The Missionary Position

Laila Lalami, aka Moorishgirl, has a long review essay in the Nation about Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women we've written about here before. It's the most intelligent review of their work I've seen so far, particularly as people tend to either dismiss them (as I tend to) or praise them as Courageous Reformist Arab Personalities (CRAP). The late unpleasantness over Hirsi Ali beyond stripped of her seat in parliament and Dutch citizenship was a rather pathetic affair I didn't feel like commenting on, but it did highlight the manipulative nature of at least some of these people. But that's beside the point. Lalami's critique goes to the heart of the problem:

Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about "our plight"--reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women's liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West's help in freeing themselves from their societies' retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that "the fatal obstacle" to the country's "attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization" was Islam's degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century, for now we have George W. Bush, leader of the free world, telling us, before invading Afghanistan in 2001, that he was doing it as much to free the country's women as to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Five years later, the Taliban is making a serious comeback, and the country's new Constitution prohibits any laws that are contrary to an austere interpretation of Sharia. Furthermore, among the twenty-odd reasons that were foisted on the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, of course, the subjugation of women; this, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi women were educated and active in nearly all sectors of a secular public life. Three years into the occupation, the only enlightened aspect of Saddam's despotic rule has been dismantled: Facing threats from a resurgent fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shiite, many women have been forced to quit their jobs and to cover because not to do so puts them in harm's way. Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone's guess.

This context--competing yet hypocritical sympathies for Muslim women--helps to explain the strong popularity, particularly in the post-September 11 era, of Muslim women activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji and the equally strong skepticism with which they are met within the broad Muslim community. These activists are passionate and no doubt sincere in their criticism of Islam. But are their claims unique and innovative, or are they mostly unremarkable? Are their conclusions borne out by empirical evidence, or do they fail to meet basic levels of scholarship? The casual reader would find it hard to answer these questions, because there is very little critical examination of their work. For the most part, the loudest responses have been either hagiographic profiles of these "brave" and "heroic" women, on the one hand, or absurd and completely abhorrent threats to the safety of these "apostates" and "enemies of God," on the other.
It's one of these long pieces that present a structured argument over multiple pages, so this excerpt won't do it justice. Read the whole thing.

And by the way Angry Arab once again proves that he's a complete curmudgeon by whining in his take on the piece. Was The Nation ever a radical magazine? Did it ever pretend to be one? But it does not mean it's not a good one, even if it's gauche caviar. (For that matter there are good right-wing magazines too. The bad magazines are the ones who pretend they're lefty but are actually rightly, like the New Republic.)
9 Comments

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.