Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Billion Moslems Don’t Care What We Want

The world needs there to be an Islamic Enlightenment in the Middle East and beyond. It needs an appreciation and passion for equality and personal liberty to take root among Moslems. It also needs for that to happen among Christians and others in the West, never more so than as the Bush era Unlightenment threatens to snuff out the small flames of reason here. Enlightenment is too good to be restricted to any particular group. For reasons given below, I doubt the necessary Islamic Enlightenment can come to enough people until the West rediscovers and realizes aspirations for justice and reason, both essential prerequisites for freedom. But this post is about some of the practical consequences for western leftists of this new dark age we live in.

Eteraz and Echidne’s posts this week calling for action to try to prevent the stoning deaths of women in Iran are about the best things I’ve seen on the web in months. Information and exchanging ideas is well and good, but action trying to change reality for the better is certainly the best use of the web. Reality, what actually happens, is superior to any abstract consideration. Who can say if it will work? The only thing that is certain is that not writing those letters to Iranian officials means that you haven’t tried to prevent these deaths and others to come. That attempt has to be made, it is an act of amorality to not try.

But our case would be a lot stronger if the United States hadn’t done so much to destroy any hopes for political and social progress in Islamic countries. When Norman Schwarzkopf ’s father instigated the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh for British and American oil interests, he and those giving him orders probably insured that eventually there would be today’s Islamic government in Iran. The suppression of any democratic opposition to the Shah insured that another force, religion, which it was impossible to entirely suppress or coopt, would become the dominant opposition. That is what happened.

All corrupt governments eventually fall, all oligarchic systems eventually rot out and get kicked in by something else. In Iran that something else was conservative Islam. The desperate and inadequate attempts during and after the Shah’s fall to support a democratic opposition were too little and far too late. Support by the United States or Britain at that point would have only made the democrats’ position worse. Remember the taunts that America was “the great Satan”.* In that climate Iranian democrats in league with the United States might be seen as having made a pact with the devil. American and Britain certainly hadn’t been little angels in that country.

What does it mean for western leftists that our governments seem to have done just about everything they can to insure that westerners have almost no moral credibility in the Middle East? In just the latest and largest example of moral hypocrisy, the Iraq war was abominably sold as a war to bring democracy and womens rights when there was no reason to believe that it could. The moral, political and financial disaster that the people of that country have suffered because of it, has damaged the reputation of democracy itself. As Bush and Rice chanted “rape rooms” they ushered in the anarchy they were warned would result from their invasion. Many people suspected that this would result in a situation much worse for women than the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, that is just what has come about. And that’s just one of many instances where our credibility has been spent in exchange for corrupt goals over many decades.

All of this is a round about way to get to the central point of this post, what will or does an Islamic feminism look like? Of all the necessary social movements for justice in the Islamic world none is more needed than feminism. In many Islamic countries women are as oppressed as it is possible for them to be. Their oppression carries the full force of the law and the apparatus of the state and official religion. Sometimes even the dominant opposition is fully in accord with this grinding subjugation of women. Half of Islam needs feminism more desperately than American women did in the 19th Century. But whatever else can be known about the possible form that this feminism could take, one thing is certain. It will be an Islamic feminism.

The women who produce and accept it will have to find the defense of their liberty in terms of their cultures and the texts of their religion. Westerners who expect or even demand that the expectations of various secular feminisms be adopted in Islamic countries are wasting their time. Even with the clearest evidence and most obvious reasoning, things alien to Islamic cultures will be rejected. It will be seen as an attempt at covert imperialism and massively arrogant. It will be characterized as immorality and the work of Satan. You might not like these facts but our not liking it has entirely no importance in the matter on the ground in those countries.

Another thing that has to be remembered, enough men in these Islamic countries will also have to fully accept the legitimacy of some form of feminism for there to be any improvement in the lives of women. In some societies women have no legal rights of any kind, they are now treated as the chattels of men. There is not going to be a rising of women against those men, the majority of men are going to have to be convinced. That will be the work of generations, it’s not going to happen during our lives. Development issues which would benefit from women having equal education and financial rights might help make the case. But without dedication to justice the lure of development will not be enough. There has to be enough devotion to the rights of women to literally be willing to die for them. The radical Islamic right has shown it is willing to shed oceans of blood to dominate the majority of the population and the enforced subjugation of women is one of their basic goals.

If Western governments persist with the same policies they have followed, then they and western corporations have handed people in the Middle East and around the globe more than enough ammunition to reject our ideas for social reform. That ammunition consists of wars of conquest, puppet governments, environmental ruin, agricultural despoliation, financial and political and cultural corruption and meddling in their home grown attempts at progress. It has issued a definitive insult to Moslems and that insult is a lot more important than most of us can imagine. Leftists have no reason to expect that we can escape being tainted by this history, not even with the best will in the world. We live in witness to the evil done by our governments’ foreign policy without having prevented it, not even with the tools of democracy securely in our hands.

Where does that leave leftists here? We have to keep petitioning the governments in Islamic and other countries to stop killing and injuring women and others and to reform their legal systems. There is no question of that obligation. But there is more we can do. We can try to understand and support Islamic women and men who are working for justice and freedom. And they do exist ** They must take the lead. They have the necessary knowledge of the actual social and political realities in their countries needed to get results. Trying to impose details that we think are right on them is futile and insulting. It will be rejected, it will fail to change anything. But we have a much more important job, one that is important because it has some chance to change reality in a positive way in the near future.

We have to pressure our governments to end policies that lead to the poverty and oppression of people in Islamic countries. We have to pressure our government to stop trying to manage the Middle East, Indonesia and countries around the world for the benefit of big oil and other corporations. Our governments have to try to force the corrupt families and oligarches who run client states in the Middle East to begin the turn over to real democracies. Just as here, the only guarantee of democracy is an informed and rational pubic. The media and educational systems have to be turned to real education and not propaganda. In a lot of these countries, even those with large oil incomes, real, universal, public education has yet to begin. Pressuring the wealthy rulers to do this isn’t going to be easy but nothing will improve until they do. The change it could bring about is essential so the seeming impossibility is no excuse to not start applying pressure right now.

If the United States hadn’t installed the Shah it is possible we could be dealing with a democracy there today. It would probably not be what many of us would be happy with but it would be a lot better than what our government installed. It is quite possible that with an example of a real democracy dedicated to the welfare of the people, significant parts of the history of that area could be different. The political and social pressures that produced Saddam Hussein might not have happened. There very likely would not have been an Iran-Iraq war or Bush War I. There wouldn’t have been the sanctions of the Clinton years. There might not have been an invasion of Iraq by the arrogant and ignorant Bush II regime. The fundamentalists might never have been able to fill the vacuum left by the suppression of democratic oppositions to the old and decadent rulers. The overthrow of an elected government in Iran certainly didn’t do anything to help the situation. Who knows, Jimmy Carter might have even won reelection.

Western leftists are too used to believing we can get what we want as soon as we want it. The past quarter of a century here should have convinced us that we almost never can. If we can’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, we’re hardly in a position to start planning what the liberation of women in Islamic countries will be like or when it will come. Repeatedly demanding the impossible is no substitute for intelligent and constant pressure to change the situation that keeps people everywhere in bondage. Our most intelligent effort will be in changing that situation by changing our own government’s actions around the world.

* And conservatives are shocked and offended when another elected leader of an oil producing country who survived a coup attempt calls Bush “the devil”. You seeing a pattern here?

**A small sample of sites and papers.

The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project Islam Links

Margot Badran Islamic feminism: what's in a name?

Amina Wadud

Irshad Manji

Zeeshan Hasan

Nice to see that my old article came in handy! Thanks =)
All of this information has been quite eye-opening zeeshan, quite an alternative to the standard view of the people of Islam seen in the media.

I'm particularly interested in the liberal Islamic community which is just about entirely invisible here and how it views things in the Middle East and beyond. The United States in particular has blinders on and we usually only see the Western world and its tradition. There is a lot we have to learn from other peoples attempts to use reason to secure the blessings of liberty. We certainly seem to have lost our way and could use a few ideas.
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