[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The War on Terrorism, Part I: Is It "About Islam?"/*/

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM


Like most Americans, I was traumatized by September 11, 2001. Having parents and friends in New York City, where I grew up, I spent the hours and days after the attack dashing off e-mails and trying to call loved ones on jammed phone lines. Over the next few weeks, as my initial shock waned, I also experienced a patriotic surge of love for my country whose intensity took me entirely by surprise. I've never been considered a flag-waving, "love-it-or-leave-it" kind of guy. On the contrary, over the decades I've taken issue with state and federal administrations and often lamented the condition of American society. Yet now, I plastered American flags on my office door and the front window of my house, attended memorials in downtown Butte and at Montana Tech, and prayed for the families of the victims at a local church. What I discovered, in a largely visceral way, was that, however much I might hate the policies of a specific American government, I loved America itself.

I thought a lot about my grandparents, three out of four of whom were immigrants. My father's parents were Polish Jews who emigrated to America at the start of the 20th century. My maternal grandmother was a Cuban who was brought to America by my grandfather during the Batista regime. Thus, if my paternal grandparents had stayed in Poland they'd almost surely have died in the Holocaust, while if my maternal grandmother had remained in Cuba she'd have fallen into Castro's clutches. So, how could I help but love the country which had saved three of my grandparents from certain despotism and death?

My experience may strike readers as commonplace, even banal. I'm sure millions of Americans felt just as I did after 9/11. However, as I talked with liberal friends and colleagues in the months following the attacks, I discovered, first with shock and then with growing anger, that many of my fellow liberals didn't even remotely share my sense of outrage and renewed patriotism over the events of 9/11. I am a life-long liberal. A registered Democrat, I've never voted Republican, and, unless the sun explodes and the Democrats nominate Al Sharpton for President, I plan to vote against George Bush in 2004. I saw no contradiction between my liberal principles and my belief that a terrorist attack on American soil which targeted civilians--and killed more Americans than died at Pearl Harbor--gravely threatened America and demanded military retaliation. I was stunned, therefore, when, not long after the attack, during a dinner with some university colleagues, I overheard a respected liberal Montana professor calmly explaining that, given America's policies in the developing world, the terrorist attack was entirely understandable and justified.

Sadly, the professor's views were not unique among my circle of liberal Montana academics. Another colleague told me that she found the widespread displaying of American flags in the aftermath of 9/11 "frighteningly xenophobic" (she'd not seen mine yet)--as if Americans'expressing support for their country and solidarity with their fellow citizens after a national catastrophe was, by definition, an outbreak of rabid nationalism.

The day after the attacks, a colleague active in Montana's peace movement e-mailed me (along with everyone else on his listserv) a piece by David McReynolds, a member of an organization called "The War Resisters League," titled "War Resister's Statement on the Bombing," and sent out from the group's Washington, D.C., offices on "September 11, 2001, 4:34 PM." (My colleague appended the subject heading: "A thoughtful response that the media may not publicize.") The fact that McReynolds had misidentified the attacks as a "bombing" was the least offensive aspect of this document, the bulk of which contained an extended condemnation of American foreign policy, lambasting "the sanctions against Iraq, which have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians...the ruthless repression [by Israel] of the Palestinian population...the policies of militarism pursued by the United States [which] have resulted in millions of deaths." McReynolds concluded: "Let us seek an end of the militarism which has characterized this nation for decades."

What struck me most about this statement, though, was less what it said than when and where it said it. After all, McReynolds was writing literally hours after the attack, and in a city that had been one of its targets. Had the author rolled down his office window and inhaled deeply, he might have been able to smell the odor of charred corpses wafting over from the Pentagon. And yet his response was simply to immediately churn out the usual left-wing boiler-plate about the evils of American foreign policy. It was as if McReynolds were constitutionally incapable of recognizing that Americans could ever be victims, not victimizers. His monomania reminded me of the academicians on the Floating Island of Laputa in Swift's Gulliver's Travels who are so preoccupied with their intellectual obsessions that they must employ servants carrying inflated bags tied to sticks with which they flap their masters on the ear any time someone wishes to speak to them. Although he never spelled it out, McReynolds' statement also clearly implied that, given the nature of American foreign policy, the U.S. had it coming. The chickens had come home to roost. This was a "thoughtful response" to 9/11?

Did the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of so many of my liberal colleagues, which had numbed them to the suffering of their fellow Americans, require me, I reflected in the coming months, to rethink the liberalism that, until then, had shaped my views on American foreign policy? Was I, in fact, a supporter of America's war on terrorism, even though, as a member of the Vietnam generation, I'd always disapproved of American militarism? (Admittedly, as still more time passed, I also began disapproving of Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism, especially the president's handling of the invasion of Iraq. But I wasn't at all sure this meant I was opposed to America's--as opposed to Bush's--war.)

Faced with these questions, I responded as would most academics; I started to read, and in areas that took me far afield from my own area of specialization as an English professor. As an American Jew, I'd always closely followed Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, but now my reading expanded to include the Middle East in general, the religion of Islam, the long historical clash between the West and the Muslim world. In the past, I'd read mostly about these subjects in the political journals I subscribe to: The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Jerusalem Report, The Forward. But now I turned to books, choosing from among the plethora on such topics being churned in the wake of 9/11.

This review essay represents the present fruits of my labors. For my research, I primarily read the 10 books listed, most of them published within the last year. I tried to choose books which covered a range of related topics from a variety of political perspectives. In this first installment of my essay, I will discuss (1) whether the current conflict between the West and Islam is a clash of civilizations, and (2) the present status of women in the Muslim world. (I see the two topics as closely linked, for reasons I'll explain). In the second installment in the Fall issue, I'll explore (1) the rift in the historical alliance between America and Europe caused by Bush's war on terrorism, and (2) views on 9/11 and its aftermath held by the Left in the West and by Arab intellectuals, with a particular focus on anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (and whether there is, at times, a connection between the two).

Let me admit from the outset that in the two parts of my essay I'll air many controversial opinions. My introduction alone probably has already incensed more than a few readers. Frankly, I don't see how these volatile topics, so central to the future of our country, can be honestly and substantively discussed in a way that skirts controversy. I welcome responses from readers, whether they agree with me or not. My own ideas on these complex subjects are constantly evolving as I study and think, and talk with colleagues.

Is America's war on terrorism a clash of civilizations?

In 1996, Harvard political science professor Samuel P. Huntington published a book called The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in which he coined the phrase "clash of civilizations" to describe some aspects of his view of the modern world--that is, a world divided by entrenched political, cultural and religious conflicts among a range of clashing groups, including the West and the Muslim world (among others)./1/ Clearly, Huntington's thesis is relevant to America's war on terrorism. Shortly after 9/11, President Bush stated publicly that the U.S. war on Islamic terrorism was not a war against Islam itself. The vast majority of Muslims, Bush insisted, reject bin Laden's jihad, seeking, instead, to coexist peacefully with the West.

If, however, contrary to the president's statements (which may reflect more a public relations strategy by the administration than Bush's own beliefs), America is involved in a civilizational clash with the Muslim world, then the U.S. may be facing a protracted global conflict comparable to the Cold War. In an op-ed piece appearing in The New York Times on November 2, 2001, Salman Rushdie took the latter, Huntingtonian, view. Titled "Yes, This Is About Islam," Rushdie's piece read in part:

Of course, this is "about Islam." The question is, what exactly does that mean?... For a vast number of "believing" Muslims, "Islam" stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God...but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include...a loathing of modern society, riddled as it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over...by the liberal Western-style way of life." (qtd. in Elshtain 137)

Whether the West and Islam are locked in a civilizational clash is intimately connected to the issue of democratization in the Muslim world. If Rushdie is right that millions of Muslims loathe the modern "liberal Western...way of life," then the chances of successfully establishing Western-based democratic institutions in the Islamic world are remote. But, on the other hand, how can Muslim nations become reliable allies with the West unless they are democratically transformed?

Here's the crucial question: is Islam compatible with democracy? If it's not, does that mean democracy can only arise in the Islamic world if Muslims reject their faith and embrace, instead, secularism and Westernization? But can we expect (and do we have a right to expect) that Muslims will reject their faith and traditions in order to adopt our political institutions? Since the U.S. is now in the process of trying to turn Iraq into a functioning democracy, these questions are not, to put it mildly, purely theoretical.

In today's Arab world, there is only one relatively democratic nation--Turkey (now petitioning for admission into the European Union). Turkey might seem to prove that Islam and democracy are reconcilable, since its current ruling party is moderately Islamic. But appearances may be deceiving. The modern Turkish state was founded in 1922 by Kemal Ataturk, who strove to turn the country into a secular, Western-style state which rejected the Islamic nature of Turkey's historical Ottoman empire. To this end, Ataturk, immediately after seizing power, officially abolished the Ottoman sultanate (which had traced its lineage back to the Prophet Mohammad). Consequently, modern Turkey has always adopted a foreign policy which, unlike most of the Muslim world, is largely pro-Western, pro-American, and pro-Israel. When, in 1995, an Islamic party more radical than the one now in power won a general election, this party ruled for just two years before it was removed by the Turkish military in a bloodless coup. Under the circumstances, one imagines that the Islamists now running Turkey are treading gingerly, aware that a tilt away from Turkey's historically pro-West stance could spell their doom. In short, whether the Turkish system, in fact, has reconciled democracy with Islam is debatable. In any case, Turkey appears an anomaly in the Muslim world.

In The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis implicitly questions Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis by arguing that militant Islam should be seen less as a phenomenon rooted in Islam's history and traditions and more as an outcome of fairly recent developments in the Middle East. Lewis is a distinguished scholar of the Muslim world who, for decades, toiled in relative academic obscurity. Then, his book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response--appearing in bookstores just after the 9/11 attacks (though it was written beforehand)--shot to the top of the bestseller list. As a result, the octogenarian scholar became a celebrity, as well as a consultant to the Bush administration.

In What Went Wrong? Lewis argues that an existential crisis arose in the Middle East in the 19th century. Prior to that, the Ottoman empire had been the glory of the world. Stretching, at its peak, from Russia to Central Europe, the Ottoman empire was in almost every respect--militarily, culturally, politically, scientifically--superior to its nemesis, Christian Europe. Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the tide began to turn, and before long a once mighty Arab civilization had been conquered and colonized by Europe's imperial powers, subjugated by a culture the Arabs saw as wholly inferior to their own. Hence, a painful question arose in the Arab world: "What went wrong?"

In The Crisis of Islam Lewis takes the theories raised in What Went Wrong? and applies them specifically to the subject of Islamic terrorism. Although Lewis never puts it quite this way, his book suggests that the radical Islamicism of bin Laden and his followers represents one extreme answer to the question of "what went wrong" in the Arab world. Lewis begins the book by quoting from a video tape of bin Laden aired to the world on October 7, 2001, in which the terrorist leader refers to "the humiliation and disgrace" that Islam has suffered for "more than eighty years" (xv). At the time, most Western commentators had been baffled by what bin Laden meant by his reference to "eighty years." But Lewis has an answer: eighty years ago, "in 1918, the Ottoman sultanate, the last of the great Muslim empires, was finally defeated--its capital, Constantinople, occupied, its sovereign held captive, and much of its territory partitioned between the victorious British and French Empires" (xvi).

In other words, bin Laden was saying that his jihad against the West is, in part, an act of revenge for the destruction of the Arab empire by the Western "infidels." As well, the al-Qaeda leader may have been explaining what (with the breathtaking ambition characteristic of fanatics) he ultimately hopes to accomplish by 9/11, and other terrorist attacks: namely, driving the infidels from the Holy Land of Islam, overthrowing those corrupt Arab rulers who have sold their souls to the West, restoring the caliphate, and so returning the Muslim world to its former glory by resurrecting an empire which saw itself as destined to win its battle with Christianity for global religious hegemony. In Lewis's words, "For Osama bin Laden, his declaration of war against the United States marks the resumption of the struggle for religious domination of the world that began in the seventh century" (162).

Moreover, bin Laden and his supporters fear the threat the West poses to Islam not only from without, but, even more importantly, from within. They wish to purge not only American troops from Muslim lands, but also all Western influences which have corrupted Muslim society. "For the members of al-Qaeda," Lewis writes, "it is the seduction of America and of its profligate, dissolute way of life that represents the greatest threat to the kind of Islam they wish to impose on their fellow Muslims" (163). For bin Laden, as for the late Ayatollah Khomeini, America is literally "The Great Satan."

However, the Islamic utopia bin Laden yearns to resurrect is largely a fantasy of his own creation, defined more in opposition to the contemporary West than to the actual history of the Ottoman empire. Given the fantastic nature of bin Laden's beliefs, it's no wonder that he and other radical Muslims play fast and loose with the Islamic tradition when trying to defend theologically their terrorist campaign. The Crisis of Islam makes a strong case that Islamic terrorism, while using Islam to justify its violence, departs sharply from Muslim scriptures and traditions (whether bin Laden and his followers know this or not). One example is suicide bombing. Lewis quotes a Koranic passage which states explicitly that suicide is a sin: "The Prophet said: Whoever kills himself in any way will be tormented in that way in Hell. [...] Whoever kills himself in any way in this world will be tormented with it on the day of resurrection" (153). Suicide bombers who target civilians are violating another Koranic passage: "God has forbidden the killing of women and children" (155).

Based on the Koran, it's hard to see how traditional Islam could sanction the belief held by Islamic terrorists that the suicide bomber is a martyr who ascends instantly to Paradise. Are Muslim terrorist groups, then, deliberately misreading the Koran in an attempt to justify religiously their politically-motivated terrorism? It's true that some Islamic scholars have argued that the Muslim war against America (and even more so against Israel) is so existential that Koranic law can be seen as defining all Americans and Israelis as combatants rather than civilians. But this interpretation doesn't get around the Koran's prohibition against suicide, nor is it, by any means, universally accepted by Islamic theologians. As Lewis dryly remarks, "The suicide bomber is...taking a considerable risk on a theological nicety" (39).

Another answer Lewis offers to the question of "what went wrong" in the Arab world is the influence exerted in the modern Middle East by oil-rich Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi brand of Islam. As Lewis recounts, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was an 18th century Arabian theologian who preached a harsh, fundamentalist version of Islam which claimed to "purify" the faith by returning it to the teachings of Mohammed. Wahhab's theology was embraced by the local Bedouin sheiks who composed the House of Saud. Renegades in constant conflict with the Ottoman sultan, the Saudis now had a theology to justify their aggression. Soon, they launched a long series of wars of conquest and forced conversion, which ultimately resulted, early in the 20th century, in the capture of the two holiest cities in Islam: Mecca and Medina. The Saudis' good fortune continued when it was discovered that they were living in a desert that contained some of the richest oil fields in the world. In 1933, Standard Oil of California signed an agreement with the Saudi minister of finance. "Saudi politics and Wahhabi doctrine," Lewis remarks, "now rested on a solid economic foundation" (127).

The House of Saud has used its fabulous oil wealth to export Wahhabi teachings throughout the Middle East and around the world. "Even in Western countries in Europe and America," Lewis writes, "Wahhabi indoctrination centers may be the only form of Islamic education available to new converts and to Muslim parents who wish to give their children some grounding in their own inherited religious and cultural tradition. The indoctrination is provided in private schools, religious seminars, mosque schools, holiday camps and, increasingly, prisons" (128). Had circumstances been different, the Saudi Wahhabis might have remained a marginal sect, and more mainstream, tolerant versions of Islam (embodied by the Ottoman empire at its height) might have flourished in the Middle East. In an arresting analogy, Lewis compares Saudi power to what it would be like if "the Ku Klux Klan...obtained total control of the state of Texas, of its oil and therefore of its oil revenues, and having done so, used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity" (129).

Ironically, even though Osama bin Laden longs to topple the Saudi rulers, his and the House of Saud's version of Islam are virtually identical. This former member of the Saudi royal family despises his fellow Saudis mainly because the sheiks welcomed America's "infidel" armies into the nation containing Mecca and Medina, in order to protect the House of Saud's oil fields against Saddam's rapacity following the Iraqi dictator's occupation of neighboring Kuwait. The "infidels" in question accepted the invitation because, starting with Standard Oil, corporate America and its political allies in Washington have struck a Faustian bargain with the Saudis--propping up one of the most regressive regimes in the Middle East in exchange for the free flow of cheap oil into America's gas-guzzling economy. Given U.S.-Saudi ties, it's understandable why so many Arabs are skeptical of America's commitment to democratizing Iraq.

Thus, Lewis believes that a range of historical factors--the crisis of confidence inspired in the Arab world by the defeat of the Ottoman empire by Western imperialists, the rise to power of the Wahhabi-preaching Saudis--have conspired to make the Middle East a breeding ground for terrorism, as well as an autocratic region averse to democratic reforms. In Terror and Liberalism Paul Berman argues, instead, that Militant Islam should be seen as rooted less in the political and religious history of the Muslim world than in the fascist movements of 20th century Europe, especially Nazism. As Berman notes, in the 1930s and '40s, the Pan-Arabists in the Middle East openly allied themselves with the Fascist Axis in Europe.

Berman admits this alliance may have been formed, in part, for pragmatic reasons, since the Germans and the Pan-Arabists shared common enemies: the colonial powers Britain and France. But he insists the alliance was based on more than just real politik. For Berman, what links the secular Baath Party that came to power in Syria and Iraq with the religious fundamentalist regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran is a shared embrace of totalitarianism--for the Baathists, a totalitarian secular dictatorship, for the fundamentalists, an equally totalitarian theocracy. Of course, the establishment of a totalitarian state (based on race and nationalism) was also the goal of European fascism. Berman adds that both European fascism and Arab totalitarianism venerate the cult of the "Great Man," the "Supreme Leader" whose autocratic rule must be blindly obeyed by his followers. And, Berman concludes, both European and Arab fascists shared a common arch-enemy--the perfidious Jews, who, in 1948, shortly after the defeat of the Axis powers, founded a Jewish state in the Arabs' ancestral home, Palestine.

One can see why a connection between Islamic terrorism and European fascism would appeal to Berman. A liberal supporter of America's war on terrorism, Berman knows that if he is able to link al-Qaeda and the Nazis he can make the case that the Western powers must not appease bin Laden the way those same powers initially appeased Hitler 70 years ago. However, Berman's attempt to connect Arab totalitarianism with European fascism isn't entirely persuasive. Lewis, for one, dismisses it (without mentioning Berman by name) when he writes that

though these foreign sponsors and imported philosophies [both Nazism and Soviet communism] provided material help and intellectual expression for anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism, they did not cause it, and certainly they do not explain the widespread anti-Westernism that made so many, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world, receptive to such ideas. It must surely be clear that what won support for such totally diverse doctrines was not Nazi race theory, which can have little appeal for Arabs, or Soviet atheist Communism, which has no appeal for Arabs, but rather their basic anti-Westernism. (71-72)

In other words, Lewis thinks the Arabs allied themselves with first the Nazis and then the Soviets simply because they concluded that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Lewis is right that the central mission of Islam--to create a world in which people of every race and nationality will be united in their worship of Allah--is antithetical to the Nazi's race-based ideology, or the fascist nationalism of Mussolini in Italy, or Franco in Spain.

In Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, Jean Bethke Elshtain seems to see the current conflict between the West and Islam as not just a civilizational clash but also (though she rarely puts it this bluntly) a religious war between Islam and Christianity. A conservative Christian intellectual, Elshtain seems, at times, to be refighting the Crusades. A large section of the book is devoted to comparing the two world religions, and, inevitably, Christianity always comes out on top. Considering which faith functions better in a secular democracy, Elshtain stresses that "Jesus of Nazareth insisted on a distinction between what is owed to God and what is owed to Caesar" (149). As a result, she claims, Christians are content living in a democracy that maintains a separation between Church and State.

Unlike Jesus, however, Elshtain points out, Mohammed was not just a religious but also a political and military ruler, leading Medina into battle against Mecca, and, before his death, establishing the first Muslim state. Therefore, she concludes, Islam rejects Mosque-State separation, seeing no difference between theology and politics. In The Crisis of Islam Bernard Lewis agrees that "the dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, had no equivalent in Islam.... In the universal Islamic polity as conceived by Muslims, there is no Caesar but only God, who is the sole sovereign and the sole source of law" (7). These beliefs form the basis of Sharia, the Islamic code of law (adopted by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the fundamentalists in Iran) which dictates both personal behavior and the workings of the state.

Nor does Elshtain believe that a Muslim state can ever reside peacefully alongside non-Muslim neighbors, because, she says, Islam preaches that Muslims are religiously obliged to wage perpetual jihad against infidels and non-believers. Lewis best clarifies the concept behind the doctrine of jihad: "in Muslim tradition, the world is divided into two houses: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), still inhabited and...ruled by infidels. The presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule" (31-32).

Is Christianity more inherently reconcilable with democracy than Islam? While Elshtain's argument is compelling, it's also oversimplified, as well as weakened by her subtext of Christian triumphalism. After all, whatever distinction Jesus drew between God and Caesar, Christianity hardly has a history of unswerving support for democracy. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the Church was the state, with the Pope a secular as well as religious leader. When democratic ideas arose in Europe during the Enlightenment, its proponents drew less on the teachings of the Church than they did on the political philosophy of pagan Athens. And when Thomas Jefferson (more a Deist than an orthodox Christian) formulated the concept of Church-State separation, he had in mind freeing America from the theocracies plaguing Christian Europe, not the Muslim world.

Nor has Christianity always historically shown a democratic respect for the rights of minorities in its midst. The most notorious example is the treatment of European Jewry. Long before Hitler arrived on the scene, Europe's Christians herded the Jewish "Christ-killers" into squalid ghettos, forced them to wear identifying yellow stars, converted them at the point of a sword, evicted them from Christian lands, and murdered them for allegedly ritually killing Christian babies. During the Middle Ages, Jews were much better treated in Muslim countries. In What Went Wrong? Lewis writes that "Jews in traditional Islamic societies experienced the normal constraints and occasional hazards of minority status, [but] in most significant respects, they were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule, until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" (33-34).

If Christianity, with its history of theocracy and persecution, can reform itself into a religion that can peacefully coexist with democracy, why can't Islam? Even if the possibility at present looks remote, it is a goal reasonable people both in the West and in the Muslim world should work to achieve. As suggested earlier, contemporary Iraq provides a test case for these competing theories. If the Shiite clerics who largely control the Iraqi Shiites in the south (who comprise 60% of the general population) are willing to form a democratic coalition with Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, rather than attempting forcibly to establish a Shiite theocracy along the lines of neighboring Iran, then there may be hope for Islamic democracy, not only in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East.

Is the war against terrorism also a feminist war?

If Huntington is right and the conflict between the West and Islam is a civilizational clash, how significant, in this regard, are different Western and Muslim attitudes toward women? In Terror and Liberalism Paul Berman makes what sounds at first like an outrageous statement: "The Afghan war was, I would think, the first feminist war in all of history--the first war in which women's rights were proclaimed at the start to be a major war aim" (195). Indeed, Bush's ally in the Afghan campaign (as he'd later be in Iraq), British Prime Minister Tony Blair, thundered against the Taliban's oppression of women: "Women are treated in a way almost too revolting to be credible. First driven out of university, girls are not allowed to go to school; no legal rights; unable to go out of doors without a man. Those that disobey are stoned" (Elshtain 42). Under the Soviet puppet regime which was overthrown by the mujahadin, Afghan women were allowed to work and attend school. But once the Taliban took power women were shut up in their homes, allowed to go outside only if accompanied by a suitable male escort such as a husband or relative, and were denied not only education but also medical care, since the mullahs didn't want them examined by male doctors and no female doctors were allowed to practice. As in other misogynistic Muslim states, Jean Bethke Elshtain writes, the Taliban claimed that "the draconian regulations [against women were] instituted out of respect for women and their protection.... Afghan women were made to hide under burqa, the mullahs claimed, so they'd be spared the leering gaze of men; the laws prohibiting female contact with men were imposed to enable women to preserve their...chastity before marriage" (32). But a Time Magazine article reports that the Taliban's professed concern with "protecting" women was a cruel charade:

It is clear from the testimony of witnesses and officials of the new government that the ruling clerics systematically abducted women from the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and other ethnic minorities they defeated. Stolen women were a reward for battle.... Women victims tell of being forced to wed Taliban soldiers and...Arab fighters of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, who later abandoned them. These marriages were tantamount to legal rape. (Elshtain 43)

Although the Taliban have been defeated, Elshtain acknowledges that many Afghan women are still wearing burqas because they fear male reprisals if they don't. Still, she's thrilled that "Afghani girls and women can go to school and teach because of the use of force by America and its allies" (41).

Elshtain sees Muslim subjugation of women as rooted in Islamic traditions and scriptures. She quotes Time journalist Lisa Beyer's claim that "nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated as equals.... The problem dates back to Mohammed...[who] enshrined their inequality in immutable law passed down as God's commandments.... The Koran allows daughters half the inheritance of sons. Under Shari'a...compensation for the murder of a woman is half the going rate for men" (44). Chiding Western multiculturalists, Elshtain insists that "it is unfair to...the brave Muslim women fighting for democratic reforms to refuse to criticize radical Islamicism's severe gender practices by burying them under the label 'cultural diversity'"(41).

Kanan Makiya's Cruelty and Silence: War, Uprising, and the Arab World paints a chilling picture of the treatment of women in Saddam's Iraq. Makiya is an Iraqi exile who, in 1989, pseudonymously published Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam's Iraq (one of the first insider exposes on the horrors of Saddam's regime). In Cruelty and Silence Makiya relates that in Saddam's Security Organization there actually existed a post for an officer whose only job was to rape female Iraqi prisoners. The officer's employment identification card defined his vocation as "Violation of Women's Honor."

For Makiya, these four words speak volumes about why rape is such an effective and widely used instrument of political torture in the Arab world. "The honor of a family is perceived in Arab-Islamic culture," he writes, "to be located in the bodies of the women of that family, in their virginity first and foremost, but also in the clothes they wear, in the modesty with which they deport themselves. The veil acquires its importance in the culture precisely because it acts symbolically to protect this honor from public view, and hence ostensibly to enhance it" (288). Therefore, when Saddam's authorized henchman rapes an Iraqi woman, he is destroying not only her "honor" but also the honor of her entire family, and a "dishonored" family is one stripped of any power to challenge the regime. As well, Saddam's secret police often raped women in order to force them to become spies for the regime, who were then sent off to infiltrate rebel groups. These "shamed" women had to collaborate, since raped women who do return home are not infrequently murdered by their families in order to "restore family honor."

Beating and even killings by family members of females deemed wayward are common, says Makiya, not just in Iraq but throughout the Arab world. He cites the case of a Palestinian girl named "Amal Musairti...a sixteen-year-old...from Ramalah who was beaten to a pulp by her brother in the winter of 1991 because he was filled with shame by the fact that his sister was having a relationship with a man. Her mangled body was dumped outside Kibbutz Gan Shmuel to make it look as though his sister was killed by a Jew" (290). Analysts have speculated that many female Palestinian suicide bombers, whose numbers have been rising, may be "fallen" women who blow themselves up in an attempt to restore their own and their family's social status by becoming martyrs for the Palestinian cause.

In Jordan, a comparatively moderate Arab state, there is a section of Amman's main prison called ghurfat al-zina ("the adultery room"). Makiya explains:

Police roaming the streets...have the power to detain unmarried Jordanian women in the company of men unrelated to them. The couple are taken to a medical officer and the girl's virginity tested. If she is not a virgin, the police immediately inform both families. The families then negotiate the feasibility of marriage. Should the man refuse to marry the woman he was with, thus rescuing her family's honor, both are charged. (293)

Though the sentences are light, and the men usually released in a few months, the women often remain in jail long after their sentences have expired. The reason is that the police are keeping the women imprisoned for their own safety. Jordanian law requires that female prisoners must be released into the custody of their families. Often, when the woman's brother or uncle or nephew arrives at the prison, he will kill his female relative after she is turned over by the authorities.

The use of large-scale rape as political torture during wartime also occurs in Muslim countries. For example, in 1971, when Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) revolted to achieve independence, Pakistani troops sent to quell the rebellion are estimated to have raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women, 80 percent of whom were Muslim. True, Muslims are not uniquely guilty of raping enemy women during wartime. In the 1990s, for example, during the war in the Balkans, Christian Bosnian Serbs raped Bosnian Muslim women by the hundreds in buildings that the Serb militias established as virtual "rape factories." But, as the Bosnian Serbs were well aware, raping a Muslim woman is effective as a military tactic precisely because of the significance of rape in the Muslim world.

Rather than, like Elshtain, seeing contemporary Muslim subjugation of women as rooted in the teachings of the Koran, Makiya believes this subjugation has increased since the Arab world was subdued by Western imperialism. "Whenever [Arab] identity felt itself threatened," he claims, "it turned womanhood into its last bastion" (298). In other words, in modern times Arabs have tried to stave off Western imperialist domination by desperately embracing a vision of a "purified" Islamic society, best attained by subjugating women, since female "purity" is seen as literally and metaphorically representing the "purity" of the culture as a whole.

Just as Bernard Lewis argues that much Islamic terrorism is driven by the humiliation Muslims feel due to Western dominance, the mistreatment of women in Arab countries may, I suspect, have similar psychological roots. In a proud and macho culture like that of the Arabs, the history of Western colonialism and contemporary neo-colonialism by America must feel terribly emasculating. One, then, reasserts one's manhood by oppressing women. It's telling that the American capture of Saddam--the once mighty tyrant found cowering and disheveled in a hole, armed yet meekly surrendering--was viewed throughout the Arab world as a dreadful blow to Arab manhood, even by Arabs who hated Saddam. Saddam's daughter, for example, exiled in Jordan, insisted that her father must have been drugged by the Americans, since otherwise he'd have fought back--and her husband was murdered on Saddam's orders!

Since the body of the chaste Muslim woman represents the moral purity of Islamic society itself, it is no wonder Islamicist diatribes against Western "degeneracy" harp so obsessively on the alleged promiscuity and sexual "flaunting" of Western women. Take, for example, the Muslim fundamentalist ideologue, Sayyid Qutb (executed by Nasser in 1966), whose prison writings have greatly influenced today's radical Islamicists. Apparently, as a young man Qutb was traumatized by a two-year stay in America in the late '40s, especially by what he saw as the sinfully promiscuous American way of life. For Qutb, America's "sexual degeneracy" sprang from our culture's hedonistic materialism, which he contrasted with the ascetic spiritualism of the Islamic world.

In Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, the ex-Iranian professor, who taught in Iran during Khomeini's regime, tells a story related by one of her female students, Yassi, who'd attended at lecture at Tehran University on the differences between Islam and Christianity. The professor had drawn a line down the middle of the board, and then, on one side, had written in white chalk "Muslim Girl," while, on the other, he'd written in pink "Christian Girl." He then asked the class if they knew the differences between the two.

One was a virgin, he said at last, after an uncomfortable silence, white and pure, keeping herself for her husband and her husband only. Her power came from her modesty. The other, well, there was not much one could say about her except that she was not a virgin. To Yassi's surprise, the two girls behind her, both active members of the Muslim Students' Association, had started to giggle, whispering, "No wonder more and more Muslims are converting to Christianity." (30)

Considering Muslim fundamentalist attitudes toward female sexuality in the West, it's fascinating that several of the 9/11 terrorists, on the night before the attack, visited an American strip club. What were they thinking? Did they want a final look at the "enemy" they'd soon give up their lives to try to destroy? Or, flesh temporarily subduing spirit, did they want a last taste of Western decadence before martyrdom?

Among the books under discussion, the one that provides the fullest picture of the life of Muslim women is Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (though it focuses on women in Iran's Islamic republic). Like Makiya, Nafisi is a secular liberal now exiled from the Middle East in the U.S., where she currently teaches English at Johns Hopkins University. Although attending college in America, Nafisi returned to Iran shortly after the deposing of the Shah, initially having supported the revolution. She ended up teaching British and American literature for the next 12 years at several Iranian institutions of higher education. Eventually, she was expelled from Tehran University for refusing to wear the veil (before the regime forced all Iranian women to be veiled in public). Out of work, she decided to establish a reading group composed of her best female university students, who met clandestinely in her apartment. The group began its survey of Western literature by studying Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Nafisi's memoir is wide-ranging and filled with first-hand observations of the often calamitous events which occurred in Iran during the 1980s and '90s. But its chapters are structured around the four major Western novelists she taught, both to her secret group and to her university students: Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. The result is an original and memorable work.

Nafisi offers sharp insights into the significance of the veil in Islamic Iran. She opens her book by comparing two photographs she still has of the young women in her reading group, one in which, in accordance with Iranian law, the women are covered in black robes and head scarves, and the other in which her students, in the relative security of Nafisi's apartment, are unveiled. In the second photo, Nafisi observes, "each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same" (4). By this comparison, Nafisi implies (an idea elaborated throughout her book) that the real, though unacknowledged, reason the Iranian Islamic Republic veils its women is to deindividualize them, indeed to dehumanize them, transforming them from people into iconic fantasies spun from the fevered brains of the ayatollahs. As in many other Islamic countries, women are seen as symbols, not human beings.

A novel widely condemned as pornographic when it first appeared in the 1950s, Lolita might seem an odd first choice for a reading group of Iranian women. Surprisingly, given the Islamic obsession with Western "sexual degeneracy," neither Nafisi nor her students have much to say about the novel's alleged licentiousness. Instead, both teacher and pupils (in good reader-centered fashion) see the book as an allegory about how the Iranian mullahs perceive and treat the nation's women. They interpret Lolita as "the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had turned her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual's life by another. We don't know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her" (33). The obliteration of Lolita's personhood, Nafisi notes, is achieved by the very structure of the novel, since the reader only gets fleeting glimpses of the girl's lonely suffering between the lines of Humbert's florid pedophiliac fantasies. In this reading, the Ayatollah Khomeini is a Muslim version of Humbert, and every Iranian female another Lolita.

With one novel after another, these Western classics enable Nafisi's students better to understand their predicament as Iranian women. When, for example, Henry James' novella Daisy Miller is discussed, her students identify with the title character--a free-spirited young American abroad in Italy whose defiance of social convention ultimately causes her death. When Nafisi had taught the novella at Tehran University, her Islamic students, in contrast, had sided with Daisy's shocked relations, who belong to the staid American expatriate community in Rome. Much later, Nafisi meets a former student of hers, who, as a member of the Muslim Students' Association, had denounced every novel on the syllabus as vile Western decadence. Now, she confesses that she has a "secret name" for her 11-month-old daughter. "I call her Daisy.... Haven't you heard that if you give your child a name she will become like her namesake? I want my daughter to be like I never was--like Daisy. You know, courageous" (333).

When the author's "secret class" turns to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, one student declares that if the novel had been set in Iran, its famous first sentence would read: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife" (231). Another student agrees (212), "The Islamic Republic has taken us back to Jane Austen's time. God bless the arranged marriage!" Pride and Prejudice inspires a bitter discussion about the consequences for women of the laws instituted by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which stipulate that girls can be married off at nine and that polygamy is permissible for men. As a result, one of the students scoffs, Islamic Iran is a "paradise for men." Even some secular Iranian men, she complains, have availed themselves of the opportunity to take more than one wife.

The current enslavement of Iranian women is especially painful because, under the long reign of the Shah, the American-backed dictator had instituted a program of radical Westernization which had included modern Western ideas about proper social roles for women. Admittedly, the Shah was no benevolent despot; in fact, in an exact reversal of Khomeini's edicts, the Shah had forbidden Iranian women to wear the veil, sending his soldiers into the streets to rip veils from women with their bayonets. Still, one result of the Shah's forced Westernizing was that Iranian women were granted freedom and influence unknown elsewhere in the Arab world. Thus, Nafisi's female students, oppressed by Sharia law, have mothers and grandmothers who, as young women themselves, had enjoyed freedoms these girls can scarcely imagine. Soon after taking power, Khomeini's regime had targeted liberated Iranian women, especially those who'd held high-ranking positions under the Shah. Nafisi relates the fate of one of these women, who'd been the Shah's Minister for Women's Affairs. Arrested by the regime's Revolutionary Guards, the woman was jailed, tied up in a sack, and stoned to death.

Under Khomeini, government-appointed morality squads roamed the streets of Iranian cities and towns, arresting women for letting a stray hair peak out from under their veils, or for wearing make-up, or for laughing too loudly. One of Nafisi's students was arrested because a guard felt that she was eating an apple "too seductively!" Once in jail, female prisoners were especially brutalized. Nafisi meets an ex-student who'd been jailed for her Marxist sympathies (narrowly escaping execution due to family connections). "There was one girl [in prison]," the student says. "Her only sin had been her amazing beauty. They brought her in on some trumped-up morality charge. They kept her for over a month and repeatedly raped her. They passed her from one guard to another. The story got around jail very fast, because the girl wasn't even political" (212). Not surprisingly, most Iranians (like many Arabs throughout the Middle East) view the birth of a daughter as a family disaster.

Why are so many liberals in the West reluctant to acknowledge such harsh realities about the Arab world as the endemic abuse of women, even though such abuse clashes directly with their feminist principles? This reluctance may reflect deeper problems with contemporary (as opposed to classical) liberalism. The classical liberalism of a philosopher such as John Stuart Mill saw the fundamental moral and political entity as the individual human being. It was on this basis that European and American liberals in the 18th and 19th centuries opposed slavery and supported female suffrage. Much contemporary liberalism, in contrast, backs "identity politics," which sees the fundamental entity as the group, not the individual, and embraces moral relativism, which dismisses the idea of universal truth as a mere charade by which an elite maintains its dominance. By the standards of contemporary liberalism, it is hard to criticize the oppression of women in the Muslim world, since relativism provides no standards by which to judge societies other than our own, and since the focus of identity politics is always on preserving the cultural integrity of other groups. Certainly, liberals should be aware of the history of European colonialism in the Middle East, which was defended on the grounds of inherent Western superiority. But such awareness shouldn't turn us into apologists for enslavement and persecution. Equality for women is not a cultural practice specific to Western democracies, but a universal good.

Bernard Lewis has argued that the subjugation of Islamic women is a key explanation for economic and political stagnation in the Arab world, since barring women from business and government deprives the Arab states of an enormous reserve of intellect and creativity. In fact, democratization and female liberation in the Middle East are entwined. No Western democracy is a paradise for women, including America. Nonetheless, liberal democracies treat women as individuals, not as property to be sold to the highest bidder, nor as a symbol of a nation's "purity." While it's true that women are treated at least comparatively better in non-Arab Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia (whose peoples practice a more moderate version of Islam), there is no Muslim country in which women do not suffer from second-class status.

Given the extent of female subjugation in the Muslim world, and how central the concept of "female purity" is to the very identity of these societies, Huntington may be right that an unbridgeable gulf divides the West from the Islamic world. If so, then neocon idealists in the Bush administration such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who are committed to democratizing the Middle East, should give up a quest doomed to fail, which will probably only destabilize further already fractured societies and inflame even more anti-American hatred. For what would it mean, exactly, to have a "democratic" Islamic country which continued to enslave women? Wouldn't that be a democracy in name only?

On the other hand, if present or future presidential administrations draw this gloomy but realistic conclusion, then American policies in the Middle East will return to what, in fact, they've always been in the past (whether or not our leaders have admitted so publicly)--that is, policies driven by pure pragmatism. In other words, America will continue to support despotic Arab regimes in the region so long as they are pro-Western, judging them to be the lesser evil to fundamentalist regimes or pan-Arabist dictatorships who see us as "The Great Satan." Sadly, such real politik may be the least bad alternative for now, unless (or until) popular, grassroots democracy movements--such as the one currently struggling in Iran--are able to seize power.

It seems I have reasoned myself into a corner. Neither alternative for U.S. Middle East policy I've discussed is good--not trying to democratize the region, which almost surely won't work and may make things worse, nor returning to support for despotic, but pro-Western Arab regimes which oppress women and minorities and their peoples as a whole. Is there a way out?


  1. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1996, 1997); see, especially, Section IV.[Back]

*Books discussed in this essay[Back]

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman
New York: WW Norton, 2003
214 pages, $21 hc.

Noam Chomsky
New York: Steven Stories Press, 2001
125 pages, $8.95 pb.

Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World
Jean Bethke Elshtain
New York: Basic Books, 2003
240 pages, $23 hc.

Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order
Robert Kagan
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
103 pages, $18 hc.

Ivory Towers in Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America
Martin Kramer
Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2002
137 pages, $19.95 pb.

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Bernard Lewis
New York: Random House, 2003
184 pages, $19.95 hc.

Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World
Kanan Makiya
New York: WW Norton, 1993
367 pages, $10.95 pb.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi
New York: Random House, 2003
347 pages, $23.95 hc.

Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order
John Newhouse
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
194 pages, $23 hc.

Why Do People Hate America?
Ziauddin Sardar & Merryl Wyn Davies
New York: The Disinformation Company, 2002
231 pages, $12.95 pb.

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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