Thou shalt respect other people’s customs, whatever they are

As a lifelong champion of multi-culti rectitude, I’m proud of the progress Britain has made since the 19th century.

In those days of the Raj the British colonialist-imperialist monsters displayed gross insensitivity to the local customs.

It’s not as if the concept of multiculturalism was then unknown, even if the word was. As far back as the 5th century BC (sorry, it should be BCE now, but I haven’t yet expunged all my rotten habits), Herodotus taught that “we must respect other people’s customs.”

Having issued that injunction, about 50 pages later in the same book he cited an illustration: “Burying people alive is a Persian custom.”

Herodotus didn’t link the two statements directly, an oversight that I’d like to correct. For it’s my heartfelt conviction that we mustn’t be selective in proffering our respect. We can’t pick and choose which alien customs we esteem – they’re all equally valuable and, implicitly, more so than our own.

Such is the true meaning of progress, as we define it today. But in the stone-age 19th century the Brits still tried to cling on to antediluvian values. They still hadn’t grasped the nature of progress.

Thus in 1829 the Raj administration in India callously banned suttee, the ritual immolation of the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre.

This ancient custom was then still practised widely, with about 600 women turned to ash every year, supposedly with no coercion involved. Submitting to suttee was a sign of virtue: the word derives from the Sanskrit for ‘good woman’.

That ethnic, meaning progressive, rite wasn’t limited to the Indians. In fact, Herodotus mentions its existence among some Thracian tribes, and Procopius, as cited by Gibbon, says that some Germanic tribes also had a version of this fine custom.

The Russians, or rather proto-Russians, weren’t far behind, as testified by the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan. He travelled from Baghdad to the Volga area in the 10th century and wrote an entertaining book about it.

A version of suttee was among other charming rites Ibn Fadlan described. In broad strokes, when a chieftain died, his numerous wives and concubines were asked to nominate a volunteer to be cremated with him.

One would inevitably step forward, after which the lady, before she was incinerated, would be given wine and drugs. She would then, in her semi-conscious state, dance and have sex with all the male relations of the deceased.

This ritual, while testifying to the unbridled virility of the early Russians, probably has as its close modern equivalent the sex-drugs-and-rock’n-roll culture (usually without the immolation) so beloved of today’s Western youths.

By the mid-1880s the Indians had had enough of the colonial oppression imposed by the British and personified by General Sir Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief in India (1859-1861).

Some Hindu priests came to him with a perfectly valid complaint about the continuing ban on suttee. This, they said, is our ancient custom and you must respect it.

Belying his reputation for intransigence, Napier readily agreed:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This statement fills me with righteous wrath. For Napier didn’t just threaten to punish multiculturalism with the death penalty. He mocked it by his last sentence, implying that we too have our customs and, given the chance, will make others abide by them.

Yet the multi-culti champion in me also rejoices. For these days no British administrator would allow himself such sarcasm towards any ethnic custom. If he did, he’d be forced to take a diversity course or, more likely, sacked.

For we’ve learned to respect other people’s cultures so much that we despise our own. That’s why we allow the existence of thousands of mosques, each preaching hatred for everything we used to hold dear, but don’t any longer.

Oh yes, we still draw the line on some of the more quaint customs, such as the stoning of adulterers. I suspect that our multi-culti sensitivity hasn’t yet been honed enough to let such things slide, but do give us a few years.

As to suttee, I don’t know how widely it’s practised these days in its native habitat. Yet India’s government felt obliged to pass the Commission of Suttee Act in 1987, which suggests the ritual isn’t completely out of fashion in modern times.

However, I’m not aware of suttee still surviving among the British Indians. British Muslims, on the other hand, still enforce some customs to which we respond with the retrograde knee-jerk reaction of disgust.

Many of them relate to the treatment of women, who in the Islamic ethos occupy an intermediate position between humans and livestock.

Honour beatings, incarceration and even murder are widely reported, as are such more innocuous things as forced marriage, often coupled with making a Western-born and educated girl go back to her parents’ native village to wed an illiterate goatherd.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is another aspect of multiculturalism that’s still very much alive in 27 African countries, as well as in Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan. About 125 million girls in those countries have been affected, and the number is going up, what with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria imposing it by law.

Back in 1985 the British government, still in the grip of vestigious prejudice, outlawed FGM. Since then the law has been on the books but, as I’m pleased to report, not a single case has been prosecuted.

Yet up to 66,000 women have been thus crippled in Britain since then. I’m sure they don’t mind: this is an ancient custom after all, and it must be obeyed on pain of death.

One has to welcome this progress of multiculturalism, even as one feels slight unease of a gastrointestinal nature. How long before we legalise suttee, I wonder?

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