Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

Sam Harris: Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy

June 12, 2013
Hajj pilgrims in Mecca

Hajj pilgrims in Mecca

“Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not,” writes Sam Harris.

Read his essay here.

Believe and Be Saved? Christianity and Cognitive Science, 1

January 21, 2013

By Valerie Tarico, author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light

Post-mortem sur “l’affaire du voile” (mais est-elle vraiment morte?)

December 15, 2012

par Doughlas Remy

Voile tricolore

Voile tricolore

En France, “l’affaire du voile” (aka “la bataille du voile”) durait 15 années et révélait de profondes lignes de faille dans la société française. L’affaire a commencé en 1989 avec l’explusion de trois filles musulmanes du collège Gabriel-Havez de Creil dans l’Oise pour avoir persévéré à porter le voile en classe,(1) et elle a conclu avec la loi Stasi de mars 2004 sur les signes religieux dans les écoles publiques.(2) Cette loi interdit le port de tout signe religieux ostensible mais permet le port de symboles ou de tenues discrets. On ne peut pas dire avec certitude que le dernier chapitre de cette histoire ait été écrit, mais il paraît que tous les arguments ont été articulés et que le consensus soutenant la loi est, pour le moment, stable.

Une grande partie de l’intérêt suscité par cette affaire est due aux alliances insolites qu’elle a créées. Les factions politiques, sociales, et religieuses se sont recomposées de sorte à brouiller les limites entre les idéologies et à granulariser l’opinion.(3) Des catholiques se sont alignés avec des musulmans pour soutenir les libertés de l’individu et de la conscience. Des féministes se trouvaient du côté des communautaires contre les mouvances anti-racistes, libérales et libertaires. Certains communautaires favorisaient le voile comme expression culturelle intégrante, tandis que d’autres l’opposaient comme expression de la désunion. Les Français se sont interrogés encore une fois sur la portée et l’application de la laïcité, principe affirmé en France depuis 1905.

Nous identifierons les deux positions fondamentales du débat—l’une soutenant le porte du voile dans les écoles et l’autre l’opposant. Nous examinerons leurs composants, leurs valeurs, et leurs arguments, avant de proposer que la solution adoptée par l’Assemblée Nationale en 2004 a été la meilleure possible.

On pourrait soutenir que, historiquement, l’Eglise catholique française et la droite politique ont eu tendance toutes les deux à résister à la laïcité et à l’assimilation des peuples non-chrétiens et même des non-catholiques. Bien entendu, la force et la visibilité de cette tendence ont varié selon les circonstances et l’esprit du temps, mais les racines culturelles du tribalisme sont profondes et tenaces. La droite politique et religieuse vise toujours à sauvegarder la pureté de la race et de la foi.(4)

Donc, l’intégration des peuples étrangers pose un dilemme pour la droite, en ce qu’elle peut mener à un affaiblissement de l’église et à une dilution de la “race.” Bien que l’église semble avoir enfin accepté que la France est bel et bien une république, elle n’a pas encore tout à fait accepté le caractère pluraliste et multiculturel de l’état. Avant 1945, on avait été bien content de faire rassembler les juifs dans des ghettos et des camps et de leur faire porter des emblèmes qui les identifiaient et les mettaient à part. On avait découragé et même prohibé les mariages mixtes pour que les “différences” soient préservées. En Allemagne, ce souci de la différentiation était devenu obsessif, pathologique et destructeur.

Dans la France de nos jours, ces tendences vers la pureté de race et de foi, bien qu’affaiblies, s’exercent souvent contre les musulmans. Censément, ceux-ci ménacent l’intégrité de la culture française et européenne. On n’a qu’à se rappeler Charles Martel et la bataille de Tours où les Sarrasins ont été repoussés par les Francs. Les Sarrasins sont enfin à nos portes, se dit-on maintenant, et il faut reprendre la lutte. Sous cette optique, la religion et les coutumes des musulmans sont à jamais incompatibles avec celles de la souche française et du christianisme. Puisqu’on ne peut pas expulser les musulmans en masse, on mettra en valeur les structures de la séparation.

Mais le climat politique avait beaucoup changé depuis la guerre, et de tels sentiments ne s’exprimaient plus avec autant d’insouciance qu’autrefois. Il fallait trouver des moyens et du langage pour éviter toute accusation de racisme ou d’islamophobie. On a fini par adopter, tout en l’infléchissant, le langage du multiculturalisme, de la tolérance, et des libertés individuelles.(5) Bien que ces valeurs n’avaient jamais été particulièrement favorisées ni par l’église ni par la droite, elles pouvaient servir à capturer les hauteurs morales. Ceux qui s’opposaient à l’assimilation espéraient paraître plus de gauche que la gauche. L’issue de leur stratégie était une coalition entre l’église catholique, les organisations islamistes telles que La Voix de l’Islam, des libéraux et des libertaires, et des associations de défense des droits de l’homme (surtout Amnesty International et SOS-Racisme).

Mais il faut se garder de dériver trop dans le cynisme ou les théories du complot. Sans doute, les manipulations stratégiques étaient réciproques, et il n’y a rien de suspect dans l’effort de gagner traction dans la sphère politique. Ceux qui s’opposait au port du voile faisaient de même. Il faut avouer que l’église catholique française se croyait marginalisée par une culture de laïcité qui aurait visé à l’exclure.(6) Elle se plaignait de la “perte” de libertés religieuses, ce qui impliquait une perte de libertés individuelles. Étant donné que le mot “liberté” a un statut presque sacré en France, l’Église croyait avoir trouvé une plainte légitime et puissante. Ajoutons-y l’accusation de “l’intolérance,” et voilà un ensemble de revendications à engranger le soutien de la gauche, des anti-racistes, de certains laïcs, et même de certaines féministes.

Selon Eva Joly, candidat dans l’élection presidentielle de 2012, “l’écrasante majorité des musulmans vit sa foi en accord avec les principes de laïcité. … Ils ne sont pas fâchés avec la laïcité.”(7) Toutefois, 90% des musulmans interrogés dans un sondage par le CSA en 2004 ont affirmé leur respect pour les principes républicains, y compris l’égalité des hommes et des femmes.(8) En revanche, 50 à 65% ont voulu garder l’option de porter le voile. Évidemment, le débat a brouillé les limites entre les islamistes et les musulmans modérés. Ceux qui voulaient garder la tradition du voile–surtout les musulmans de tendence islamiste–se trouvaient en terrain d’entente avec l’église catholique dans la mesure où chacun s’opposait à l’assimilation.

Une fois que cette position s’était encadrée comme une défense de la tolérance et de la liberté individuelle et religieuse, plusieurs associations libérales ont dû la soutenir. C’est ainsi que Amnesty International, L’Humanité (journal de gauche), et une branche de l’SOS-Racisme se sont alliés avec l’Église, les islamistes, et la droite. Amnesty International a déclaré que l’interdiction de dissimuler son visage “viole les droits à la liberté d’expression et de religion des femmes.”(9) L’Humanité a dénoncé la “volonté de mettre l’Islam au ghetto,”(10) et a parlé d’un relent de racisme et d’une démission éducative. Il a ajouté, “une sanction ne peut être infligée à des élèves en vertu de leur foi.” Malek Boutih, vice-président de SOS-Racisme, trouvait “scandaleux que l’on puisse au nom de la laïcité intervenir ainsi dans la vie privée des gens, malmener les convictions personnelles.”(11) SOS-Racisme était soutenu par MRAP (Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples).(12)

Certains laïcs–les soi-disant “laïcs tolérants”–se sont aussi déclarés “pour” le voile, bien qu’ils aient favorisé l’intégration des musulmans. Ils estimaient que le port du voile ne ménaçait pas la laïcité ou les valeurs républicains. Ils croyaient en plus que l’interdiction pourrait entraver le progrès des musulmans vers l’intégration.(13)

De l’autre côté du débat se trouvaient les laïcs “doctrinaires;” beaucoup de féministes; Alain Goldmann, Grand Rabbin de Paris; Lionel Jospin, ministre de l’éducation; et le SNES (Syndicat national des enseignements de second degré).(14)

Le principal du collège où la première expulsion a été faite a annoncé que le port du voile était incompatible avec le bon fonctionnement d’un établissement scolaire. Il a écrit, “Notre objectif est de limiter l’extériorisation excessive de toute appartenance religieuse ou culturelle. … [Il faut] respecter le caractère laïc de l’établissement.”(15)

Cette opinion a été soutenue par le SNES : “[Une] pratique souple et tolérante de la laïcité exclut cependant de transformer les établissements scolaires en lieux d’affrontement entre croyants de différentes confessions ou avec les non-croyants.” (16)

Lionel Jospin, ministre de l’éducation, a écrit,  “Il faut respecter la laïcité de l’école qui doit être une école de tolérance, où l’on n’affiche pas, de façon spectaculaire ou ostentatoire, les signes de son appartenance religieuse. … L’école est faite pour accueillir les enfants et pas pour les exclure.”(17)

Ces trois affirmations suggèrent que l’accord entre le gouvernement, les syndicats d’enseignants, et les laïcs doctrinaires était robuste. Toutes trois s’appuyent sur l’importance de respecter la laïcité, concept qui inclut l’universalité, le communautarisme, la fraternité, l’égalité, et même l’uniformité culturelle. Le voile, étant vu comme une marque d’infériorité et de soumission féminine, ainsi que d’un refus de l’exogamie et de l’assimilation, serait donc anti-égalitaire et anti-communautaire.

Zippered WomanBeaucoup de féministes ont insisté que le voile était un instrument de l’oppression et de la contrainte exercée sur les femmes musulmanes. Selon cet argument, même celles qui, censément, le portaient à libre volonté avaient interiorisé l’autorité des patriarches. Une fonction de l’éducation serait de les “libérer de la tutelle de leur peur,” de leur offrir “un lieu de révolte, de libération et d’espérance.”(18)

Pour conclure, il n’y avait rien de radical dans la solution adoptée par l’Assemblée Nationale. La loi Stasi s’applique uniquement aux codes vestimentaires dans les établissements scolaires publics. Les espaces publics et privés où les filles musulmanes peuvent exprimer leur identité culturelle sont toujours vastes. Le jugement d’Alain Goldmann, Grand Rabbin de Paris, à cet égard est propice: “Si un enfant juif veut vivre pleinement son identité dans le respect de la cacheroute et des fêtes, ses parents doivent l’inscrire dans une école juive.”(19)

De surcroît, la loi Stasi n’interdit que des signes religieux “ostensibles.” Les élèves peuvent toujours porter des symboles discrets de leur foi, tels que des petites croix, les étoiles de David, ou autres médailles religieuses.

Enfin, la loi Stasi est tout à fait égalitaire. Loin de discriminer contre les musulmans ou de les répérer, elle s’applique à tout élève de n’importe quelle confession dans les écoles publiques. À la fois souple et tolérante, elle crée et protège un espace où les différences sont moins susceptibles de provoquer des affrontements ou de faire obstacle au processus éducatif. L’instinct des instituteurs était sûr.

(more…)

Why David Goldman is Wrong About “Imminent Population Collapse”

April 24, 2012

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum is touting a new book by David Goldman, “How Civilizations Die.” Goldman claims the world is in a steep demographic decline whose consequences will be catastrophic.

The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings. The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world’s population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care. For the first time in history, the birth rate of the whole developed world is well below replacement, and a significant part of it has passed the demographic point of no return.

Notice that Goldman’s victim in this scenario is the European environmentalist, forced to lie upon the bed she has so foolishly made. He continues:

Imminent population collapse makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose. … Population decline, the decisive issue of the twenty-first century, will cause violent upheavals in the world order. Countries facing fertility dearth, such as Iran, are responding with aggression. Nations confronting their own mortality may choose to go down in a blaze of glory.

Wait just a doggone minute. Hold them hosses. Is Goldman really saying that the world’s population, which has grown 300% since 1944, is in precipitous decline? Is it possible that today’s European adults will spend their declining years in abject misery for lack of enough young people to pay for their pensions and medical care? Is population collapse really “imminent” and even irreversible in places? And do populations with “elder bulges” really become more belligerent?

Gil Bailie could not be happier with Goldman’s thesis, for it appears to validate the Catholic Church’s longstanding position on contraception. Bailie has this to say:

The Church was right, and those who scoffed were wrong.

For decades, things repugnant to every prior age—contraception and abortion—have not only been considered licit, but beyond reproach. To the social, moral, and cultural damage resulting from the severance of sexuality from procreation and emotional commitment can now be added the demographic tsunami by which we already being engulfed.

And today our government is more determined than ever to favor and fund the anti-natal policies that are leading to this catastrophe. What many have said about the debt crisis is true as well of the very much related demographic one: Never before have we faced crises that were this severe and this predictable. And we are doubling down on the policies that created them.

The Church was right after all. All the evidence suggests so.

Was it? And does it? Are we really experiencing a “demographic tsunami?”

First, Bailie could have been more precise in his choice of a metaphor. A tsunami is a sudden excess of water pushed into coastal areas. That said, let’s weigh the evidence for Goldman’s “imminent population collapse.” My sources for population statistics are the CIA World Factbook and various United Nations publications, all freely available on the Internet.

Global population growth, 1300-2000 AD

Again, the world’s  population has grown 300% since I was born (1944), and it’s still growing very rapidly.

The population growth rate (not to be confused with the amount of growth) has dropped almost exactly 50% in the past 50 years (from 2.2% to 1.1% per annum, and that decrease is mostly attributable to lower fertility rates worldwide, though HIV-related deaths in Southern Africa and deaths from starvation and genocide in Sub-Saharan Africa must certainly be factored in. The growth rate is expected to reach 0.6% per annum by 2050, but that’s still growth, not contraction.

Global population growth rates. Source: World Bank

Yes, worldwide fertility rates have dropped, but only to 2.47 children per woman, well above the replacement rate of 2.1 cpw. It’s a good thing. We were headed toward nine billion before the end of this century.

None of these stats on growth and fertility points to “imminent population collapse” on a global scale. On the contrary, overpopulation is already straining the earth’s resources to an alarming degree.

Global fertility rates. Source: World Bank

But what about population collapse at the national level? Is any population really “collapsing?” Certainly, one might expect population numbers to fluctuate as environmental conditions vary over time. But is Goldman justified in reading “collapse” into every ebbing of a national population? Is any society nearing the “point of no return?” Are developed countries in a “death spiral?”

Clearly, Goldman’s hyperbolic rhetoric appears intended to evoke fear. It also appears to be driven by his own fears. But fears of what? The answer is beyond the scope of this post, but Goldman’s Spengler page on PJ Media will offer some clues. Suffice it to say that Gil Bailie and David Goldman share a visceral distaste for liberalism, modernism, secularism, Islam, and the sexual revolution; and that both are opposed to contraception.

Population Dynamics

The scientific literature on population dynamics shows basically four “stages” of population growth, with bulges moving up from bottom to top. As you might expect, there are problems with stage #1, which has a youth bulge, and stage #4, which has a “elder bulge.”

When too many young people come on-stream in a society that is ill-equipped to deal with them, as in stage #1, the results are likely to be increased social unrest, war, terrorism, and even genocide. Second and third sons can’t find employment and often turn to religious or political ideologies to make their mark in the world. Nevertheless, the “youth bulge” is never the only factor explaining these pathologies. Resources are key to whether predicting whether a society can effectively handle a youth bulge. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has done well, while Egypt has done very poorly.

Global Median Age

Where there’s an “elder bulge,” as we are seeing in Japan and Europe, social services are strained at the other end (i.e., social welfare for seniors), and the fewer resources that are available, the more acute the problems become. An educated and informed democratic society can always tweak policy to address the challenges. While draconian measures like criminalization of contraception are never necessary, they are often advocated by religious institutions locked into pre-modern and pre-scientific conceptions of social engineering. And make no mistake about it: Policies that criminalize or deny access to contraception are a form of social engineering.

The fourth model, with its “elder bulge,” is never an inverted pyramid. People don’t completely stop having children, even in modern China. And, contrary to what David Golden claims, elder bulges don’t provoke violent social upheavals.  As Samuel Huntington wrote in Clash of Civilizations, “Generally speaking, the people who go out and kill other people are males between the ages of 16 and 30.”

It’s always a complicated equation—never as simple as David Goldman’s model—and one must never factor out resources and other environmental factors. Overpopulation occurs when an area’s population exceeds its carrying capacity, and underpopulation occurs when there are not enough people to maintain an economic system. Depopulation occurs when people leave an area or are killed off. Somalia is overpopulated because it lacks resources to sustain its people, and the continent of Antarctica is underpopulated because conditions of life there are so harsh.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population has quadrupled since 1945, causing a precipitous decline in resources, especially water, fuel, and soil nutrients. In Somalia, 12 million people are facing famine. The linkage between overpopulation and famine is undisputed.

What is the solution to Somalia’s problems? Certainly an infusion of food and water supplies would alleviate suffering there. But until that happens, would anyone dare suggest that Somalis should have more babies? Would anyone in his right mind suggest withholding contraceptives? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you probably need to read up on Catholic teachings.

There isn’t a single country or society where either underpopulation or depopulation, as defined above, is currently a social problem on the scale of the overpopulation problem in Africa. This is not to claim that populations cannot implode. Indigenous populations were decimated throughout the Americas from disease and conquest following the arrival of Europeans. The Vikings left Greenland because of climate change, and some Polynesian islands were abandoned between 800 and 1000 AD for environmental reasons that are still in dispute. In none of these cases was “birth dearth” the cause of depopulation. Again, environmental factors were decisive.

So, if there is, in Gil Bailie’s words, a demographic “tsunami,” then surely we are witnessing it in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is indeed a “death spiral,” but one that results from overpopulation, not depopulation.

David Goldman’s concerns about declining fertility rates in developed countries are driven less by fears of underpopulation than by fears about cultural dilutions resulting from immigration. There is certainly no dearth of people in the world, and, as said earlier, the total fertility rate is still well above the replacement rate of 2.1 bpw. The key to understanding Goldman’s misplaced concerns is to understand what he, as a stakeholder, fears about cultural dilution.

If developed countries need to beef up their populations, they can prioritize financial incentives for families to have more than 2.1 children, as Japan and some northern European countries are currently doing. Or they can leverage immigration, or encourage workers to delay retirement. Students can be given low-interest-rate loans so that starting a family after college does not become an impossible financial burden for them. There are costs involved in any of these measures, but the resources are not lacking.

The reality is that resources in developed nations are not yet at a point where population attrition is inevitable. These societies are now being asked to decide whether unlimited accrual of personal wealth is conducive to cultural or national survival. At some point, the perceived common good may require adjusting priorities. Women who have political choice will not opt for more children when resources are scarce, and they may justly demand a reallocation of resources.

Strained resources in India

If less-developed nations face overpopulation, then why not support family planning as a way of bringing those populations under control? We know that family planning works, but we have not yet seen that resource replacement does so.

To take contraception off the table is to deprive ourselves of a highly effective tool for managing populations and for ensuring the well-being of those who do populate our planet. It isn’t just numbers that we want, or more life. Humans are not warrior ants, driven only to reproduce and make war. We are made for something better.

Randall Jennings comments:

Seems the modern world is very good at creating problems and then creating new ones with their “fixes” on ever grander scales. I could foresee tens of millions Chinese men, for instance, having their own ideas of reducing global population as they realize they will very well never have a bride and a normal family life after the ‘success’ of the state’s one child policy.

George Dunn responds to Randall Jennings:

Randall, the widening disproportion of men to women is a concern of the Chinese government, which is one reason they are relaxing the one child policy. What you foresee is also foreseeable by policymakers, who are in a position to adjust the policy accordingly. But I hope you’re not suggesting (as Gil undoubtedly would) that the solution is to criminalize the use of contraceptives. That would be to consign hundreds of millions of Chinese to grinding poverty and possibly starvation. Say what you will about the current Chinese regime (and, as an expat in China, I am certainly not an unqualified fan), but they have succeeded where their predecessors have all failed in meeting the greatest challenge that a developing country must face—they are keeping every single one of their 1.3 billion citizens fed. Not only that, but they have lifted an unprecedented 600 million people out of poverty. I shudder to think what China would be like today if contraception had been criminalized for the last fifty years.

Ian Mac Laue writes:

I don’t dispute that some of the data might be overblown or used to support xenophobic ends that aren’t by any means admirable, but as it concerns strictly european nations there does seem to be a problem of replacement level growth. Shouldn’t a country be concerned when its tax base is incapable of supporting its older members? Or are you suggesting that any such problem could be allieviated by an influx of immigration?

My response to Ian Mac Laue:

Countries with birthrates below replacement levels have legitimate concerns about the burdens placed on working-age populations to support their elderly. People throughout the developed world are living longer, and women are having fewer babies.

I don’t believe there is any single solution to this problem, but I do believe certain proposed solutions should be taken off the table. Criminalizing or withholding access to contraception is a non-starter. Turning back the rights revolution and the sexual revolution is another non-starter. Once women got the right to vote, the game was up for patriarchal structures of power, and the path ahead is clear. Women will continue to demand equality and the right to control their own reproductive lives, and they will increasingly achieve their goals. We must just accept that as a given.

Populations that are still growing are generally those where women are still substantially oppressed. Oppression is not an option for constitutional democracies.

Solutions to birth dearth include immigration, government-sponsored incentives, and later retirement. None of these solutions is without problems of its own, but at least none of them requires any curtailment of individual liberties.

Dean Hansen responds to Gil Bailie:

I wasn’t aware that contraception and abortion have been repugnant to every age. When we refuse to examine our own “repugnance” regarding reproduction issues, nature steps in and does it for us with bubonic plague, cholera epidemics, wars, droughts, floods, and fires.  Nature doesn’t give a damn about our moral scrupulosity. I’m so glad Gil took this time out of his busy schedule to remind us how happy we could be if we surrendered our autonomy to the authority of a group of demented celibate old men in Rome. Of course, Gil has been taking time out of his busy schedule to say the same stuff over and over, day after day, quoting anyone who will agree with him, and then covering his ears every time someone objects.

What I do believe is that people who live their lives in fear and superstition can make life a living hell for those who don’t, but women have always resorted to whatever means were available to them, regardless of the darkness of the age they resided in, or the potential danger to themselves, to wrest control of their own lives from “well meaning” male authorities who claimed to speak for God. Much of that so-called repugnance was nothing more than a continuation of a shaming mechanism aimed at reducing human reproduction and human sexuality into a miserable farce whose whole aim to is to denigrate any kind of sexual act that doesn’t take place in the sacred baby-making factory of family bedroom.

Yes, those declining years will be spent in misery, unless we make up our minds to burden an already over-stressed world with a new and continuous supply of human beings—who can starve along with the ones who are already here, many of them unwanted or unplanned—and to put additional demands on resources that are irreplaceable and on energy systems that are still dominated by an oil industry determined to keep their profits rolling in no matter what the cost to the planet. The real misery for subsequent generations will be fished-out seas and coal-fired plants belching more carbon into an already overloaded atmosphere. And when the electricity goes off, so does the running water, the toilet, the shower, the microwave oven, the refrigerator, the TV, the air conditioning … well, just about anything that distinguishes our relatively civilized culture from the others that will be dying off at an even faster rate.  Now that’s population collapse, brother, and it won’t be caused by our inability to remember how to fuck and make babies.

It amazes me that Gil holds up Paul Ehrlich as an example of bad science, when much of what he said was prescient and has come true.  The dates were off but the trends are sound.  We are at three times the population world-wide that existed at the time of Mr. Bailie’s birth. We are running out of potable water, sustainable crops, and non-polluting energy, and still he dumbs-down the rhetoric by quoting anyone who parrots the idiocy about “fertility dearth.”  The only real and measurable dearth is in the neuronal dendrites that can no longer be called into service in Bailie’s apparently concrete-filled head as they march into the waste basket of his own personal historical delusions.

And what’s the final cherry atop the tasty Catholic cobbler in this intellectual feast or famine? “The Church was right after all.”  Right about what??

I would modify that numbing bit of falderal by suggesting the people who have left the church in order to maintain their sanity and live lives of honesty were right, and that that will ultimately make the only real difference.

Pastor Dennis Terry Introduces Rick Santorum

March 21, 2012

The following videos contain content that may be disturbing to people who value religious liberty, freedom of conscience, women’s reproductive health, gender equality, civil rights for GLBTs, and democracy:

And he prays over Rick Santorum:

Read the Huffington Post story here.

Is There Too Much Morality in the World?

December 21, 2011

Steven Pinker

In his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (Viking, 2011), Steven Pinker begins a section called “Morality and Taboo” (p. 622) with the following short and provocative declaration:

The world has far too much morality.

Yes, I, too, had to re-read that sentence. Is he about to say there should be more immorality? Well, thankfully, not. He explains:

If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice [revenge, vigilantism, honor killings, etc.], the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor killing of unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples.

What Pinker is telling us is not too surprising when you think about it: the human moral sense can go off the tracks.

Unless one is a radical moral relativist, one believes that people can in some sense be mistaken about their moral convictions; that their justifications of genocide, rape, honor killings, and the torture of heretics are erroneous, not just distasteful to our sensibilities.

Pinker is careful to distinguish between behaviors that are deemed immoral and ones that are merely disagreeable, unfashionable, or imprudent. Only the moralized infraction is universalized, actionable, and punishable within the culture that prohibits it.

Some of these prohibitions are truly universal, or “pan-cultural.” In every part of the world, murder, theft, perjury, and extortion are considered moral infractions. Our revulsion at such acts reflects our species’ core moral values of fairness, justice, and the prevention of harm. Such values pre-date not only religion but indeed the appearance of homo sapiens sapiens. They have been promulgated exclusively via religion—and sometimes horribly abused and violated by it—only in societies where religion has been culturally all-pervasive.

But other “infractions”—e.g., apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and idolatry—have been shown to be culturally contingent rather than universal. They are violations of archaic purity and sanctity codes that might have served some purpose in iron-age tribal societies but that are useless in modern pluralistic democracies. They persist wherever the secular state has not developed or has not completely disentangled itself from religion.

A society that values individual freedom and autonomy cannot bind its citizens to sectarian claims about what constitutes a moral infraction. We cannot all be required to forswear martinis or short shorts because they are forbidden by sharia law, and Mormons cannot expect us all to forswear lattes and black tea. Why then, do so many Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons hope to universalize their prohibitions against homosexuality? These prohibitions have no rational basis and are as culturally contingent as the scripture-based codes from which they are derived.

Yes, we have far too much morality. Maybe it’s time to return to the true moral universals and reassess our culturally contingent ones. Instead of asking whether a behavior was forbidden by ancient scriptures, let’s ask, “Who is being harmed?” Or, as Sam Harris might ask, “How does our behavior affect human and animal flourishing and the health of our planet?”

Conflicting Reports: Which is the “Real” Muslim Brotherhood?

December 18, 2011

Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, shares what he learned about the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant political party, during a recent visit to Cairo. A couple of the Brotherhood’s activists invited him to their home for dinner, where he interviewed the hostess, a well-educated young woman named Sondos Asem. Sondos, who wrote her master’s thesis on social media, helps manage the organization’s English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb. She wore a hijab during the interview with Kristof.

Kristof does not say how he met Sondos and her husband. It is not unlikely that they were introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Interviews with New York Times columnists are not to be left to chance.

Here is, in a nutshell, what Sondos had to say about the Brotherhood:

  • Women are not repressed or marginalized. Fifty percent of the Brotherhood are women. Many of the Brotherhood’s Parliamentary candidates are women.
  • The Brotherhood is opposed to female genital mutilation (circumcision), which is inflicted on the vast majority of Egyptian girls.
  • The Brotherhood believes that illiteracy, lack of education, and poverty are obstacles to improving the status of women.
  • The Brotherhood is not planning any changes in the laws about alcohol (which is currently tolerated) or the veil (which is not required).
  • The Brotherhood’s priorities are economic ones, and its politics are moderate. The peace treaty with Israel will be respected, and Egypt will continue to have good relations with the U.S.

Eric Trager, writing for The New Republic a week after Kristof’s article appeared, asks, “Where did Nick Kristof get the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate?”

During his own recent trip to Egypt, Trager interviewed seven recently elected parliamentarians from the Muslim Brotherhood. One of them, Saber Abouel Fotouh, had on his office wall a huge anti-Zionist banner showing an image of a burning Israeli flag. When Trager asked him about it, he replied, “We burned [the flag] for our soldiers and for Gaza, and we will burn it again and again if they infiltrate anything in the region.”

All seven of these MPs, Trager reports, “share a commitment to theocratic rule, complete with a limited view of civil liberties and an unmistakable antipathy for the West.” All law, in their view, should be based on a pragmatic interpretation of sharia, with a particular emphasis on reinstating certain prohibitions. Among these are the bans on alcohol consumption, on “immodest” women’s dress, and on criticism of Islam (blasphemy).

One of the parliamentarians, Essam Mukhtar, told Trager, “There is no ultimate freedom, because your freedom ends at the freedom of other people. And if I humiliate things that you respect, I violate your freedom.” When Trager mentioned a recent Salafist call for holy war against the Jews, Mukhtar suddenly became, in Trager’s words, “a civil libertarian” and replied, “People are free to say what they want.”

The Trouble With the Cairo Declaration

August 28, 2011

Anyone attempting to understand the tensions between Western liberal democracies and Islamic societies over human rights issues has got to start with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and one of its foundational documents, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI).

Shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, countries with significant Muslim populations—57 in all—joined together to form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). (Just this year, the name was changed to “Organisation of Islamic Cooperation”—still OIC). The organization’s purpose is to represent the interests of the Muslim world (the Ummah) and to promote cooperation between the Islamic states in social, economic, cultural, scientific, and political spheres; it has a permanent delegation to the United Nations and claims to be the world’s second-largest international organization (after the UN itself). In 2007, U.S. President G. W. Bush established an envoy to the Parliamentary Union of the OIC member states (PUOICM), which is headquartered in Tehran.

The member countries of the OIC had long chafed under the presumptive authority of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. In 1981, the Iranian representative to the UN stated his country’s position that the UDHR was “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition” that could not be implemented by Muslims without violating Islamic law.

Accordingly, the OIC crafted its own declaration, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, and officially adopted it in 1990. It was promoted as a “complement” to the UDHR, not a replacement, and efforts were made to have it adopted by the UN Human Rights Council.

But the Cairo Declaration does not in fact “complement” the UDHR. In many important respects, it is its antithesis. Recognizing this, liberal Muslim organizations and human rights advocates opposed its endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council. They pointed to two critically important provisions of the document:

All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shariah. (Article 24)

The Islamic Shariah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration. (Article 25)

The Cairo Declaration is nothing more or less than a “front” for Shariah law, which is itself a kind of “dark matter” of sayings, traditions, sacred writings, and juridical opinions about which Islamic scholars have disagreed almost since Day 1 of the Islamic era. The Cairo Declaration’s framers obviously meant to provide an Islamic counterpart to the UDHR, which they rightly viewed as a product of Western Judeo-Christian and secularist traditions. Their document would (1) affirm Islamic values that are palatable to non-Muslims while backgrounding those that are not, (2) establish or reinforce rights and protections for workers, families, children, women and military combatants and noncombatants, and (3) protect the integrity of Islam by deferring to Shariah regarding blasphemy, apostasy, and marriage with non-Muslims.

But there were problems in all three of these categories, particularly the third. On the one hand, the writers recognized that certain provisions of Shariah (such as the death sentence for apostasy and blasphemy) were considered barbaric by Western democracies and would never pass muster in international courts. On the other, they knew that the Declaration could not be authentically Islamic without an unflinching adherence to even the most draconian provisions of Shariah. Their solution was to fashion a document that defers to Shariah from beginning to end (15 times in a text of only 2446 [English] words) without ever once specifying what the relevant Shariah laws are. All references to Shariah are vague, embedded in phrases like, “…in accordance with the tenets of Shariah,” “…within the framework of Shariah,” and “…contrary to the principles of Shariah.”

In 1992, the Cairo Declaration was presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council), where it was strongly condemned by the International Commission of Jurists.

Little wonder.

Keeping in mind that what has been omitted from a document like the CDHRI may be more telling than what is included, let’s examine a few of the CDHRI’s provisions.

Blasphemy protest by London Muslims

Blasphemy

In Islam, blasphemy is irreverent behavior toward personages, beliefs, or customs that Muslims revere. Judging from reports that appear almost daily in the world press, Muslims throughout the world seem to have an exquisite sensitivity to any criticism of their religion. All the more curious, then, that blasphemy is never mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. Instead, we learn from Article 22(a) that “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shariah.”  Fine. So what does Shariah have to say about freely expressing opinions that are critical of Islam?

Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Naik has this to say: “In Islam, a person who has committed blasphemy can either be killed or crucified, or his opposite hands and feet can be cut off, or he can be exiled from that land. On the other hand, in other religions there is no other option except capital punishment. Islam at least has four options of punishment for an act of blasphemy.”

So we are to conclude that Islam is superior to other religions because it offers a wider selection of barbaric penalties for free expression?

Blasphemy in Pakistan

CDHRI Article 22 (d), which prohibits incitement of doctrinal hatred, can also be used to stifle free expression. The case of Parvez Kambaksh, an Afghani student arrested and sentenced to death in 2007 for having distributed to classmates an Internet article critical of Islam’s treatment of women, shows how broadly the word “hatred” can be interpreted.

Taking into account the importance of Islam to Muslims and its pervasiveness in their lives, the Cairo Declaration’s implicit “bracketing” of expression critical of Islam constitutes a major restriction on human rights. The glass is not almost full. It is almost empty.

Privacy Rights

CDHRI Article 18 (b) states that “Everyone shall have the right to privacy in the conduct of his private affairs, in his home, among his family, [and] with regard to his property and his relationships.”

The broad consensus among scholars of Shariah is that the hadith (sayings of Mohammad) prescribe harsh punishment for homosexual acts—even those performed in the privacy of one’s home. Modern scholars of Islam interpret homosexuality as a punishable offense without prescribing any specific punishment.

Apostasy

Like blasphemy, apostasy is never explicitly mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. This is yet another curious omission in a document that one would expect to advocate against the extremely harsh punishments meted out to defectors from the True Faith under Shariah law. Article 10 prohibits any attempt to proselytize a Muslim, but fails to affirm the rights of those who are successfully proselytized:

“Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism.”

Once again, words like “pressure” and “force” are susceptible to very broad interpretation.

Apostates in Iran

The punishment for apostasy is not mentioned, but the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree with Shi’a scholars that apostasy is treasonous and must be punished by execution. Some contemporary Islamic jurists argue for a more humanistic approach. Nevertheless, the reality is that accusations of apostasy are heard again and again in Islamic societies and executions for it—both judicial and extra-judicial—are disturbingly commonplace. The Cairo Declaration could have sided with the more humanistic interpretations of Shariah on this matter, but instead it gave wide latitude to radical Islamists.

In contrast to the CDHRI, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has this to say about religious conversion: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

* * *

The Cairo Declaration needs to be either scrapped or massively amended. Its deficiencies are in its unconditional deference to Shariah law, its confusions about human rights principles, its obsessive concern with protecting Islam, and its abject failure to fully address human rights abuses that are so rife in countries with majority Muslim populations. Conditions inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Syria, Bangdalesh, Iraq, and Afghanistan call for a bold declaration of the rights to free expression, privacy in personal relationships, religious dissent, and freedom of conscience. These are cornerstones of all other human rights and cannot be subordinated to Shariah, which recognizes none of them.

The Cairo Declaration is a symptom of the Muslim world’s inability to achieve an “enlightenment” of its own—not necessarily like the “Aufklärung” of 18th-century Europe, but something more like what some Muslim sages have called an ishraq (“illumination”). What form this might take is not for non-Muslims to suggest, but its effects will be seen in a greater openness to the modern world and less fear about maintaining the fiercely “tribal” integrity of Islam and its traditions.

Afghanistan’s Constitutional Confusions Over Blasphemy

August 23, 2011
Sayed Parwez Kambaksh

In October, 2007, Afghanistan security officials arrested Parwez Kambaksh, a 24-year-old Afghan journalism student, for electronically distributing to his classmates an Internet article criticizing the treatment of women under Islamic law. He was detained without a hearing for three months, during which he claims torture was used to elicit a signed confession. His trial was held behind closed doors, and he was denied representation. Fellow students and teachers testified that Kambaksh had routinely asked “difficult questions” in class. The tribunal deliberated for only four minutes before sentencing Kambaksh to death on a charge of “blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam.”

Thanks to the international attention brought to bear on this case, Kambaksh was allowed to appeal his sentence. In October, 2008—a year after his arrest—a Kabul appeals court commuted his death sentence in favor of a 20-year prison term.

Not satisfied, international human rights groups continued working through diplomatic channels to obtain Kambaksh’s release. Finally, in August, 2009, President Hamid Karzai granted him “amnesty.” But judicial amnesty could not guarantee Kambaksh’s safety from radical Islamists. Fearing reprisals, he fled the country, and his whereabouts are now unknown.

Afghanistan’s constitution, ratified in 2004 under pressure from occupying military forces, appears to guarantee citizens a broad array of human rights. It is ostensibly more in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) than with Shariah, the religious law of Islam. It specifically guarantees the right to life and liberty, to privacy, to peaceful assembly, to freedom of expression, and—in cases of judicial proceedings—the appeal to formally codified statutes or binding precedents (stare decisis), the right to legal representation, and the right to a jury. Shariah guarantees none of these rights.

The constitutional principle most relevant to Kambaksh’s case is found in Article 34, which states that “freedom of expression is inviolable … Every Afghan has the right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law.”

All well and good. The only thing missing from the constitutional inventory is freedom of conscience—the freedom to profess whatever beliefs one finds compelling. This is not a trivial omission, for under Shariah law, the penalty for apostasy, considered a treasonous defection from Islam, is death. Even where the death sentence is not imposed by the court, the accused may still be threatened with assassination by thugs who insist on strict application of Shariah. In 2006, Afghan-born Abdul Rahman, a convert from Islam to Christianity outside Afghanistan, was threatened with the death penalty for apostasy. Like Parwez Kambaksh, he was released as a result of international pressure and fled the country to avoid vigilante-style justice. Such cases are not uncommon, and Muslims worldwide are well aware of the severity of Shariah law where blasphemy and apostasy are concerned.

Though Shariah is not specifically mentioned in the constitution, Article Two states, “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.” Article Three draws out the implications of this: “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

Could Article Three amount to a claim that the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution are not in fact contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam? No one who is knowledgeable about the two traditions could seriously support such an interpretation. Clearly, Article Three means that any of the enumerated freedoms that is not supported by Islamic law may be nullified.

But if these “beliefs and provisions of Islam” are important enough to be referred to—and so prominently—in the first three articles of the constitution, then why are they never enumerated, as are the specific guarantees of rights? At the very least, we might expect the authors to reference them. The “avoidance” of any such reference—which would certainly point us to Shariah—is conspicuous in a document that so plainly affirms Islamic law.

Unlike Western secular law, Shari’ah law includes a category of crimes that involve, among other things, privacy and free expression. The “Hadd”—one of three categories—are “claims against God” and include adultery, sodomy, lesbianism, and—signficiantly—blasphemy and defamation, the two charges brought against Parwez Kambaksh. The punishment prescribed by Shariah for these crimes is death.

The European Court of Human Rights has characterized such punishments as barbaric and cruel, and it has argued that Shariah is incompatible with a democratic state.

Afghanistan’s constitution is a political document reflecting the balance of power that existed when it was written. Whether it merely gives a nod to Shariah or creates an opening for it is unclear. What is clear is that the framers of this document made no attempt to reconcile Shariah with the principles of Western liberal democracies as expressed in the UDHR. Nor could such an effort have succeeded. But by ignoring the intrinsic incompatibility of the two traditions, the framers may have set their country up for an eventual constitutional crisis. Even if that does not happen, incidents like the arrest and detention of Parwez Kambaksh are likely to continue as long as adherents of Shariah law interpret the first three articles of the constitution as a license to suppress free expression. Because the constitution offers no unequivocal protection for dissenters, they are at the mercy of whatever faction happens to be in power. Fortunately for Kambaksh, international human rights organizations had some leverage with President Karzai, but Karzai himself has a poor record of human rights and cannot be depended on.

Perhaps the only hope for Afghan freethinkers like Kambaksh is continued international pressure on Afghanistan’s government to honor their constitution’s guarantees of basic human rights and to protect all citizens from fundamentalist thuggery.

Maggie Gallagher’s Demographic Bomb

August 27, 2010

Maggie Gallagher

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Maggie Gallagher, a conservative columnist who is now president of the National Organization for Marriage, wrote a highly influential opinion piece that is still kicking around on the Internet. Its title is “The Demographic Bomb,” and it was one of the first in a long succession of right-wing efforts to persuade the public that legalized abortion and homosexuality are not just violations of natural law but that they are contributing to a “birth dearth,” a “demographic winter” in which Western civilization will become dangerously diluted by immigration from more populous societies that don’t share “our” values.

But the “demographic winter” concept is about more than just abortion and homosexuality. It has much, much more to offer—namely, a semi-plausible real-world rationale for nativism, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-feminism, anti-secularism, anti-modernism, and Islamophobia. It was made to order for the radical right because of its visceral appeal to the oldest and most primitive part of our brain—where fear of extinction resides—and it provides fresh cover for racism, homophobia, and sexism.

I found Gallagher’s piece interesting because it shows signs of having been written hastily, thus offering a somewhat “unprocessed” version of her views—or those she is channeling. Since its publication, she has sharpened her message and learned to deflect questions that might expose the shoddy crafting of the birth-dearth ideology and its implied repudiation of the European Enlightenment and the American civil rights tradition. After all, efforts to roll back the progress of the last several centuries must be handled with finesse.

It was perhaps because I had lived in Saudi Arabia for 11 years that her opening paragraph immediately caught my attention. In it, she expresses puzzlement: How can certain fundamentalist Muslims live for so long in Western democracies without being seduced by our way of life? Instead, they denounce Western civilization as decadent and doomed. “How could they know us so well and still hate us so?” she asks. This very question had occurred to me after 9/11, but I didn’t find it quite so puzzling.

But Gallagher is packing an answer. These Muslims—i.e., those who have lived among us and yet despise us—have seen the truth about our sexual culture: It has become “debased, destructive, and ugly, full of fatherless children and fragmented families.” “Sex,” she declares, “has been demoted into a product.” And yet these dysfunctions, in her view, are only the “surface symptoms of an even deeper problem: a hollowing out of sexual meaning and purpose.”

Sexual meaning and purpose in America before its "hollowing-out" by modern feminists

Is Gallagher serving us the conservative version of liberal guilt—i.e., they hate us because we are bad and deserve their contempt? Even allowing that there has been a “hollowing out” of sexual meaning and purpose since an earlier era (which she will later place in some unspecified period prior to 1970), is Western civilization on the verge of collapse, as these Muslims predict? Gallagher is affirmative on both counts: Fundamentalist Muslims have correctly identified the problem: Our sexual culture is dysfunctional and we’re doomed if we don’t straighten up (see illustration).

I should say right up front that I share Gallagher’s concerns about the social ills she describes. No one who has eyes to see and ears to hear can be indifferent to the pain of broken families and scarred lives, the loneliness and insecurity of single motherhood, or the emotional trauma experienced by children caught in the crux of marital miseries. And sexuality is indeed a powerful force that can wreak havoc in people’s lives if it is not managed with wisdom and care.

Sexual meaning and purpose in the South before the feminists hollowed it out. (A Streetcar Named Desire)

However, Gallagher and the Islamic fundamentalists with whom she sees eye-to-eye about Western decadence have traced a straight line of causation from our sexual mores to a host of societal dysfunctions, as if no other explanations for the latter were possible. What about the role of alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, racism, unemployment, mental illness, and environmental stresses, for starters? Gallagher sees fatherless children and fragmented families as symptoms of a loss of sexual purpose, but maybe this loss of sexual purpose is itself only a symptom of a larger disarray brought about by a multiplicity of problems. Maybe, in other words, it’s not all about sex, and maybe all our society’s ills cannot be blamed on abortion, homosexuality, and women’s liberation. We live in a complex world.

I’ve noticed what a fondness there is among fundamentalists and orthodox Catholics (Gallagher is the latter) for visions of imminent civilizational collapse. Such talk dovetails so nicely with apocalyptic scenarios from the Bible and the Koran, and it’s so useful for getting people’s attention and stoking their fears. However, prophets of doom are being rehabilitated even in scientific circles these days (e.g., climate scientists James Lovelock, James Hansen, Bill McKibben), so, though not even religious, I will shortly indulge in a bit of such talk myself. But first, where is Gallagher taking us, and why would her “hollowing out of sexual meaning and purpose” lead to civilizational collapse?

She elaborates,

In Western countries, people have for two generations stopped caring enough about having children to reproduce our population. Historian Paul Johnson writes about his vision of a long-term clash between Islam and the casually mentioned demographic bomb: “Should present trends continue, both these traditionally Catholic countries (Spain and Italy) will become majority Muslim during the 21st century.” Not just because of migration, but because the native birth rates have entered a sudden, dramatic, sustained collapse.

In Gallagher’s view, sex in the West has become uncoupled from any deep-seated meaning or public purpose, and that purpose is babies. If Islamic civilization triumphs over the largely Christian West, it will be because Islam has been successful in growing its population while the West has allowed its own to decline.

Successful population growth

Gallagher’s analysis already begs several vexing questions. One of them, of course, has to do with the very real possibility of ecological—and therefore civilizational—collapse resulting from planetary overpopulation. The facts and projections are well-known: Earth’s population has doubled since 1965, from 3.5 to nearly 7 billion, and it is expected to reach 9 billion within the next 30 years. Scientists warn that the planet’s ecosystem cannot withstand the accompanying increased demands on resources. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, global warming, and pollution are all tied to population growth. Humanity is even now in the process of a very slow-motion collision with the planet—so slow, in fact, that we are scarcely aware it is happening.

Gallagher does not mention this end-times scenario, possibly because it is so much more compelling and factual than the one she favors. Then too, once the environmental crisis is acknowledged—along with all its implications for humanity—one more objection against homosexuality and legalized abortion is eliminated. Simply put, the environmentalist’s end-times scenario cannot be used to promote natural law. Quite the contrary, in fact: Natural law may be bad for the planet.

So, having bracketed out the overpopulation question and diverted our attention to the perils of underpopulation, she proceeds right on to the next question in line—about the implications of these ideas for individual rights—i.e., what do we have to do and what sacrifices are required?—and offers a formulation that is breath-taking in its implied repudiation of the civil rights gains made by women over the past century or so, if not the entire European Enlightenment:

Islam remains a successful civilization because it fulfills the two minimum functions any culture must: It channels intense social energy of individuals into the two great sacrifices of self: war and babies. The children in Islamic societies suffer, and the women even more. But though individuals suffer, the family system itself works. The society perpetuates itself. It even finds new adherents in our country, primarily among those who have suffered most deeply from our current sexual disorder, African-Americans. [Emphasis mine.]

This is an astonishing prescription that deserves reading several times if we are to absorb its full impact.

Army Ants

So this is what we are reduced to—war and babies? Men derive meaning and purpose from war, and women from bearing and raising children? Women and children are in the soft center whose boundaries are protected by warrior men? Why does this sound more like an ant colony than the advanced human civilization that Maggie Gallagher was born into and that provided such abundant opportunities for her?

Perhaps anticipating objections, Gallagher concludes her essay as follows:

The way forward is never the way back. Still, up until about 1970, Western civilization combined democracy, freedom, capitalism, and neighborliness with a functioning family system. Who can now say the same?

Notice the hedging: “The way forward is never the way back,” immediately followed by “Still,…” My sense is that Gallagher would like to take us way, way back—to an era when Western civilization looked more like fundamentalist Islamic societies of today. Sacrifices might be called for, but the payoff is that, in her words, “the society perpetuates itself.” It’s all about survival, folks, in case you’d forgotten that. And we’re not going to survive if pro-choice women and gays have their way. We’re all going…to…die.

Note, also, Gallagher’s characterization of Islam as a “successful civilization,” with the implication that it might serve as a model for Western societies because it prioritizes babies and war over—presumably—careers and peace. But if Islamic societies are so worthy of emulation, then why should Gallagher fear Islamic influence in the West? She should welcome it.

And what is the significance of 1970 for Gallagher? That was a year of intense activism on the part of women supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, which, though passed by congress two years later, was never ratified by the states, thanks to lobbying efforts by anti-feminist Catholic leader Phyllis Schlafly and others. Nevertheless, the seventies saw the first in a long succession of anti-discrimination measures benefiting women. For a quick summary of civil rights gains for women since 1972, here’s a passage from Head and Heart, by Garry Wills:

Congressional action included these acts: In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1972 opened up campus activities to women on an equal basis. In 1974, the Equal Opportunity Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex for getting consumer credit or public assistance. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act protected women from being fired or denied a job or promotion because of their pregnancy. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act provided special protection for victims of rape or domestic abuse.

Court action included these decisions: In 1973, Roe v. Wade gave women freedom to choose an abortion. In 1974, Corning Glass Works v. Brennan ruled that women could not be paid less because men would not accept the work in question. In 1976, Planned Parenthood v. Danforth denied that parents can forbid an abortion. In 1983, City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc. said that a waiting period before having an abortion could not be imposed. In 1986, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson decided that sexual harassment is a form of job discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1986, Thornburgh v. American College of Obstretricians denied that a woman can be given an abortion only after detailed instruction on fetus development. In 1989, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services ruled against Missouri’s restrictions on the right to an abortion. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruled against Pennsylvania’s attempt to restrict abortion rights.

So which of these victories for women’s rights have led to our current crisis, as Gallagher sees it? What about equal access to campus activities, consumer credit, public assistance, jobs, promotions, equal pay, and protection from rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment? Gallagher attended Yale, so we would assume she supports equal access to campus activities. She probably has consumer credit, which facilitates her travels from one speaking venue to the next. As a former unwed mother, she can identify with other women in such circumstances and would probably support some form of public assistance for them and their children (One would hope!). She has a robust career and probably earns pretty big bucks, so it’s a safe bet she favors equal opportunity for women in the workplace. I think we can assume she supports protections against rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment.

That leaves abortion, and we know where she stands on that. So we are left with two broad possibilities regarding all the remaining civil rights gains for women in the past 40 years: She supports them, or she sees them as a mistake. (We’ll assume for now that she’s not selective.)

Suffragettes in the early 20th century

If she supports them, then she’s happy with all the freedoms that she now enjoys, including, presumably, those that were won for her before 1970—the freedom to marry and divorce whom she pleases, her right to vote and to own property, her right to hold public office, to drive a car, to choose her own clothing, and to travel and associate in whatever way she likes. Taken altogether, what has allowed Gallagher to prosper in the life she has freely chosen is an enormous range of individual liberties wrested from patriarchal culture by women over the past several centuries.

But then, how can she characterize fundamentalist Islamic societies as “successful?” In many of them, women are not guaranteed any of these rights, not even protection against rape. They are considered to be the property of men, and many become virtually infantilized as a result of life-long dependency on male family members.

Saudi Arabia is ranked 130 out of 134 for gender parity in the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Report. It was the only country to score a zero for political empowerment of women. Women’s rights there, as in many or most predominantly Muslim countries, are defined by Sharia law, which is often interpreted according to tribal customs. Women may not drive, they may not appear in public without an abaya (covering their head and face), they may not freely associate with men other than family members, and they must have a male guardian, whose permission they must seek for marriage, travel, education, employment, opening a bank account, and elective surgery.

Preparation for stoning, Iran

And it gets worse. Much worse. Wherever the most Fundamentalist strains of Islam prevail, women may be stoned for committing adultery or murdered by male family members for “dishonoring” their families. In Egypt, 95% of pre-pubescent Muslim girls experience genital mutilations, a practice that has been internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. Forced marriages are commonplace in all traditional Muslim societies.

Gallagher began her essay by expressing puzzlement that fundamentalist Muslims could live among us and still hate us, and she concluded that their scorn was justified because of our deteriorating attitudes toward sex.

I will end this essay on a note of puzzlement as well. How can Gallagher have been raised in a beautiful and privileged place like Lake Oswego, Oregon, later earning a degree at Yale and enjoying all the incomparable freedoms that life in the U.S. offers women—freedoms for which her ancestors and mine fought and suffered—and still believe that Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s model for the treatment of women is more “successful” and more worthy of emulation than that of her own country?

At the very least, Gallagher’s prescription for our society’s dysfunctions would strip away centuries, even millennia, of progress toward freedom and equality in Western civilization. What, indeed, could be more destructive of the very civilization that Gallagher claims to protect?

Mae West: No "Escape from Freedom" necessary