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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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September 5th, 2009
12:09 AM
So liberals and feminists are now the cause of the suffering and oppression of women in Islamic countries. But hasnt it been the actions and strategies of Western governments, particularly the USA to keep all of these horrible regimes in place to protect their "security" interests. Why wasnt Saudi Arabia invaded after September 11--after all most of the terrorists were Saudi nationals. And lets not forget that most if not all of these regimes were originally created and installed by western governments, particularly the "freedom" loving British.

Bill Corr
September 3rd, 2009
3:09 PM
Islamic culture is wonderful:

September 2nd, 2009
2:09 PM
"For at the root of the weird twists in liberal opinion I have been arguing against lies physical fear:" Ah fear. The basis of religion, remarked Bertie Russell -- doubtless not alone. The other half of religion is sex. It is interesting/disgraceful to confront the misogyny here in Massachusetts, the source of the new feminist and the original abolitionist movements, among some "educated." 'Feudalistic' societies need time to evolve "from within": we must submit to time and remove revolt or revolution from our black hearts. And we atheists do have to submit in "educated" and polite society. We may not declare such things as the equality of misogyny and religion. If one percent of the men in 'Islamic' cultures were treated the way essentially 100% of the women are, we would not have trouble with calling it slavery.

Frank M
September 2nd, 2009
12:09 PM
So we'll all be soon able to review a book of merit by this resistor then? No - I didn't think so.

September 2nd, 2009
11:09 AM
Not only is educating women the one true path out of poverty, it is also the only really effective contraceptive, thereby leading to better health for mothers and babies and less population pressure - having too many babies is a very good way of keeping women quiet. So please will everyone in the West acknowledge that most Islamic sects, and many other 'traditional' societies, condone and approve the hideous contravention of human rights for half any given population. 'Culture' be damned. Jesus on the other hand had an anachronistically positive approach to women and never married anyone - although he did talk to and teach, and heal the taboo illnesses of, and make friends with, many.

daniel lionsden
September 2nd, 2009
8:09 AM
Another magnificent article Mr Cohen. I tip my hat to you.

Mariam Dessaive
September 1st, 2009
12:09 PM
One of the things I understand better now is the colonial position white women take in view of suppressed coloured ones. They tend to increasingly disregard them as equals. Probably, because most white women are still not truly equal themselves, and what with economic difficulties looming, may have to retreat to traditional roles once again. This is what it looks like in Germany, where Turkish or Polish women as a matter of course do the cleaning jobs. Though: introducing the Sharia in England on the prompting of a male Anglican (?) did shock us! Very good article, thank you! Herzliche Grüße aus Frankfurt!

September 1st, 2009
9:09 AM
Well, I suppose the grand conspiracy theory holds some water, save for one small yet significant point: New Statesman, a magazine whose existence I'm sure Nick is well aware, published a very positive review of this book by Johann Hari (ditto, mutatis mutandi) which concludes in part: "Anybody not addled by superstition will have to conclude that such bigotry deserves neither respect nor deference. [...] It deserves the opposite: contempt – and relentless, unyielding opposition." While the unedifying spectacle of Greer et al attempting to outdo the last outrage of relativism is indeed sickening, it is noteworthy that there are persons of conscience on every side of the political divide who can see these outrages for what they are.

August 31st, 2009
10:08 PM
'Does God Hate Women?' is a terrific book - and by the way, it didn't get universally bad reviews, See Joan Smith in The Independent for instance - she called it a wonderful book.

August 31st, 2009
9:08 AM
Isn't it bizarre that while Nick Cohen is raising a very serious issue about women (as the tiltle might suggest) some troll couldn't brings Iraq into the conversation. Why be shy 'resistor' and not mention Neo-con, Bushitler, Bliar et al? An no, Nick is not inventing a conspiracy. The smug liberal establishment's cowardice in the face of religious fascism is there for all to see, except for those who have a vested interest in playing nice with Islamist hand-choppers.

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