The Missionary Position

It was recently suggested that I read an essay that appeared in The Nation over the summer. And so I did. The piece is by Laila Lalami. It is a lengthy critique of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji.

I have not in fact read the Hirsi Ali books nor have I read the Manji books (though I confess to finding Manji annoying for entirely petty reasons. I have seen and heard her interviewed many times and I just simply do not like her demeanor…but I digress).

In addition, I am at a loss when it comes to grasping the points that Lalami raises against Hirsi Ali and Manji on Koranic interpretation. I simply have no basis for judgment. But it seems to me these points are sort of irrelevant. As Lalami points out, people can find scriptural support for any views – no matter how radical. The politics is what matters, and it seems indecent (if not unfair) to come to a political discussion armed with a religious text.

All of that said, I think Lalami makes many important points. She certainly makes a compelling case that Hirsi Ali (maybe because of her personal biography) seems to lay a lot of intricate social and cultural ills at the feet of Islam the religion. This tendency is useful to Hirsi Ali because it allows her to extrapolate from the specific to the general. But in doing so she flattens the entire Muslim world and this weakens her argument. Hirsi Ali is casting too wide a net. Lalami is correct in stressing that what is the case in Saudi Arabia is not necessarily the case in Morocco. “Condemning Islam, without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate,” writes Ian Buruma. “Not every Muslim, not even every Orthodox Muslim, is a holy warrior.” This sounds about right to me. And the fact that Buruma felt compelled to (re)affirm this basic truth in a recent essay is really quite a sad commentary on our times.

But there are several things about this essay that I suspected would annoy me (I figure nothing this long published in The Nation could manage not to arouse some disagreement in me).

Lalami is obviously and correctly skeptical of the women’s liberation justification for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Lalami writes: “Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone’s guess.” To be sure, were Afghanistan not the home of Bin Laden and were Iraq not sitting atop vast oil fields the American military would not be present in those countries today. But I find the sort of argument Lalami is making extremely foolish. She seems to be saying that atrocities must be tolerated everywhere because they cannot be opposed everywhere. That nothing should be done about Darfur if something (presumably the same thing) cannot be done about North Korea. This is not only callous, it is not serious. American power is limited and the realm of possible responses in each situation is constrained by any number of circumstances. There is certainly a cost to intervening in other countries (Iraq being the obvious case) but there is also a cost to not intervening (Rwanda being an obvious case). Something overlooked by the rising tide of non-interventionist cheerleaders (William Pfaff is perhaps the intellectual cheerleader-in-chief of this sentiment).

Also, I find Lalami’s claim that women in the Muslim world are not silent – and not only that, but that they are “organized in groups dedicated to the advancement of their rights” – as a bit unbelievable. To the extent that this is true, terrific. And it is surely the case in certain corners of the Muslim world. But as Lalami herself repeatedly stresses, the situation varies across the diverse expanse of the Muslim world. And though I am not well-versed in the topic, it seems to me that either Lalami is not being faithful to the situation of women or someone like Nick Kristof is full of shit. But her assertion and his columns (particularly from the western provinces of Pakistan) seem mutually exclusive.

Similarly, Lalami claims that the problem “isn’t the lack of dissent. It is the lack of context in which dissent is welcome rather than repressed.” I do not understand the latter sentence. Regardless, there does seem to be a dissent problem in large parts of the Muslim world. To take but one example, why was there not mass demonstrations (as there are in so many other cases when the culprit is Israel or America) when a suicide bomber walks into a wedding hall in Amman and detonates. Or, for that matter, when the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed on a holy day. This is violence in a mosque by a Muslim against a Muslim. It seems to me that this should grossly offend other Muslims. I do not recall hearing about demonstrations of mass disapproval (I could have missed them).

Lalami also takes a couple of digs at MEMRI. MEMRI does indeed pick the most provocative and hateful items to translate and circulate. In doing so they probably create a distorted view of the Muslim world (or at least those countries they cover). Lalami is no fan of MEMRI, though she (nor anyone else I know of) has imputed the veracity of their translations. But I do not understand her criticism that MEMRI does not translate items from the Hebrew press. This is true. But so what? The Israeli press is notoriously self-critical and combative. Her beef is that when a right-wing Israeli politicisn like Effi Eitam makes the kind of reprehensible remark he is prone to making MEMRI does not cover it. But the very fact that this remark has circulated so widely in the English-language world is proof that MEMRI would not be using its resources wisely within Israel.

In addition (and I think most egregiously), Lalami attacks Manji for her assertion that minorities are far better treated in Israel than in the Muslim world. Minority rights in Israel are a big problem. A lot of good organizations like the New Israel Fund and B’Tselem are doing good work advocating for Arab rights within Israel. But much, much more needs to be done. There are many black pages in Israeli history (like most national histories). Israel’s are darker than some, lighter than others.

Lalami uses the situation of Jews in Morocco as her foil to argue that Manji’s claim about minorities in Israel is disingenuous. Leaving aside the larger point of whether Manji is portraying the minority situation in Israel as exceedingly rosy, it is equally disingenuous of Lalami to hold-up Morocco as representative of Jewish integration in Muslim-majority countries. Morocco is uniquely moderate, and even then the stats she cites are cause for some alarm (as are the numbers she cites for Israeli opinion about living next to Arabs). I think she is being disingenuous because she whitewashes the fact that anti-Semitism (and/or anti-Zionism, the distinction is critical but sometimes difficult to ascertain) is at a feverish pitch in certain precincts of the Muslim world.

Pardon the rambling screed…and a good weekend to all.

Explore posts in the same categories: Women's Rights

One Comment on “The Missionary Position”


  1. Overall a great post (probably your best one yet), but I take issue with this point:

    “Condemning Islam, without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate,” writes Ian Buruma. “Not every Muslim, not even every Orthodox Muslim, is a holy warrior.” This sounds about right to me. And the fact that Buruma felt compelled to (re)affirm this basic truth in a recent essay is really quite a sad commentary on our times.

    By that standard, you can’t say anything meaningful about any group. The question isn’t whether or not a sentiment is universal, but whether or not it’s widespread.

    That such beliefs are not held by every single one of the billion-plus Muslims in the world does not significantly undermine the claim that far too many Muslims do indeed support Palestinian suicide bombings, Shariah as the basis of government and even Osama bin Laden.

    In the moderate Morocco she cites, 74% think Palestinian suicide bombings are justified (and 92% have an unfavorable opinion of Jews — maybe MEMRI is on to something). Fully 40% of British Muslims want Shariah. In Jordan, 60% are confident in bin Laden’s sense of right and wrong.

    Now, polls are imperfect — and some of those results have changed from year to year — but the picture they paint is generally accurate: the Muslim mindset, today, is fucked up, especially among the devout.


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