Sunday, November 28, 2004

Islamism: it's not about women.
To a hammer, everything is about nails, and to a feminist (that is, a left-winger who's wearing his feminist hat), everything is about the oppression of women. And many people who aren't really feminists seem to have trouble talking about oppression unless it's the oppression of one of a small number of victim classes. Apparently it's just plain boring talking about the oppression of people.

The simple fact, however, is that Islamism is horrible because it involves the oppression of people, one aspect of this oppression being the imposition of extreme sexual roles on people. Are women oppressed more than men? It seems to me rather nasty to engage in such a victimology competition, but if one insists, then one should at least do the comparison seriously. I've never seen a serious comparison.

Such a comparison could be quantitative: for example, which sex has more of its members executed for "crimes" that we would never consider crimes? Or it could be anecdotal. We've seen tons of examples of ways in which women are oppressed by Islamism: they must cover themselves, they can't go to school, they can't drive, etc. Documentary after documentary talks about these things, to the exclusion of any mention of how Islamism specifically affects men. The anecdotes about men appear as individual news tidbits about individual instances. For example, we hear about a man having his nose cut off by the Taliban because he shaved his beard; we hear about Iranians lashing a boy to death because he fasted insufficiently.

I think that many of these feminist-based Islamist-bashers are well-intentioned, and I'm more than willing to give the benefit of the doubt to poor Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered for making a "controversial" documentary about the plight of women under Islamism. But this feminist point of view is not only morally suspect, it is also very dangerous because it completely denies the appeal that Islamism has for women.

And we see this appeal all the time. Of course the feminist documentaries don't show us female support for Islamism any more than they show us male opposition. But whenever we see mass demonstrations for the Taliban or for similar groups, the women are clearly there in great numbers. When the Iranians kidnapped American diplomats in the seventies, we were often treated on network news to scenes of Islamist women making strange bird calls in support of the Mullahs. In the CBC documentary about Abdurahman Khadr, his al-Qaeda mother and sister are interviewed extensively and it is clear they are absolute monsters. Female suicide bombing appears to be a growth industry.

The reason I'm writing this now is because of this article by Theodore Dalrymple that has gotten a lot of (positive) attention on anti-islamist web sites. The author states:
"This abuse [of women] is now essential for people of Muslim descent for maintaining any sense of separate cultural identity in the homogenizing solution of modern mass society. In fact, Islam is as vulnerable in Europe to the forces of secularization as Christianity has proved to be. ... Were it not for the abuse of women, Islam would go the way of the Church of England. ... [A] divide often opens between brothers and sisters in the same European Muslim family; the sisters want liberty, but the brothers enforce the old rules. ... This, I suspect, is the source of the rage against Theo Van Gogh."

I suspect Dalrymple is wrong. After all, it doesn't take much to "enrage" these people. Dalrymple gives no evidence at all for his assertions and certainly provides no statistics showing that sisters like Islam less than their brothers, or that their brothers only like Islam because it allows them to abuse women. He doesn't discuss all the other anecdotal evidence that many women really like Islam. He doesn't feel any need to refute this British program, Mum, I'm a Muslim that states:
"Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and women are thought to be the largest group among its converts."
He should also check out this other Channel 4 program which discusses the shock of a secular, sexual, young male Muslim upon finding out that his old drinking buddies have renounced their whoring ways for Islamism.

It is easy to explain the attraction in the U.S. to slavery: White people profited from it at the expense of Black people. I sympathize with Dalrymple's desire to see an explanation for Islamism that is just as simple, but I don't buy it. And ignoring the danger from Islamist women only increases our peril.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

In the wake of President Bush's re-election, American Democrats have been trying to understand where the Democratic party went wrong, and what it can do to set things right. (For example, Slate hosted a discussion among several writers, and The New Republic published a good, concise, summary of the popular theories.) Of course, some argue that given the fairly small margin of Bush's victory, the Democrats came close enough to winning that they could easily pull off a victory next time with only some minor tactical adjustments--perhaps a more charismatic candidate, a better-crafted message, or a more aggressive attack-ad campaign. Others point to issues, such as foreign policy or "moral values", on which the Democratic Party is allegedly too out-of-step with the electorate to win national elections, and therefore must change its positions to survive.

The problem with all these analyses is that they assume that both parties actually have clear, well-defined, opposing positions on each major issue, positions that in each case may or may not need adjusting to align them with the majority view. In fact, during this past campaign, the two major presidential candidates agreed--publicly, at least--on most everything. They both supported the ban on gay marriages. They each had a plan, of highly dubious plausibility, to cut the deficit in half. They both believed that the US should "finish the job" of stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq, and pursue a vigorous war on terrorism. Their main differences were over matters like the exact tax rate for high income-earners, the right way to discourage North Korea and Iran from continuing with their nuclear arms programs, how assiduously to court European countries diplomatically to get them involved in American foreign policy initiatives, and what position future Supreme Court justices should take on Roe v. Wade.

These are all important issues, to be sure, but they certainly weren't the foci of either campaign. No doubt that's because in all likelihood anybody who might have been swayed to one side or the other by a candidate's opinion on one of these issues already knew exactly which way they would vote. On issues that might shift moderate, independent voters, however, both sides had no choice but to choose the position that stood the best chance of attracting a majority of them. Hence they ended up agreeing on the majority of the most widely discussed issues.

The resulting consensus, in fact, provides a fairly accurate road map of the state of moderate, middle-of-the-road America--and a good snapshot of the prospects of both parties for making headway in the quest for a durable majority coalition. For example, on social issues, the country appears today to be against gay marriage (though generally tolerant of gays, as neither candidate dared express anything but respect for gays who choose to live openly as such); somewhere in between pro-life and pro-choice, though perhaps leaning mildly towards abortion rights; and very serious about religion and personal morality and integrity in general (though perhaps not so much in every specific). On economic policy, Americans are apparently relatively unconcerned about the deficit, and unwilling to consider large-scale tax increases to mitigate it. All of these positions are, I believe, embraceable by both parties, without severely alienating their respective bases. (A possible exception might be conservative Republicans' discomfort with the public's moderate stance on abortion and gay rights. But so far, it seems, they've been content to accept a party program based on combatting the most extreme opposing positions, rather than on resisting the pull of the middle.)

It's in the area of foreign policy, I think, where the most interesting conflict appears. For it's my impression that the Democratic base right now is not simply against aggressive unilateral military ventures, but is in fact to a large degree dovish to the point of being virtually pacifist or isolationist. The Howard Dean bubble during the Democratic primaries provides some evidence of this claim, as does the continuing strength within the party of such strongly antiwar groups as "".

What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats can reach the same kind of accommodation with the American mainstream's support for a military-backed activist foreign policy that core Republicans appear (so far, at least) to have reached with respect to the public's in-between stance on abortion, homosexuality, and other hot-button "moral issues". If so, then a future Kennedyesque candidate--hawkish internationally, dovish on the deficit, and moderate on social issues--stands a good chance of winning undecided voters, and thereby the presidency, in the not-too-distant future. (Kerry was a poor example of such a candidate, given his history as an antiwar activist and Cold War dove.)

On the other hand, if the base fails to reconcile itself conspicuously with American geopolitical aggressiveness, then the Democrats may be in for a period much like the seventies and eighties, when their near-pacifism in the face of the Cold War lost them the confidence of the American center, which responded by virtually shutting them out of the White House for nearly a quarter-century.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Law professor Peter Berkowitz has written an article for the University of Chicago student newspaper, complaining about the conduct of a local sociology professor during a panel discussion there in which they both participated. The panel, Berkowitz writes,
consisted of Professor [Saskia] Sassen, who spoke on behalf of transnationalism, or principles and forms of government that transcend the nation state; myself, discussing nationalism and how Israel could be both a liberal democracy and Jewish state; Professor Ann Bayefsky (to whom Professor Sassen sneeringly refers) of Columbia University Law School, who analyzed the double standard the U.N. has applied to Israel for decades; and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University geneticist, who sought to equate Zionism with Nazism, racism and apartheid.
According to Berkowitz, Sassen's reaction to this set of initial remarks was a vigorous condemnation of Bayefsky's and Berkowitz's defense of Israel, after which she stormed out of the session without waiting for a response. To Berkowitz,
by walking out on the panel midway through the event “after she had spoken for a second time but before she could be challenged” Professor Sassen showed that she held her own opinions to be beyond criticism and regarded her opponents’ opinions as unworthy of serious debate. Professor Sassen’s performance was more than unprofessional. It was rude to the organizers, to the audience, and to her fellow panelists.

Taking her conduct and comments together, one is led to conclude that Professor Sassen objects to sharing a stage with people who hold views that differ from hers; that she finds offensive the obligation to confront evidence ad arguments put forward on behalf of positions she dislikes; and that she has forgotten or is unaware that the kind of debate that educates is debate with people with who hold the opposite opinion.
I can understand Berkowitz being appalled at Sassen's behavior--but not at her walking out of a discussion where opinions are being expressed that she considers outrageous. In many cases, in fact, that's exactly the right thing to do--to refuse to lend to false or morally reprehensible assertions the dignity and respect of responding to them as if they were credible or legitimate. Indeed, I would have been sorely tempted to walk out on Prof. Qumsiyeh's calumnies against Israel myself, had I been there.

No, Professor Sassen's shame was not to have stood up for what she believed in, but rather to have believed in some truly awful things. Professor Bayefsky was absolutely correct in pointing out that the UN has, over the years, obsessively condemned Israel--and only Israel--for behavior that is a good deal more scrupulous than the norm for typical UN members. Meanwhile, if Berkowitz correctly characterized the claims of Professor Qumsiyeh, then for Sassen to side with him against Bayefsky was simply shameful.

But that is the level to which the international debate about Israel has fallen, these days: to savage the Jewish state in terms that, were they applied to any other nation on earth, would be instantly recognized as frighteningly hate-filled--even arguably racist--has become so normal in some circles that merely to point out this state of affairs is itself sometimes criticized as a breach of decorum.

Witness, for example, what happened when one of the blog "Crooked Timber's" collective of distinguished left-wing academics invited discussion on the topic of why discussions of Israel tend to get so heated. Despite the moderator's promise to "be especially ruthless in deleting comments that I think are unhelpful or that lay the blame all on one side in an overheated way", there followed, among other comments, repeated comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid, dark hints about "Israel’s enormous political influence in the US", and numerous ad hominem attacks against Israel, Israelis and their supporters--all left intact by the moderator. Eventually one commenter suggested that the problem might be that "most poster[s] are strongly anti-Israel, and they make many ad hominem attacks on supporters of Israel." Shortly thereafter, the moderator shut down the discussion, singling out this latter commentator's complaints as examples of the incivility he despaired of ever escaping.

It is pointless to engage in debate of this sort by standing on matters of civility. There are civil, effective ways to respond to offensive statements, but they do not involve criticizing the offender's lack of adherence to the conventions of public propriety. They involve asserting, frankly and unabashedly, that the statements in question are morally objectionable in the extreme, and explaining exactly why. If the offenders adopt the same position with respect to their opponents, then obviously no reasonable dialogue can take place, and it is pointless to criticize either side for refusing to continue to attempt one. Rather, it is up to outside parties to decide for themselves which side--if either--is in the right.

For decades following Israel's creation, it was commonplace for Arab representatives to refuse even to acknowledge the presence of Israeli representatives in public settings, so as not to imply that the latter had any legitimacy. At the time, it seemed like a huge propaganda victory for Israelis to be able to point out that they were open to dialogue at any time, but for the rudeness of their hypothetical Arab interlocutors. In retrospect, however, Arab intransigence had its own propaganda value, eventually convincing an astonishing number of people that their steadfast rejectionism was grounded in some kind of ideal of justice, when in fact it largely consisted of ethnic hostility tinged with cynical self-interest. It is long past time for supporters of Israel to stop boasting about their politely indulgent tolerance for their opponents' hatred, and start standing up for moral principle, not just formal civility, by denouncing attacks on Israel for what they are--vile calumnies, rather than mere breaches of etiquette.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Something interesting may well be happening in North Korea, where it's lately been reported that pictures of leader Kim Jong-Il have been removed from some public places. But the first line of this story--"Hardliners have tightened their political grip on North Korea"--doesn't exactly sound like earth-shattering news.

Then again, I guess, in Korean terms, that makes it a "man bites dog" story....

Saturday, November 13, 2004

This article looks pretty accurate. Then again, I expect it was very carefully fact-checked, to avoid a repeat of this famous episode.