Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Progressives and Islamophia

When rightwing Republicans created a controversy over the Park 51 community center in New York - the Ground Zero Mosque as the FOXists preferred to call it - it was clear that Islamophia had worked its way higher in the Republicans' arsenal of ways to induce mass fear and hatred. So I've been paying more attention to it since then.

As several news organizations have been reporting lately, such controversies are occurring in Europe, as well. On a recent visit to Austria, my wife and I were both struck by the number of people we heard repeating the most dubious claims about Muslims in Austria. We were especially disturbed at speaking to an attorney that we've known for years, who insisted on telling us about the impending takeover of Austria by Muslims and the imposition of sharia law (Islamic religious law).

The essential argument was no different from that we hear from American Islamophobes. He claimed that German courts were making rulings based on sharia. He pretended not to notice when I told him that I found that impossible to believe because German like (as in all EU countries) is secular. When I asked him for an example of a case in which this occurred, he couldn't cite anything, not a name, not a place, not a date. (And this guy is an attorney!) Nor did he seem to know anything at all about sharia other than that it was Muslim and scary and evil.

He claimed that second and generation Turks in Austria (Turks are the largest Islamic minority in Austria) harbored secret plans to overthrow the existing constitution and impose sharia. But he couldn't name any actual Turks or Turkish groups in Austria advocating such a thing. Nor could he name a single member of Parliament proposing replacing the Austrian secular law with sharia. If not one single member of Parliament is favoring such an idea, it's pretty obvious a threat so distant as to be downright delusional. If they had an Austrian version of FOX News, I'm sure it would find some Muslim kook living in Austria who advocates all sorts of hair-raising things.

He didn't seem to know that Turkey itself doesn't operate under sharia, in fact has been under strict secular law since Attaturk's rule in the 1920s. I can tell the difference in a conversation like this between someone who's prejudiced, someone who's well-meaning but poorly informed, and outright fanatics. This guy was clearly operating on fanaticism. And when you try to engage a fanatic on what he's actually saying, you get some strange conversation. He told a story about some lawyer he knows who left Iran after the 1979 Revolution who told him about how the Muslim theocrats imposed their rule, something that's hardly a secret one needs to learn by whispers from an Iranian acquaintance. And he said, "They want to do the same thing here." I asked him, "Are you saying that Persians are trying to take over Austria?" "No!" he said, "The Muslims!"

One of the things that's somewhat problematic for liberals/progressives to deal with when faced with Islamophobia. On the one hand, it's bigotry that rightwingers are using to promote fear and hatred, and to validate notions like waging an illegal, aggressive war against Iran. It's pretty clear in the actual American political context, where many Republicans are now convinced - speaking of fanaticism - that President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim revolutionary, in that context anti-Muslim hate-mongering is also a surrogate for good old all-American white racism, too. So it's not something that Democrats (of the capital-D or small-d variety) can ignore.

But, of course, there are real criticisms that Westerners have about some social practices in Muslim countries and communities that come in conflict with Western moral assumption and sometimes the law. Many of those have to do with women's rights and women's status. In public appearance, conservative Republican Christianists, many of whom also hold some troubling ideas and attitudes on women's rights, like to forefront the alleged evils of the "sharia" bogeyman in their anti-Muslim hate propaganda. That was a prominent feature of the impressive report Christiane Amanpour made this past weekend on ABC's This Week, 10/03/2010, in which the anti-Muslim polemicists made just that charge.

But there are legitimate criticisms to be made of real existing Islamic practices on that score, all of which are being made by Muslims themselves.

Michelle Goldberg, whose excellent Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006) is one of the best journalistic treatments of the Christian Right in recent years, addresses this dilemma of American progressives confronting Islamophobia in The Un-Reluctant Fundamentalist Democracy Journal Fall 2010. It is a review of the book Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations (2010) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali,former member of the Dutch Parliament who now lives in the United States and works for the conservative thinktank, the American Enterprise Insitute (AEI), which is also known as Neocon Central.

For the right-wing think tank, landing such a brilliant, cosmopolitan heroine was a coup. The American right often alleges that liberals, full of mushy-headed cultural relativism, can’t even bestir themselves to defend their own values against reactionary Islam. The liberal intellectual establishment’s rejection of Hirsi Ali appeared, at least on the surface, to bear this out.

That’s certainly what Paul Berman argues in his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. "A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist," he writes of Hirsi Ali, asserting that the left’s failure to rally around her is evidence of deep intellectual corruption. Pointing to her liberal critics, particularly the writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, he says, "The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented–at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press."
Here's how Michelle addresses that charge:

But there is a problem with this perspective. Hirsi Ali is, in many ways, immensely admirable. But she can also be reactionary, glib, and sloppy, and judging by Nomad–a painfully disappointing book–these tendencies have gotten worse since she joined AEI. Nomad brims with attacks on unrecognizable straw feminists, bizarre statements about the United States, and, strangest of all, a tendency to romanticize religions outside of Islam. Hirsi Ali remains, she says, an atheist, but she’s developed an odd admiration for the Catholic Church, which, she suggests, should try to civilize Muslims through conversion. There is in Nomad a new concern for private property and a shout-out to gun rights. She ladles praise on her AEI colleague Charles Murray, author, most famously, of The Bell Curve, which purported to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of black people.

Hirsi Ali attacks Islam in the name of liberalism, but she’s more than willing to jettison her liberalism for the sake of her anti-Islamism. Perhaps if she had found a home on the left, Hirsi Ali’s thinking would have developed in a different direction. One could blame liberals or feminists or mainstream intellectuals for letting her down, for driving her into the arms of the neoconservatives. But to do so is to condescend to a woman who has always taken responsibility for forging her own path. [my emphasis]
No one is constrained to think in simple-minded terms. Progressives can sympathize with the situation of a woman like Hersi Ali who fled her country after death threats from Islamic extremists but recognize it if she, as Michelle puts it, is "reactionary, glib, and sloppy" or "shows contempt for fundamental American values of freedom of speech and freedom of religion". Her claims have to be judged on their merits. She may reject Islam. But it sounds as though her attitudes about the so-called traditional family and her hostility to feminism are very similar to those of the Christian Right.

On Hirsi Ali's criticisms of Western feminism, Michelle writes:

To be blunt, Hirsi Ali has no idea what she’s talking about. Western feminists have consistently stood up for women’s rights in developing countries–including Muslim countries–inspiring endless polemics by both Christian and Muslim conservatives blasting “feminist colonialism.” Long before September 11, the Feminist Majority Foundation was a lonely American voice against the Taliban’s sexual apartheid, and today, the New York-based feminist group Women for Afghan Women runs domestic violence shelters in Afghanistan. The American feminist movement lobbies, fiercely and consistently, for family planning programs in poor countries, including Muslim countries. American feminists–including Muslim feminists–have set up domestic violence shelters that serve women trapped in violent homes in insular religious communities. American feminists have also played a crucial role in the global campaign against female genital mutilation, both by getting the U.S. government to exert its influence on countries reliant on American aid, and by supporting women working in Africa to end the practice.
In other words, liberals and anyone else concerned to counter crass hate-mongering against Muslims can reject falsehoods and demagoguery without becoming apologists for every aspect of every Muslim culture. Nor does it means soft-pedaling legitimate criticism of Muslim practices or Islamic religious beliefs. Nobody is compelled to be willfully stupid about the issues involved, in other words. And no one should be under any illusion that Republican Islamophobia is anything but poisonous to democracy.

As far as the Christian religion, promoting mindless hate is also inconsistent with honest Christian values. Christian leaders like Franklin Graham shouldn't be surprised or whine about feeling rejected if the value of their Christian teachings are judged in part by their deliberate and dishonest promotion of hatred.

Michelle reminds of something else that we should keep in mind when we hear Republican Christianists criticising real or imagined discrimination against women by Muslims:

American conservatives, meanwhile, have consistently attacked programs that help to liberate women in the developing world. They’ve slashed funding for reproductive health clinics abroad, and have put pressure on foreign governments to maintain restrictive anti-abortion laws. They’ve fought efforts to expand women’s rights in international law, helping to ensure that the United States remains one of the few countries that have refused to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women–putting it in the company of Iran, Sudan, and Somalia. In 2007, the evangelical activist Janice Crouse, a Bush delegate to a 2002 United Nations summit on children, attacked the Convention in explicitly relativist terms: "It is like the old colonialism. . . . [H]ere you have the UN taking up the same kinds of principles and saying to countries you have to do things my way. You have to do things in the way of Western nations."

Indeed, when it comes to women’s rights, American conservatives often ally themselves with the very governments Hirsi Ali decries. As Colum Lynch reported in The Washington Post in 2002, "Conservative U.S. Christian organizations have joined forces with Islamic governments to halt the expansion of sexual and political protections and rights for gays, women and children at United Nations conferences." He quoted a U.S. official saying, "We have tried to point out there are some areas of agreement between [us] and a lot of Islamic countries on these social issues."
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