What’s your opinion of polygamy? Many consider the practice immoral, and it’s illegal in this country and most of the developed world. It’s probably not just coincidence that few, if any, polygamous countries are liberal democratic societies in which women enjoy equal rights. Anthropologists have noted that in a polygamous society many men end up as “bare branches”– sexually frustrated and prone to enlist in violent enterprises, especially those that bring status and glory: a jihad, for example.
But the sports section of the New York Times, in a recent profile of a member of the Jordanian royal family, gave the impression that polygamy is just another lifestyle choice. The article observes that 36-year-old Princess Haya bint al-Hussein has “long challenged what it means to be a princess” by pursuing a career as “an equestrian athlete” who drives “her horses across Europe in a custom tractor-trailer.” And, oh yes, by the way, she happens to be the “worldly junior wife of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, 61, making appearances in jeans, her long hair flowing#…#” So it’s probably for the best that, as the Times delicately adds, the Sheik’s “senior wife leads a more private life.”
What do you think about the niqab — sometimes also called a burqa — the veil that leaves only the eyes of a woman uncovered? Critics, not least Muslim critics such as Fadéla Amara, France’s secretary of state for urban policy, suggest that when a woman is forced to wear one it not only deprives her of individuality but is, effectively, a portable prison. France recently moved to ban the niqab, as have several other European countries.
Nevertheless, a recent New York Times review of a Yemeni restaurant in Brooklyn noted in passing that the diners are apparently segregated by sex and that next door is “Paradise Boutique, where mannequins model chic niqabs#…#”
And what do you think about the plans to build Park51, aka Cordoba House, on the edge of the crater where the World Trade Center once stood? Polls find that a majority of Americans, while acknowledging that the organizers have a right to build whatever they choose, think it inappropriate to construct an elaborate Islamic center so near the site of an atrocity carried out in the name of Islam.
Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott just knows that’s hogwash. The organizers, he writes, are facing “a groundswell of hostility whipped up during an election season that feeds on primitive emotions directed at a parody of a supposedly primitive religion.” Kennicott denounces the “horrendous venom directed at the project,” adding that this is “one of the most shameful chapters in the civic and intellectual life of America…”
The examples above illustrate the extent to which our media and cultural elites now accept and even embrace behaviors they would otherwise find repugnant — e.g. gender apartheid and insensitivity toward the victims of terrorism — when such behaviors have Islamic roots.
Fadéla Amara, the French official, perceives this as a consequence of cultural relativism — Westerners declining to denounce not only polygamy and the niqab, but even “forced marriages or female genital mutilation, because, they say, it’s tradition.” Such condescension, she adds, is “nothing more than neo-colonialism.”
Psychologist Phyllis Chesler recently cited a particularly blatant example of this double standard: Fred Gottheil, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, tracked down 675 academics who had signed a statement-petition calling for a boycott of Israel as an “apartheid regime.” He asked them also to sign a statement-petition opposing the abuse of women in the Middle East, including “honor-killing, wife-beating, female genital mutilation,” as well as the systematic “discrimination against women, gays and lesbians in the Middle East.” The result of this experiment: Ninety-five percent of those who signed the petition censuring Israel “did not sign a statement concerning discrimination against women and gays and lesbians in the Middle East.”
I know from experience that, in response to an article like this, I will be attacked from many corners of the blogosphere. So I’ll be as clear as I can: It is bigotry to assume the worst about someone because he or she is a Muslim. But is it not equally odious to draw a veil over our ability to acknowledge those Islamic practices that are inimical to such Western values as equality and free speech, and to seek to shame those who dare criticize or even raise questions? We should not meekly accept that, as Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of the Middle East, has observed, “Islam enjoys an immunity from critical examination that Christendom has lost and Judaism never had.”
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently wrote about Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born woman, educated at MIT and Brandeis, who went on to become an al-Qaeda operative. Last month, she was sentenced in a federal court to 86 years in prison for shooting Americans after being arrested in Afghanistan carrying documents, in her handwriting, referencing: “A ‘mass casualty attack’ . . . NY City monuments: Empire State Bld., Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, etc.,” and “Dirty Bomb: Need few oz. radioactive material . . .”
She also was carrying a computer flash drive that included this rumination: “Can go into supermarkets and randomly inject fruits with poisons, as well as other items that are usually eaten raw#. . .# . This may not kill as many people, but the panic, fear and economic loss will be substantial if done properly.” She was caught, as well, “carrying two pounds of sodium cyanide, which can be used as an explosive.”
Not all Pakistanis share her point of view, of course, but Ignatius notes chillingly that “millions back home regard her as a martyr…” A martyr to what? Ignatius doesn’t spell it out, but at the time she was getting her degree at MIT she wrote of her hope that, “America becomes a Muslim land.”
I suspect also that we are seeing one form that intimidation takes: not people backing down in embarrassment but people camouflaging their fears as principles, secretly hoping that if they refrain from pointing out anything negative about Islam, if they can make themselves inoffensive to Muslims, they will be safe.
Others may think that if they assert often enough that Islam is a “religion of peace,” no complexities, nothing else to add, then that will become the reality — the global influences of Iran’s mullahs, Saudi Arabia’s clerics, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Shabaab, etc., notwithstanding.
I’m convinced, too, that we’ve long been sliding down a slippery slope: Tolerance once meant you were willing to abide behaviors you found objectionable. Then it came to mean not judging such behaviors at all or, better yet, respecting them. Now, it’s come to mean celebrating them.
If that is what is required to be a member of the enlightened elite, I’ll cast my lot with the benighted masses who are willing to treat Muslims as equals and with respect — but won’t go along with those for whom cultural kowtowing has become a reflex.
—Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.