The Missionary Position
by LAILA LALAMI
[from the June 19, 2006 issue]
These days, being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the "burden of pity." The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.
Radical Islamist parties claim that the family is the cornerstone of society and that women, by virtue of their reproductive powers, are its builders. An overhaul of society must therefore begin with reforming the status of women, and in particular with distinguishing clearly their roles from those of men. Guided by their "true" interpretations of the faith, these radicals want women to resume their traditional roles of nurturers and men to be empowered to lead the family. If we protect women's rights in Islam, they assure us, the umma, the community of believers, will be lifted from its general state of poverty and backwardness.
Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the Egyptian writer and activist who has exerted such a powerful influence over the radical Islamist movement, fervently believed that Muslim women belonged in the home. In his 1964 book Ma'alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), Qutb wrote that "if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children" and, whether on her own or by pressure from society, seeks to work in jobs such as "a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company," she will be "using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings." This, he claimed, would make the entire civilization "backward." The misogynistic philosophy has proved enticing, finding advocates among Muslims throughout the world. Between 1989 and 1991, for instance, Abbassi Madani, the red-bearded founder of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front Party (FIS), often referred to women who refused to cover themselves with a hijab as "sparrow hawks of neocolonialism." His co-founder, Ali Belhadj, claimed that there was a simple solution to the country's high unemployment rate: turn over the jobs of working women to idle men. Madani summarized his program: "The system is sick; the doctor is FIS; and the medicine has existed for fourteen centuries. It is Islam." Reducing Algerian women to birds of prey, and their faith to a pill: These are good indicators of the depth of intellect within the leadership of the FIS.
Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about "our plight"--reserved, it would seem, for us, as 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. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women's liberation. Why, they wonder, 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.
The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that "the fatal obstacle" to the country's "attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization" was Islam's degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century, for now we have George W. Bush, leader of the free world, telling us, before invading Afghanistan in 2001, that he was doing it as much to free the country's women as to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Five years later, the Taliban is making a serious comeback, and the country's new Constitution prohibits any laws that are contrary to an austere interpretation of Sharia. Furthermore, among the twenty-odd reasons that were foisted on the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, of course, the subjugation of women; this, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi women were educated and active in nearly all sectors of a secular public life. Three years into the occupation, the only enlightened aspect of Saddam's despotic rule has been dismantled: Facing threats from a resurgent fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shiite, many women have been forced to quit their jobs and to cover because not to do so puts them in harm's way. Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone's guess.
This context--competing yet hypocritical sympathies for Muslim women--helps to explain the strong popularity, particularly in the post-September 11 era, of Muslim women activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji and the equally strong skepticism with which they are met within the broad Muslim community. These activists are passionate and no doubt sincere in their criticism of Islam. But are their claims unique and innovative, or are they mostly unremarkable? Are their conclusions borne out by empirical evidence, or do they fail to meet basic levels of scholarship? The casual reader would find it hard to answer these questions, because there is very little critical examination of their work. For the most part, the loudest responses have been either hagiographic profiles of these "brave" and "heroic" women, on the one hand, or absurd and completely abhorrent threats to the safety of these "apostates" and "enemies of God," on the other.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a prominent critic of the Siyad Barre regime, and the family had to flee the country, first to Saudi Arabia and then to Ethiopia and Kenya. When Hirsi Ali was 22, her father arranged a marriage for her with a distant relation. On a layover in Germany en route to Canada, where the man lived, Hirsi Ali escaped to the Netherlands, where she applied for and received asylum. She worked as an interpreter for Somali refugees and studied political science at the University of Leiden. Hirsi Ali first came into the public eye in 2002, with the publication of De Zoontjesfabriek (The Son Factory), whose vehement criticisms of Islam made her the subject of death threats. She joined a think tank affiliated with the social-democratic Labor Party but a year later switched membership to the right-wing VVD Party, which had invited her to run for a seat in Parliament. She won, and became a member of Parliament in January 2003. Hirsi Ali explained her shifting allegiance by saying that the VVD granted her greater ability to advocate for the rights of Muslim women. Then in 2004, she wrote the script to the short film Submission, which was directed by Theo van Gogh, a man who was known for his virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. That fall, van Gogh was slaughtered in Amsterdam, in broad daylight, by a Dutch man named Mohammed Bouyeri, whose parents had emigrated from Morocco. A letter left on van Gogh's body made it clear that Hirsi Ali was the next target. She immediately went into hiding and has needed heavy protection ever since. A few years ago, Hirsi Ali admitted to lying on her asylum application, but a Dutch TV documentary challenged her on other details of her life, including whether or not she was forced into marriage. The revelations sparked a row that culminated when Rita Verdonk, the Minister of Integration and a member of Hirsi Ali's own party, informed her that she could no longer consider herself a Dutch citizen. Although there has been no specific move to strip her of citizenship, Hirsi Ali has already announced that she is resigning from Parliament and moving to the United States, where she will take up a position at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.
Irshad Manji was born near Kampala, Uganda, into a Pakistani family. When the country's dictator, Idi Amin Dada, announced that the national economy was to be placed in the hands of black people, he forced the large and thriving South Asian minority out of the country. In 1972, when Manji was 4 years old, her family fled to Canada and settled there. She grew up in Vancouver, where she went to public school. In her free time, she attended Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, and later a conservative Islamic madrassa, from which she was expelled for asking too many pointed questions. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in intellectual history, and later worked as a speechwriter and broadcaster. Manji rose to prominence in 2004, when her controversial book The Trouble With Islam was published. She received death threats and lived under police protection for some time before deciding to forgo the bodyguards. "[If] I'm going to have legitimacy conveying to Muslims that we can dissent with the establishment and live, I can't have a big, burly fellow looking over my shoulder. I must lead by example," she wrote. She is currently a visiting fellow with the International Security Studies Program at Yale University.
There are some striking parallels between the experiences of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. They were both born, only a year apart, in East Africa--Hirsi Ali in 1969, and Manji in 1968. Both were forced by politically repressive regimes into exile from their homelands at an early age. Both can trace their "emancipation" to a single, significant, life-changing event. Both credit the West for giving them not just freedom of speech but the very ability to think for themselves. Hirsi Ali states that she is "the living proof" that Western culture enabled her to come fully into her own, while Manji declares, "I owe the West my willingness to help reform Islam." Both women express an unabashed disdain for multiculturalism, which they accuse of fostering a climate of political correctness that prevents dialogue and useful criticism. Both supported the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the "war on terror." Finally, both women have recently published books in the United States. For Manji, it is The Trouble With Islam Today, a slightly expanded edition of her 2004 bestseller. (Manji explains in an afterword why the temporal specification was added to the title.) For Hirsi Ali it is The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.
The Caged Virgin is a collection of seventeen short essays and articles on the question of Islam, translated by Jane Brown. Hirsi Ali discusses the rights of individuals in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities in the West, she disagrees vehemently with the ways sacred texts invade secular space and she criticizes what she sees as the lax policies of Western European states toward their Muslim minorities. "I have taken an enormous risk by answering the call for self-reflection," she declares. "And what do the cultural experts say? 'You should have said it in a different way.' But since Theo van Gogh's death, I have been convinced more than ever that I must say it in my way only and have my criticism." Let us then follow Hirsi Ali's example, and look critically at her words.
The overarching argument in The Caged Virgin is that there is insufficient freedom for the individual in Islam. This, Hirsi Ali argues, is because one of the fundamental tenets of the religion is the submission of the individual to God, which creates a strict hierarchy of allegiances. At the top of this hierarchy is God, then His Prophet, then the umma, then the clan or tribe and finally the family. The individual, she insists, is simply not valued. Whatever one thinks of this hierarchy, however, it is hardly unique to Islam; one can make the same argument about other monotheistic religions. Furthermore, many Muslim countries are in fact secular or military dictatorships (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt), while others are to one extent or another theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan). Religious hierarchy does not play the same societal role in Turkmenistan as in Saudi Arabia. On top of this, there are political, national and linguistic considerations to take into account, particularly when one is making claims about fifty-seven nations spread out across Asia and Africa. But Hirsi Ali addresses none of these. In her view, they simply do not matter. Rather, she sees Islam itself as the problem and its fundamental tenet of obstructing individual freedom as the very reason the Muslim world is "falling behind" the West.
Beginning at birth, she maintains, the child is taught that his life must be governed by Islam, hatred for the infidel and the preservation of his honor through the control of women's sexuality. It is as if she were suggesting the existence of some sort of "genetic" encoding of Islam in children, which prevents them from thinking for themselves. "[We] Muslims have religion inculcated into us from birth, and that is one of the very reasons for our falling behind the West in technology, finance, health, and culture." "Every Muslim, from the beginnings of Islam to the present day, is raised in the belief that all knowledge can be found in the Koran." "For Muslim children the study of biology and history can be very confusing." Reading these lines, one must ask: What sociological evidence is there for this claim that Islam makes people inherently incapable of independent thought and of studying science? The answer is: None. One is merely given Hirsi Ali's assurances that she knows what is going on behind closed doors, based on her own experiences of growing up in Somalia and of working as an interpreter for Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands.
The notion that there is a breach of individualism that is specific to Islam is raised again in Hirsi Ali's discussion of "sexual morality." In the book's opening piece, "Stand Up for Your Rights!" she writes about the continuing obsession with female virginity, which is widespread throughout the Muslim world and which, it must be acknowledged, causes no shortage of heartache. Girls who lose their virginity before marriage can sometimes face serious consequences in Muslim countries, particularly in rural areas. "I am distressed," she writes, "that the vast majority of Muslim women are still enchained by the doctrine of virginity, which requires that women enter marriage as green as grass: experience of love and sexuality before marriage is an absolute taboo. This taboo does not apply to men." Hirsi Ali is correct to say that the burden of virginity weighs disproportionately on females in Muslim cultures, though she fails to point out that the Koran emphasizes virginity and forbids both genders from having premarital sex. In this respect, the Koran is no different from the Bible. It is therefore a matter of cultural practice that the "doctrine of virginity" is still strong in the Muslim world.
This lumping together of various Islams--the geographical region, the Abrahamic religion, the historical civilization and the many individual cultures--is symptomatic of the entire book, and makes it particularly difficult to engage with Hirsi Ali in a useful way. Her discussion of female genital mutilation (FGM) is a case in point. In at least six of the seventeen essays, she cites the horrendous practice of FGM, which involves excising, in whole or in part, young girls' inner or outer labia, and in severe cases even their clitorises. Hirsi Ali is aware that the practice predates Islam, but, she maintains, "these existing local practices were spread by Islam." According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa by Animists, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as by Ethiopian Jews, sometimes in collusion with individual representatives of the faiths. For instance, the US State Department report on FGM reveals that some Coptic Christian priests "refuse to baptize girls who have not undergone one of the procedures." And yet Hirsi Ali does not blame Animism, Christianity or Judaism for FGM, or accuse these belief systems of spreading it. With Islam, however, such accusations are acceptable.
A few years ago, Hirsi Ali proposed a bill in the Dutch Parliament that would require young girls from immigrant communities to undergo a vaginal exam once a year as a way to insure that the parents do not practice FGM. The suggestion is all the more interesting when one considers that the vast majority of Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands are from Turkey and Morocco, where FGM is unheard of. But there is a personal reason for this passionate stance: When Hirsi Ali was 5 years old, her grandmother had the procedure performed on her, without her father's knowledge or approval. The experience marked Hirsi Ali profoundly, and the fervor and determination she brings to the fight against this horrifying practice are utterly laudable. By making inaccurate statements like the one quoted above, however, she muddies the issues and alienates the very people who would have the religious standing in the community to make this practice disappear.
On more than a few occasions, Hirsi Ali makes baffling, blanket statements about women in Muslim countries. "[If] defloration occurs outside wedlock, [the girl] has dishonored her family to the tenth degree of kinship." Why not eleven? Or twelve? Where did the number ten come from? We are never told, and no source is adduced to support this claim. Not content with making inaccurate and sweeping claims about various cultures, Hirsi Ali also ventures into the field of literary criticism: "Alongside [religious textbooks] there are novels by Muslims about love, politics, and crime, in which the role of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are studiously avoided, although the moral undercurrent is that one should observe religious precepts, otherwise things end very badly." It might come as news to Arab, African and Asian novelists of the Muslim persuasion that their fiction is merely an excuse to proselytize. Is the reader seriously expected to believe that the work of Orhan Pamuk promotes the observance of religion? Or that the texts of Assia Djebbar, Tahar Djaout, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdellatif Laabi, Kamal Ghitani, Nawal Al-Saadawi, Ahdaf Soueif, Alifa Rifaat, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ghassan Kanafani, Nuruddin Farah, Tayeb Salih, Kateb Yacine, Mahmoud Darwish, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Tariq Ali advocate religious morality?
Along the same lines, Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought: "Very few Muslims are actually capable of looking at their faith critically. Critical minds like those of Afshin Ellian in the Netherlands and Salman Rushdie in England are exceptions." 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. In any case, why the comparison with Rushdie? Have fatwas become the yardstick by which we measure criticism? If so, this suggests that the people who offend Islamists are the only ones worth listening to, which is ridiculous. The most shocking statement, however, comes from the essay "The Need for Self-Reflection Within Islam," in which Hirsi Ali writes: "After the events of 9/11, people who deny this characterization of the stagnant state of Islam were challenged by critical outsiders to name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none." That a person who has apparently never heard of the algebra of Al-Khawarizmi, the medical prowess of Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd, or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Umm Kulthum is considered an authority on Islam is proof, if ever one was needed, of the utter lack of intelligent discourse about the civilization and the cultures broadly defined by that word.
And how does the American press reward such stunningly ignorant scholarship? Time magazine picked Hirsi Ali as one of 100 "most influential people" of 2005, people with "the clout and power to change our world." At the other end of the spectrum, the answer is even more spectacularly stupid: Islamic radicals have called for Hirsi Ali's death repeatedly since 2002. Whatever the merits of Hirsi Ali's arguments, one thing is clear: By making threats against her person, right-wing Muslims appear to agree with Western conservatives that Islam as a whole (religion, region, culture) is weak, unable to defend itself by intellectual reasoning. It is also quite ironic that these radical Muslims are guilty of violating the first right their faith grants them: The right to choose their beliefs. "Let there be no compulsion in religion," the Koran insists. And for good reason, too, because without the right to choose (new) beliefs, there would have been no Islam in the first place.
The argument that pervades The Caged Virgin--that Muslim women need Western advocates--is premised on two assumptions. The first is that Muslim women somehow cannot speak up for themselves--what Edward Said once called "the silence of the native." Hirsi Ali demonstrates this: "The [reason] I am determined to make my voice heard is that Muslim women are scarcely listened to, and they need a woman to speak out on their behalf." If, as the title of this book suggests, the Muslim woman is a virgin in a cage, then by definition she must be freed from the outside. Someone must break the lock so that the poor woman can finally step out and speak for herself. But Muslim women are not, nor have they ever been, silent. For example, a significant portion of hadith, the Prophet's sayings that form the basis of the Sunna, are attributed to his wife Aisha. Here is a sample hadith: "Narrated Aisha: The Prophet said, 'All drinks that produce intoxication are haram.'" But how did Aisha narrate this saying? Was it by sitting at home, in a cage, or by actively engaging with her community and teaching the hadith to the congregation? This tradition of engagement has continued, and Muslim women have made their marks in all fields--whether religion or science or medicine or literature. Over the past century, they have organized in groups dedicated to fight for the advancement of their rights. Even under the inhumane Taliban regime, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan remained active, providing literacy courses and medical services to women and girls. That these women are thought to be invisible is a testament to the patriarchal systems--on either side--that want to protect them. But it cannot be a testament to their silence.
The second premise of the argument is the critic's supposed authority as a "native informant," which alone, and without scholarly training, qualifies her to speak of the entire religion. Indeed, Hirsi Ali tells us,
By our Western standards Muhammad is a perverse man. A tyrant. He is against freedom of expression. If you don't do as he says, you will end up in hell. That reminds me of those megalomaniacal rulers in the Middle East: Bin Laden, Khomeini, and Saddam. Are you surprised to find a Saddam Hussein? Muhammad is his example; Muhammad is an example to all Muslim men. Why do you think so many Islamic men use violence? You are shocked to hear me say these things, but like the majority of the native Dutch population, you overlook something: you forget where I am from. I used to be a Muslim; I know what I am talking about.
In numerous passages of the book, however, Hirsi Ali demonstrates precisely that she doesn't know what she is talking about. Take her statement on abortion: "According to Islam, an extramarital pregnancy brings great shame on the family, but you can still redeem yourself in the eyes of Allah. Abortion, though, the killing of an innocent baby, is a deadly sin, for which there is no forgiveness." But abortion is not universally disallowed in Islam, simply because there is not a uniform position about the issue. In the Hanbali, Shafii and Hanafi schools in Sunni Islam, for instance, abortion before the fetus has developed into a human being (what is called "ensoulment") is, in fact, permissible. Scholars differ on the lengths of time "ensoulment" takes, with definitions as narrow as forty days and as broad as 120 days (i.e., the first trimester). All schools of thought allow abortion if the pregnancy is liable to cause medical harm to the mother.
The question that must be posed, then, is whether the cause of women's emancipation can be advanced when it is argued in such a sloppy and factually inaccurate manner as it is in The Caged Virgin. One might go a step further and ask about the intended audience for such a book. Given the heavy reliance on the twin premises of "the native is silent" and "the native informant knows best," it seems possible that the book is not so much addressed to Muslims--who, in any case, Hirsi Ali believes to be deficient in individual and critical thinking--as to Western advocates for Muslim women.
To her credit, Irshad Manji appears to be acutely aware of the audience question, and tackles it on the first page of The Trouble With Islam Today. The book is written as an open letter, addressed directly to Muslims, both in and outside the West. And it also helps the critical reader that Manji backs her claims with source notes, which are listed on her website, Muslim-refusenik.com. The Trouble With Islam Today is a chronicle of Manji's personal journey of introspection and discovery about her faith, prompted in part by the constant stream of horrendous news about repression that seems to pour out from (the region of) Islam. "When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment," she writes.
Unlike Hirsi Ali, Manji has not openly renounced her faith, although, she says, "Islam is on very thin ice with me." She attributes her skepticism to her childhood experiences at the madrassa she attended in Vancouver. In the orthodox, gender-segregated school, she could not visit the library freely; instead, she had to wait for all the men to clear the area where it was located in order to be able to browse the offerings. The imam was a stern man who discouraged questions and proffered dogma. So woeful was the training Manji received that she did not know that Islam was an Abrahamic religion until after she left the confines of the madrassa. Later, when she purchased an English-language Koran, she finally embarked on her own journey of learning.
Much of what Manji describes will be familiar to those who have read reform-minded books on Islam. For instance, she questions the assumption that the Koran is the inviolate word of God and has remained so for fourteen centuries, without a single diacritic or vowel-length change. She tells the controversial story of the "Satanic verses" (also known as hadith al-gharaniq) to show that this point is debatable. According to some scholars, the Prophet had included verses that referred to Meccan goddesses while reciting lines from the Koran. Later, realizing they were not inspired by revelation, he abrogated them from the sacred text. This, of course, establishes a precedent that the Koran was changed at least once. Why is it so hard to imagine, she asks, that other human beings could have added their own changes? She rightly argues that both the terrorists and the peacekeepers among Muslims find scriptural support for their views in the Koran. (Incidentally, this is no different from the Bible, whose most peaceful and most violent verses have been used at various points in history to back up the institution of slavery as well as abolition and the civil rights movement.) A significant portion of the book consists of calling on Arabs and Muslims to be responsible for their own destinies, and to stop blaming the West or Israel for their problems. The style here may be very blunt, but the proposition is wholly unoriginal. One can read similar statements in commentary and op-ed pieces of many newspapers across the Arab world.
Unfortunately, like Hirsi Ali, Manji consistently gives individual examples of malfeasance and then extrapolates to the entire body of Muslims. In discussing World War II, for instance, she writes, "Let's be straight about what else happened during the Nazi years: Muslim complicity in the Holocaust." Here she trots out the story of Haj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem who visited Berlin as a guest of Hitler and approved of his genocidal agenda. But how do we move from one cleric with authority in one congregation to "Muslim complicity"? And if it turns out that there are individual Muslims who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, do we then get to talk about "Muslim resistance" to the Holocaust? After all, Abdol-Hossein Sardari, head of the consular section of the Iranian embassy under the Vichy government, succeeded in convincing the Nazis that Iranian Jews were not Semites, thus saving their lives. He went a step further and issued 500 Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews in France. Similarly, the Sultan of Morocco flatly refused to hand Moroccan Jews over to the Vichy government that ruled his country. But people such as these do not fit the paradigm of Muslim backwardness and outright evil, and so they go unmentioned.
As with Hirsi Ali, Manji's expertise on her subject is incomplete. Take the following statement: "The Koran appears to be organized by size of verse--from longer to shorter--and not by chronology of revelation. How can anyone isolate the "earlier" passages, let alone read into them the "authentic" message of the Koran? We have to own up to the fact that the Koran's message is all over the bloody map." This is simply not true. Each sura of the Koran is identified by whether it is "Meccan" or "Medinan," depending on whether it was revealed early in the Prophet's spiritual life or later on, during his hegira in Medina. Some verses are addressed to specific communities of believers. Others refer to specific historical events. All of these details help establish temporal contextualization. The study of the Koran's chronology is a whole field unto itself. In addition, and despite having written a book called The Trouble With Islam Today, Manji has not taken the trouble of learning to speak, read and write Arabic fluently, nor of visiting any Muslim country. She left Uganda at the age of 4 and has absolutely no experience of what it is like to live in a Muslim country. Would a scholar who has written a book about China without bothering to speak Chinese or visit the country be taken seriously?
Despite its careful sourcing, Manji's book is a narrow polemic, selectively citing events and anecdotes that fit one paradigm only: Muslim savagery, which of course is contrasted with Western enlightenment. Several of Manji's claims about the Arab world are based on articles translated by the nonprofit organization Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which was founded by Col. Yigal Carmon, a twenty-two-year veteran of military intelligence in Israel with the goal of exploring the Middle East "through the region's media." MEMRI focuses on the following areas: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. There are three general observations that can be made about MEMRI's work. One is that it consistently picks the most violent, hateful rubbish it can find, translates it and distributes it in e-mail newsletters to media and members of Congress in Washington. The second is that MEMRI does not translate comparable articles published in Israel, although the country is not only a part of the Middle East but an active party to some of its most searing conflicts. For instance, when the right-wing Israeli politician Effi Eitam referred to Israel's Palestinian citizens as a "cancer," MEMRI did not pick up this story. The third is that this organization is now the main source of media articles on the region of Islam, a far greater and far more diverse whole than the individual countries it lists. The reliance on MEMRI highlights Manji's lack of direct, unmediated exposure to the news media of the area about which she expresses such fierce convictions.
Equally troubling is Manji's unsubstantiated assertion that there is little dissent in Islam: "We Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department." As it happens, earlier this year the Moroccan government took the commendable step of officially acknowledging that approximately 10,000 people had been put in prison, tortured or killed for political reasons between 1956 and 1999. (Human rights organizations caution that the number of victims may in fact have been much larger.) Their "crimes" ranged from wanting to overthrow the monarchy, to questioning official edicts, to simply handing out left-wing leaflets. The problem isn't the lack of dissent. It is the lack of a context in which dissent is welcomed rather than repressed. This repression, furthermore, is tacitly supported by Western powers. The American government, in particular, is so pleased with Morocco's methods of repression that it allegedly "renders" some of its recalcitrant detainees there. The experience of Morocco with repression is not unique and can be seen in other countries in the region broadly defined as "Islam"--countries such as Syria, Algeria, Indonesia, Egypt and so on. To say that there is no dissent in Islam is simply absurd. The claim must be recognized for what it is: a different manifestation of the "silence of the native," which brings us back to the need for outside advocates and to the nifty excuse for outside interference into the affairs of sovereign states.
Unlike Hirsi Ali, however, Manji takes a much broader view about women in Islam. She places the question in the general context of civil rights in Islam. Here she focuses in particular on the status of minorities. Manji maintains that as a civilization Islam has never treated minorities with respect, only with contempt. She does mention that during the golden age of Islam, Jews and Christians held significant positions within the empire. But, she says, this cannot cover for the systematic treatment of them as "different." In comparison, she argues, Israel has a far better record of treating its minorities. As evidence of this, she recounts a number of anecdotes from her visit to Israel. An Arab actress headlined a local production of My Fair Lady. Jews and Arabs alike take to the op-ed pages of newspapers like Ha'aretz to debate political issues. Religious literacy is part of military training for the armed forces. Street signs are labeled in Arabic, and Arabic is an official language of Israel. And she calls Israel's systematic discrimination against its Arab citizens a form of "affirmative action" for Jews.
To show how disingenuous this line of argument is, let's turn the situation around. Consider the case of the Jewish minority in Morocco. Jews have lived in the country for more than 2,000 years. Newspapers regularly carry news of the community's cultural and religious events. Jews and Muslims venerate the same saints. Serge Berdugo, a Jew, served as minister of tourism in the 1990s and is now an ambassador at large. André Azoulay, the current adviser to the king, is Jewish. So is the country's most popular comedian, Gad El Maleh, and one of its most celebrated novelists, Edmond Amran El Maleh. One could put together a virtually endless list of these facts, but none of them would detract from this other truth: Last year, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 88 percent of Moroccans have a negative view of Jews; as shameful as this figure is, any serious discussion of Morocco's Jewish minority would have to include it. Meanwhile, in Israel, the Haifa-based Center Against Racism found that 68 percent of Jews polled revealed they were unwilling to live next to an Arab neighbor. Acknowledging anti-Semitism in some parts of the Arab world, therefore, should not require us to gloss over anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings in Israel. This reductionist way of thinking permeates The Trouble With Islam Today and gets tiresome very quickly. When Manji argues that Arabs and Muslims must learn to think differently about their present, she writes, "liberal Muslims have to get vocal about this fact: Washington is the unrealized hope, not the lead criminal." For all her advocacy of new modes of thinking, she seems not to have entertained another possibility: Washington can be both.
The Caged Virgin and The Trouble With Islam Today are billed as profound meditations on faith and searing critiques of Islam's treatment of women and minorities, but they are riddled with inaccuracies and generalizations. In their persistent conflating of religion, civilization, geographical region and very distinct cultures, these books are more likely to obfuscate than educate.
None of this is to suggest that there are not serious issues facing Muslim women today. Still less does it mean that we should excuse violence and oppression, in some relativist fashion, because they happen to take place in the region broadly defined as "Islam." Those who believe in gender equality have every reason to be concerned about radical Islamist parties that view women as mere vessels, defined by their reproductive powers. These right-wing Islamist parties resist changes in civil codes that grant women more rights or, worse, want to impose antiquated and dangerous forms of Sharia. It is therefore particularly troubling that they have made electoral gains in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere.
So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women--and men--in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women's rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women's organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn't this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?
Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women's lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire. These women have become a politicized class, prevented by edicts and bombs from taking charge of their own destinies. The time has come for the pawns to be queened.
Edited to add a brief critique from the Angry Arab.