Sir Charles James Napier and negotiating the dilemmas of multiculturalism


An eight-year-old girl of Liberian origin in the States has suffered the horrific ordeals of being raped and then consequently of being abandoned by her family.

They are apparently claiming that according to their cultural traditions she has brought shame upon them and so must be shunned. The girl is now in the care of social services.

Here in London a man has been hospitalised after a gang attacked him with acid and stabbed him. He was seemingly targeted because he was having an affair with a married Muslim woman who was not his wife. The woman also needs police protection.

A spokesman from the Active Change Foundation has said: “Honour crime happens a lot in our community, especially the Pakistani community, but we try to educate the people. It’s a cultural thing that comes from back home”.

Of course such extreme and dramatic stories are thankfully fairly rare, but the prevelance of forced marriages, for example, indicates that these culture-clash issues cannot be ignored.

Now on one level such depressing reports highlight the difficulties that a multicultural society faces and lead to all kinds of headache-inducing questions.

At what point do we stop tolerating cultural diversity and instead start insisting on imposing core collective values on everybody, even if these contradict the sincere traditions of minority groups? How can we improve the integration of immigrant communities into the cultural mainstream without becoming overly assimiliationist and risk alienating them further?

Or perhaps such liberal agonising is unnecessary, for the words of Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853) provide some straightforward advice on negotiating such cultural contentions.

As can be seen from his wiki entry, a story for which Napier is famous involves a delegation of Hindu locals approaching him and complaining about prohibition of Sati, often referred to at the time as suttee, by British authorities. This was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The exact wording of his response varies somewhat in different reports, but the following version captures its essence:

“You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

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