Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beauty and the West

If you haven't heard, our Ms. USA is not only an Arab American, but a Muslim. This American moment, like so many others in the realm or race, ethnicity and religion has provoked a lot of social commentary. I've included a few examples below:

Ahmad Rehab argues reactions reflect a weird obsession with Islam.

Haroon Moghul ponders the use of women as ideological weapons.

The Religion News Service explores whether this moment represents progress or immodesty.

I find myself ambivalent about this whole issue for a variety of reasons, but what I've been contemplating most is how it relates to arguments about assimilation. Some people might see an Arab Muslim woman winning the Ms. USA contest as evidence of successful assimilation of Western culture. Such a view is based upon the presumption of the superiority of Western culture over non-Western cultures, a presumption that underlies much of the discourse about immigrant populations in the United States. In this paradigm, assimilation is a one-way street with all roads leading West, because the West is assumed to be "the best". An important question to ask is what exactly are we encouraging immigrants to assimilate into. Is a bikini really the best an Arab Muslim woman living in America can aspire too? Is that what it takes for her to "fit in"? Is that what it means to be an American?

The Baha'i approach to cultural diversity is not based upon the presumed superiority of Western culture or a one-way street approach to assimilation. Diverse cultures can and should interact in the spirit of unity in diversity, with each allowed to influence the other and the value of particular practices or beliefs weighed in the balance of Baha'i teaching.

"The Bahá'í Faith seeks to maintain cultural diversity while promoting the unity of all peoples. Indeed, such diversity will enrich the tapestry of human life in a peaceful world society. The House of Justice supports the view that in every country it is quite appropriate for the cultural traditions of the people to be observed within the Bahá'í community as long as they are not contrary to the teachings. . . . At the present time, the challenge to every Bahá'í community is to avoid suppression of those culturally-diverse elements which are not contrary to the teachings, while establishing and maintaining such a high degree of unity that others are attracted to the Cause of God." (Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated July 25, 1988, to an individual believer)

"A primary challenge to Bahá'ís is to preserve and improve those wholesome aspects of tribal and family custom that are in accord with the Bahá'í Teachings and to dispense with those that are not. . . . People everywhere have customs which must be abandoned so as to clear the path along which their societies must evolve towards that glorious, new civilization which is to be the fruit of Bahá'u'lláh's stupendous Revelation. Indeed, in no society on earth can there be found practices which adequately mirror the standards of His Cause." (Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated Ridvan 1996, to the followers of Bahá'u'lláh in Africa)