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A Little Respect : Anti-Muslim...

<i> Rana Kabbani is a writer on Middle East and Muslim affairs. Her most recent book is "Europe's Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule" (Indiana University Press)</i>

Muslim stereotypes in the West grow out of a long historical tradition of anxiety about Islam. In the Middle Ages, anti-Islamic polemics were motivated not only by the fear that Islam’s armies might advance into the heart of Europe, but by the concern that its far superior civilization would take over the continent. In the 19th Century, portrayals of the Muslims as barbarians were motivated by the need to justify Europe’s colonial subjugation of their lands and exploitation of their resources.

Today, even as the Arab-Israeli peace process makes new strides, dirt is again being dumped on the Muslims. In both Jean Sasson’s “Princesss Sultana’s Daughters” and Jan Goodwin’s “Price of Honor,” Islam is portrayed as viscerally violent, misogynistic and fanatical.

Sasson’s book is perhaps the most strident. Purporting to be the real life saga of a Saudi princess, a granddaughter of King Abd al-Aziz, the father of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it reads like a bad pulp novel, exploiting several devices of the genre. The bottom line is this: Sasson is a propagandist who makes sensationalist use of hearsay to tell a tale of unmitigated horror--of incarceration, rape, child abuse and sexual mutilation--in order to launch a racial attack on Arabs and smear Islam and Muslims. She speaks in her introduction of her “love for the Arab people,” but it has a distinctly hollow ring.

In the same anti-Islamic tradition is Jan Goodwin’s “Price of Honor,” a work of pop sociology which, in a series of ghastly stories, reviews the condition of women in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. Her opening tale of an 11-year-old Pakistani child married off to a man “so old he has lost all his teeth and shakes all the time” sets the tone for the whole work, as do the aphorisms which litter her chapters. One of them, billed as an Islamic proverb, runs: “A woman’s heaven is under the feet of her husband.”

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Although apparently in a feminist tradition, books such as these are in effect anti-Arab and anti-Muslim political tracts. The device of discrediting Islam by discrediting its treatment of women is an old one.

In the Middle Ages, the argument was that Islam gave women financial independence and a say in marriage and divorce: in short, too much freedom--all heresies to Church polemicists of the time who believed that women should be their husband’s chattels. In the 19th Century, the argument was turned on its head: Muslim women were not free enough. Lord Cromer, British viceroy of Egypt, championed emancipation for Egyptian women while loathing suffragettes in Britain. He was not concerned to give rights to women anywhere, but rather to rule Egypt effectively. He thought that by liberating Egyptian women from their religious culture he could break the back of the Egyptian nationalist movement, which had strong Islamic overtones.

Today, the “imperial torch” has passed to American feminists. They are the only ones talking the “imperial” language of advocating the rescue of Muslim women from Islam. They have assumed the white woman’s burden. Their pronouncements are, for the most part, as crass and as politically motivated as Cromer’s.

What is worrying about the growing literature by Western, and especially American, women about the “plight” of Muslim women--writers with little understanding of the Muslim world or knowledge of Islamic history--is that it builds on very dubious foundations; that Western women have it all, and Muslim women have nothing; that in order for Muslim women to become liberated, they must denature themselves by throwing off Islam. The same is not being asked of Jewish or Catholic women.

Muslim women have a long, uphill battle ahead of them to wrest Islam from those who would make it an anti-woman creed. Fortunately, a new genre of feminist writing by Muslim women themselves has emerged in recent years, counting among its brighter stars the Egyptian Leila Ahmed, the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, the Turk Deniz Kandiyoti and the Iranian Afsaneh Najmabadi.

These writers have sought to paint a scholarly and historically sensitive picture of women in Islamic society. They have tended to focus on state policy toward women--whether it be 10th-Century Baghdad under the Abbasid caliphs, the Shah’s Iran or contemporary Egypt and Turkey, which both have a long history of modernization of state and society.

What emerges from these studies is that although these states all call themselves Muslim, their policies toward women are highly diverse. And it is these state policies, not Islam, that ultimately determine the degree of freedom these women enjoy.

Unlike Goodwin or Sasson, the Kuwaiti sociologist Haya al-Mughni takes on a subject she knows something about in “Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender.” Writing from her own experience and from the extensive research she has conducted on the place of women in her country, she challenges the cliche, dear to Western feminists, that the Muslim male is a violent savage and that Muslim women are passive victims waiting to be rescued. The restrictions placed on women, she suggests, stem instead from the self-protectiveness of Muslim elites--women as much as men--who prefer to consolidate their own class interests and do little to encourage upward mobility by less favored individuals.

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The specters that terrorize Muslim women are not just religious obscurantism and traditional patriarchy. They are poverty, war and refugee status.

In Bosnia, Muslim women have been raped by the tens of thousands. They have watched their children starve; they have been besieged and tormented. If Western feminism had been able to see beyond its colonial legacy, it would have led the fight against such outrageous crimes against women. Instead, Western feminism, with few exceptions, has been shamefully silent on the plight of these Muslim victims, perhaps because there are no political dividends to be gained from such a cause.

Books on Muslim subjects, however, are not all sensationalism or propaganda. Ehsan Naraghi, an Iranian sociologist and author of “From Palace to Prison: Inside the Iranian Revolution,” spent hours with the Shah in the last hundred days of his reign. He was called in because the Shah did not understand the revolutionary ferment in his country and no longer trusted his courtiers and secret policemen. He wanted independent counsel.

Naraghi’s book recounts their fascinating conversations and then, with equal detachment and lucidity, describes the author’s 33 months in Teheran’s notorious Evin prison, to which he was confined by the Ayatollah’s revolution. There can be no quarrel with such an authentic witness.

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To understand the historical forces that produced the present Islamic revival, there can be few better guides than Richard Bulliet’s “Islam: The View From the Edge.” A professor of history at Columbia University, he hasspent the past 25 years researching non-traditional sources for Islamic history. In his pages, we see how Islam is actually lived by different communities, widely scattered geographically, speaking more than a dozen different languages, and steeped in very diverse cultural traditions.

Instead of the usual history of Islam as seen from the center, and focusing on the rise and fall of imperial dynasties, Bulliet seeks to explore why Islam became so strongly rooted in the social structures of people living far from its political center. His “view from the edge” is a long-needed and invigorating corrective to fossilized Orientalism.

“We are living,” Bulliet writes, “in a crucial period of Islamic history, arguably the most intellectually and spiritually vigorous of the last thousand years. Muslims around the world are looking to their illustrious past for solace and guidance in changing times, and non-Muslims are scrutinizing that same history for clues to the nature and fortune of contemporary Islamic movements. Both are incompletely served by the histories at hand.”

Such an informed and humane inquiry is a vital antidote to today’s popular works of hostile denigration, which feed on prejudice and, indeed, sustain it.

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