March 19th, 2010


Tolerance of cultural diversity: In defense of Dubai

Imagine, for a moment, an immensely unlikely scenario: a Sentinelese couple decides to emigrate to the US. They pack up their best harpoons and adzes, hop on a plane to JFK, and settle into their new life in New York City.

And, of course, being Sentinelese, they do this all while stark naked.

How tolerant would Americans be of their public nudity?

Bonus question: how tolerant would Americans be of the fact that the Sentinelese have sex in public?


My friends and me at the beach in Qatar
As I write this, the top story on CNN is about a British couple who face jail time in Dubai over "kissing and touching each other intimately in public ... and consuming alcohol." Many of the comments being posted voice viewpoints similar to these:
"Muslims go to Western countries and insist on following their own customs, so they ought not kick when Westerners go to theirs and follow Western customs" -Dorothea7

"When a muslim comes to the United States they want and expect us to allow them to keep their religious and cultural identities whether it conforms to our standards or not. There are many lawsuits against our gov. and businesses to allow them to wear clothing that does not reveal their faces or have special work place considerations of their religion and culture. If an American or infidel goes to a moslem country they are immediately put under control of their moslem standards or worse the all incriminating sharia law. Where is the fairness? There isn't. Moslems travel the world expecting their culture to overrule others while citizens of other countries are prosecuted in their's." -isntitgreat

OK, time for a reality check of Dubai's concessions to Western customs. In a culture that views all body parts other than the hands and face as private, Dubai allows Westerners to gallavant around in bikinis. In a culture that views pork as unclean and ungodly, Dubai sells pork to Westerners in grocery stores. In a culture that views alcohol as inherently immoral, Dubai imports alcohol and opens bars for non-Muslim expats.

What would the US have to do to show similar levels of tolerance? We'd definitely have to let those Sentinelese people run around naked, and possibly have public sex. We'd also have to open dog-meat sections in our grocery stores and and open opium dens in our hotels for immigrants and tourists. That's the level of tolerance Dubai (and Doha) shows to Western culture. So, while the behaviors they tolerate may not seem huge to us, if you consider how far Western behaviors fall outside the range of behavior permissible in their own culture, I think they have a far larger tolerance ratio than the US does. While I'm certainly not arguing that the US is an intolerant country, it certainly seems very parochial of us to act as though we have a lot to teach the Gulf countries about tolerating cultural diversity.