Friday, March 09, 2007

How my eyes were opened to the barbarity of Islam

By Phyllis Chesler

Once I was held captive in Kabul. I was the bride of a charming, seductive and Westernised Afghan Muslim whom I met at an American college. The purdah I experienced was relatively posh but the sequestered all-female life was not my cup of chai - nor was the male hostility to veiled, partly veiled and unveiled women in public.

When we landed in Kabul, an airport official smoothly confiscated my US passport. "Don't worry, it's just a formality," my husband assured me. I never saw that passport again. I later learnt that this was routinely done to foreign wives - perhaps to make it impossible for them to leave. Overnight, my husband became a stranger. The man with whom I had discussed Camus, Dostoevsky, Tennessee Williams and the Italian cinema became a stranger. He treated me the same way his father and elder brother treated their wives: distantly, with a hint of disdain and embarrassment.

In our two years together, my future husband had never once mentioned that his father had three wives and 21 children. Nor did he tell me that I would be expected to live as if I had been reared as an Afghan woman. I was supposed to lead a largely indoor life among women, to go out only with a male escort and to spend my days waiting for my husband to return or visiting female relatives, or having new (and very fashionable) clothes made.

In America, my husband was proud that I was a natural-born rebel and free thinker. In Afghanistan, my criticism of the treatment of women and of the poor rendered him suspect, vulnerable. He mocked my horrified reactions. But I knew what my eyes and ears told me. I saw how poor women in chadaris were forced to sit at the back of the bus and had to keep yielding their place on line in the bazaar to any man.

I saw how polygamous, arranged marriages and child brides led to chronic female suffering and to rivalry between co-wives and half-brothers; how the subordination and sequestration of women led to a profound estrangement between the sexes - one that led to wife-beating, marital rape and to a rampant but hotly denied male "prison"-like homosexuality and pederasty; how frustrated, neglected and uneducated women tormented their daughter-in-laws and female servants; how women were not allowed to pray in mosques or visit male doctors (their husbands described the symptoms in their absence).

Individual Afghans were enchantingly courteous - but the Afghanistan I knew was a bastion of illiteracy, poverty, treachery and preventable diseases. It was also a police state, a feudal monarchy and a theocracy, rank with fear and paranoia. Afghanistan had never been colonised. My relatives said: "Not even the British could occupy us." Thus I was forced to conclude that Afghan barbarism was of their own making and could not be attributed to Western imperialism.

Long before the rise of the Taleban, I learnt not to romanticise Third World countries or to confuse their hideous tyrants with liberators. I also learnt that sexual and religious apartheid in Muslim countries is indigenous and not the result of Western crimes - and that such "colourful tribal customs" are absolutely, not relatively, evil. Long before al-Qaeda beheaded Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and Nicholas Berg in Iraq, I understood that it was dangerous for a Westerner, especially a woman, to live in a Muslim country. In retrospect, I believe my so-called Western feminism was forged in that most beautiful and treacherous of Eastern countries.

Nevertheless, Western intellectual-ideologues, including feminists, have demonised me as a reactionary and racist "Islamophobe" for arguing that Islam, not Israel, is the largest practitioner of both sexual and religious apartheid in the world and that if Westerners do not stand up to this apartheid, morally, economically and militarily, we will not only have the blood of innocents on our hands; we will also be overrun by Sharia in the West. I have been heckled, menaced, never-invited, or disinvited for such heretical ideas - and for denouncing the epidemic of Muslim-on-Muslim violence for which tiny Israel is routinely, unbelievably scapegoated.

However, my views have found favour with the bravest and most enlightened people alive. Leading secular Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents - from Egypt, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria and exiles from Europe and North America - assembled for the landmark Islamic Summit Conference in Florida and invited me to chair the opening panel on Monday.

According to the chair of the meeting, Ibn Warraq: "What we need now is an age of enlightenment in the Islamic world. Without critical examination of Islam, it will remain dogmatic, fanatical and intolerant and will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality, originality and truth." The conference issued a declaration calling for such a new "Enlightenment". The declaration views "Islamophobia" as a false allegation, sees a "noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine" and "demands the release of Islam from its captivity to the ambitions of power-hungry men".

Now is the time for Western intellectuals who claim to be antiracists and committed to human rights to stand with these dissidents. To do so requires that we adopt a universal standard of human rights and abandon our loyalty to multicultural relativism, which justifies, even romanticises, indigenous Islamist barbarism, totalitarian terrorism and the persecution of women, religious minorities, homosexuals and intellectuals. Our abject refusal to judge between civilisation and barbarism, and between enlightened rationalism and theocratic fundamentalism, endangers and condemns the victims of Islamic tyranny.



Something odd happens, even to the mightiest of organisations, when they are confronted by a judge in chambers and a smooth-tongued counsel. The threat of an injunction, especially one sought by the Attorney-General, is enough to reduce them to meek compliance. They forget to remind the court that the best response to any damaging disclosure is the one articulated by the Duke of Wellington: "Publish and be damned!" Thus it was that the BBC caved in, last Friday night, to Lord Goldsmith's application for an injunction, which prevented it running a perfectly legitimate story about an alleged Downing Street cover-up. Instead of appealing immediately, the BBC sat back and waited for someone else with a bit more gumption to scoop it.

Injunctions are nearly always a sign of political or personal embarrassment and should nearly always be resisted. They are an act of desperation on the part of a litigant who has something to hide and nothing else to hide behind. They have the effect of drawing far more attention to the matter in hand than would otherwise have been the case, and they fail in the long run. More to the point, they are an infringement of freedom of expression and the public interest.

Only in cases of gross contempt of court, where publication may damage a forthcoming trial or lead to the discharge of a jury, can injunctions be justified. It is up to the judge to point out that if the story complained about is defamatory, a breach of confidence or otherwise contentious, then the litigant should sue rather than suppress. Governments like to add national security to the list of forbidden subjects, but even that is usually a smokescreen. As a veteran of a three-year battle on behalf of The Scotsman newspaper against Mrs Thatcher's Government, which argued, right up to the House of Lords, that the memoirs of a Cold War spy would shatter the edifice of the State, I know whereof I speak. She lost. The Government survived.

Quite why the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, should have compromised his independence in this way is a mystery. His claim that the BBC's story, about the role of a Downing Street aide in the cash-for-peerages affair, may have compromised Scotland Yard's inquiries scarcely stands up to scrutiny. Most of the regular leaks have clearly emanated from police sources, so it is hard to argue that this latest one is suddenly unacceptable.

Lord Goldsmith should have told them briskly that their attempt to suppress the story amounts to prior restraint, has no basis in law, and that, if the police think they have a case for contempt, they can institute a prosecution in due course. He may have added that, since no case, even if brought, is likely to come to court in less than two years, the idea that a leaked memo might influence a jury so far ahead is improbable.

Instead, he has opened himself to the accusation that he is seeking to protect the Government from further humiliation. The injunction thus becomes the latest in a list of half-hearted attempts at censorship, such as Tony Blair's bid to prevent the Daily Mirror revealing his alleged conversation with George W. Bush over bombing al-Jazeera.

We should by now have learnt from the United States, where the Supreme Court will always presume in favour of free speech. The prime test case was that of the Pentagon Papers, when the Nixon Administration argued that publication of stolen documents revealing confidential negotiations over Vietnam constituted a threat to national security, on the ground that other nations would no longer trust the US to keep its secrets. The Supreme Court threw out that case and The New York Times published the results. It was a far better advertisement for American self-confidence than a cover-up. Today no one can recollect much of what was in the Pentagon Papers; but the failed attempt to suppress them is still remembered.

Challenging interfering governments should be a prime responsibility of the media. But it takes time, and involves risks, which managements too often shrink from. My three-year legal marathon on The Scotsman exposed that paper to potential costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds - picked up, instead, by the taxpayer after we had won. When The Wall Street Journal challenged an attempted injunction by a Saudi businessman over a story about financing terrorism in 2001, that case, too, went all the way to the Lords and might have cost the newspaper, had it lost, more than $4 million. The Journal argued that a fundamental principle was at stake, and was praised by the courts for its "responsible journalism".

So, courage - moral as well as managerial - is required in defence of media freedom, and the BBC has as much of a responsibility here as any newspaper. It does not, however, have a great track record. When, at the outset of the Hutton inquiry, ITV presented the case for televising the proceedings, its lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, invited the BBC to join him in the action. The BBC refused, perhaps because it thought that the outcome might compromise it as well as the Government.

The time has come, then, for a new slogan to be added to the legal lexicon - something along the lines of "embarrassment is no defence in law". It is as well to remember that Wellington scrawled "Publish and be damned!" on the back of a letter he had received from his mistress, who was threatening to include his name in her scandalous memoirs. He was not only declaring his immunity to exposure, he was defying a potential blackmailer. He may observe today that the line between blackmail and an injunction can be a fine one.


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