This essay, on universalism, relativism and the debate about human rights in Qatar, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 27 November 2022, under the headline “It can be hard to distinguish the cultural claims of right and left. Just look at Qatar”.
“Everyone has their beliefs and cultures. We welcome and respect that. All we ask is that other people do the same for us.” So insists Yasir al-Jamal, deputy general secretary of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy for the World Cup.
The torrent of criticism that has poured down on Qatar at the start of the World Cup, particularly over its treatment of women, gay people and migrant workers, has also created a pushback, both from supporters of the Qatari regime and those who see in the criticism only Western “performative moral outrage”, “colonial myths” and “orientalist stereotypes”.
Certainly, there is hypocrisy and racism woven into the discussion of Qatar. That should not, however, be a shield to protect Qatar or elicit “respect” for its culture and mores.
What al-Jamal considers to be Qatari cultural beliefs to be welcomed and respected by the rest of the world are rejected by many Qataris themselves. Qatari gay, lesbian and trans people live in fear of imprisonment, even death, because their own beliefs and cultural ways are not just not respected by the authorities but brutally repressed.
Many thousands of Qatari women do not “welcome and respect” the denial of equal rights. Nor do tens of thousands of migrant workers facing brutal treatment in a country that bans trade unions.
It is not Western liberals who first raised these issues, but oppressed Qataris themselves and workers across the global south forced to toil there. These are the people we betray if we “respect” Qatari culture as defined by the Qatari authorities.
Cultures are not fixed, homogenous entities, but porous and contested from within. Much of today’s discussion about cultural respect ignores the diversity and conflict within cultures and has become a means of allowing those in power to impose their vision of an “authentic” culture.
Beyond the immediate debate over Qatar lies a deeper clash between “universalists” and “cultural relativists”. On the one side are those who insist that there are certain universal norms, such as equality, democracy, tolerance, to which all societies should adhere; on the other, those who argue that every culture has its own set of values and mores that should be respected in its own terms and who view universalism as an ethnocentrically European outlook.
It is a debate far more complex than often presented by either side. A historical perspective shows us, ironically, that the concept of universalism, far from being merely a European outlook, was developed and enlarged through struggles against European rule, while many of the ideas of cultural relativism find their roots in European Romanticism.
It was through the Enlightenment in the 18th century that the ideas of equality and of universal rights became a central feature of European thinking. This was also, though, the age of slavery and colonialism. Many Enlightenment philosophers combined a defence of equality and universalism with racist attitudes and an acceptance of, even support for, slavery. Universalism became also a weapon of colonialism through the insistence that European nations had to rule the non-European world to civilise it.
The cynicism with which European – and, more broadly, Western – authorities have exploited the concept of universalism should not, however, detract from its significance to any progressive view of the world. In the debate over the Enlightenment, supporters and critics both present it as a uniquely European phenomenon. For the one, it is a demonstration of the greatness of Europe; for the other, a reminder that its ideals are tainted by racism and colonialism. Both miss the importance of the non-European world in helping to shape many of those ideals.
While many of those who stood in the Enlightenment tradition and declared that “all men are created equal” were willing to endorse slavery and colonialism, it was through the struggles of enslaved people, of colonial subjects, of working-class people, and of women, to emancipate themselves that the ideas of equality and universalism were given a fuller meaning.
Universalism might have been a product of the Enlightenment but it was also both a weapon for, and developed to its fullest extent by, those struggling against European rule and against restrictions imposed by the elite.
Meanwhile, arguments for cultural relativism emerged in Europe in the conservative backlash against universalist perspectives. A key figure was the German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, whose concept of culture still shapes much thinking today.
For Herder, what made each people or nation – or Volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each Volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the spirit of a people refined through history. To be a member of a Volk was to think and act in ways given by the Volk. A culture could only be understood in its own terms and every culture had to be protected from outside encroachment if it was to remain authentic.
Herder was a staunch supporter of equality and an opponent of slavery and colonialism. Nevertheless, his cultural relativism and his celebration of cultural purity led him to repulsive, racist views. He abhorred migration and mixed marriages, which he thought were “strongly detrimental to… the uniqueness of a people”.
Today, both left and right find sustenance in Herder’s ideas; in his celebration of cultural differences and his desire to protect the “authenticity” of distinct cultures by protecting them from outside encroachment, whether immigration or globalisation.
A striking feature of the pushback against criticism of Qatar is the prominence of rightwing figures whose usual target is the “woke” left. The American Christian conservative Rod Dreher, a cheerleader for Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán, has condemned western “cultural imperialism” towards Qatar, excoriating “the disgusting arrogance of western liberals who treat the diverse peoples of the world as if they are wogs who exist to be humiliated into being civilised”. It is one aspect of the confusion of politics today that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the cultural arguments of left and right.
The concept of universalism has certainly been exploited for reactionary ends. We cannot challenge this, however, by rejecting the universalist perspective for a mossbacked idea of cultural relativism but only by reclaiming a more inclusive form of universalism, one that defends the rights of all, whether in Europe or in Qatar.