Fighting Words

When the Extreme Becomes the Norm

What connects Obama’s pronouncements on head scarves and the argument over released Guantanamo detainees?

Guantanamo detainees

There is a fascinating connection between what President Barack Obama said about head scarves for women in his June 4 speech in Cairo and the argument over the released Guantanamo detainees who have since been found, or found again, in the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Don’t try to guess, but do please read on.

Ever since former Vice President Dick Cheney made the most of the New York Times headline of May 21, using Defense Department statistics to suggest that one in seven Guantanamo graduates had “returned to terrorism or militant activity,” there has been a huge row about whether this is true and, if it is, why it is. Might it not be the case, for example, that an innocent person put through the Guantanamo experience might become “radicalized” and decide to join the ranks of jihad for the first time?

The latter explanation is certainly not true for several of the recidivists who have been positively identified; we do know the past and present of some of these characters. On my own visit to Guantanamo, I was given a list—admittedly containing only 11 names—of former Taliban militants like Abdullah Mehsud, detained in February 2002 and released in March 2004, who later killed himself rather than surrender to Pakistani security forces. If it is an offense to justice to hold people who may have been victims of mistaken identity or of vendettas by other factions, then it is also an offense to justice to release psychopathic killers who believe that they have divine permission to throw acid in the faces of girls who want to attend school.

Yet if we think it probable or possible that a man would only mutate into such a monster after undergoing the Guantanamo experience, then I can suggest one reason why that might be. Nothing prepared me for the way in which the authorities at the camp have allowed the most extreme religious cultists among the inmates to be the organizers of the prisoners’ daily routine. Suppose that you were a secular or unfanatical person caught in the net by mistake; you would still find yourself being compelled to pray five times a day (the guards are not permitted to interrupt), to have a Quran in your cell, and to eat food prepared to halal (or Sharia) standards. I suppose you could ask to abstain, but, in such a case, I wouldn’t much fancy your chances. The officers in charge were so pleased by this ability to show off their extreme broad-mindedness in respect of Islam that they looked almost hurt when I asked how they justified the use of taxpayers’ money to create an institution dedicated to the fervent practice of the most extreme version of just one religion. To the huge list of reasons to close down Guantanamo, add this: It’s a state-sponsored madrasah.

The same near-masochistic insistence on taking the extreme as the norm was also present in Obama’s smoothly delivered speech in the Egyptian capital. Some of what he said was well-intentioned if ill-informed. The United States should not have overthrown the elected government of Iran in 1953, but when it did so, it used bribed mullahs and ayatollahs to whip up anti-Communist sentiment against a secular regime. The John Adams administration in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli did indeed proclaim that the United States had no quarrel with Islam as such (and, even more important, that the United States itself was in no sense a Christian nation), but the treaty failed to stop the Barbary states from invoking the Quran as permission to kidnap and enslave travelers on the high seas, and thus Thomas Jefferson was later compelled to send a fleet and the Marines to put down the trade. One hopes that Obama does not prefer Adams to Jefferson in this regard.

Any person with the smallest pretense to cultural literacy knows that there is no such place or thing as “the Muslim world,” or, rather, that it consists of many places and many things. (It is precisely the aim of the jihadists to bring it all under one rulership preparatory to making Islam the world’s only religion.) But Obama said nothing about the schism between Sunni and Shiites, or about the argument over Sufism, or about Ahmadi and Ismaili forms of worship and practice. All this was conceded to the umma: the highly ideological notion that a person is first and foremost defined by their adherence to a religion and that all concepts of citizenship and rights take second place to this theocratic diktat. Nothing could be more reactionary.

Take the single case in which our president touched upon the best-known fact about the Islamic “world”: its tendency to make women second-class citizens. He mentioned this only to say that “Western countries” were discriminating against Muslim women! And how is this discrimination imposed? By limiting the wearing of the head scarf or hijab (a word that Obama pronounced as hajib—imagine the uproar if George Bush had done that). The clear implication was an attack on the French law that prohibits the display of religious garb or symbols in state schools. Indeed, the following day in Paris, Obama made this point even more explicitly. I quote from an excellent commentary by an Algerian-American visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School, Karima Bennoune, who says:

I have just published research conducted among the many people of Muslim, Arab and North African descent in France who support that country’s 2004 law banning religious symbols in public schools which they see as a necessary deployment of the “law of the republic” to counter the “law of the Brothers,” an informal rule imposed undemocratically on many women and girls in neighborhoods and at home and by fundamentalists.

(Click here for more of professor Bennoune’s work.)

But to the women who are compelled to dress according to the requirements of others, Obama had nothing to say at all, as if the only “right” at stake were the right to obey an instruction that is, in fact—if it matters—not found in the Quran. In Turkey, too, head scarves for women are outlawed in some contexts. Is this, too, Islamophobia? Does the president think that the veil and the burqa are also freely chosen fashion statements? This sort of naiveté is worrying, and it means that among the global Muslim audience, the wrong sort of people were laughing at us, while the ones who ought to be our friends and allies were shedding a disappointed tear.