Sunday, February 3, 2008

Cultural Acid Test:
Islam and Hygiene, Rights and Responsibilities

I think the War on Terror will be a useful acid test for both Islamic and western cultures. I've written before about the challenges facing Islam ("Islam, Assault, Culture, and a Houston Area Crisis Hotline" (February 1, 2008), for example).

Contemporary western culture is having some of its basic assumptions tested, too.

For at least three decades, at least in America, western culture has been extremely concerned about individual rights. We're not to discriminate against people: and our legislators and regulators gave us a lavish pile of overlapping rules to make sure that what they think is discrimination doesn't happen.

It looks like a not-altogether-unreasonable fear of discrimination has seeped into Britain's law, too.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the system has worked, more or less. Partly, I think, because all but the most radical 'rights' enthusiasts were careful about what 'rights' they demanded.

That seems to be changing.

Europe and America now have sizable populations of Muslims, whose culture developed independently of the Magna Carta and germ theory. Basic western assumptions about the balance of individual rights and social responsibilities are being tested.

Over in United Kingdom, hospitals and medical facilities, hundreds of peope have died from MRSA and Clostridium difficile infections. So, the Department of Health said that all doctors should be "bare below the elbow". There was no prurient interest involved.

As a professor of microbiology at Imperial College London, Dr Mark Enright, said: "To wash your hands properly, and reduce the risks of MRSA and C.difficile, you have to be able to wash the whole area around the wrist.

Common sense? Apparently not.
  • Some Birmingham University students would rather to quit their studies than expose their arms
  • A Sheffield University medic refused to "scrub:" it would have left her forearms exposed
  • Several Leicester University students wouldn't roll their sleeves up to the elbow for "appropriate hand washing"
You guessed it: the no-roll medical types were all Muslim.

These people aren't isolated crackpots.

The Islamic Medical Association (IMA) insisted that covering all the body in public, except the face and hands, was a basic tenet of Islam. Here's how the IMA put it: "No practicing Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow."

The IMA isn't pro-germ, though. Its spokesman, Dr Majid Katme, say that sterile disposable gloves that run up the arm would be better than bare skin. Think throw-away evening gloves. Dr. Katme may have a point, though.

This to-scrub or not-to-scrub question is quite serious in the United Kingdom.

On the one hand, there are people whose religious beliefs (apparently) forbid them from following contemporary hygiene rules. On the other hand, there are people who believe that it's time to stop killing patients with avoidable infections.

Conservative MEP (Member of European Parliament, I think), former hospital consultant and infidel, Dr Charles Tannock, has a possible solution: "Perhaps these women should not be choosing medicine as a career if they feel unable to abide by the guidelines that everyone else has to follow."

That makes sense to me. 'If you can't accept the rules, don't join the club.' I know of someone who is taking medical training, but will probably move to another state to work. If he stays where he is, he'd be required to perform executions: which goes against his beliefs.

It's not that easy, of course. The British legal system. Like America's and many if not most western countries', has a satchel-full of anti-discrimination laws.

Since the modest medics are invoking religious belief, the odds are that they'll sue, if hospitals or universities insist on their washing before medical procedures.

My guess is that Dr. Katme's disposable evening gloves will be used, after a few hundred more people die in British hospitals. And, that if British courts are as badly fouled up as America's, several law firms will make obscene profits by pushing 'discrimination' lawsuits.

Finally, this isn't a Muslim/non-Muslim issue. There are at least four groups involved:
  • Traditional Muslims
  • Contemporary Muslims
  • Traditional westerners
  • Modern westerners
In my view, traditional Muslim and traditional western culture have more in common with each other than either has with modern western culture. And, contemporary-culture Muslims should, I think, take a hard look at how modern western culture has treated traditional western culture, before they decide embrace the modern ethic.

My hope is that people on all sides of the cultural divide take a long, hard look at which of their beliefs are indispensable, and how they can accommodate people whose beliefs are not exactly the same as theirs.

Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.