According to a recent San Francisco Chronicle column “News of the Day,” legislators in the Canadian province of Quebec enacted a law requiring Muslim women to uncover their faces when dealing with government employees so as not to “hinder communication or visual identification.”
The same column contained a report from Indonesia, noting that police there had cancelled a conference of gay activists from across Asia, scheduled for the following weekend, because “it could prompt violent protests by conservative Muslim groups.”
I found this juxtaposition intriguing. On the one hand, a predominantly secular country is insisting a religious minority conform to the norms of the majority. On the other hand, a predominantly Islamic religious country is insisting a social minority conform to the norms of the majority.
The U.S. is not perfect. Even though we were founded by the simple precept that all men are equal, our track record involving American Indians, Chinese, Jews, Irish, Japanese, and Muslims over the last two centuries has been occasionally embarrassing.
However, our First Amendment precepts, rooted in tolerance and freedom of expression, seem to be a pretty good place to start. It’s not like Quebec is forbidding burqas and veils; rather, it is striking a compromise between tolerance and necessity to ensure clarity in identification and communication. The news from Indonesia is more discouraging, because of what I learned about its founding principles.
Though it is 86% Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook, the official philosophical foundation of the country is known as pancasila, from the Sanskrit word for peace principles. These five principles include “just and civilized humanity” and “social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia.” Banning a conference for a social minority seems counter to these principles.
As globalization has evolved, we’ve been looking at it strictly from the standpoint of business and capitalism. That’s not viable going forward. Thanks to advances in technology, all of us have greater insight into what’s going on around the world every single day. How else would I know what happened in Indonesia the day before?
This insight into other societies isn’t limited to the U.S. I met an Iranian man recently who told me that back home, people watch two channels: Iranian national television and a European channel that broadcasts Law and Order reruns. I’m not sure Fred Dalton Thompson would be my first choice for representing America, but at least the series depicts that rights, justice, and ethics are structural precepts in our society.
We have to start thinking about and working on social globalization — how we’re going to get along with people everywhere, not just in our like-minded communities. In my work in technology, I’ve often written about cultural obstacles to teleconferencing. Culturally, citizens of some countries are unlikely to interrupt or to voice negative opinions, though that’s frequently necessary during such calls. (Of course, we still have some work to do at home: as one executive confided, “I’d be happy if I could just get the Californians, the New Yorkers, and the Southerners to get along.”)
I’m not saying I want the world to run like the United States, though I would like to see our “best practices” adopted. I hope we find a way to accommodate, rather than eradicate, the world’s cultures, and create a tapestry that everyone can appreciate.