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Strange Attractions

For the Love of God

Christopher Hitchens is on fine form in Slate magazine, on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the moral contortions of her PC critics:

“Accompanying the article is a typically superficial Newsweek Q&A sidebar, which is almost unbelievably headed: A Bombthrower's Life. The subject of this absurd headline is a woman who has been threatened with horrific violence, by Muslims varying from moderate to extreme, ever since she was a little girl. She has more recently had to see a Dutch friend butchered in the street, been told that she is next, and now has to live with bodyguards in Washington, D.C. She has never used or advocated violence. Yet to whom does Newsweek refer as the "Bombthrower"? It's always the same with these bogus equivalences: They start by pretending loftily to find no difference between aggressor and victim, and they end up by saying that it's the victim of violence who is 'really' inciting it...”

The Hitchens piece prompted me to unearth this article, written for 3:AM, about Laila Lalami's criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Readers may spot similar patterns of rhetorical evasion.

“In an attempt to rebut Hirsi Ali’s contention, Lalami wields a list of Muslim figures who dare to question orthodoxy. Oddly, she omits any mention of how most of those she names have faced censure, persecution or serious threats of violence for demonstrating their capacity for critical thought.”

Ayaan_hirsi_aliLaila Lalami’s Nation article addresses non-Islamic views of female roles within the Muslim world, and the phenomenon she describes as “the burden of pity.” Central to her argument is an attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, whose scholarship and rigour are called into question, along with several sins of omission. The details of this criticism can be read in full via the link above, and some valid secondary points are made. However, Lalami’s own essential argument is far more tendentious and evasive than those she critiques. Lalami argues that Muslim women are unfairly singled out as objects of sympathy and sadness. She writes, “Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies.” In doing so, Lalami rather refutes her own assertion. To the best of my knowledge, relatively few Christian or Jewish women face enforced shrouding, physical abuse, death threats or honour killings as a matter of piety or routine.

Perhaps Lalami can provide a list of priests and prominent rabbis who advocate the beating of women and publish books on how to go about it. As when Mohammed Kamal Mostafa, a “respected” imam from Andalusia, published The Islamic Woman, a helpful guide advising Muslim men on how to beat “rebellious” women without leaving visible signs of injury, in accord with Muhammad’s teachings. Mostafa’s advice included how to avoid incriminating bruises and scar tissue, and how to “inflict blows that are not too strong nor too hard, because the aim is to make them suffer psychologically and not to humiliate them or mistreat them physically.” Jailed in November 2004, Mostafa’s sentence was reduced from 12 months to 20 days and the imam was ordered to complete a training course in basic human rights.

Mohammed_kamal_mostafaAs is often pointed out, the Qur’an is not unique in its misogynistic content and the Old Testament has plenty of disagreeable exhortations – for instance, the stoning of women who turn their husbands away from God (Deuteronomy 13:7). However, the Qur’an is unique in the extent to which it is still taken literally and regarded as immutable. I’m not aware of great swathes of 21st century Christians taking the above injunction seriously and enacting it, or demanding that verses from Deuteronomy be enforced by law so that others do the same. But the Islamic sanction of misogyny is still all too widely enacted as a measure of religious observance.

Muhammad’s sanctioning of wife-beating (Qur’an 4:34, Abu Dawood 11:2142, etc) is still being advanced as valid legal principle by Muslim spokesmen in Spain, Turkey, Holland, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Interviewed by Saudi Arabia’s IQRA TV in March 2005, Sheik Muhammed Al-Manujid referred to the precedent set by Muhammad and insisted: “God is aware of men’s needs… a wife needs to comply with her husband’s desires in bed. Wives in the West are not obliged to do so… They claim that if he has sex with her against her will, this is rape! They claim she must be willing!” Such claims of theological legitimacy will, unsurprisingly, help foster an atmosphere of intimidation, coercion and familial abuse.

Muhammad_almunajidThe middle class women of Tehran may sit in coffee bars with colourful headscarves hiding rebelliously tinted hair, but Dr Saeeda Malik of the Pakistani Institute of Medical Sciences reported that 9 out of 10 rural Muslim wives have been physically abused for being “disobedient” in matters of cooking or sexual compliance. If a Christian or Jewish analogue of this experience exists, perhaps Ms Lalami would care to point it out. Were such parallels to exist on any scale, they would most likely be viewed as aberrant by mainstream Christians and Jews. However, the relationship between fundamentalist Islam and its mainstream - in terms of size, convergence and influence - is very different from that found in Christianity or Judaism. And the fact that this religious mandate is based on the words of Muhammad himself is uniquely problematic.

Lalami mocks the tendency among some to think of Muslim women as an oppressed generic collective, and asks, dryly: “Why… do Muslim women not seek out the West's help in freeing themselves from their societies' retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed…” Well, I’m sure some of the compassion that’s expressed is patronising, self-serving and ill-informed. Doubtless there are some who assume every single Muslim woman on the planet has the same sorrowful experience. And I’m sure expressions of generic sympathy can feel uncomfortable for any number of reasons. But, as someone with a close relative who lived through years of intimidation and low-level domestic abuse, I can testify that women in such circumstances may not recognise their ill-treatment as outrageous or unusual. That’s why it goes on. That’s how it works. Many may assume it’s simply how things are. This ‘normalising’ effect will obviously be amplified in communities where misogyny is given theological license.

Lalami also mocks Hirsi Ali’s contention that Muslim cultures are often “deficient in critical thought.” Well, it’s a generalisation, certainly, but it’s not without an element of truth. I’ve spoken with believers of all kinds and quite a few Muslims. Critical thought has not been a defining attribute of the people I’ve spoken with. There are certain subjects and certain ways of thinking that are inherently at odds with maintaining a religious subscription; and the more literalist and all-consuming that subscription is, the more critical blunting is required to maintain it. If, for instance, Ms Lalami were to think critically about how her own beliefs were absorbed and propagated, some of those beliefs might be challenged or invalidated. The childhood inculcation of religious identity and the subsequent identification with unverified or fictitious events is difficult to undo. Strong emotional associations are formed – not least feelings of parental approval - and, in later life, criticism of those beliefs can be felt as a kind of personal insult. Indeed, in recent years, intemperate reactions to criticism have all but defined the public face of Islam. 

Khaled_abou_el_fadlIn an attempt to rebut Hirsi Ali’s contention, Lalami wields a list of Muslim figures who dare to question orthodoxy: “Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought… The work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Adonis, Amina Wadud, Nawal Saadawi, Mohja Kahf, Asra Nomani and the thousands of other scholars working in both Muslim countries and the West easily contradicts the notion.” Oddly, Lalami omits any mention of how most of those she names have faced censure, persecution or serious threats of violence for demonstrating their capacity for critical thought. Thinking critically may be one thing, but expressing those thoughts freely is, apparently, quite another.

In the wake of 9/11, Khaled Abou El Fadl wrote a modest article for the Los Angeles Times about the need for introspection within the Islamic world. The article, and subsequent lectures and TV appearances, resulted in El Fadl’s UCLA office and San Fernando Valley home receiving a barrage of death threats. The threats, gunshots and subsequent property damage were not the work of ‘Islamophobes’ or racists, but of indignant American Muslims accusing El Fadl of “defaming” Islam and “selling out” their religion.

Asra_nomaniThe feminist Muslim Asra Nomani is indeed another outspoken reformer, but the homicidal reactions to Nomani’s efforts scarcely refute Hirsi Ali’s basic argument. Nomani is perhaps best known for campaigning for women to be allowed to pray alongside men in mosques. A modest enough request, one might think. Less well known – and unacknowledged by Lalami - are the numerous death threats that began two days after Nomani argued for this right on the Nightline news programme. One outraged male Muslim called Nomani’s mobile phone and left a message in Urdu, promising to “slaughter” her, halal style, if she didn’t “keep her mouth shut.” The caller promised to murder Nomani’s mother and father, too, and, to emphasise his point, he called her parents’ home immediately afterwards. The pious caller added thoughtfully that he would say a prayer as he slit their throats.

The Iranian author, Reza Aslan, and Amina Wadud, a Professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, have both suffered death threats for allegedly “corrupting Islam.” As has the Egyptian feminist writer, Nawal Saadawi. Other prominent victims of theological intolerance were excluded from Lalami’s list. The Sudanese writer Kola Boof fled to the U.S. after receiving death threats for her comments on Islam and slavery. In March 2002, Jordan’s first female Member of Parliament, Toujan al-Faisal, was imprisoned for publishing material deemed “detrimental to religious feeling.” One month earlier, the Iranian writer and human rights lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar, and her publisher, Shahla Lahiji, received jail sentences based on similar claims of affront.

Taslima_nasrinNor was any mention made of the Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasrin, who in the early Nineties aroused widespread ire among Muslims by publicly questioning Sharia and the treatment of women under Islamic law. Strikes and rallies ensued across Dhaka, drawing over 200,000 protestors and calls for her imprisonment. Nasrin fled Bangladesh in 1994 after Muslim fundamentalists placed a bounty on her head. Tried in absentia for blasphemy, a 2002 court ruling condemned her to jail if she returns. Her books are, of course, banned.

The list of critical thinkers who’ve received a less than warm welcome from Islamic authorities and fellow believers is daunting and far too long to cover in full. And, so far as I know, this list of exiles, refugees and women threatened into hiding has no modern parallel among critics of Christianity or Judaism. A question thus arises. If Islam is so tender and enlightened in its approach to women, and so welcoming of debate, why should this be so? Lalami may feel inclined to sneer at “hagiographic profiles” of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, and to dismiss the use of such terms as “brave” and “heroic”; but one has to wonder how Lalami might regard the unknown number of less prominent men and women who share many of their views and would like the freedom to voice them.

© David Thompson 2007

A version of this article was published in 3:AM magazine, June 2006

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