General Sir Charles James Napier, who conquered the Sindh Province of India (now Pakistan) during the heyday of British imperialism, was appalled by the quaint local custom of the suttee — burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. He issued an order banning such things. He was soon thereafter visited by some Hindu holy men who sought to explain to him that the suttee was an ancient and revered tradition in their society that he should respect. Napier heard them out courteously. “You say that it is your custom to burn widows,” he said. “Very well. We also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre. Beside it my men will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
I have always thought that story, which I believe is credible, speaks volumes to the ancient quandary of clashing cultures. We are conditioned to respect other societies and their cultural values, which generally speaking is a good thing to do. But sometimes we come face to face with values so unspeakably abhorrent to our own that accommodation is virtually impossible.
Some years ago, I wrote a book, “Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862,” about how our 16th President handled the bloodiest Indian uprising in American history in the midst of the bloody Civil War. In performing research for that book, I was struck again by the clash of cultures when our ancestors tried to co-exist with Native Americans. The Sioux of southwest Minnesota went on a bloody rampage in part because they were being cheated out of their land and money, but even more because they resented the daily insults to their culture.
To be sure, our government was not overtly trying to insult the Sioux. Rather, we were trying to persuade them to become farmers like the European settlers who were moving into the area. The U.S. government offered generous inducements to the Sioux to take up the white man’s ways – free farmland, free farm equipment, instruction, seeds, animals, everything they needed to launch productive farms. A few of the Sioux accepted this generous offer and for the most part they prospered.
But to the majority of the Sioux, these few were sellouts. The Sioux men considered themselves warriors and hunters. Farming was women’s work. And by the way, virtually all of the menial work was performed by the Native American women. That also was part of their ancient and revered culture that our ancestors disrespected. In studying this history, I found myself sympathetic to the European settlers who were offering the Native Americans a better way of life. The traditional Native American culture, at least as represented by the Sioux in that area, was ripe for history’s dustbin.
Today we have yet another major league culture clash afoot between the modern world and the Islamic world – at least as it is expressed by its more traditional exponents. The contrast between that culture and ours is extraordinary. They build their entire lives around their religious faith. They tolerate no dissent. Anyone who is not a Muslim is a heretic to be destroyed. They seek to manage their governments and economies according to the Koran, a 7th century book written by illiterate camel drivers.
Worst of all in my book is their contemptuous treatment of women who have no say in public affairs, who are forbidden to have professional careers or even drive cars (at least in Saudi Arabia). In Afghanistan, a little girl was shot in the head for daring to attend school. The leaders of the Taliban publicly proclaimed this a good thing. Are we really supposed to pretend that this culture deserves our respect?
The rigid discrimination against women also retards Islamic cultural, political and economic development. Women are half the population. To simply dismiss half of the population from making critical contributions to their society, the Islamic world is condemning itself to endless stagnation and backwardness.
I understand the desire of our political leaders to seek to placate the Islamic world, and in fact the great majority of Islamic people are not captive to the extremist views I have herein described. But the discrimination against women is a basic tenet of Islam everywhere. I long to hear our leaders condemn this evil for what it is and call on the Islamic world to shake off its ancient shackles to join the modern world.