The Real Meaning of Islamophobia

I don't usually say these sorts of things about Republicans, but good for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is defending his pick of a Muslim for a state judgeship, saying critics of a lawyer who represented suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are "ignorant" and "crazies".

..."This Shariah law business is crap," said Christie, 48. "It's just crazy and I'm tired of dealing with the crazies."

Gov. Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed, who represented Muslims swept up in indiscriminate FBI dragnets after 9/11, to a seat on the Superior Court of Passaic County. Many of Mohammed's clients were American citizens, and none of them were convicted or even charged with terrorism, but that naturally doesn't matter to the raving, insane Christianist right:

Some political columnists and bloggers have accused Mohammed of having links to terrorism and said he'll be more likely to follow Shariah law, religious standards based on the Koran, instead of state or federal statutes....

Mohammed was nominated by Christie in January. That month, Debbie Schlussel, a columnist for publications including the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, wrote: "Chris Christie rewarded those Muslim mobs who cheered on U.S. soil for the mass murder of 3,000 Americans with a judgeship."

I wanted to mention this because, especially in the aftermath of the horrifying rampage in Norway last month, "Islamophobia" is a word that too often gets applied to every critic of Islam. I want to make the difference clear - if there's such a thing as Islamophobia, this is it: treating all Muslims as collectively guilty of the 9/11 attacks or other crimes of terrorism, making no distinction between those who supported those acts and those who didn't. To right-wing crazies like Schlussel, Muslims are an undifferentiated mob who all think and believe exactly the same things and who are all equally evil (see also this article, with some equally demented quotes from other right-wingers). It shouldn't escape notice that this is exactly the same way the Jewish people were often caricatured by anti-Semites.

The atheist critique of Islam, however, should be better aimed than this clumsy and belligerent racism. (Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race, but let's not pretend that Sohail Mohammed's being a brown person - he's actually Indian - isn't a factor in this.) We can and should point out the the violent, disturbing or otherwise immoral verses in the Qur'an without thereby accusing every Muslim of complicity in those deeds, just as we can point out the huge number of atrocious and violent verses in the Bible without calling every Christian or Jew a supporter of genocide. And we can and should criticize the evils that have been committed in the name of Islam, not to imply that every Muslim is guilty of them - in fact, other Muslims are more often the victims of these crimes than Westerners - but to encourage people of good will to see the harm done by religion and take a stand against it.

As Sam Harris has said, all major religious texts are "engines of extremism": they all teach primitive, irrational and long-outdated moral standards, and they all condone acts of evil and bloodshed against those who are declared to be enemies of God. When people believe in these texts and take them literally, then we know the result: acid attacks, honor killings, forced veilings of women, mutilation and stoning as punishments, censorship of free speech, oppression of religious minorities, all of which are endemic in Islamic theocracies. The fact that some Western fundamentalists respond with crazed violence of their own doesn't mean that the original acts should escape condemnation. There's a difference between irrational, unjustified fear of all the 1.5 billion people in the world who practice a particular religion, and rational, justified fear of the subset of that larger group who use their faith as an excuse to commit violence and attempt to force medieval moral norms on all of us.

August 10, 2011, 5:45 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments
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Photo Sunday: Granada

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July 17, 2011, 7:53 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments
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Islamic Sexism and the Sense of Entitlement

Does this remind anyone of anything?

On Jan. 16, Warda was nearly raped. It happened in early afternoon, in the heart of central Cairo, in an elevator.

A man with short black hair entered, Warda recalled. "We didn't really look at each other; I was reading some messages on my phone," she said. The elevator, big enough for four people, stopped suddenly, and the lights went out. The electricity was cut, nothing unusual in some neighborhoods of Cairo. They called for the bawab - the caretaker - but no one answered.

"Then I felt the hand of the man in my pants. I asked him to stop, but he said I better shut up or he would take his knives out," she said, fighting back tears. He opened his pants and pressed himself against her for what felt like hours, she said. Luckily, the lights came back on. "He stopped and let go of me. I just didn't want to look into his face."

As I've written about before, for women in the Middle East, pervasive, aggressive sexual harassment is a fact of life. My esteemed co-author, Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy, wrote about her own encounter with it during a legal internship in Morocco:

I was shocked from the moment the plane landed at the reaction I elicited. I had never felt so sexualized and objectified. It was a suffocating and overwhelming deluge of incessant, aggressive, unwanted male attention. Taxi drivers tried to kidnap me. Soldiers harassed me. Strange men tried to lure me into their shops, their homes, their beds. I was baffled at the rudeness of these men who felt absolutely no compunction in trying to touch and grab me.

Another quote from the Times article:

Heba Habib, a law student from Cairo, said she "couldn't take it" anymore. "Every day, dirty comments, the grabbing when you ride on the bus."

Once, she said, a cab driver started recounting his sexual fantasies. "I was so ashamed and tried to overcome it by laughing," the 22-year-old said, flicking her long dark hair behind her left ear. "When I got out of the car and wanted to pay him, I saw that his pants were down and he had been masturbating."

She threw his fare on the seat and left. "You feel every day less and less like a human being."

The idea that women ought to be sexually available to any man who desires them is heavily entrenched in these societies. It's the end result of a longstanding cultural and religious tradition that treats them as objects rather than people. (A piece of fruit doesn't object to being eaten. Why should a woman object to being assaulted, groped or catcalled?) Even in Egypt, in the aftermath of a democratic revolution where women played a major leadership role, it's too much to expect that this will change overnight.

I mention this because the atheist blogosphere has spent the last few days blowing up over a prominent male atheist who asserted that Western feminists have nothing to complain about, that the most they have to put up with is creepy advances and undesired attention, versus the vicious sexism that women suffer in the Islamic world. Well, I've got news for anyone who thinks that: These aren't different problems; they're different manifestations of the same problem.

These are points on a spectrum, to be sure. It's perfectly clear that women in Morocco or Egypt, in general, are subjected to more and worse sexual harassment than women in America. But what I saw so often in the aftermath of that blowup is the attitude that a man is entitled to solicit a woman's attention wherever, whenever, and in whatever manner he chooses, and if that makes her feel annoyed or upset or harassed or afraid for her safety, too bad, because his desire to hit on her trumps any desire she has not to be hit on. And that's the same attitude that motivates street harassers in the Middle East and that underlies so many of the other injustices inflicted on women in that region.

The most common complaint I've heard from men in response to this is that they can't be "mind-readers", that they can never know in advance whether a woman would welcome their attention. Well, here's a novel suggestion: If you want to know what women like or don't like, ask them. In the aftermath of the elevator incident, many women explained in great detail just why that situation would have made them uncomfortable. And, in general, that pattern holds: if you want to know the best ways to approach women, go and ask some women! It won't make you telepathic, it's true, but I guarantee that what you learn will come in handy in social situations. I suspect that what some of these men really mean is not that they can't imagine how a woman would feel, but that they don't want to make the effort to learn.

I said that harassment of women in the Middle East and creepy, unwelcome advances on women in the West are manifestations of the same problem, the same sense of entitlement, and they have the same solution as well. Men need to stop taking the attitude that they should be able to do what they please as long as they don't actually assault or rape anyone. If you make advances on a woman and she feels harassed, you are in the wrong, and you need to stop, take a step back, and evaluate what you can do differently. Where sexism and harassment have the sanction of religion, this consciousness-raising is going to be a long and difficult process, but skeptics and rationalists don't have even that much excuse.

July 8, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink130 comments
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Photo Sunday: Córdoba

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June 26, 2011, 12:34 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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Photo Sunday: Toledo

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June 19, 2011, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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The Baffling Era of Religious Suicide-Massacres

By James A. Haught

Osama bin Laden achieved a remarkable feat: He mobilized the power of religion to spur devout young men to kill themselves in order to murder defenseless strangers. Grotesquely, the suicide-killers felt they were performing holy acts that would please God and assure them martyr rewards in paradise.

The annals of faith-based killing are long: human sacrifice, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, drowning of Anabaptists, jihads, pogroms against Jews, China's Taiping Rebellion, Mexico's Cristero War, and many modern ethnic conflicts fueled by "religious tribalism." A new phase was led by bin Laden, who orchestrated the 21st-century phenomenon of Islamic suicide-bombing. Mercifully, his personal chapter ended when Navy Seals stormed his Asian hideout on May 1.

The modern Islamic "cult of death" - the worst menace of current times - baffles most Westerners. Logical minds cannot comprehend why idealistic young men, and a few women, volunteer to sacrifice their lives to slaughter unsuspecting, unarmed folks. It makes no sense. Pundit Anthony Lewis wrote: "There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans." Columnist William Safire said the volunteers do it because their "normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer's self-martyrdom leading to an eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins." Columnist David Brooks wrote that the bizarre phenomenon is "about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness."

These fanatics lack normal empathy for fellow humans. While in foreign lands or amid dissimilar ethnic groups, they don't see surrounding families as affectionate mothers, fathers and children, but as "infidels" deserving death. If the suicide-killers ever acquire nuclear devices, the unthinkable will be upon humanity.

The raid that ended bin Laden culminated a three-decade saga of "blowback." Inadvertently, the Reagan-Bush White House in the 1980s unwittingly helped ignite the Muslim terror movement that now hurts America. Here's the record:

In the late 1970s, radical reformers seized power in Afghanistan and created a Western-style government that began educating girls. Horrified, Muslim extremists and armed tribes rebelled. One of the rebel leaders was warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extremist known for throwing acid on unveiled schoolgirls while he was in college.

Such mujahideen (holy warriors) were on the brink of toppling the new Afghan government when the Soviet Union sent its Red Army in 1979 to suppress the uprising. Globally, the Cold War was seething. To damage the Soviets, the Reagan administration secretly sent the CIA to arm, train and pay the rebel tribes to kill Russians. Hekmatyar's group got millions of U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, ardent young Muslims from many lands rushed to Afghanistan to join the "holy war." One was Osama bin Laden, 17th son of a rich Saudi contractor who had a dozen wives. A pious Wahhabi Muslim, bin Laden used his wealth to recruit and pay fighters.

The combined CIA-zealot resistance worked. The Russians were driven out and Afghanistan's modern government was crushed. Warlords like Hekmatyar took over, but soon fought among each other. Then an Islamic student group, the Taliban, seized control and created a cruel theocracy that stoned women to death and inflicted other extreme Puritanical strictures.

Covertly, bin Laden assembled numerous former Afghan volunteers into a shadowy international network, al-Qaida, dedicated to waging jihad (holy war) against the West. His suicidal operatives helped kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, blow up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and bomb the USS Cole in 2000.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa (sacred edict) calling on "every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can." He was indicted by U.S. authorities and put on international "most wanted" lists.

Then 19 al-Qaida suicide volunteers perpetrated the historic atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, when they hijacked airliners and crashed them into U.S. landmarks, killing 3,000 Americans. It was the most horrifying day in the memory of most U.S. residents.

The holy killers left behind a testament they had shared among themselves, saying they were doing it for God: "Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty," they assured each other, "and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, 'Come hither, friend of God.' They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing."

Idiocy. Infantilism. It's sickening to realize that 3,000 unsuspecting Americans died because of this adolescent male fantasy. To believe that God wants mass murder is lunacy. As famed British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote:

"The 19 men of 9/11 - having washed, perfumed themselves and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyr's paradise - believed they were performing the highest religious duty. By the lights of their religion, they were as good as it is possible to be. They were not poor, downtrodden, oppressed or psychotic; they were well-educated, sane and well-balanced, and, as they thought, supremely good. But they were religious, and that provided all the justification they needed to murder and destroy."

The mastermind of this crackpottery is dead in a hail of Navy Seals' gunfire. But the suicide-martyr phenomenon he fostered probably will continue impelling idealistic young men to sacrifice their lives in massacres.

Bin Laden wasn't the sole creator of the Islamic cult of death. His Egyptian partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pioneered it in the 1990s. Since then, many far-flung Muslim extremist groups adopted suicide-bombing - often using it on fellow Muslims of opposing sects, or against disapproved Islamic governments. Some researchers list as many as 17,000 Muslim terror attacks since the 9/11 horror, with a total body count beyond 60,000 victims. That's an average of five murder missions per day - so many that news media ignore smaller assaults. The phenomenon has a boundless supply of righteous-feeling volunteers eager to throw away their lives to kill for God and their faith.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: "For good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

(Haught is editor of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and is author of two books on religious violence: Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, and Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the '90s.)

May 31, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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Saudi Arabian Women Hit the Road

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolute monarchy in cooperation with the vicious and medieval Wahhabist clerics, has some of the most oppressive and primitive laws in the world when it comes to the rights of women. Saudi women are forbidden to appear in public without a face-covering veil and a full-body shroud; they're forbidden to travel, get an education or even leave their house without the permission of a male guardian; and they're forbidden to mingle with unrelated men in public or in private, an unsubtle form of gender apartheid. Beaches, parks, restaurants, businesses and homes all have physically separate entrances for men and women and sex-segregated areas within to comply with these laws.

In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about her childhood, part of which she spent in Saudi Arabia when her father was in exile from Somalia; one of the most searing passages was when she wrote about how, at night, she could hear the screams of women in neighboring houses who were being beaten by their husbands. And then there's the infamous 2002 incident where the Saudi religious police, the mutaween, forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because they weren't properly dressed and veiled to appear in public.

But out of all these laws, the one that seems most pointless, even by Saudi Arabia's own sharia-based standard, is the one that forbids women from driving. That's why I was encouraged to hear that a few brave women are planning to defy it:

Manal and 10 other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver's licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn't a protest, she said.

"I'm doing it because I'm frustrated, angry and mad," Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. "It's 2011 and we're still discussing this insignificant right for women."

...The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he's joined the effort because "these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government."

"They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned," al-Yacoub said.

I'd hoped that the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East would have spread to Saudi Arabia next, but so far, that hasn't happened. This is trivial in comparison, but in a country as oppressive and benighted as this, even a tiny glimmer of resistance is an achievement worth noticing. The protest itself probably won't accomplish anything, but far more important is the recognition among Saudi women that they're being denied freedoms that are theirs by right. That's a spark that's ignited revolutions in other countries, and if it lands on dry tinder, it can happen again - and when it comes to human rights, what place is drier than Saudi Arabia?

The reporter who wrote this article felt the need to contact one of Saudi Arabia's human-hating theocratic clerics for comment, who obliged by describing the evils that will happen if this protest succeeds:

The plan is "against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law," al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes "more harm than good" to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren't related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.

"Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will," al-Nujaimi said.

The Wahhabist complaint boils down to this: "If women demand that we stop oppressing them, we may have to stop oppressing them!" It should be no surprise that this is the best reasoning they can come up with to justify centuries of religious bigotry and misogyny.

On a related note, here's an e-mail I'm still thinking about:

Hello, my name is [omitted] and I am a Internet marketing professional. I had done a Google search under the keyword burqa store and had run across your website www.daylightatheism.org. I see that you are not listed on the first page of Google for your particular search.

...I didn't send this email out to very many people but I do favor your website because I can see your website monetizing the targeted website traffic for the keyword burqa store can deliver.

I have to admit, I'd never have imagined that the target demographic for burqa buyers has such a large overlap with the readership of Daylight Atheism. I guess that's why we have Internet marketing professionals!

May 16, 2011, 12:42 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments
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Marching for Oppression

Over the past few months, we've seen amazing and inspiring demonstrations of people power erupting across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships that have been in place for decades. It's far too soon to say what form of government will emerge from these movements - whether they'll give rise to true democracies, or whether new dictatorships will replace the old - and the unwelcome news that Egypt's transitional military government has just sentenced a blogger to prison shows that it will take far more than toppling one dictator to break the old, entrenched habits of oppression and illiberalism. But whatever the future holds, the success of the protests has shown, at least for one shining moment, what free human beings can achieve when they cooperate to defy tyranny.

But there's a dark side to people power as well. America's founders knew that rule by a mob is no better than rule by a dictator, which is why they built so many counter-majoritarian safeguards into the Constitution. Democracy is an essential ingredient in a free society, but it's no panacea, especially when the majority of people are openly prejudiced toward minorities. This past week, we saw this vividly in Bangladesh:

Dozens of people have been injured as Bangladesh police battled Islamists protesting against new government policies aimed at giving women equal inheritance rights.

The violence came as the hardline Islami Oikyo Jote, a coalition of Islamic groups, enforced a nationwide general strike on Monday, demanding the government institute Islamic law and scrap policies aimed at giving women greater rights to property, employment and education.

Although Bangladesh's population is about 90% Muslim, its laws are relatively secular by the standards of the region. Its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman, and it's invested heavily in education and job training for women, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky [p.238], which has created a stronger civil society and a thriving export industry, part of the reason it's far more stable than nearby Pakistan.

However, for Bangladesh's overwhelming Muslim majority, laws relating to marriage, family and inheritance are based on the principles of sharia. Among other things, these laws mandate that daughters inherit only half the share given to sons. Sheikh Hasina's government has proposed changing this to give women an equal share, which enraged the Islamic political parties who turned out to demand that sexism remain enshrined in the country's family law. A main highway in Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, was blockaded by the strike until riot police dispersed it, and schools and businesses throughout the country remain closed.

This is what Islamist political movements stand for, this is how they want the world to see them: the spectacle of people marching not to end oppression, but to perpetuate oppression - not to demand that justice be done, but to demand that injustice continue to be done. The contrast is stark, especially when compared to the determined displays of national pride and secular unity in the popular uprisings that have toppled dictators. People joining together regardless of their beliefs are usually demanding something beneficial, some shared notion of rights; people marching together who are all of one belief, especially when that belief is in the majority, ought to be immediately suspect.

This ought to be a lesson to us about the terrible importance of secularism, for all human beings in general but for women in particular. Around the world, there are religious groups - not just Muslims - to whom modernity is meaningless, who would gladly drag us all back to medieval mores if given the chance. As societies become more prosperous, their influence tends to wane, but Bangladesh is still far from that point. The government needs to press on with their plans to give full and equal rights to all human beings, because only in this way can they leave the past behind and create a stable and secure society where the voices of religious extremism will no longer be a threat.

April 13, 2011, 6:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments
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On Qur'an Burning, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote briefly about an obscure Florida pastor who had the idea of burning a Qur'an. At the time he backed off under intense pressure, but later changed his mind and went through with it. This would have gone nowhere, except that some Islamic mullahs in Afghanistan (aided by Hamid Karzai, who cynically fanned the flames), incited their worshippers to frenzy. The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound, brutally killing a dozen U.N. employees. Protests and riots are still ongoing, and more people have been killed.

I deplore this violence, as any civilized person would. But I don't believe that, just because bad things happened, there must have been a way to prevent them. Unfortunately, it seems that in this I part company with two U.S. senators who hinted that they were looking for a way to punish the book-burner ("Free speech is a great idea, but...") Even more appallingly, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was quoted as follows:

"I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news - the one who burned the Quran," he said.

Reading sentiments like this, I feel like Greta Christina must have done when writing about Fred Phelps: I hate having to write this post. I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban's. I hate having to give more attention to someone who obviously has an unhealthy craving for it (which is why, you'll notice, I'm not naming him in this post).

But First Amendment test cases rarely come about because of popular or nice people. If we don't have the freedom to utter speech that annoys, upsets, even infuriates other people, then we don't have free speech. The freedom to express only opinions that don't make anyone upset isn't worth defending.

I'll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen. But however malicious his motives, his act was a nonviolent expression of opinion. He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn't control how they would react. They could have marched in peaceful protest, as so many others throughout the Middle East have done, and put him to shame by claiming the moral high ground.

Instead, some of them exploded in unreasoning savagery, choosing to murder innocent people for the act of a deluded nobody half a world away. No destruction of ink and paper, regardless of how petty the motive, can ever justify or excuse the taking of human lives. Put the blame where it belongs! - on the mob that committed those murders, and on the insane religious beliefs that motivated them. These fanatics believe that human individuals, every one of them unique and irreplaceable, are less valuable than one particular copy of a mass-produced book. Isn't that belief more deserving of condemnation than anything an attention-seeking ignoramus has done?

Even if you grant that the Qur'an burning was deplorable and should be punished, what principle could we invoke to justify it that wouldn't also sweep up a vast number of other speech acts? What rule could we make that wouldn't be open to endless abuse? Consider some parallel cases:

There will always be thugs who want to impose their beliefs by force, and who will lash out at the slightest provocation. But we as a society can't limit permissible speech to only those messages guaranteed not to offend them. That principle incentivizes violent irrationality. It says that, if you want your doctrine or your ideas to be shielded from criticism, all you have to do is threaten to get violent, and then the machinery of the state will swing into action to protect you from other people's disagreement. This is the very definition of a perverse incentive, and it's exactly what the thugs want. All the more reason not to give into them - neither by censoring our own speech, nor by letting the state censor the speech of others. If we shelter violent insanity from criticism, the advocates of those beliefs will only become more emboldened and aggressive.

April 6, 2011, 6:07 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments
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What Comes Next For the Middle East?

The last few weeks in the Middle East have been a story of extraordinary courage and heroism. With dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia lying in ruins and the democratic revolt now spreading to Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, it's not too early to start thinking about what will come next.

The omnipresent fear in Western media is that the newly free countries will be taken over by an Islamist majority. This isn't an unreasonable concern (although it hardly justifies the West's decades of supporting brutal, repressive dictators just because they weren't theocrats). However, I think that at least in these two countries, there's reason for optimism.

As this article points out, and as I've observed previously, one of the newest and most surprising things about the protests was the huge and crucial role played by women. Tunisia, in particular, had a strong tradition of women's rights - its female citizens were among the first of any Arab country to gain the vote - and high rates of female education and literacy. The ex-dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali gambled that this liberality would keep people pacified, but it had the opposite effect: the educated populace was more able to see his corruption for what it was and less willing to tolerate it, and women joined the marches in vast numbers. Tunisia's women played such a crucial role in the revolution that even the country's formerly exiled Islamists feel compelled to recognize their leadership:

Crowds of women in traditional Islamic dress welcomed the long-exiled leader of Tunisia's Ennahda movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, upon his return to the country Jan. 30.

But, as Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent Tunisian human rights lawyer points out, unlike the Taliban in 1996 or Iran's mullahs in 1979, Mr. Ghannouchi has felt compelled to repeatedly and publicly pledge to safeguard women's rights in recent weeks.

"It may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now," Ms. Nasraoui said.

Then there's Egypt. On the surface, there's less reason for optimism here. Before the revolution, aggressive sexual harassment of Egyptian women was routine and omnipresent, as dramatized by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab in his film 678. The savage sexual assault on Lara Logan in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall (whether by regime supporters or opponents will probably never be known) was a highly visible example of the brutality too often tolerated in Egyptian society.

But here, too, there are some green sprouts. Chief among these was the way that women fearlessly joined the crowds in Tahrir Square (and also see my earlier post):

Fatma Emam's mother accused her of wanting to be a man and threatened to disown her if the 28-year-old joined the protests in Tahrir Square. She went anyway.

"There are so many women who like me defied their families," Emam said after spending five days and four nights in downtown Cairo. "The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch."

...The 25-year-old who helped spark the demonstrations with an online video, Asmaa Mahfouz, said her father refused to allow her to stay in the plaza after dark. "No girl of mine spends the night away from home," Mahfouz said he told her.

In the video, Mahfouz said: "I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square. Come down with us and demand your rights."

I know better than to believe that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda have completely given up their theocratic aims, whatever they say in public. But it also seems clear that they're biding their time, not wanting to move openly unless they believe they have a good chance of success - and if the Middle East's young secular revolutionaries remain vigilant, the theocrats may never get that chance. Now that Egypt's women have tasted real freedom, we can hope, they won't be quieted - they know perfectly well what they'd stand to lose from the imposition of sharia, and they have the confidence that comes of having toppled one dictatorship already.

This is why groups like the Taliban are so fanatically opposed to schools for girls. The way to keep people under your thumb is to keep them poor, isolated and ignorant - because only then can they be persuaded to believe that no change is ever possible. The more educated a nation's people are, the more they can look beyond their own circumstances to the wider world and imagine how things could be different. This is true for both men and women, but since patriarchal religions put special emphasis on controlling women's lives, women's education is particularly deadly to them. That's a lesson to keep in mind as these nations begin to rebuild themselves.

February 28, 2011, 1:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments
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