Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ideological Blind Spot

Sarah Baxter's critique of the current condition of anti-war feminism, is so good as a whole it's difficult to excerpt one chunk and say, "this is the gist." It's all gist. Possibly because she knows the British women's anti-war movement well, grew up in it in the 1980s, and reveres its capacity for positive change.

All the more damning, then:

The peace movement lost a foe in Reagan but has gone on to find new friends in today’s Stop the War movement. Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched last weekend alongside banners proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now” and Muslim extremists chanting “Oh Jew, the army of Muhammad will return.”

For Linda Grant, the novelist, who says that “feminism” is the one “ism” she has not given up on, it was a shocking sight: “What you’re seeing is an alliance of what used to be the far left with various Muslim groups and that poses real problems. Saturday’s march was not a peace march in the way that the Ban the Bomb marches were. Seeing young and old white women holding Hezbollah placards showed that it’s a very different anti-war movement to Greenham. Part of it feels the wrong side is winning.”

As a supporter of the peace movement in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose views on women make western patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic. Nor would I have predicted that today’s feminists would be so indulgent towards Iran, a theocratic nation where it is an act of resistance to show an inch or two of female hair beneath the veil and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not joking about his murderous intentions towards Israel and the Jews.

On the defining issue of our times, the rise of Islamic extremism, what is left of the sisterhood has almost nothing to say. Instead of “I am woman, hear me roar”, there is a loud silence, punctuated only by remonstrations against Tony Blair and George Bush — “the world’s number one terrorist” as the marchers would have it.

Women are perfectly entitled to oppose the war in Iraq or to feel that Israel is brutally overreacting to Hezbollah’s provocation. But where is the parallel, equally vital debate about how to combat Islamic fundamentalism? And why don’t more peace-loving feminists regard it as a threat? Kira Cochrane, 29, is the new editor of The Guardian women’s page, the bible of the Greenham years, where so many women writers made their names by staking out positions on the peace movement. She has noticed that today’s feminists are inclined to keep quiet about the march of radical Islam. “There’s a great fear of tackling the subject because of cultural relativism. People are scared of being called racist,” Cochrane observes.


Looking back I think I was wrong about Reagan and too sympathetic towards the Soviet Union. There were plenty of fellow travellers in the peace movement who were cheering on the Soviet Union under their breath. I can remember making a lot of silly excuses about it myself. But the fear of mutual assured destruction was genuine enough. As long as it worked, Mad was a plausible strategy. Were it to fail, the results would be catastrophic. As President Dwight Eisenhower said after the testing of the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s: “Atomic war will destroy civilisation.” If war came, “you might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself”.

The situation today is very different. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Bernard Lewis, the noted scholar of Islam, pointed out that Iran’s messianic rulers are not constrained by such fears. According to their theology, the day of judgment will be glorious. “At the end of time there will be general destruction anyway,” Lewis writes. “What matters will be the final destination of the dead — hell for the infidels and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, Mad is not a constraint, it is an inducement.”

Hassan Nasrallah, the Shi’ite cleric who leads Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, regularly issues bloodcurdling threats against the Jews. “If they (the Jews all gather in Israel,” he has said, “it will save us the trouble of going after them on a worldwide basis.”

For some on the left such words are merely understandable hyperbole, provoked by decades of Israeli ill-treatment of the Palestinians, but I prefer to take Islamic fundamentalists at their word when they spout insults about Jews being the descendants of “pigs and apes” and launch their chillingly apocalyptic tirades.

Why? Because they not only talk centuries-old nonsense about the place of women in society, but they also purposely oppress the female sex whenever they are given the chance. As regards their treatment of women, there is no discernible difference between their acts and their words.


In Britain there is the polemicist Julie Burchill, who has written incisively about the desire of terrorists to commit acts “not so that innocents may have the right to live freely on the West Bank, but so that they might have the right to throw acid in the face of innocent, unveiled women”. Well, the outrageous Julie has always been bonkers, hasn’t she.

Then there is “mad” Melanie Phillips, the Cassandra of our age, banging on that “if we wish to learn what was going on in Europe in 1938, just look around”. Of course she would say that, wouldn’t she. She’s Jewish, and anyway didn’t you know that she is crazy enough to believe in two-parent families? In America the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin died last year virtually unmourned by women on the left in part, as her friend Christopher Hitchens remembered, because “she wasn’t neutral against a jihadist threat that wanted, and wants, to enslave and torture females.

“That she could be denounced as a ‘conservative’,” he concluded, “says much about the left to which she used to belong.”

In Italy Oriana Fallaci, the 77-year-old journalist famous for interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini, recently went on trial accused of defaming Muslims. It is true that many of her comments about Islam — “a pool that never purifies” — are undeniably offensive, but no more so than comments routinely made by Muslim extremists about “the Jews”. In her cancer-stricken twilight years, the once glamorous Fallaci has been written off as a deranged old bat.

Fallaci has grown accustomed in recent years to living with death threats, as have the formidable Muslim women critics of Islamic extremism such as Irshad Manji, the Canadian feminist, Taslima Nasreen, the exiled Bangladeshi writer (and critic of the Iraq war), and Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose film Submission resulted in the murder by Islamic militants of Theo van Gogh, the gay Dutch film director.

Hirsi, after enjoying a brief succès d’estime, has been virtually hounded out of the liberal Netherlands and is due to arrive in America next month, where she has been offered a perch at the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think tank. It is too easy to say she has sold out to the right. Where, one might ask, are her friends on the left? Something has gone badly wrong with a politically correct feminism that prefers to take aim at the United States, a haven of free speech and relative sexual equality, than to tackle the threat posed to women by Islamic fundamentalism. Just as the existence of Thatcher, the Iron Lady, at the helm of British government in the 1980s failed to impress the women’s peace movement, so the presence of Condoleezza Rice, a black woman who grew up in segregated Alabama, as US secretary of state has not dimmed the cries against American “racism”.

For this the 1980s peace movement must take some of the blame with its overbearing emphasis on the evil Reagan empire and soft-pedalling of the Soviet Union. But I am surprised, all the same, by the persistence of the ideological blind spot that has led women who are so quick to condemn the failings of the West to make transparent excuses for the behaviour of some of the world’s most anti-feminist regimes.

Recently Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, wrote a breathtaking apologia for the Iranian nuclear energy programme, which took at face value Ahmadinejad’s claims to be developing it for “strictly peaceful” purposes. (Since when, by the way, has CND regarded Britain’s nuclear power plants so benignly?) Never mind the preposterous dancing with enriched uranium around the doves of peace nor the missiles marked “Tel Aviv” paraded in the streets.

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