Western culture is superior

Posted: Aug 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Two recent news stories illustrate one of the unmentionables of modern life -- namely, that Western culture is superior to others. As the United States is now engaged in a protracted and expensive effort to remake the Middle East, we ought to be clear about what we are doing and why.

First, the stories. One concerns the problem of rape in Iraq. The New York Times reported the fate of a 9-year-old Iraqi girl who had been grabbed by a stranger and raped. Awful enough. But perhaps worse than the rape itself was the response of her family.

Like many pre-modern societies, Iraqis live by a shame-honor system. "For a woman's family, all this is worse than death," Dr. Khulud Younis, an Iraqi gynecologist, told the Times. "They will face shame. If a woman (rape victim) has a sister, her future will be gone."

If a woman is brave enough to report a rape to Iraqi authorities, she will be treated with indifference. She must first go to the police who issue the paperwork for forensic examinations. In Baghdad, the only clinic that can perform a forensic exam is located at the city morgue, and it is open only from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. If the rape occurs after business hours, the woman or child will have to return the next day (being careful not to wash away the evidence in the meantime).

The overwhelming majority of victims do not even attempt to file a complaint. Tribal law prescribes that victims of rape be killed by their male relatives, and when this happens, the men are often given extremely light sentences or no punishment by the courts. In the case of the 9-year-old, her life was spared, but her four brothers as well as her mother and father beat her daily for having compromised the family's honor.

The other story concerns young girls in Africa. Just outside Kampala, Uganda, a 16-year-old orphan named Lillian attempts to hold on to her virginity. Both of her parents, reports The New York Times, succumbed to AIDS. She was given into the care of an uncle. But he, too, died of AIDS.

Lillian is keen to delay sex and dreams of going to college. But while the Ugandan government officially encourages abstinence, the culture -- as well as the economy -- push the other way. Young girls often drop out of school to become the second or third wives of an older man. Many others adopt a form of prostitution. Lillian's cousins (to whom she is something of a burden) are pressuring her to get a "sponsor."

Lillian explains: "I know what they mean. They want me to do what so many girls do and get a sugar daddy. You give him what he wants, and he gives you what you want." Another girl puts it this way: "Some of us are orphans. We are barely getting by. If someone comes along and says he'll buy you soap, you might try it. He gives you 1,000 shillings (about 50 cents), and you hope next time he'll give you 2,000."

To say that Western culture is superior is not to say that any particular person living in the West is superior to any person living elsewhere. That would be ridiculous. But it is equally ridiculous to deny that the moral standards, customs and beliefs of the West contribute to fairer and far more humane societies than are found elsewhere.

We are now engaged in a mission to remake the Middle East -- to introduce democracy, the rule of law and religious pluralism. But as we undertake this task, which would be extremely difficult under the best of circumstances, we are hampered by the fact that a sizeable minority of our own people does not believe at all that our way is better. They, in fact, regard the very suggestion as obscene. Any shortcomings of more primitive societies, when they are acknowledged at all, are blamed on others, usually on us.

Feminists who are quick to file lawsuits for even the smallest slight in this country are strangely reluctant to make common cause with women in nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Why? Is it because championing those women would imply that Western society -- which feminists have so long derided as sexist -- is far better than any others when it comes to the treatment of women?

Is it really arrogance, as the liberals would have it, to believe that the system and the culture we've inherited is superior to others? Or is it ingratitude to deny it?