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When Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, her account of escape from forced marriage and genital mutilation to Europe, her defence of the liberal values they once believed in appalled "liberal" Europeans. Although Ali needed bodyguards to protect her from Islamist assassins, Timothy Garton Ash sneered that she was an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" while Ian Buruma denounced her as an absolutist. Maryam Namazie, a Marxist Iranian exile who set up the "One Law for all Campaign" to oppose the Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice, tells me that she experiences every variety of Western duplicity. When she argues in favour of the demonstrators in Tehran, the hard Left tell her she is serving the interests of US imperialism — "It's now reactionary to have a revolution," she sighs. When she last appeared on the BBC, to argue that the burka was a straightjacket designed to mark off a woman as a man's private property, the presenter told her she was an "extremist". With dreary inevitability, Does God Hate Women's critics say that Benson and Stangroom's atheist liberalism is as fundamentalist as the religion of the hardliners they condemn.

Leave aside, however, that the critics do not even-handedly condemn misogynists, homophobes and inquisitors but dedicate all their polemical energy to denouncing those who do. Consider instead whether their equivalence holds good. If you abandon atheism, no atheist police force imitates the religious police in Saudi Arabia and arrests you. If you decide you no longer believe in the equality of the sexes and say that God has made men dominant, no one arraigns you before an equality court. If you stop believing in free speech and start arguing for censorship, no "enlightenment fundamentalist" judge punishes your apostasy with a death sentence. Last month Newsnight discussed the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, and Germaine Greer — yes, still at it — opined that Rushdie should have removed the "offensive" passages from The Satanic Verses. Writers had such extraordinary power, she said with wide eyes and in a breathless tone, they could "get away with murder". No one in the studio thought to tell her that the man who had got away with ordering the murder of Rushdie, his translators and publishers, was Khomeini, who died in his bed.

Azar Nafisi gave the best reason to dismiss such indifference to the power of real tyrants. The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran fled from the Ayatollahs' Iran to Boston, Massachusetts, not far from the site of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. Instead of finding a strong movement dedicated to freeing women, she found a racist discourse on American campuses which insisted that culture and religion demanded female subordination. "I very much resent it in the West when people — maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view — keep telling me, ‘It's their culture.'  It's like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. First, there are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible, and we should fight against it. Second, women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia don't like to be stoned to death."

There are dozens of arguments against the bad idea of cultural relativism, but "women in Iran and in Saudi don't like being stoned to death" can serve for them all. And yet the bad idea persists, undented and dominant, because of a deep selfishness in advanced societies. It comes in three forms, moral, economic and physical.  People on the receiving end of repression notice the air of moral superiority as soon as Western liberals refuse them their support out of "respect" for the culture which intimidates them. Liberal relativists are in this respect the true successors of their imperialist ancestors. Where once Westerners denied rights to lesser breeds without the law who were racially unsuited to enjoy liberty, now they deny them to diverse breeds without the culture who are unsuited by accidents of history and geography to exercise the freedoms white Westerners take for granted or handle the complex arguments white Westerners take in their stride. 

The economic grounds for selfishness are rarely discussed because, paradoxically, feminism helped create them. Women's liberation liberated the upper-middle class above all others. Instead of managing on one generous income, an already prosperous family could claim two, if it could find servants to look after its children and its homes. Someone had to clean and nurture, and even if the man was prepared to do his full share of housework — which, frankly, most men were not — there still would not be enough hours in the day to combine home with demanding and rewarding careers for husband and wife. As the perceptive American writer Caitlin Flanagan noted in her essay How Serfdom Saved the Woman's Movement, the forward march of women through the institutions would have halted had not globalisation, war, poverty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall provided an army of poor migrants willing to take on menial housework and childcare.  "The new immigrants were met at the docks not by a highly organised and politically powerful group of American women intent on bettering the lot of their sex," she wrote, "but, rather, by an equally large army of educated professional-class women with booming careers who needed their children looked after and their houses cleaned. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated."

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Eve
September 18th, 2009
8:09 PM
Good article. Pity the book's actually written badly. And I hope Hitchens isn't your hero, Cohen. You write far better than he does already.

M Sacks
September 18th, 2009
7:09 AM
In Judaism we make women shave their heads and wear wigs. They have no rights over property and we can have affairs with goyim because they are classed as non-human.

Anonymous
September 16th, 2009
4:09 PM
"I accept that this may seem an odd thing to wish for, but what the world needs now is an uncompromisingly militant feminist movement." Aye! Liberals and "progressives" are starting to act suspiciously as they did in the 20's

msmarmitelover
September 9th, 2009
9:09 PM
Just as the middle classes ferment revolutions, it takes a man to write about feminism. Or perhaps this article wouldn't be taken seriously if it were written by a woman? Well done anyway...good piece...

Amanda
September 9th, 2009
11:09 AM
Well said Nick Cohen! The fear of being thought racist for attacking customs and attitudes which are by any other standard profoundly inhumane is one the deserves the most vigorous opposition.

Andy D
September 8th, 2009
11:09 PM
Nick, when are you going to give evidence for your very serious accusations against Nick Davies? if you can't, when will you withdraw them?

winter
September 8th, 2009
10:09 AM
Just a thought, but might Stangroom and Benson's book not have been so widely criticised because it isn't actually a very good piece of work and was lucky to even get reviewed where it did, being as it is yet another anti-religion book written by unqualified bloggers - no reviews AT ALL in the right-wing press including Standpoint, after all. Having flicked through it in a shop, it seems that the accusations of clunkiness and poverty of argument are pretty much spot-on, as are those of Benson being a fundamentalist - it's pretty hard to deny, and I note that Nick Cohen doesn't actually do so, but instead claims that such accusations are lazy. And Buruma and Garton Ash are justified in their claims about hirsi Ali. She *is* an enlightenment fundamentalist, self-confessedly, and she *is* an absolutist. notwithstanding how badly she was treated in her earlier life, her views on Islam are pretty hardcore to say the least - calling it an intrinsically violent religion and claiming that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant because of the influence of Mohammad, for instance, views that i understand a lot of standpoint's readers share but which are intensely debatable at best and I sincerely doubt that Cohen would agree with them - at least in print.

gsw
September 7th, 2009
11:09 AM
Stating that the English police, in an English country, cannot interfere to prevent illegal domestic violence because ‘we haven't got the right to impose our values on another culture' is just one more example of NewSpeak. While claiming that Birmingham or Luton is 'another culture' is downright stupid and inexcusable.

Susie
September 7th, 2009
9:09 AM
There's something patronising about the implication that nothing is being done by women within the areas and countries concerned, so it is up to their Western sisters to show the way. No mention of for example Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini's recent book "Murder in the Name of Honour", which received much coverage in the British print media and on eg BBc Radio 4's Woman's Hour. In Iraq, there are many courageous Iraq feminists working in conditions of tremendous danger to fight the injustices suffered by women: one side-effect of the war in Iraq has been a sharp deterioration in the status and conditions of women. The issues around Iraqi women are examined in detail in the work of the Iraqi SOAS academic Nadje Sadig al-Ali including the books "Iraqi Women" and "What Kind of Liberation?" (the last written with Nicola Pratt). The Iraqi woman filmmaker Maysoun Pachachi has also been working hard to empower Iraqi women through training them in filmmaking to record their lives. Egyptian feminist and medical doctor Nawal Sadawi has for years campaigned against female genital mutilation. There are feisty women working in every country to fight the oppression of women. Issues of child brides being forced into marriage, and of the punitive attitude towards rape victims, are regularly covered in the media and condemned in countries including Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There is a massive tussle going on within all these socities, and women, and a good many men, are far from passive acceptors when it comes to violations of women's rights. the 2005 UNDP Arab Human Development Report, researched and written by a large team of Arabs, male and female, was on women's empowerment, and like the other AHDRs was highly critical of the status quo.

Rucker
September 5th, 2009
6:09 PM
Sue - your comment unfortunately ignores the actual ugly truth. It is not the regimes that enforce the subjugation of women. It's islam, the teachings of islam and the hadith.

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