The kiss, the pen and the word
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.