I have spent the last twenty years working on issues of women and religious censorship. As a feminist activist in International PEN and then in Women’s WORLD, I couldn’t help noticing that increasing numbers of women writers were being targeted by fundamentalists. Not all these fundamentalists were Islamists; some were Christians, Jews, or Hindus. In fact, one of my own books was targeted by the Christian Coalition in the US.
Nobody on the left ever objected when I criticized Christian or Jewish fundamentalism. But when I did defence work for censored Muslim feminists, people would look at me sideways, as if to say, who are you to talk about this? This tendency has become much more marked since 9/11 and the “war on terror.” Today on the left and in some academic circles, people responding to attacks on Muslim feminists in other countries are likely to be accused of reinforcing the "victim-savage-saviour" framework or preparing for the next US invasion. This puts anyone working with actual women’s human rights defenders in places like North Africa or Pakistan in an impossible situation. From these concerns springs my book, Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, published by the Centre for Secular Space.
Human rights defenders are supposed to protect the rights of those oppressed by the state or by non-state actors. They must also defend the rights of women (which may be violated by the state as well as by non-state actors). But what happens when people who are mistreated by the state violate the rights of women? Can one fight their violations while at the same defending their rights against state power? How?
This political terrain is tied up in so many knots it amounts to what Gregory Bateson called a “double bind” in “Toward a theory of schizophrenia” - a double bind results when people are given conflicting instructions so that in obeying one set of orders, they must violate the other.
Last year’s debate around Mona Eltahawy’s article on the oppression of women in the Middle East, called "Why do they hate us?" is a recent example of this double bind. As Parastou Houssori, who teaches international refugee law at the University of Cairo, observed:
Some of the other criticisms of El Tahawy’s piece illustrate the dilemma of the “double bind” that African-American and other feminists have also faced. For instance, when they write about their experiences, African-American feminists often find themselves caught between confronting the patriarchy within African-American communities, and defending their African-American brothers from the broader racism that exists in American society. Similarly, women who identify as Islamic feminists often find themselves in this bind, as they try to reconcile their feminism and religious identity, and also defend their religion from Islamophobia.
This double bind cannot be resolved by retreating into silence or becoming immobilized. In international law, it can be addressed by emphasizing that non-state actors must not violate rights, and by integrating equality and non-discrimination more fully into human rights work. But on the political level, one can only proceed by thinking one’s way through a maze of taboos, injunctions and received ideas - and also being willing to face backlash and censorship.
Gita Sahgal, founding head of the gender unit at Amnesty International, found this out three years ago when she left Amnesty after publicly raising objections to its alliance with Cageprisoners, a UK organization set up to defend prisoners at Guantanamo. People around the world came to Gita’s defense and have now formed the Centre for Secular Space in order to strengthen secular voices, oppose fundamentalism, and promote universality in human rights. The questions we raise are critical to the left:
In a period of right wing attacks on Muslims – or people thought to be Muslims – how does one respond to human rights violations by the Muslim right without feeding hate campaigns?
When the US invokes the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and neocolonialism?
When the US targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry about violations perpetrated by those same jihadis or focus on violations by the state?
What do we mean by the Muslim right? I define it as: “a range of transnational political movements that mobilize identity politics towards the goal of a theocratic state. It consists of those the media call ‘moderate Islamists’ who aim to reach this goal gradually by electoral and educational means; extremist parties and groups called ‘salafis’ that may run for office but also try to enforce some version of Sharia law through street violence; and a much smaller militant wing of salafi-jihadis that endorses military means and practices violence against civilians. The goal of all political Islamists, whatever means they may prefer, is a state founded upon a version of Sharia law that systematically discriminates against women along with sexual and religious minorities.”
Starting from there, Double Bind discusses salafi-jihadi history, ideas, and organizational methods with particular attention to Cageprisoners, making the case that it is actually a public relations organization for jihadis. The book looks at the practice of the Anglo-American antiwar movement and challenges what I believe are five wrong ideas about the Muslim right: that it is anti-imperialist; that “defence of Muslim lands” is comparable to national liberation struggles; that the problem is “Islamophobia;” that terrorism is justified by revolutionary necessity; and that any feminist who criticizes the Muslim right is an Orientalist ally of US imperialism.
Some on the left have accepted the world view of the Muslim right, which defines political goals in religious terms, to the extent that they see the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Mali as attacks on Muslims. Take, for instance, Glenn Greenwald: “As French war planes bomb Mali, there is one simple statistic that provides the key context: this west African nation of 15 million people is the eighth country in which western powers - over the last four years alone - have bombed and killed Muslims - after Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines (that does not count the numerous lethal tyrannies propped up by the west in that region). For obvious reasons, the rhetoric that the west is not at war with the Islamic world grows increasingly hollow with each new expansion of this militarism.”
By adopting a religious framework, Greenwald obscures the geopolitical reasons for the conflicts he names and ignores the fact that most of them involve Muslims killing other Muslims—in the case of Mali, Sunni salafi-jihadis imposing their version of Islam on Sufis. Like people who see Taliban activity in Pakistan largely as a reaction against drones, leftists who frame the issues in Mali solely in terms of Western imperialism deny the agency of the people living there, who have been voting with their feet by fleeing jihadi-controlled areas in droves.
Leftists often hold back from talking about the Muslim right because they are afraid that doing so will strengthen Western racists and nativists. But surely we have to oppose all varieties of right wing politics. Of course we must stand up to demagogues who characterize every Muslim as a potential terrorist and try to whip up violence against civilians. In my view, these people are fascists. But the fact that we have a problem with white fascists in the US or UK should not lead us to overlook the fact that other parts of the world have problems of their own with fascist movements, some of which claim to be the only true Muslims and try to enforce their version of Islam through violence. Add in the fact that a number of jihadis come from Canada, the UK or the US, and it becomes apparent that we cannot think only in terms of domestic political struggles when we live in a globalized world.
Rather than framing the world situation as a war between US imperialism and Islamist freedom fighters, Double Bind sees a complicated dialectic between terrorism and counter-terrorism with the possibility of an emerging conservative front in which Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood are as likely to be allies as adversaries, and both are opposed by popular democratic movements. Instead of sanitizing and protecting the Muslim right in the name of fighting colonialism and imperialism, we propose a strategy of solidarity with actual popular movements of democrats, trade unionists, religious and sexual minorities and feminists struggling in the Global South against both neo-liberalism and religious fundamentalism.
Secular space is central to this strategy. Since the end of the Cold War, secular spaces all over the world have come under siege by various forms of fundamentalism, and the instrumentalization of religion for political gain has become a problem in regions as varied as Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the MENA region, North America, South America, South Asia, and Western Europe. In all these places, religious identity politics has muddied discussion of class, labour, racism and discrimination against women and sexual minorities.
Democratic governance is based on the idea that the authority of the state is delegated by the people rather than coming from God. The separation of the state from religion is central to democracy because gender, religious minority and sexual rights become issues whenever human rights are limited by religion, culture, or political expediency. Thus secular space is essential to the development of democratic popular movements that can oppose both neoliberalism and fundamentalism. To move forward, we need a strategy that combines solidarity with defence of secular space.
Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights will be launched by a panel at Toynbee Hall in London on 11 February 2013.