I couldn’t get in to hear David Horowitz give the big, climactic speech for Islamofascism Awareness Week at Columbia. Like an idiot, I had assumed it was a normal public event and I could just walk in; but the nice Young Republican checking IDs at the credentials table told me that all attendees, including journalists, were supposed to have signed up online three days earlier. At that point a real reporter would have figured out how to sneak in, but I slouched meekly away. So I’m relying on the International Herald Tribune when I report that a grand total of 100 people were on hand to hear Horowitz speak. According to the Columbia Spectator, in that speech he claimed that “nooses have been put figuratively on the doors of the College Republicans,” that the Week was held in defense of moderate Muslims, that the Iraq War was Jimmy Carter’s fault and that the Columbia University women’s studies department does not deal with the oppression of women in Muslim countries. Add his audience to the eighty people who, according to my Nation colleague Esther Kaplan, showed up two days earlier to hear Ibn Warraq, Christina Hoff Sommers and Phyllis Chesler (best Chesler snippet from Esther’s tape: If the jihadists win, we’ll become veiled “sex slaves”), and it’s obvious that we should all take public-relations lessons from Horowitz. Once again, through his patented combination of egomania and chutzpah, he managed to get the media all riled up about something few on campus bothered to show up for.
I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the term “Islamofascism” (which, contrary to Horowitz’s assertion, was not invented by Algerians in the 1990s to describe the fundamentalist mass murderers in that country; it was used previously by historian Malise Ruthven in 1990 to describe the authoritarian governments of the Muslim world). It’s a highly emotional propaganda term intended to conflate a variety of groups, from Baathists to Hamas to Al Qaeda to the Taliban, into one big murderball and to move us to war–yesterday Iraq, tomorrow Iran–by evoking the clash of civilizations, religious apocalypse, implacable enemies, the folly of compromise and Hitler. Everyone with a more complicated, or less alarming, picture than Us versus Them becomes an appeaser, a sympathizer, a dupe or a fool. The point is to get people so scared and outraged they won’t ask questions like, Is a Columbia student in a headscarf so different from a Columbia student in a yarmulke? And how likely is it that women’s studies professors think female genital mutilation is great and honor killing is “just their culture”?
“The Islamofascist Awareness people aren’t interested in what’s actually going on in the Muslim world,” Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod told me by phone. “They just use the woman question as an easy way to target Muslims.” Abu-Lughod reminded me, for example, that genital mutilation is basically a regional African custom that has acquired religious overtones–most Muslim societies don’t practice it, and many non-Muslims do. She also pointed out that this semester, contrary to Horowitz’s claims, women’s studies is offering or cross-listing no fewer than three courses about women in the Muslim world, none of which paints a rosy picture.
The oppression of women in the Muslim world is a major theme among the Islamofascistly aware. And here the story gets a bit tricky. An awful lot of those associated with the Week are antifeminist conservatives–I mean, come on–Rick Santorum? Ann Coulter? Sean Hannity? These are people who’ve made careers out of attacking the mildest updates on American women’s roles, whether it’s working mothers, birth control or even, in the case of Coulter, the right to vote! In the zillions of words for which Horowitz is responsible–as writer, activist, speechifier and editor of Frontpagemag.com–there is virtually no evidence of concern for the rights, liberties, opportunities or well-being of any women on earth, except for Muslims. Leaving aside the industrialized West for a moment, it’s not as if life is a picnic for women in China, India, Africa, Latin America. Why no interest in them?
Let’s say the focus on Muslim women is entirely cynical–a clever quadruple play to simultaneously promote Euro-American cultural chauvinism, defuse antiwar sentiment, attack Middle Eastern studies departments as hotbeds of jihad and discredit American feminists as a bunch of princessy complainers. (Domestic violence? job discrimination? abortion restrictions? Honey, you’re lucky someone’s not stuffing you into a burqa!) There could still be that little bit of truth. Take, for example, the only Muslim woman who is, so far as I know, associated with Islamofascism Awareness Week–Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the world-famous Somali-born Dutch Muslim feminist, former parliamentarian, author of The Caged Virgin and Infidel and now American Enterprise Institute fellow. Hirsi Ali gets bad press on the left–The Nation has published two long, negative pieces about her: an indignant review of The Caged Virgin by the very good fiction writer Laila Lalami, who accused her of promoting patronizing views of Muslim women as passive and helpless, and a snide piece by Deborah Scroggins portraying her as a grandstanding diva who only made life more difficult for Muslim women in the Netherlands. This is a woman who has been the target of multiple death threats from Muslim fanatics like the one who murdered her colleague, filmmaker Theo van Gogh; who is frankly secular, in fact an atheist; who was herself genitally mutilated at the age of 5, and as a legislator did, in fact, seek to cut through the “benign neglect” of Dutch Muslim women’s rights that prevailed in multicultural Holland. I’m as dismayed as anyone by Hirsi Ali’s rightward trajectory, but I admire her all the same. Maybe we leftists and feminists need to think a bit more self-critically about how the AEI–to say nothing of the clownish Horowitz–managed to win over this bold and complex crusader for women’s rights.
To be continued…