By Paul Fraioli
There’s something sinister in the Conceptual Foundations course-pack.
As the largest course at SIPA, Conceptual Foundations of International Politics, which is required for all Master of International Affairs students, feels like a rite of passage. Fellow first-years will no doubt agree that the readings on constructivism as a theory of international relations from earlier this month were slow-going. However, amidst the jargon and the ideas about ideas about ideas, one essay generated strong reactions and heated debates in discussion sections. On one hand, this is a good thing because everyone I talk to says there is not enough debate at SIPA. On the other, the essay in question, “Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency,” is fundamentally flawed and requires a forceful response.
Written by anthropologists Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood, the essay criticizes western views of the burqa and Islamic fundamentalism, demanding “nuance” from everyone but themselves. Their first argument goes something like this: The burqa is complicated, and westerners – particularly celebrities – should shut up about it because they don’t know what they’re talking about. In fact, they don’t even know that the U.S. gave a lot of money to Islamic extremists during the Cold War, and is therefore more complicit in the use of the burqa in Afghanistan than anyone.
This got me thinking: “Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy a lunch with these folks.” It is certainly well documented that the U.S. played a frenzied game of realpolitik in the 1970s and 1980s and gave money to the Islamic mujahidin. But mocking feminists and celebrities who spent the 1990s publicizing the close connection between the burqa, wife-beating, rape, and violent death in Afghanistan is a rather cheap way to proceed with an argument.
Particularly when something does, in fact, connect these four things, and it’s not American money. It’s Islamic fundamentalism. But this is not a connection that Hirschkind and Mahmood are willing to make as they advance their second argument, which laments how “the misogynist machinations” of Islamic fundamentalists dominate the western “political imagination.” Can you think of a more euphemistic way to describe the imposition of the burqa and cleric-sponsored wife-beating than “misogynist machinations”? (If this last point seems overblown, see Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s writings on marital relations in his book, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam. Not only is he one of the most prominent clerics in the Sunni world, but he’s also President of the European Council for Fatwa and Research.)
The authors go on to say that the west’s one-sided view of fundamentalism has blinded it to the many groups “striving for greater democratization and political liberalization,” like the Muslim Brotherhood. But quasi-secular governments in the Muslim world like Egypt and Tunisia want nothing to do with such groups and have banned them from running candidates in their elections. In a tone they normally reserve for westerners, Hirschkind and Mahmood explain that “[in] doing so, they have only given weight to the militants’ argument that the sole avenue for political change is armed struggle and guerilla warfare.”
First, I would like to know how an “argument” proceeds by threatening “armed struggle” against unarmed civilians. Whether in Kabul or New York, that’s called extortion, not argument.
And second, if this logic applies to Egypt or Tunisia when they exclude fundamentalists from their elections, why won’t it apply to other secular countries like England or the United States in the future?
For these reasons, British writer Salman Rushdie has said, “The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its de-politicization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern.” Hirschkind and Mahmood take issue with this view because it “ignores the multiple ways in which the public and private are linked in contemporary society.” The authors have a number of appallingly wrong-headed things to say about Rushdie, but this is perhaps the strangest.
Rushdie became an expert on the subject of fundamentalism in 1989 when, in their words, “Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie’s life for having written a blasphemous book supposedly injurious to Muslim sensibilities.” Here, Hirschkind and Mahmood omit some important points:
First, Rushdie wrote a novel depicting the prophet Muhammad. Second, Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme religious and political authority of Iran, called on all Muslims worldwide to murder anyone involved in producing the book. Third, Rushdie survived assassination attempts and was forced into hiding under police protection for 7 years. Fourth, numerous publishers and translators of the novel were shot, stabbed, burned and killed by mob violence. And lastly, clerics recently reaffirmed the fatwa and placed a $2.8 million bounty on Rushdie’s head.
In other words, I don’t think he needs Hirschkind and Mahmood to tell him that the public and private are closely linked. There’s no room in their complex, culturally sensitive worldview for facts like these, nor is there room for the woman who is forced to submit to the burqa unwillingly. Instead, they defend the “sensibilities” of the fundamentalist who responds to such offenses with violent force. And this is the most one-sided, empty view of all, because when fundamentalism and politics mix, the result—at all times and in all places—will be bloodshed and disregard for human dignity.
Paul Fraioli is a first year Master of International Affairs student concentrating in International Security Policy.