fatima's mind Boughedir had filmed the women with great respect, nowhere was the film obscene, crude or sexist. Fatima saw Halfaouine as an interesting film which gave a sophisticated view of aspects of her culture. Just like Fatima herself, the Moroccan boys and girls in her class had experienced as children the sheltered women's world of the bath house. Fatima had expected, or actually hoped, that the Moroccan pupils in particular would be enthusiastic about her choice.

After the film Rachid spoke to Fatima. Why couldn't he have stayed? After all, that film was about his culture! Fatima tried everything, but could not convince Rachid that you could be a good Muslim and at the same time make a film with naked women. Rachid could not accept that, more, he thought it was very embarrassing to be talking about this with a woman. At home Rachid had had a rather traditional education and he believed completely in his parents' ideas about Islam. Believe was not the right word. For Rachid their ideas were the truth. Even if he had had doubts about their ideas he would still have refused to remain sitting out of respect for his paren's why! Rachid's parents had taught him that a decent woman only undressed for her husband. For Rachid, the fact that women allowed themselves to be filmed naked, could only mean that these were fallen women. A good Muslim would never do that.

Fatima understood Rachid's objections without much being said and decided to let the matter rest for a while. Fatima felt that she could not force Rachid to reflect upon his rejection. But she did not want to let it go at that and as replacement assignment asked Rachid to write an essay in which he would explain why he thought the film was objectionable. 'Not according to your parents, but according to you', Fatima had added with some emphasis on the 'you'.

Obedient to authority as Rachid was, he carried out his assignment as conscientiously as possible. Even though it was with reluctance, he set to work. Two days later he handed in three pages of densely written paper. Fatima had not won completely, but a little.

With Halfaouine, Ferid Boughedir made an exceptional film. In Tunisia there were people who thought that he had broken the bounds of decency, others admired the film maker for his artistic qualities and moral courage. Happily, the free showing of the film was nowhere hindered. It is characteristic of artists that they explore aesthetic forms and ethic values. The tension between individual freedom and collective norms is often studied, boundaries explored and taboos broken. That is also where art distinguishes itself from folklore. Whereas collective morality and customs from a culture are reproduced in folklore, in art common opinions and conventions are tampered with in an artistic fashion. Artists fundamentally test the openness and vitality of a culture. The quicker one wants to ban something, the more rigid the culture, the more tolerant one is, the more vital, you could say. A culture which silences those who think differently is not a dynamic culture but a rigid dictatorship. The value of artance, lies perhaps in the fact that art is constantly offering test cases in which a culture can prove it is serious about pluralism.

But even if large groups of people reach agreement on a global level about absolute and universal values like artistic freedom, justice, respect for the human body and freedom of expression, people will still change their minds and get carried along by emotions. In order to ensure that at least one universal value - that we don't beat each other up and respect each other's physical integrity - is really put into practice, we must also recognise that 'good and evil' cannot be at all defined in absolute and universal terms. Even if we all claim to pursue the 'good' and reject the 'bad', then we will discover that interpretations of 'good and evil' differ from person to person. Often it is precisely those differences of interpretation which cause emotions to run high. A fundamental devotion to pluralism does therefore not begin with a crude and indifferent cultural relativism which says that all values in all cultures have an equal right to exist and deserve respect, but with a critical dialogue with people who think differently, both within your 'own' community and with the so-called 'other' - as Fatima does with Rachid. If a father ejects an unmarried pregnant daughter from the house on Christian principles, or a Muslim father forces his daughter to wear a headscarf, you may perhaps understand why, but you do not have to respect it. These men only deserve our respect if they are prepared to respect their daughters and treat them humanely. But there is the rub, the gentlemen concerned derive their morality from religious and traditional laws which they regard as absolute and inflexible. They value adhering to laws and principles above humanity.

In the debate in society on themes like birth control, euthanasia, the family, women's rights, safe sex, taboo-breaking art and numerous other subjects, it occasionally happens that religious people consider their values and norms to have a higher moral content than those of non-religious people. The other way round, the secularised are not always free of feelings of superiority. A while ago the Pakistani-American theologian Riffat Hassan gave a lecture in the Soeterijn theatre in Amsterdam on the position of women in Islam. Hassan claims that the intentions of Islam and the Koran are completely in line with the universal rights of man, also those of woman. For Hassan, the fact that within the Islamic community and its institutions, just like everywhere else, there are also patriarchal power structures, does not change this. More, precisely because life in many Islamic countries is dominated by patriarchal men, Hassan wants to fight for the emancipation of Muslim women. Hassan finds fundamental human values in Islam, which she feels strengthen her in her fight for equal rights for women. A Dutch feminist who was many years active in the women's movement met Riffat Hassan in Amsterdam and remarked that she found it strange that 'such a progressive and feminist woman as Hassan was still a Muslim'. In this woman's view, being a Muslim and fighting for the emancipation of women were irreconcilable.

Rudy Kousbroek, a renowned independent intellectual, got caught up a few weeks ago in anti-religious feelings. According to Kousbroek, all religions fall down in defining morality in opposition to the insights of the Enlightenment and modern science. According to him therefore, returning to religion does not mean something morally superior but rather, adopting backwardness. In this way Kousbroek places every religious person outside the community of right-thinking people. While not all believers can be tarred with the same brush, and a distinction must be made between the dirigiste and paternalist practices of powerful religious institutions like the Vatican and the Islamic courts on the one hand, and individual believers on the other.

Secularised Dutch people like to appeal to Enlightenment ideals like reason and spiritual freedom. However, some of them find it hard to respect people who want to derive their ethical and moral principles from religious sources. That their own parents were often Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian or Baptists, is an uncomfortable reality which the secularised have had to learn to live. However, they refuse to accept that a woman can be Muslim, progressive and emancipated. In addition they forget that the Enlightenment influenced not only the secularised, but that numerous believers also benefited from Enlightenment ideals. Is there, apart from religious fundamentalism, such a thing as secular fundamentalism?

For Hassan, an intensely felt relation with God and the quest for justice are the core of her beliefs. Hassan will not allow either the Islamicists of the Al Azhar University in Cairo, or secular sources, to deprive her of the right to experience her religion in this way. People with a high regard for the Enlightenment should know that religious tolerance was actually one of the pillars of Enlightenment thought. Pluralism therefore also means that believers and the secularised should not speak of each other in condescending tones but should respect each others' philosophy. However, this mutual respect does not free either believers or the secularised from the moral duty to be critical when religious or secular people and institutions threaten to restrict the freedom and rights of individuals.

We all know those generalising and spurious stories about tolerance and respect for 'other' cultures. And we are also familiar with the optimistic stories about the unbelievable wealth of smells and colours which w multicultural kitchen. But in everyday practice each person does tend to find his own culture just a little better than someone else's, or one person thinks himself just a little bit more respectable than the other. Patience, effort, fantasy and an open and undogmatic mind are needed in order to make a positive and creative use of cultural differences. The following events during a theatre festival in Amsterdam show how complicated and fascinating the multicultural society can be.

Three youths, two Moroccans and a Dutchman, had already settled into the theatre bar early in the evening. They had already had quite a few drinks before the show started. After the show the audience moved to the bar and there found the drunken chaps. Two of them, the Dutchman and one of the Moroccans, started making objectionable and sexist remarks to a group of women. The man behind the bar - also a Moroccan - warned the director of the theatre and suggested that it would perhaps be a good idea to ring the police. This could perhaps get out of hand. The director, who himself had not seen exactly what happened, trusted the barman's judgment and called the police. They were there within fifteen minutes. As the police could not simply put out three young men, the director had to formally ask the three to leave the theatre bar. They left, under loud protest. However, the third youth had done hardly anything. It was his two friends who had behaved rather provocatively and lewdly to the women. When this innocent fellow was put outside he became incensed with anger. He waited till the police had left and then decided to go back on his own to the bar. He came in screaming and shouting. He hadn't done anything. 'Give me a kiss', screamed the boy at the director. This went on for a while, until a Moroccan actor who was a friend of the director told him: 'Kiss him on the forehead'. The director worried about losing his teeth but realised that this was not a joke. He pressed his lips to the forehead of the furious young man and in a fraction of a second the boy's aggressive expression was replaced by a laugh. With a smiling face he shook the director's hand. Everything was fine now, now they were friends. 'The kiss satisfies his sense of honour', said the actor. The director was a bit dazed. Handy all the same to have friends around who know the codes which you do not, he thought. We need this sort of devotion to pluralism.

"A commitment to pluralism"
Ria Lavrijsen
Livio Sansone
Bhikhu Parekh
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) A new global ethics
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) Recasting cultural policies
General introduction
our creative diversity