One of the more popular themes dominating media and social media in the last week have been fears that America’s multicultural project will be reversed, and exhibited by increased prejudice and discrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. One protester in Chicago told The Washington Post: “It’s a bad time to be a Muslim or an illegal citizen in this country.” Given reports of antagonism against Muslim Americans, these warnings probably have some legitimacy. Yet the liberal brand of multiculturalism promoted by the Left has its own prejudices against Islam, though they are often manifested in less explicit ways. These prejudices, often founded upon principled rejections of core tenets of Islamic belief, are however just as damning, if not more so, though they be less worthy of catchy protest slogans or provocative headlines. The 2016 war comedy-drama Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a biopic of news reporter Kim Barker and her book, The Taliban Shuffle suggests how this is so.
The movie’s protagonist is an American journalist increasingly dissatisfied with her domestic beat. Her boss proposes a tour in Afghanistan, which, after seeing another female journalist’s eloquent reporting from Kabul on the nightly news, seems an irresistible, if dangerous, option. Thus proceeds the protagonist’s on-the-job crash-course in all things military, Afghanistan, and expatriate culture.
One of the most palpable themes in this professional coming-of-age story is the main character’s deepening understanding of, and appreciation for, Afghan—and by extension, Muslim—culture. There are heart-warming scenes of her developing a platonic relationship with her Dari interpreter. There is her experience at her interpreter’s wedding, where she dances without restraint in the females-only side of the reception alongside other women dressed in beautiful saris. And so on. Is this not the positive fruits of true multiculturalism, entering into another’s world to better understand and appreciate a foreign paradigm? Maybe— but scratch a little and the deeper contradictions become more apparent.
Take, for example, her trips accompanying US soldiers on patrol to Afghan villages. In one such village, a U.S military-built well is repeatedly destroyed, presumably by the Taliban. Except the American journalist discovers, following a surreptitious encounter with a host of Burqa-clad Afghan women, that the female villagers are the real culprits. They have been throwing old, Soviet-era bombs into the well so that they can continue their long-standing tradition of going down to the river to collect water. This, she discovers, is the only place where women are able to be themselves, talk freely, and escape the burden of their oppressive, patriarchal society. Other similar scenes likewise deride Afghan and Islamic culture for their views and treatment of women, embodied most tangibly in the burqa.
I am no defender of the burqa, nor many Islamic mores regarding women, but these episodes reflect an interesting dilemma. Yes, the multiculturalist affirms, Islamic culture is to be validated and respected. No, the same multiculturalist argues, Islamic culture’s perspectives on women, exemplified in the demeaning, oppressive burqa, must be rejected. This is because, the multiculturalist presumes, all women would of course find such clothing backwards and degrading. Except, a cynic might counter, for all those Muslim women making headlines for willfully and proudly donning the burqa in Western countries.
The multiculturalist/secularist worldview emphasizes tolerance and respect towards foreign cultures, while at the same time aggressively demanding that those same cultures accept the central tenets of the globalized, secular paradigm. On the one hand, the West’s meritocratic elite have a certain obsession with the exotic, unknown qualities of foreign culture, commonly expressed through appreciation for music, clothing, and food. However, they simultaneously censure those cultural traits at odds with the secularist definition of man and the world, particularly as it relates to gender and sexual ethics.
Consider again the movie’s portrayal of Western women flaunting their sexual freedom. Upon arriving in-country, the protagonist meets the journalist heroine she had seen on television back in the USA. In their very first conversation, the latter asks the protagonist for permission to sleep with her handsome New Zealand security guard (she finds the gruff, bearded American security guys too boorish). Much of the movie exemplifies this tenor, where Western women, always in short supply in Kabul, are the ones able to wield power in sexual relationships. As it is crassly put, a woman who would be a “4” back home is a “10” in Afghanistan. The ignorance of unmarried Afghan men towards women and sex is meanwhile mocked, presumably because of their parochial religious views regarding sexuality and marriage.
The message from the technocratic, progressive elite to Islam becomes increasingly clear: You can keep your exotic clothing, but please ditch repressive garb like the burqa or hijab. You can keep the call to prayer in Arabic five times a day, since that represents a sexy unknown, but you need to stop believing any of the Quran’s absolutist, intolerant content regarding sexuality. In effect, Islam is only allowed to be Islam on the West’s progressive, secularist terms, conditions that are likewise increasingly forced upon Christianity. The “freedom” of multiculturalism amounts to a noose pulled tighter and tighter around dissenting opinions.
Progressives love shwarma, music with a Middle Eastern vibe, henna on the hands, etc. It makes them feel “of the world.” It makes them believe that they are participating in a global era defined by tolerance and acceptance. They don’t want to be viewed as provincial or parochial (except, of course, when they do — buy local!). Yet these various elements of culture are not really the most essential or fundamental parts of culture. Consider American culture. For the most part, we don’t eat, dress, or play the same kind of music as our ancestors of three or four generations past. What, truly, is American food, clothing, or music? The answer of 1916 or 1816 is quite different from that of 2016. Culture reduced to food, clothing, and music is of less value because it is so fluid and impermanent.
Religion, in contrast, leaves a far more indelible stamp on a culture’s philosophy, morals, and social norms. These are the aspects of culture most difficult to uproot, most stubbornly resistant to change. Look at Australia, where a largely areligious society is in the midst of a bitter debate over legalizing gay marriage. The Christian religion, considerably weakened and distantly removed from the majority of Aussies’ lives, is a significant reason for this strange circumstance. Moreover, recent Western efforts to promote LGBT causes in Indonesia and Uganda have met stiff resistance, driven largely by Muslim and Christian leaders.
The secularist/multiculturalist project has been hard at work in the West, reducing Christian holidays to meaningless exercises in materialism, often with increasingly blatant sexual overtones. Think, for example, of trashy Halloween outfits and the sexual, Christmas-themed escapades of the film Love Actually. It has done this by affirming the most unimportant accidents of religious custom—candy, costumes, and the like—while censuring the beliefs and ideology that fostered those practices. Yet not satisfied with subverting only its own culture’s religious faith, it must now conquer every other culture, including that of Islam.
Yes, it’s almost certainly true that progressives do not present the kind of immediate, tangible threat to individual Muslims that others have evinced in recent days. I doubt we will see political liberals defacing mosques or intimidating Muslims any time soon. Counterintuitively, however, this may be because those who perpetrate such irresponsible acts, in a certain respect, bear more regard for Islam than those of the progressivist camp. This is because many progressivists view religion, be it Islam, Christianity, or anything else, as a political tool to be appropriated to serve their ideological agenda—a fact demonstrated palpably in the recent revelations about anti-Catholicism among many political elites.
In contrast, conservatism respects religion as maintaining certain non-negotiable beliefs that if excised would undermine, and perhaps destroy, a particular belief system. It is true, in the case of Islam, that many such conservatives argue, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, that the intrinsic beliefs of Islam present an existential threat to what remains of a Christian Western culture. This is certainly a real threat to Islam and its ability to exist peaceably in the West. But is it as fundamental of a threat as the progressive multiculturalist project? Those who adhere to this ideology pay lip service to tolerance and respect of Islamic religion and culture, while subtly (and often not-so-subtly) demanding Muslims abandon core principles of their religion in order to participate in the multiculturalist project. Islam—just as Christianity before it—is allowed a place in the progressivist, pluralist society, only to the degree to which it is willing to commit doctrinal suicide. Those American Muslims so threatened by recent events should carefully consider who, exactly, poses the more significant threat to the ability of Muslims to participate in a pluralist society. Otherwise Muslims may become, like so many Christians before them, pliant cogs in the machinery of progressivist ideology.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.