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The Ridiculousness of Relativism: All Cultures Are Not Equal

Last year, an Afghan woman named Gulnaz was the victim of rape. In a case of what you might call “adding injury to injury,” it was Gulnaz who wound up in prison.

Now, according to reports, she faces yet another assault to her dignity: She can stay in prison or marry her attacker.

Gulnaz was initially sentenced 12 years for adultery because her attacker was married. If that sounds grotesque to you, welcome to what is known as Pashtunwali, the Pashtun ethical and social code that, it must be noted, predates Islam.

Under Pashtunwali, if Gulnaz had spoken publicly about her rape, she would have damaged her family’s honor, so she remained silent and was imprisoned.

That would have been the end of her story had not international pressure occasioned by a European documentary prompted President Karzai to “pardon” her.

In another bizarre Pashtun custom, Gulnaz is requiring her rapist's sister to marry her brother as part of the deal. This custom provides a way of deterring Gulnaz’s husband-to-be from harming her. Think of it as the Pashtunwali equivalent of mutually-assured destruction.

According to the New York Times, Gulnaz’s story reveals the “limits of change in a society where cultural practices are so powerful that few can resist them, not even the president.”

I draw two important conclusions from this appalling story. First, the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is hopelessly misguided.

We have spent billions trying to turn Afghanistan into something resembling a modern nation-state. While some of our efforts have been well-intentioned and laudable, the project as a whole is naïve in the extreme.

As Gulnaz knows from bitter experience, large parts of the country are, culturally-speaking, living in the sixth century. The idea that we can just fast-forward 1,400 years is absurd.

Instead, we are sacrificing lives and spending money we don’t have to create a corrupt government. This cannot be justified by the just war doctrine.

Something else that can’t be justified, which brings me to my second conclusion, is the kind of cultural relativism that is still fashionable among “right-thinking” people in the West. Their appropriate horror over stories like Gulnaz’s shows that, as philosopher Marcello Pera has written, “relativists contradict themselves” and “deny what they state.”

As Gulnaz’s case shows, the elites don’t really believe that “there are no moral values or standards which can be applied to all cultures.” What they are really doing is denying what makes the values they believe in possible: the West’s Christian heritage.

Because it is the Christian belief that man bears the image of God that makes the very belief in “fundamental and universal” human rights possible. It’s why we just can’t turn our back on what was done to Gulnaz as just another equally valid expression of culture.

As Pera, the former head of the Italian Senate, knows, this contradiction is one thing that Westerners just don’t want to admit. Fortunately for Gulnaz, these relativists contradicted themselves in such a way that they prove their worldview to be false.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication date: December 22, 2011

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