The erroneous 'cultural distinction'
Regardless of the culture from which they emerge, universal values apply to all. For example, the concept of universal human rights is universally applicable, even though it has its roots in Western civilisation. Human rights are fundamental rights that apply to every human being – regardless of his or her individual capabilities, social status and ethnicity.
In contrast, the applicability of values that have been shaped by a culture are rooted in the tradition in which they developed. Cultural idiosyncrasy knows no generally applicable values. In the cause of cultural distinctions, the notion of human rights is seen as an exclusive expression of Western culture that cannot, therefore, be considered universally applicable.
Although the debate about the compatibility of universal human rights and specific cultural distinctions is fundamentally a European one, it is cropping up with increasing frequency in Islamic discourses.
Those who reject the concept of democracy and the applicability of human rights for Islamic societies too, generally claim that democracy and human rights do not fit with Islamic values and traditions.
What makes these arguments so peculiar is that although they claim to defend Islam and its values, they actually stand in contradiction to its key tenets. After all, Islam sees itself as a universal religion that has a message for all humans, regardless of their culture or nationality.
Universal values in Islam
Islam does not deny that people differ. Nevertheless, it postulates common, universally applicable values on the basis of which God judges humans. Without these universally applicable values, the divine message could not be universal.
In other words, Islam is, in principle, committed to a form of universalism. The question is not, therefore, whether universal values apply to all of humanity, but what these values are.
I would like to stress at this point that the oft-repeated, mantra-like claim that Islam is "culturally distinct" is quite simply incompatible with the Muslim self-image and Islam's claim to be a universal religion whose God is a God for all people.
Why then does dissent arise time and again on the issue of whether universal human rights are compatible with traditions that are rooted in culture?
To answer this question, let us take a closer look at the proponents of this "cultural distinction". Russia and China are the first that come to mind in this respect.
Whenever China is reproached for its poor human rights record, the response is usually that this criticism is merely a reflection of the predominance of Western values. This is generally followed up with an emphasis on Asian values, which set the state and the collective above the individual.
Quite apart from the fact that the theory that there is a static and permanently delimited model of cultural individuality is far removed from reality, such a reference to one's own values is questionable.
Although the regime of the Communist Party makes reference to Asian values, it does not permit anyone to question the source of its legitimacy to represent the collective. Without state repression, the Communist Party would never have prevailed.
Let us not forget either that China's current structure with its Communist Party was established in the course of a revolution that explicitly targeted the old regime and its Asian values. In this respect, the party drew its legitimacy from a modern, Western ideology: Marxism.
In short, those who claim such a distinction for China can be reminded of the very thing they criticise about the principle of universality, namely that emphasising cultural individuality is (also) just a form of rule and oppression.
Human rights merely pretext for Western aspirations of dominance?
The situation in Islamic countries is not profoundly different to that in China. In Islamic countries, authoritarian governments and traditional religious institutions that represent an "official Islam" laud this alleged cultural distinction.
They often argue that Islamic populations are not made for democracy, that democracy and human rights – and in particular basic liberal rights – are incompatible with the Arab cultural heritage and Islamic traditions. Paradoxically, however, when it serves their purpose, state and religious institutions see no difficulties in having recourse to international law!
Others – such as left-wingers and Islamists – also weigh into this debate, despite the fact that they oppose both the state and its institutions and reject its "unjust world order".
Most proponents of the concept of a cultural distinction – and others too – reject imperialism. They justify their rejection on the grounds that imperialist policies invoke the universal values of human rights.
The arguments used here are as simple as they come: because imperialist policies use human rights as a pretext and a cover for controlling other countries, human rights must be a tool of the West's aspirations of dominance.
I would, however, like to point out at this juncture that from Lenin to the national liberation movements of the Islamic world, the historical anti-imperialist movement made reference to the universal values of human rights.
Anti-imperialist movements used the great values of freedom, justice and equality to draw attention in their name to the brutality and hypocrisy of imperialist policy.
Proponents of the notion that the Islamic world is culturally distinct offer no convincing grounds for their rejection of universal values. What is worse, however, is that their arguments directly contradict the universality of Islamic values and norms.
© Qantara.de 2017
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan