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The Missionary Position | The Nation

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The Missionary Position

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These days, being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the "burden of pity." The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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Radical Islamist parties claim that the family is the cornerstone of society and that women, by virtue of their reproductive powers, are its builders. An overhaul of society must therefore begin with reforming the status of women, and in particular with distinguishing clearly their roles from those of men. Guided by their "true" interpretations of the faith, these radicals want women to resume their traditional roles of nurturers and men to be empowered to lead the family. If we protect women's rights in Islam, they assure us, the umma, the community of believers, will be lifted from its general state of poverty and backwardness.

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the Egyptian writer and activist who has exerted such a powerful influence over the radical Islamist movement, fervently believed that Muslim women belonged in the home. In his 1964 book Ma'alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), Qutb wrote that "if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children" and, whether on her own or by pressure from society, seeks to work in jobs such as "a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company," she will be "using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings." This, he claimed, would make the entire civilization "backward." The misogynistic philosophy has proved enticing, finding advocates among Muslims throughout the world. Between 1989 and 1991, for instance, Abbassi Madani, the red-bearded founder of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front Party (FIS), often referred to women who refused to cover themselves with a hijab as "sparrow hawks of neocolonialism." His co-founder, Ali Belhadj, claimed that there was a simple solution to the country's high unemployment rate: turn over the jobs of working women to idle men. Madani summarized his program: "The system is sick; the doctor is FIS; and the medicine has existed for fourteen centuries. It is Islam." Reducing Algerian women to birds of prey, and their faith to a pill: These are good indicators of the depth of intellect within the leadership of the FIS.

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.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a prominent critic of the Siyad Barre regime, and the family had to flee the country, first to Saudi Arabia and then to Ethiopia and Kenya. When Hirsi Ali was 22, her father arranged a marriage for her with a distant relation. On a layover in Germany en route to Canada, where the man lived, Hirsi Ali escaped to the Netherlands, where she applied for and received asylum. She worked as an interpreter for Somali refugees and studied political science at the University of Leiden. Hirsi Ali first came into the public eye in 2002, with the publication of De Zoontjesfabriek (The Son Factory), whose vehement criticisms of Islam made her the subject of death threats. She joined a think tank affiliated with the social-democratic Labor Party but a year later switched membership to the right-wing VVD Party, which had invited her to run for a seat in Parliament. She won, and became a member of Parliament in January 2003. Hirsi Ali explained her shifting allegiance by saying that the VVD granted her greater ability to advocate for the rights of Muslim women. Then in 2004, she wrote the script to the short film Submission, which was directed by Theo van Gogh, a man who was known for his virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. That fall, van Gogh was slaughtered in Amsterdam, in broad daylight, by a Dutch man named Mohammed Bouyeri, whose parents had emigrated from Morocco. A letter left on van Gogh's body made it clear that Hirsi Ali was the next target. She immediately went into hiding and has needed heavy protection ever since. A few years ago, Hirsi Ali admitted to lying on her asylum application, but a Dutch TV documentary challenged her on other details of her life, including whether or not she was forced into marriage. The revelations sparked a row that culminated when Rita Verdonk, the Minister of Integration and a member of Hirsi Ali's own party, informed her that she could no longer consider herself a Dutch citizen. Although there has been no specific move to strip her of citizenship, Hirsi Ali has already announced that she is resigning from Parliament and moving to the United States, where she will take up a position at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.

Irshad Manji was born near Kampala, Uganda, into a Pakistani family. When the country's dictator, Idi Amin Dada, announced that the national economy was to be placed in the hands of black people, he forced the large and thriving South Asian minority out of the country. In 1972, when Manji was 4 years old, her family fled to Canada and settled there. She grew up in Vancouver, where she went to public school. In her free time, she attended Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, and later a conservative Islamic madrassa, from which she was expelled for asking too many pointed questions. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in intellectual history, and later worked as a speechwriter and broadcaster. Manji rose to prominence in 2004, when her controversial book The Trouble With Islam was published. She received death threats and lived under police protection for some time before deciding to forgo the bodyguards. "[If] I'm going to have legitimacy conveying to Muslims that we can dissent with the establishment and live, I can't have a big, burly fellow looking over my shoulder. I must lead by example," she wrote. She is currently a visiting fellow with the International Security Studies Program at Yale University.

There are some striking parallels between the experiences of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. They were both born, only a year apart, in East Africa--Hirsi Ali in 1969, and Manji in 1968. Both were forced by politically repressive regimes into exile from their homelands at an early age. Both can trace their "emancipation" to a single, significant, life-changing event. Both credit the West for giving them not just freedom of speech but the very ability to think for themselves. Hirsi Ali states that she is "the living proof" that Western culture enabled her to come fully into her own, while Manji declares, "I owe the West my willingness to help reform Islam." Both women express an unabashed disdain for multiculturalism, which they accuse of fostering a climate of political correctness that prevents dialogue and useful criticism. Both supported the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the "war on terror." Finally, both women have recently published books in the United States. For Manji, it is The Trouble With Islam Today, a slightly expanded edition of her 2004 bestseller. (Manji explains in an afterword why the temporal specification was added to the title.) For Hirsi Ali it is The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.

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