The old cultural imperialism bugaboo. These are bone hard issues for the left, because we place enormous value on women's rights, and we also value cultural differences, and at some level those values are in conflict in much of the world (maybe slightly less so for feminists than for leftists with less focus on women's issues, because feminists long ago got used to saying, the hell with cultural sensitivity, genital mutilation
is an outrage.)
Call it p.c. if you want, and it certainly can dissolve into that kind of mindlessness, but there's a genuine value at the core of that cultural sensitivity, and one I don't want to lose. If my only choices are a mindless "mustn't criticize anyone's culture" or "convert them or kill them" -- I'll take the former. But I don't think those are the only choices.
Anyway, speaking about how cultures become twisted in the ways that radical Islam clearly has ("radical Islam" is a stupid phrase -- but I haven't got a better one handy), and about keeping consumerism and American values separate, and keeping the xenophobes from co-opting the issue of reforming Islam (or, at least, creating the conditions for reasonable Muslims to reclaim it), and how assimilated Muslims are, and the whole idea of cultural sensitivity versus women's rights -- do I have enough issues there, or should I toss in a few more? -- there are a lot of threads to explore:
First, did you read the article in Salon recently on Oriana Fallaci
? She's pulled a Hitchens and written a book defending Western civilization from the Muslim hordes.
I haven't read Fallaci's book (don't plan to, either), but the author of the Salon piece says that it has "more bigotry" than "any other book worth reading" and he gives a few repulsive examples. But then he tries to dig some worthwhile stuff out from under the dirt. He suggests that despite its nastiness, even racism, Fallaci's book is "a bracing response to the moral equivocation, the multi-culti political correctness, the minimization and denial of the danger of Islamo-fascism" that you find on the left. Which is sort of what you're saying, I think, only without the borderline acceptance of la Fallaci's operatic bigotry.
The issue is, can we get the "bracing" honesty without passing through xenophobia, and if we don't manage it, aren't we ceding the issue to the bigots?
One of the ideas the Salon article brings up is that we have to grapple with the notion of religion, its values and its darkness -- which is something neither the left nor the right does a very good job of. On both ends of the political spectrum, and all through the middle as well, most of us approach religion in one of two stupid ways. Either we go around attacking other people's religions without any attempt to understand them (Hitchens is the master of this because he despises all religion -- this is a man who told a Salon interviewer that he felt "exhilaration"
about the war because "there has to be a stand made against the worst kind of tyranny that there ever could be, which is religious," and he's not just talking about fundamentalist Islam, he sees this as a war against "the religious worldview" -- and while he gets some good shots in here and there, he can be astoundingly dense about the nourishment people draw from religion, not to mention what it would mean to a society to lose thousands of years of moral teaching). If we don't attack, we put on our nice faces and insist that all religion is fundamentally good and we should never criticize. Neither of those approaches is terribly helpful.
As usual, I'm probably spinning off topic here, but sometimes my way of making sense of what I don't know is to look at its connection to something I do
understand, and what comes to my mind is my own difficulty recently in writing about the Catholic Church. I grew up in the Church and had a lot of horrible experiences in it, but right now my attitude toward it is a combination of respect for its traditions -- no, actually, it goes deeper than that: I think the moral questions the Catholic Church asks and even its symbols and rituals are irreplaceable -- and fury at its misogyny, its homophobia, its anti-Semitism, its power games, its hypocrisy…well, I could go on forever about my anger at the Church, but the point is that when I started writing on this site, I sometimes wrote about what I knew of the horrors in the Church. But something disturbing happened. I'd see what I wrote picked up by other bloggers and twisted. Often unintentionally, I think. There were people who just had a gut level mistrust of religion and they'd pick up things I wrote with a "see I told you religion is bad" attitude. And I eventually stopped writing about it because I had no interest in attacking the Church and I don't want to feed misunderstanding. What I wanted to do was explore the way the good and the bad wove together -- but I discovered that that was very difficult to do in a public forum. Not impossible -- but I had to be careful about the way I went about it.
I promise, I'll eventually get back to Islam. And there really is a connection.
Lately, it's gotten even harder because the Church has gotten easier to attack, and people are taking nastier shots at it. I don't know if you've followed the sex scandals in the Church at all, but about a week ago, the bishops apparently softened their policy toward pedophile priests. I haven't delved into the details, so I don't really know how good, bad, or indifferent the new policy is, but there was one horrible thing, and that was when Bishop Gregory
lashed out at people who are supposedly hostile to the Church and all it stands for and who are just using the scandal to destroy it. Now, I admire Bishop Gregory, he's a good man, but that was a stupid thing to say.
He seemed to be attacking the victims' groups -- the very people he desperately needs to listen to.
Anyway, I gathered some articles about it because I wanted to write something, because I think, as someone who stands slightly outside the circle of the Church, but still respectful, even admiring, of it, (basically the same situation many Arab intellectuals find themselves in, I suspect, in regards to Islam) I understand some things that neither people fully in it nor people indifferent or hostile to it do.
But I ended up not writing what I intended to, because I started running across some obscene comments about the bishops that made me queasy. And at the same time the bishops issued a really good statement opposing war with Iraq
-- bringing up all the ethical and moral issues that I wish everyone was dealing with. I saw a lot of rightwingers using the pedophile scandal to attack the bishops' moral authority, and making a connection with their statement on Iraq in a way that I thought was unfair. It's not just that I think their moral authority is important because right now, politically, they agree with me. I think the kinds of moral questions they ask are important to deal with, even when I disagree with them. And so I couldn't write about the things I understood about how power operates in the Church, because at the moment I have a sense that there is a greater danger in the voice of the Church being silenced than there is in the abuse of clerical power.
I can't tell you how ironic I find that. I grew up knowing the Church's power to silence people. I never expected to see it silenced. That doesn't mean I'm one bit less angry about the abuse of power, but I'm reluctant to speak of it because it's so easy for people to use anything I say to attack the Church in ways that it doesn't deserve to be attacked.
Now if I, from outside the Church, feel that way, imagine how people who have more commitment to it than I do, even very liberal, reform-minded people, feel. There was a op-ed piece recently by Andrew Greeley,
who's a liberal priest, someone who's never been reluctant to criticize the Church, but he basically repeated what Bishop Gregory said -- the victims' group leaders are power hungry and the media is out to get us. People under attack -- even good, thoughtful people -- are not terribly open to the possibility of reform. And outrageous attacks put even sympathetic apostates like me on the defensive.
I've just finished reading two books by Fatima Mernissi,
a Moroccan feminist, one on gender relationships in Muslim societies,
and the other on Islam and democracy
, and I'm in the middle of a book by Leila Ahmed
on the history of women under Islam,
and while both authors are vehement in their denunciations of how women in Islamic cultures have been treated, and honest about the misogyny that is an inescapable element of Muslim tradition (and I find their denunciations a lot more "bracing" and honest and than those of people like Fallaci and Hitchens who have ulterior motives for their attacks, besides not understanding the cultures), they also -- especially Mernissi -- see a situation far more complex than most of us appreciate. And also, rather than rejecting the religion outright, they search for alternate readings, and traditions that were lost along the way, as an alternative to the misogyny. Reading Leila Ahmed, who wonders how the lives of Muslim women would be different if some of the less misogynist scholarly traditions (and there are some) had taken hold reminded me a lot of the former Catholic priest James Carroll
writing about how the Catholic Church might have been different if Peter Abelard's
voice, for example, had become a central part of the tradition. In any faith, I think people who search the tradition for what could have been and might yet be are precious. Neither the Bible nor the Koran are fundamentally anti-female, and many women find support in both books.
I read an interview some time back with Kanan Makiya,
a professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis and an Iraqi dissident,
who said that part of the problem with Islam in much of the Arab world today is that Arab intellectuals abandoned it -- and that left religion in the hands of imbeciles. I think there's something to that. (I also think we've got a similar problem in this country -- although obviously on a much smaller scale -- with the decline of the old mainstream churches and the growth of both dumbed down smiley face religion -- the kind you find in a lot of popular religious books -- and, well, the imbeciles and thugs, Falwell and worse.)
I think some intellectuals in the Arab world are trying to claim Islam back. That’s why the situation with Hashem Aghajari
in Iran is so interesting. He's a threat to the clerics because he's talking about texts being interpretable -- meaning isn't set in stone. That's something Leila Ahmed talks about a lot -- the need to get back from the clerics the power to argue about meaning. (I mean, fundamentally, it's the quintessential feminist demand: Let us tell and interpret our own stories.) I'm obviously not an expert, but some reformist Muslims I've read suggest that the whole idea of clerical mediation between God and man is foreign to Islam anyway -- a power grab that has no basis in the Koran. In any case, Aghajari is not attacking Islam, he's attacking powerful people trying to control the meaning of Islam. And on the one hand, he was sentenced to death for that, but on the other hand, he's apparently gotten overwhelming support
-- although, of course, there's a backlash
as well. But maybe that support suggests a longing to peel faith and power apart. And maybe there's your Reformation. There's a real struggle for the soul of Islam
here that's very heartening -- and it's in the streets, not just a fight among clerics, politicians, and intellectuals.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that if we go looking for honest criticism of how Islam has interwoven itself with some brutal power relationships -- and reading Ahmed, it's pretty obvious that's not a recent development, although it has recently gotten more dangerous, at least for us -- those are the people we should be paying attention to, not Fallaci or Hitchens or Bush or Falwell. Or even Huntington. Because they know what they're talking about, in the first place. And their critique obviously comes without any nasty assumptions about Western superiority, even with love for what is best in the culture (Love is a quality you can't miss in Mernissi's books.) And generally it comes with an awareness of Western complicity -- which you're never going to get from the right -- a refusal to let the West off the hook. I don't remotely mean you can blame imperialism for the problems, but if you take honesty about how the West has reinforced and encouraged a lot of garbage in the Arab world out of the mix, you end up with a very distorted picture. I don't ever expect to see Oprah choosing Nawal el Saadawi
or Taslima Nasrin
for her book club, but I'd like to see intelligent people on the left spend less time defending themselves against Christopher Hitchens and more time exploring the legitimate critics of the darker elements of Islamic culture, not the crypto-colonialist ones. You want non-pc honesty -- that's where it is.
This letter's gotten much too long for me to deal with assimilation. My experience makes me think Muslims are a lot more assimilated in the US than in Europe, but I may be wrong, and even if I'm right, I don't know why that would be true. Well, I have some theories, but I've already written too much, so I'll drop that for now.
Look forward to hearing from you,