When in Rome (or elsewhere)

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am

Last Saturday's march in Paris by 3,000 Sikhs, and the threat of another Muslim demonstration outside France's National Assembly, recall St Ambrose's much quoted (and misquoted) advice to St Augustine: 'When in Rome, live as the Romans do; when elsewhere, live as they live elsewhere.'

The controversy over the proposed ban in French schools of religious symbols like the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban and even outsize Christian crosses - that the National Assembly will discuss today - suggests other lessons, too. The ease with which an extremist minority can hold the middle-of-the-road majority to ransom, the globalisation of protest and the pooling of grievances can provoke social explosions.

According to Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, only 0.6 per cent of France's five million Muslims took part in the January 17 demonstration in Paris. Yet, they succeeded in projecting an impression of an entire aggrieved community up in arms against a Christian attempt to trample on Islam's sacred beliefs.

The globalisation of protest was also recently manifest in Mumbai when a Brazilian delegate boasted that the World Social Forum 'has now emerged as a structure that can be reproduced in any part of the world'. He meant that, thanks to improved communications, the free flow of ideas and professional event management, there is now a worldwide choreography of dissent. The angry response in Jakarta was matched by protests as far away as London and Kuwait, Beirut and Srinagar, Brussels, Bahrain and Bethlehem. These distant demonstrators must know that there is no way they can pressure French President Jacques Chirac, but carefully synchronised worldwide protests reinforce the notion of a seamless global ummah (community) of 1 billion Muslims who think and act as one, regardless of national boundaries.

This coalescence of lobbies, not all of them equally responsible, implies a quid pro quo that could spell danger. Solidarity exacts a price. Separatist Kashmiri women draped in black from top to toe who demonstrated in Srinagar against the French law would expect support for their own secessionist politics. Mohamed Latreche, leader of a small French Muslim party in Strasbourg, who organised the Paris protest, was obviously currying favour with the Arab world when he denounced Zionism as 'an ideology of hate, racial discrimination and apartheid' for no matter what crimes Israel may commit in Gaza and the West Bank, it is hardly responsible for the judgment of Paris. Militant French Muslims might find it similarly rewarding to pander to Islamic fighters in Xinjiang, Chechnya and Kosovo.

If the ummah is, indeed, indivisible, victims of al-Qaeda or Taleban attacks are entitled to blame all Muslims in all countries for terrorist violence anywhere. That would be patently unfair. But if local causes are internationalised, there is no reason why international causes should not also be localised. Having championed the headscarf for French Muslims, Jakarta students might turn against their own enlightened President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The enormous scope for mischief would be reduced if people recognised and respected the simple rationale of migration. When the British move to Australia, Indians to Britain or Chinese to America, they do so to improve their prospects. Happily integrated immigrants adjust to the host country's civilisational norms and cultural ambience, as the Chinese have done in Thailand. Those who carry a bed of native earth with them wherever they go, like Dracula's 'undead' who cannot sleep in anything else, are doomed to the pain of perpetual exile.

It is unreasonable to expect any host government to compensate for this personal failure by adopting the customs of the country the immigrant abandoned. That is what is happening in Britain, where some settlers want a holiday on Friday and the tale of the three little pigs to be proscribed.

People have every right to their religious symbols, but only in the natural setting where those symbols arouse no comment. Friction becomes inevitable when one world's practices are foisted on another. Understandably, many find it impossible to give up the customs of faith and upbringing - they would be happier if they did not relocate. When Muslims and Sikhs do so of their own volition, they should not object to paying the price of hospitality. St Ambrose's exhortation about Rome is the unfailing prescription for social harmony.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author