Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Jihad & Terrorism
Published on Jul 31, 2007 by Phyllis Chesler
My Response to a Critic
I thank the editors for allowing me to comment upon this article by Sunera Thobani, which appears in this issue of Feminist Theory.1 Thobani's article condemns myself and two other American feminist scholars (Judith Butler and Zillah Eisenstein) as racially 'superior' white women who collaborate with the 'imperial imaginary' and with 'colonialism'. Thobani also condemns us for daring to present 'whiteness' as 'vulnerable'. She mocks the alleged 'racial paranoia of imperial subjects' (that's us), claiming that in our work we three experience our own 'imperial' aggression as a form of victimization which then allows us to justify the aggression as selfdefence.2
One might wonder why I am taking the time to respond to this inflammatory article. There are four reasons. First, her diatribe is typical but has rarely been answered in the pages of a feminist academic journal. Second, I could not allow her condemnation of three Jewish feminist theorists to pass unchallenged. Third, I had recently been invited to deliver a keynote address at a distinguished British university as part of an international feminist conference in 2007. When I raised questions about security and about the utter absence of kindred spirits, and despite the fact that I had stressed that neither factor would keep me away – I was summarily disinvited. (These feminists have invited me to lecture alone at some future date, but not within the context of an international conference.) I therefore decided that responding to Thobani might be one way to be 'heard' in the UK and in international feminist circles. Finally, I felt it was important to explain how Thobani's paper (and so many others like it) is the written equivalent of what happens today on campuses when genuine dissent or non-politically correct feminist speech dares appear.
Instead of a respectful hearing what ensues is this: the politically incorrect feminist speaker is peppered with hostile questions, then silenced by boos, catcalls, foot-stamping, and name-calling; she might even be physically menaced. Security might be required. This is hardly an atmosphere in which a free exchange of ideas can occur. Similarly, like the Mearsheimer-Walt3 and Joan Wallach Scott4 papers, Thobani's seemingly sophisticated paper, replete with footnotes, is trying to pass for an academic or even intellectual work. But hers are ideological, not scholarly, views. The attempt to pretend that one is the other is what I have characterized as a new totalitarianism among Western intellectuals.
Thobani's article is an angry and self-righteous declaration of war. She does not have one positive thing to say about any of our work. Responding to Thobani in kind – with rage and condemnation – gives me no pleasure for what do we gain? Two warriors growling, slicing the air with paper swords while millions of Third World women and men of diverse skin colors and ethnicities are indeed being tormented and slaughtered – but mainly by other Third World men and women of diverse skin colors and ethnicities – while we do nothing because to intervene or even to acknowledge that this is happening is politically incorrect? (By the way, 'white' folk have sorrows too but enough about that.)
Ethnic Arab Muslims are genocidally slaughtering black African Muslims, Christians, and animists in Darfur; Muslims are blowing each other up when they pray in mosques in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia; Muslim men are shooting down and beheading their own intellectuals and dissidents in unimaginable numbers. According to one compelling source, such numbers far outpace anything the combined American and Israeli forces have done in the last 50 years. The estimated Third World Muslim violent deaths by other Third World Muslims, country by country, vastly exceeds that of Third World Muslim deaths in so-called 'white imperial' wars.5
Thobani seems to believe in racial purity and therefore in the rights of racially oppressed victims to engage in apocalyptic 'resistance'. Thobani is not deterred by the fact that 'white' and 'colored' skin color are not pure, have no significant scientific basis, and often have different meanings as a function of other variables such as class, caste, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, religion, educational level, marital, national, and immigrant status, birth order, character, destiny, etc. (Haven't feminist academics said so over and over again?)
Reality does not conform to Thobani's ideological 'imaginary'. The American population (we three 'white' feminists are American citizens), the victims of 9/11, the members of the American Armed Forces, and the large number of immigrants to America, including those from Muslim and Third World countries, are not all 'white'. As of 2005, over 73 million Americans (or 25 per cent of the population) were 'non-white'. An additional 40 million Hispanic-Americans do not identify themselves as either 'black' or 'white' but as 'Latino'.6 (Latino skin color ranges from white to black.) Also, nearly 36 per cent of American soldiers are 'nonwhite' Americans7 and about 15 per cent of American soldiers are women.8
Thus, Thobani's alleged 'white' perpetrators are not all white.9 Nor are the victims of Islamic Holy War all white. However, such real-life distinctions about color do not matter to Thobani. For example, approximately 24 per cent of those murdered in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks were identified as 'non-white'.10 In London, almost one-third of the population (which one assumes uses public transport) identified itself as 'nonwhite'. 11 On 7 July 2005, 52 people were murdered and nearly 800 injured by Islamic jihadist attacks on the London transportation systems. France's 2005 version of the Palestinian intifada against Israel was characterized by nearly two months of rioting, attacks on the police, and car burnings – and by the exceptionally horrific torture of one young North African-Jewish man, the olive-skinned Ilan Halimi (may his memory be for a blessing). Over a three-week period, black African and ethnic Arab North African criminals slowly tortured him to death, while many people came to watch or to participate.12 One year later, in 2006, this France-based jihad was commemorated by bus and car burnings.13 I am particularly haunted by the fate of one young, black-skinned French-African woman who was torched when the bus she was riding on was set on fire.14 The rioting arsonists have yet to be tried. Although their ethnicity has, carefully, not been described, I predict that if and when we find out who they are, they will probably not be 'white' feminists.
I wonder whether Thobani realizes that all three of her alleged 'traitors' are not only major and original feminist theorists and activists but also Jews. In George Orwell's novel 1984, someone named 'Goldstein' is designated as the permanent traitor whom Big Brother denounces for monstrous crimes, thereby brainwashing the masses into extraordinary group hatred against him. Are we meant to be Thobani's version of 'Goldstein'? Does she not understand that Jews come in all colors, and that even when we have white skins we are still not considered 'white' but exotic, Oriental, Semitic? (This does not mean that anti-Semitism, which is primarily about Jews, is the same as or even analogous to 'Islamophobia' which is a concept of recent vintage and with a different historical trajectory.)
Thobani specializes in the postcolonial work that has increasingly come to dominate what once used to be called feminism or women's studies. I document this unfortunate, even tragic trend in The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom (2005). It is a trend that ultimately justifies an isolationist position vis-à-vis the rights of women and dissidents in the Third World. Westernized Third World feminists and their Western feminist counterparts all refuse to view any formerly colonized culture of 'color' as barbaric, even when it is, because all cultures are presumably equal.
Thobani views the cause of women as served only by a Marxist-Stalinist-Islamist critique of Western foreign policy and by virulent anti-Americanism. She does not seem to address any core or burning emergency issues that concern women.
In this paper, Thobani is utterly silent about the international trafficking in women and children (female sexual slavery) that may far exceed all other illegal enterprises. She is also silent about female genital cutting, wife- and daughter-beating, honor murders, forced veiling, purdah (segregation – sequestration), and arranged and polygamous marriage. These barbaric customs are normalized, not criminalized, and they characterize what I term Islamic gender apartheid. These practices also preceded Western imperialism and colonialism.
Thobani is also silent about the high rate of AIDS with which young girls and women are being infected by their male partners (especially in the Third World), and about sexual, reproductive and physical violence, including incest and within marriage, and about both economic discrimination and rape in general (again, especially in the Third World). She is silent about the repeated public gang-rapes of genitally infibulated girls and women in the Sudan which have been carried out against black African Muslims, Christians, and animists by ethnic Arab Muslims. (In my writing, I have referred to this as 'gender cleansing'.) She is silent about the history of Muslim slave traders, about the current black African slave trade among ethnic Arab Muslims, and about the genocide against black Africans being carried out in the Sudan by ethnic Arab Muslims.
What matters to theorists like Thobani is this: she will condemn Third World deaths only if they have been caused by 'white' people, but not if those deaths have been caused by Third World people of 'color'.
Thobani is perfectly free to criticize, even to demonize the West, in the West because she is living in a democracy where academic freedom and free speech are (still) taken seriously. Were Thobani to dare criticize the barbarism, misogyny, and despotism of Third World countries, were she to do so in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia (to name only a few such countries), she would be in serious danger of being shot to death in her own home, as happened recently to an Afghan woman journalist, or of being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. This has happened to many Muslim dissidents and feminists. In 2003, Wajeha Al-Huwaider was barred from publishing in the Saudi Kingdom; in 2006 she was arrested, interrogated, and forced to sign a statement agreeing to cease her human rights activities.15 Bangladeshi writer Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, had his office bombed, was jailed for two years and is now on trial for his life. His crime? 'Praising the Jew and Christians', 'attempting to travel to Israel', and 'predicting the rise of Islamist militancy'. These charges may carry a death sentence.16
In The Death of Feminism, I describe what I mean by Islamic religious and gender apartheid in Muslim countries and I document how such customs have penetrated both Europe and North America through immigrant communities. Let me mention two Muslim-world examples that I cite in the book. In 1990, Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam published a carefully rendered account of how, on 16 August 1986, a thirty-five year old woman was stoned to death in a small village in Iran. Soraya was savagely lynched and then stoned to death by the villagers with whom she had lived all her life. Her own father, her two sons, and her husband all threw the first stones.17 I also describe another incident which took place in July 2001 in Hassi Messaoud, Algeria, in which a mob of three hundred men conducted a three-day pogrom against thirty-nine economically impoverished Algerian women. In his Friday sermons, the local mullah, Amar Taleb, had described these women as 'immoral' because they were working for a foreign company. The men tortured, stabbed, mutilated, gang-raped, buried alive and murdered these women.18
Feminists need to acknowledge that this is happening. We need to wrestle with it and take a stand against it. We need to make common cause with Third World and Muslim feminists and dissidents who want to create alliances.
Today, in Muslim countries, women are being more forcefully and fully veiled. They are being imprisoned, gang-raped, flogged, and in Iran, often hung or stoned to death when they allege rape or run away from unusually cruel and life-threatening-families.19 Honor murders are either increasing or have become more visible – perhaps because Western and Western influenced feminists and human rights activists have begun to document them. In the fall of 2006, Human Rights Watch published a new report in which they documented that violence against Palestinian women is increasing and that it is primarily due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the ascent of Hamas.20
Increasingly, Muslim women professionals are being warned not to work for women's rights or are being ordered to veil or to veil more fully. Those who are seen as disobedient are badly beaten, flogged, or murdered. Recently, in the fall of 2006 (the end of Ramadan), perhaps a thousand men conducted a 'sexual wilding' in Cairo. They surrounded individual girls and women who were fully veiled, partly veiled, and unveiled, and groped and assaulted them. Individuals tried to help these women – who escaped from the male crowds naked and half-naked. The police refused to make any arrests and the media did not cover it. I and others only learned of this incident because some foreign journalists blogged it – and because one brave Egyptian woman spoke about it on a live Egyptian television programme.21
But worse things happened during Ramadan 2006. In Indonesia, three Christian high school girls were beheaded as a 'Ramadan trophy'. Their heads were dumped in plastic bags in their village with a note: 'Wanted. 100 more Christian heads'. The man charged with this offence had, it has been reported, decided that beheading Christians would 'qualify as an act of Muslim charity'.22
My experience in Kabul, Afghanistan, about which I write in The Death of Feminism, was not as a 'white' do-gooding 'imperialist' but as the wife of a westernized olive-skinned Muslim national. My own experience of Islamic gender and religious apartheid, which included purdah, polygamy, pressure to convert to Islam, normalized Jew hatred, normalized domestic violence, and cruelty towards children, women, and servants, the omnipresent head scarves, chadari (or chador), and the internalization of Islamic fundamentalist values by everyone, including the women who most suffered from such values, taught me that such barbaric gender and religious apartheid is indigenous and that it preceded, and was not necessarily caused by, Western capitalism, imperialism, or colonialism. I was in Kabul in 1961 and Afghans were very proud that no one – not even the British – had ever colonized them.
Because I survived and managed to escape from Kabul, I was able to draw some conclusions which, according to Thobani and other multi-cultural relativists, amount to heresy. I no longer romanticize Third World countries or despots as noble victims. Nor do I ascribe evil in the universe only to the West.
Precisely because I am not a racist I am therefore not a multi-cultural relativist; I am a universalist. I believe that human rights are universal and apply to people everywhere. This is not the same as saying that I believe in crusades or conversions or that I blindly support imperialist ventures abroad or that I confuse them with feminist ventures. I have simply decided that Western democratic and secular ideals and (imperfect) practices must be extended universally, that the survival, dignity, and freedom of women and intellectuals depend upon this.
I will not respond to the specific points Thobani raises about my book, The New Anti-Semitism. But, for the record, let me say that she draws highly biased conclusions and quotes from my work only in order to discredit it and in a particularly incendiary way. In doing so, she utterly misinforms the reader.23
Thobani writes, 'Chesler's analysis pivots on her reproduction of Muslims as an absolute Other, whose actions cannot be comprehended rationally.' How can this be true since I call for alliances with dissident and feminist Muslims in both recent books and in my articles? There is a difference between 'Muslims' and 'Islamic, terrorist, fundamentalists'. Thobani also quotes my description of the 1980 United Nations conference in Copenhagen to prove that I see all Arab or Palestinian women negatively.
Not so. In the paragraph Thobani quotes, I am not describing 'Muslim women'. I am describing a Soviet-funded and orchestrated campaign under United Nations auspices to torpedo and hijack a conference that was supposed to be about women. The Soviets trained and used female PLO operatives whose choreographed aggression, hostility and threatening behaviors do not represent 'Muslim women' or Muslim feminists.
Again, let me thank the editors for giving me this opportunity to respond.
1. I assume that readers have already read through Sunera Thobani's paper titled 'White Wars' and thus will not summarize it here.
2. Although the published version of Thobani's article is less personalized than the original version to which I was responding in this paper, she still ignores the fact that I call for Judaeo-Christian alliances with Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents and feminists, and that in my view, the clash is not between civilizations but between civilization and barbarism.
3. Phyllis Chesler, 'Academic Anti-Semitism', National Review, 30 May 2006 [http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=M2E3YzMzNGRmNzczMm
E2Y2YxZmU3OTQ3ZjZhZDA3MmU=]; Alan Dershowitz, 'Debunking the Newest – and Oldest – Jewish Conspiracy: A Reply to the Mearsheimer-Walt "Working Paper"', Harvard Law School, April 2006 [http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/research/working_papers/dershowitzreply.pdf]
4. Phyllis Chesler et al., 'The Lamentable Case of Joan Scott', FrontPage Magazine, 21 February 2006, [http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=21369]
5. The article from which this information was drawn was written by Ben Dror Yemini for the Israeli newspaper Maariv. The original article can be found at [http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/482/564.html]. This article may be dismissed by anti-Israel fanatics as mere propaganda, but it carefully goes through the history of each country and notes who both the perpetrators and victims were in different wars. I recommend that you read the article and decide for yourself.
6. 2005 American Community Survey Data Profile Highlights, US Census Bureau. American Factfinder Website [http://factfinder.census.gov/
7. 2003 Demographics; Profile of the Military Community, Military Family Resource Center. [http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/dav/lsn/LSN/BINARY_RESOURCE/BINARY_CONTENT/1869841.swf]
8. See Solaro (2005).
9. But according to Thobani, all 'imperial subjects' have agency and are therefore guilty of collaboration – just as we three theorists allegedly are. The fact that 'imperial subjects' are actually non-white does not exempt them. Thus, Thobani cannot argue that American people of 'color' are being forced to do their Master's bidding while American 'white' people freely choose to do so.
10. New York City Health Department, Summary of Vital Statistics 2000 [http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/vs/2000sum.pdf, 2000],
Special Report: World Trade Center Disaster Deaths, 45.
11. Office of National Statistics, 2001 Census [http://neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk/dissemination/, 2001], Key Statistics: London: Ethnic Groups.
12. Nidra Poller, 'The Murder of Ilan Halimi', Wall Street Journal, 26 February 2005, The Opinion Journal [http://www.opinionjournal.com/ extra/?id=110008006&ojrss=wsj]
13. BBC News, 'Police Deployed in Paris Suburbs', BBC News, 27 October 2006, Europe Section [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6093276.stm]
14. BBC News, 'Five Held for Marseille Bus Blaze', BBC News, 31 October 2006, Europe Section [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6101574.stm]; Nidra Poller, 'Burning Buses: "She Was Black but She Looked White, her Skin Was Peeled"', Pajamas Media, 3 November 2006 [http://www.pajamasmedia.com/2006/11/burning_buses_she_was_black_bu.php]
15. Sarah Leah Whitson and Human Rights Watch, Letter to Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, 20 October 2006 [http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/10/20/saudia14461.htm]
16. Bret Stephens, 'Darkness in Dhaka', Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2006, The Opinion Journal Global View [http://www.opinionjournal.com/wsj/?id=110009088]; Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, 'My Day in Court', Israel Insider, 14 November 2006, Diplomacy, Choudhury Persecution [http://web.israelinsider.com/Views/9859.htm]
17. Chesler, 2005: 58–9; Sahebjam, 1994.
18. Chesler, 2005: 187–8.
19. Phyllis Chesler, 'Islamic Gender Apartheid', speech at an American Committee for Democracy in the Middle East Senate Briefing, Washington DC, USA, 14 December 2005.
20. Human Rights Watch, A Question of Security, Vol. 18, No. 7(E), November 2006 [http://hrw.org/reports/2006/opt1106/opt1106webwcover.pdf]
21. Anonymous, translation of 'Mass Sexual Assault in Downtown Cairo', 'Unnecessary, and Not Very Diverting, Musings', posted 15 November
2006 [http://forsoothsayer.blogspot.com/2006/10/mass-sexual-assault-in-downtown-cairo.html]; Mona El-Naggar and Michael Slackman, 'Silence and Fury in Cairo after Sexual Attacks on Women', New York Times, 15 November 2006, World Section, Africa; BBC News, 'Cairo Street Crowds Target Women', BBC News, 1 November 2006, Middle East Section [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6106500.stm]
22. Stephen Fitzpatrick, 'Beheaded Girls were Ramadan Trophies', The Australian, 9 November 2006, The World [http://www.theaustralian. news.com.au/story/0,20867,20726085–2703,00.html]
23. Thobani's expanded critique of one of my thirteen books, The New Anti-Semitism, is still very biased. Clearly, she is unaware of my political activism of long duration, beginning in 1973, against the Israeli occupation of disputed territories and she is unaware that I have been a named-plaintiff in a landmark Israeli Supreme Court lawsuit in which I sued the Israeli state on behalf of Jewish women's religious rights as well. (I co-authored a book about this titled Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site.) Quite apart from the body of my feminist work, these two facts would suggest that my reading of Israeli morality is nuanced, careful, fair. Alas, historical realities have tempered my original view that if Israel gave back land – as it has given back Gaza – that this would lead to peace and to the acceptance of the Jewish state by Jew-hating and anti-Zionist Muslim nation-states. Events on the ground from 2000–2007 have cured me of that dream and I explain this to some extent in The New Anti-Semitism and again in The Death of Feminism. I have not pronounced feminism 'dead'; rather, I challenge what often passes for feminism (as this article by Thobani tries to do) and suggest that feminism ought to return to its original concepts of universalism.
Chesler, Phyllis (2005) The Death of Feminism. What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sahebjam, Freidoune (1994) The Stoning of Soraya M. New York: Arcade Publishing.
Solaro, Erin (2005) Women in the Line of Fire. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
Thobani, Sunera (2007) 'White Wars: Western Feminisms and the "War on Terror"', Feminist Theory 8(2).
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