Feminism Or Islamism: Which Side Are You On?

So-called liberals prefer to turn a blind eye to the treatment of women by jihadists and support the enemies of America

Nick Cohen

No group is better than liberal academics at illustrating how racist anti-racism has become. As liberals, they ought to respect individual rights and oppose reactionary attempts to corral and control. As academics, they ought to look for evidence that shakes comfortable opinions. As it is, they do neither.

In human rights organisations, leftish political parties, liberal newspapers and, above all, in the universities, committed and morally earnest people would rather die than admit that radical Islam is a murderous and oppressive movement. The effect of their evasion is to promote the racism they say they oppose, while denying their supposed allies in “Muslim lands” and immigrant communities the same rights as they enjoy. Hypocrisy is too meagre a word to cover their behaviour.

Take the latest effort to land in my pigeonhole: On the Muslim Question by Anne Norton, a professor of political science at Pennsylvania University. Norton’s publishers, Princeton University Press, modestly declare that she is a “fearless, original and surprising” author. In truth she is timid, unthinking and hackneyed. Like thousands of her contemporaries, Norton argues that conservative elites in the West use radical Islam to befuddle the doltish masses. There is truth in the charge that ever since 9/11 security services have taken the opportunity to bring in excessive coercive powers to fight the menace of Islamist violence. If that were the end of the argument, I could not object. Norton is a typical representative of the Anglo-American intelligentsia because she goes on to pretend that there is no real menace, and to cover up the mistreatment of women, the suppression of free speech, the inquisitorial punishment of heresy, and all the other woes armed and militant religion brings.

As with everyone of my generation (I was born in 1961), the “Rushdie test” tells you all you need to know about a political writer’s willingness to choose freedom or brute power. Norton fails it, and seems to me to want to fail it. She tells us that Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, was a “very local fuss” and a “very British affair” — as bland and unthreatening as a walk in the park. She assures the reader without caveat or elaboration that “no arrests or injuries occurred as a result of the demonstrations” against Rushdie. Even as a description of the formal demonstrations against The Satanic Verses that isn’t true — the police arrested 84 people as they hung effigies of Rushdie outside Parliament in May 1989. But formal demonstrations were not the end of the protests, as she must know. Norton does not tell the reader how the supporters of religious reaction murdered or attempted to murder Rushdie’s translators, staged riots in which dozens died in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey, and bombed bookshops in central London and the US for stocking copies of the blasphemous novel.

Instead of speaking plainly about the violence and the chilling effect on criticism of Islam that followed, Norton sneers. She implies that the true friends of the oppressed should not have sympathised with Rushdie because he had crossed over to the other side. Rushdie “was wealthy, educated and famous”, she says, and had “won the acceptance and acclaim that many fellow immigrants lacked”. Her lip curls again when she goes on to discuss Theo van Gogh, whom you may remember a Jew-obsessed fanatic slaughtered for making a “blasphemous” film with the Somali-Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh belonged to the Amsterdam of “cannabis and copulation”, she says, and “enjoyed the freedoms of the wealthy and the privileged: of people who can buy goods and command pleasures”.

You do not need to read the tabloids to recognise the trick she is pulling. Half-envious and half-disgusted finger-wagging about sex, wealth and education is a way of implying that Rushdie and van Gogh had it coming to them. Not that she is justifying murder and attempted murder, of course, but she wants the reader to understand why the poor and the unprivileged — the traditional objects of leftish concern — might take against them.

To notice the slipperiness of Norton’s prose, however, is to miss the wider point. In On the Muslim Question, Muslims form an undifferentiated bloc. The notion that there are conflicts within Islam and choices to be made is never entertained. She brushes aside the Arab and Iranian artists who supported Rushdie, the Danish Muslim politicians who supported the right of newspapers to publish cartoons of Muhammad, the Iranian green movement, the Egyptian and Tunisian secularists and Christians now confronting the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Bangladeshi secularists and Hindus now fighting Jamaat-e-Islami.

It is as if in her mind a global reactionary movement, which is based on identity politics and systematically discriminates against women and sexual and religious minorities, does not exist. As if Muslims and non-Muslims are not fighting it. As if there is no need for American academics to take sides, or even acknowledge there are sides to take.

You can present such blindness as a polite averting of the eyes. But it is the mirror image of anti-Muslim racism. The French National Front, say, or the British National Party or Serb and Hindu nationalists, portray “the Muslims” as a bloc of terrorists or barbarians. Leftists denounce the stereotypes but then reinforce them. Their motives are different but the effect is the same. “No one should have to argue any longer that terrorism can be a rational and reasonable strategy,” says Norton as she justifies violence. As for worrying about women’s rights, that is to fall into an imperialist trap. “Attention to the plight of women in the Muslim world turns the gaze of potential critics away from the continuing inequality of women in the West.”

Forget that you should oppose misogyny wherever you find it, and notice that by implying that violence and sexism are excusable Norton does not refute stereotypes but excuses them. With an ignorance remarkable in a professor of political science, she makes my point for me by saying that Marx’s On the Jewish Question inspired her. This founding document of left-wing anti-Semitism was hardly friendly to the Jewish people. Marx repeated every prejudice. The religion of the Jews was “huckstering” and their god was money. He concluded that only when “society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism — huckstering and its preconditions — [will] the Jew have become impossible”. For left-wing Muslims and ex-Muslims Norton’s writing is just as insulting. Yet I suspect that she thinks of herself as being left-wing in some sense.

In her essential pamphlet Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights (The Centre for Secular Space), Meredith Tax asks why leftists and liberals — who once said they believed in the separation of church and state, social equality and the emancipation of women — are siding with or condoning a religious Right that has made it violently clear that it agrees with none of the above. 

Tax is well-placed to dissect the duplicities of our time. She is a distinguished member of a dissenting movement in modern feminism that is hugely unfashionable, and all the more necessary for that. It refuses to accept “the double bind” that says the emancipation of women must always wait. Far-leftists placed women in it when they said, “You must put up with sexism until the revolution comes.” You could not be against sexism and for socialism simultaneously. Now hopes of revolution have vanished, its proponents say, “Women must put up with sexism until American imperialism has gone.”

Tax quotes the example of Leila Ahmed, the Harvard scholar of women and Islam. At one point in her writings, Ahmed lets out a cry of pain. She says that she believes that the rights of women “in Muslim-majority societies often are acutely in need of improvement, as indeed they are in many other societies. But the question now is how we address such issues while not allowing our work and concerns to aid and abet imperialist projects, including war projects that mete out death and trauma to Muslim women under the guise and to the accompaniment of a rhetoric of saving them.”

Put like this, Ahmed sounds ridiculous. What is the problem? Why can’t you oppose, say, the war in Afghanistan, if you wish, while also opposing the subjugation of women? Why can’t you say that Western societies give women greater rights, while also opposing this or that Western policy decision or politician? Why, in short, can you not walk and chew gum at the same time?

I don’t mean to single out academics for special condemnation. The postmodern university may not be able to guide society, but it reflects its deformities and double standards. I know civil servants, liberal journalists, broadcasters, politicians, diplomats and police officers who never read an academic paper from one year until the next. They will condemn the gender pay gap or the sexual abuse of white-skinned women, but stay silent about the religious oppression of brown-skinned women. Fear of violent reprisals, fear of causing offence, fear that their enemies will denounce them for possessing a racial or sectarian hatred play their part. On the Left, there is the strong fear of accusations of complicity with the status quo, which never go down well in arts and humanities departments. Tax quotes one left-wing academic booming at a colleague: “Secular feminists’ concern that Muslim fundamentalist religious codes impose and sanction violence on women and queers relies on a myopia that understands Muslim women only as victims of Muslim men and Islam, ignoring the role of imperial violence in defining Muslim realities around the world.” No one looking for tenure wants to hear words like that directed against them.

But we should be able to acknowledge that there is now a general taboo against discussing religious oppression, which is not confined to campuses or left-wing meetings. Universal standards are everywhere in retreat.

Tax and her allies are among the few who will fight back. Her friends include members of Southall Black Sisters, who took considerable risks when they took to the streets during the Rushdie affair to declare that they were as against mullahs who wanted to subjugate Asian women because of the arrangement of their chromosones as racists who wanted to subjugate them because of the colour of their skin. Together they have formed a new feminist pressure group, the Centre for Secular Space, along with Gita Sahgal, whose treatment by Amnesty International encapsulated a rotten culture in one disgraceful moment.

Sahgal objected to Amnesty’s relationship with Moazzam Begg. She did not complain that Amnesty demanded due process for an Islamist interned in Guantánamo but that it treated him as a respectable partner. And not just Amnesty. A roll call of supposedly liberal organisations followed suit. Freedom from Torture, Human Rights Watch, Justice, Liberty, Redress, Reprieve, and the US Center for Constitutional Rights all promoted Begg. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trustan organisation set up by pacifist Quakers — and the Roddick Foundation — which was set up by a feminist — funded him. I speak from experience when I say that not only the managers of human rights charities but their supporters could not get enough of him. To the left-wing middle class of the last decade, Begg was a star: the ideal victim.

He was also an Islamist fighter in Bosnia, and the manager of a bookshop in Birmingham that was a magnet for cranks and extremists. He moved his family to Afghanistan because he admired Taliban rule so much he wanted to live under it. While there, he helped at a school for the children of al-Qaeda fighters, and one can guess that “empowering” girls through education was not the first aim of its curriculum. Nato forces captured him, and after the Americans released him from Guantánamo, he set up Cageprisoners. It claimed to be a human rights organisation of the sort that liberal ladies and gentlemen should endorse. Sahgal examined its websites and literature and found that the only prisoners it was interested in were jihadis — not much support for universal human rights there — and that Cageprisoners endorsed the oxymoronic concept of “defensive jihad”, which in the case of Afghanistan involved para-militaries murdering civilians and executing teachers for allowing girls to learn to read and write.

Sahgal raised her concerns with her superiors at Amnesty. Their response said it all. Faced with a conflict between feminism and Islamism, Amnesty chose Islamism and in 2010 forced Sahgal out. (She later won compensation under laws that protect whistleblowers.) The “liberal” human rights group then announced that in its considered opinion defensive jihad was not “antithetical” to human rights.

The Sahgal affair was the biggest scandal the human rights movement has seen in years. In her attempt to explain why so many liberals and leftists have gone along with ideologists who want to kill liberals and leftists, Meredith Tax shows a novelist’s insight into the psychology of delusion and betrayal.

When confronted with the horrors of the wars of Bush and Blair, many saw groups that can be fairly described as clerical fascists, as “anti-imperialist”. As Vijay Prashad of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, explained in an interview with Asian online journal, Political Notes, last year, while leftists opposed evangelical Christians in the US, and Hindu and Jewish nationalists, when it came to Hamas, the Taliban, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, “we are divided from them but not against them”. They are against “imperialism” and therefore cannot be our enemies.

Many another professor has parroted that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Many have opined that we in the West know nothing of the desperation that pushes men to violence, and that in the circumstances of imperialist occupation such violence is as justified in Afghanistan or Iraq as it was in South Africa or Algeria in the 20th century.

I have had this argument many times, and I always ask the question: “Who is doing the killing and where?” There is no Western “imperialism” in Iran, Nigeria, Bangladesh or the Yemen, I say. This normally slows people down, unless of course my opponents believe that the puppet-masters of Western imperialism secretly rule the world, in which case they are beyond argument. Tax quotes a 2009 study of Arabic media sources by the Combating Terrorism Centre, which reinforces my point. It found that only 15 per cent of all of the casualties caused by al-Qaeda between 2004 and 2008 were Westerners. The main target of Muslim extremism is Muslims. The main financial support for Salafi-jihadi groups is Saudi Arabia, arguably the most reactionary country in the world and, we should not forget, a staunch ally of the same US imperialists the jihadis say they are fighting.

“When fundamentalists come to power”, Tax says, “they silence the people; they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the ‘untermensch‘ — the subhuman — among them ‘inferior races’, gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women ‘in their place’, which as we know from experience ends up being a straitjacket.”

Turn on the news and you will see the fatuity of “anti-imperialist” alliances. In Mali, to take the latest example, the jihadist group Ansar Dine took control of the north of the country and sacked the libraries and mosques of Timbuktu — a truly “Islamophobic” crime, although you will never hear it described as such. “We are against independence,” its spokesman declared. “We are against revolutions [that are] not in the name of Islam.” Ansar Dine proceeded to show what an Islamic revolution looks like by banning television, alcohol and music, forcing women to veil, cutting off the hands of robbers and stoning couples to death for having children outside wedlock. The refugees who fled, and the survivors who cheered François Hollande after “imperialist” French forces intervened, were Muslims.

The supporters of defensive jihad practise the same policies when they seize power in “occupied Muslim lands”. The absurdity of calling them anti-imperialists or comparing them to the anti-colonial nationalists of the 20th century ought to be evident.

Nor is the phrase “Muslim lands”, which I hear Western broadcasters use too often, as neutral as it seems. Are they the lands controlled by Turkey during the widest extent of the Ottoman Empire, which would include most of the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus Emirate and large parts of Eastern Europe? Spain or India? What about Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines? What about Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia? What about Western countries with substantial Muslim populations? Not all Salafi-jihadis have the same definition of the territory they plan to liberate. The Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, for instance, has in mind an Asian version of the Caliphate stretching from southern Thailand through Malaysia across Indonesia and into the Philippines, which would link with other branches established by al-Qaeda. But whichever way you cut it, fanatics who wish to establish a global caliphate are pro- rather than anti-imperialist. This is hardly a secret. But for far too many Westerners it is a secret in plain view, which is not talked about — or, more importantly, not thought about.

To Meredith Tax and Gita Sahgal the sight of people who call themselves human rights defenders going along with the omerta is close to unbearable. I heard them speak at the launch of the Centre for Secular Space in Toynbee Hall, east London, and understood their anger. For Tax and Sahgal, the UN Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most optimistic documents in history, the benchmark against which governments, corporations and, indeed, defensive jihadis must be judged. To see it ignored by the very people who claim to defend human rights has forced them to change their assumptions. As they point out, a state or pan-Islamic empire ruled by a hardline version of Sharia law directly contravenes just about every clause in the declaration. Article 7 states “all are equal before the law”, not that Muslims are more equal than non-Muslims, or that Shia Muslims in Iran are more equal than Sunni Muslims, or that Sunni Muslims in Pakistan are more equal than Shia Muslims, or that men everywhere are more equal than women anywhere. Article 18 states “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, not that the punishment for blasphemy or apostasy is death.

As for “Islamophobia”, feminists have had that charge thrown at them so often that they have come to doubt the motives of their accusers. Obviously fascist groups and some nationalist politicians do their best to whip up prejudice against immigrants and are currently focusing on Muslims for that purpose. But is discrimination against Muslims worse than, say, racism against people of Caribbean descent in the UK or Latinos and African-Americans in the US? If police harassment is a criterion, young Caribbean men are the group that suffers the most.

Where Muslims are the victims of racism, once again the question arises: why can’t people oppose white racism and clerical reaction with equal strength and for the same reasons? A commitment to fight prejudice does not exclude the possibility of criticising religious texts and religious movements. Indeed, any serious commitment against prejudice must include a willingness to fight men who would use religion to censor, subjugate and kill.

Tax ends with a radical suggestion for the Anglo-American Left: “Instead of allying with and protecting the Muslim Right, how about solidarity with actual popular movements of democrats and feminists struggling in the Global South?” I have been saying the same thing for years and know as well as Tax and Sahgal do that there is a long struggle to shift attitudes.

I don’t want to criticise them, for they are among the best people I know, but they underestimate how it suits Westerners to ignore religious oppression. On the Left, radical Islam has taken the place once filled by socialism. As I said in my book What’s Left?, when the dreams of Karl Marx died, many leftists concluded that any enemy of the West was better than none. It did not matter that the most violent enemies of the West were against everything leftists supported. They were also against America and that was all that mattered. Beyond the Left, in the politically indifferent mainstream, ignoring oppression has its advantages. Members of a consumer society do not want to campaign against the mistreatment of women in immigrant communities at home or support costly and dangerous interventions abroad. They want to get and spend. Rousing a nation of shoppers against injustice is always a hard task, and it seems to me that one of the chief functions of Anglo-American intellectuals is to provide respectable reasons for staying quiet.

That so many liberals are prepared to urge quiescence is a scandal. That Southall Black Sisters, Meredith Tax and Gita Sahgal are prepared to fight them is a reason for hope. Their Centre for Secular Space is, by the way, desperately short of money. The rich Quakers and progressives who opened their wallets for Cageprisoners will not fund feminists. If you can afford to help, may I point you in their direction and suggest that there is no worthier cause around? 

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