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Girl Power: 9/11, the Middle East and the West


The following essay (originally published at The New Republic on Oct. 8, 2001) was co-written by Richard Landes and his father David LandesDavid passed away last month at the age of 89.

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David Landes

Among the popular explanations for September 11′s cunning, devastating attacks on the United States is American support for Israel. The argument runs like this: If the United States had not aided and abetted the Muslim world’s primary enemy, we would not have become Islam’s enemy ourselves, and therefore would not have been a target for reprisals. That argument, however, is a dodge. Even if there were no Israel, the Muslim world would still likely feel deep and deepening hostility toward the West.

That hostility predates the formation of the Jewish State, and has its roots in the West’s growing cultural, political, economic, and military dominance over the lands of Islam, a dominance that has been building for centuries but was by no means inevitable, and which many Muslims find baffling and infuriating. Hundreds of years ago, Islamic civilization stood at the pinnacle of global achievement, politically and intellectually.

Muslim empires ruled over the Middle East, stretched west to Spain and Portugal and east to India and the borderlands of China. Islam was deservedly reputed for its ecumenism, its ability to learn from and assimilate other societies. And then something went wrong.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Islamic theologians shut down liberal philosophical schools. As a result of this banishing of “heresy” from an increasingly dogmatic Islam, the high culture lost its capaciousness and, hence, its adaptability. In the succeeding centuries, reactionary features of Islamic society hardened: slavery; the exclusion of women from public life; the vast gap of wealth and power separating elites from an impoverished population. At the same time new competitors sprang up in the West, committed by Christianity to an anti-Islamic position and by national ambitions to anti-Muslim warfare. As Muslims lost territory and technological superiority, they sought solace in the truths of yesteryear, in a refusal to sell out to the lies of the infidel.

The industrial revolution only made the imbalance worse. By the end of the nineteenth century, Western power had reduced the Middle East to a sandy piece of worldwide European empire. This formal dominion was later reversed, but by voluntary European retreat, not Muslim force of arms. In fact, the West no longer needed formal empire to profit from its technological and economic superiority. By the second half of the twentieth century, the difference between standards of living in the West and in the Muslim world had grown startlingly manifest and unbearably humiliating.

Why did muslim societies fall behind? Given the diversity of Islamic civilizations, of course, and the complexity of historical change, there are many, many answers. But one that has received too little attention–both in the West and in the Islamic world–is the evolution of Islamic societies’ treatment of women. That treatment, needless to say, differs in different parts of the Muslim world. Indeed, to take just one example of Islamic society’s openness to female power, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Indonesia have all been ruled in recent years by women. But nonetheless, compared to the West, the lives of women in most of the Muslim world are remarkably circumscribed. While Christian theology has, to a significant degree, reformed its backward views of women, Islamic theology has been much slower to do so. Muslim women are excluded from much of public space and, according to the Hadith, Mohammad said, “I was shown the hellfire and that the majority of its dwellers are women.” This fundamental inequality makes Muslim societies substantially less productive–not only by denying opportunity to women, but by inhibiting a meritocratic spirit among men.

And the oppression of women may not only help explain why Islamic societies have fallen behind the West. It may also help explain why they find the West so culturally threatening. Israel–where women don bikinis on the beach, attend university in large numbers, and are required to serve in the military–represents a deeply subversive example for many of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Osama bin Laden, in particular, has voiced outrage at the presence of American women soldiers on Saudi soil. Might he be worried that the women of the Gulf are watching them and taking note? For bin Laden and his followers, these are not mere cultural differences. They are evidence of Islam’s purity and the West’s corruption, and part of an apocalyptic struggle for universal salvation through Muslim dominion. The stakes are cosmic, ultimate; and the duty of all Muslims is not only to reject the adversary but also to destroy him.

Given the depth of Islam’s conflict with the West, trading Israel for Syria’s or Iran’s help in the reprisals against bin Laden will win us no real friends; it will only convince the Muslim world that America can be brought to betray its allies with the right combinations of threats and face-saving formulas. The real work–and, sadly, it will take far longer than even the war against terrorism–must take place within Islam itself. Self-criticism rather than blaming others, receptivity rather than dogmatic aggression, especially to their own women–these are some of the difficult steps Islam needs to take if it wants to regain the glory for which it so desperately longs.

29 replies »

  1. This article suggests that we may have missed a “painless” solution to our struggle with Islam. We should have worked on Islamic women’s progress, bombarded them with models of successful, affluent, educated, fulfilled, but restless women. They might have been encouraged to seek sexual gratification beyond the capabilities of their menfolk. No one needed to have fired a shot and Islamic society might have ultimately advanced on its own and the women might have even been given the advantages of polyandry.

  2. “In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Islamic theologians shut down liberal philosophical schools. ”
    Strange thing, when considering that so called progressive Websites and cercles like opendemocracy embrace Al Jazeera, Al Qadarawi and Ramadan, all of them refering to Al Ghazali, one of the most influential theologians responsible for closing the mind.
    Now Islamists import this teaching in the west and are praised by the progressives who defend relativity against and impose it on the west but prefer the religious simplicity and ascetism of those Islamists, like revelations of a deeper truth.
    From one closed system to the other.

  3. A great sociological analysis of the Muslim mind and the impact the Jewish bikinis have had on his state of mind. He is not traumatized by being made into a refugee, He is not traumatized by the thousands of of deaths in Sabra and Shatila camps under the watchful eye of the IDF but those bikinis in Tel-Aviv obviously leads him to be a suicide bomber. A scientific milestone in the understanding of the barbarian. What a bikini at a beach can achieve. Remind me why do we need the nuclear weapon?

    • He is not traumatized by being made into a refugee, He is not traumatized by the thousands of of deaths in Sabra and Shatila camps under the watchful eye of the IDF
      So when Arabs slaughter other Arabs and other Arabs keep him a refugee forever then the Jews must be punished. Pure logic James…directly from the Goebbels school.

    • “A scientific milestone in the understanding of the barbarian. What a bikini at a beach can achieve”
      No, of course not, James. Everyone knows by now that Arab/Muslim misogyny is of course direct and undeniable proof of a racist conspiracy of victimhood at the hands of the West.

  4. Israel–where women don bikinis on the beach …

    Immediately reminded me of this photo I recently saw in a magazine:
    http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/matpc.16590/?co=matpc

    In fact a scene possibly more progressive than e.g. in Brighton at the time, i.e. 1935!

    As for the article in general: yes, a lot of truthful insights and statements – but sadly let down by this kind of comment: “the Muslim world would still likely feel deep and deepening hostility toward the West.”

    That’s no doubt true for certain sections of the Muslim world – but not all!

  5. Of course this never happened –
    “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”[1]

    And this definately did not happen
    he exact number of refugees is a matter of dispute.[7] But around 80 percent of the Arab inhabitants of what became Israel (50 percent of the total Arab of Mandatory Palestine) left or were expelled from their homes.[8][9] The causes remain also the subject of fundamental disagreement between Arabs and Israelis. Factors involved in the exodus include Jewish military advances, attacks against Arab villages and fears of massacre after Deir Yassin,[10]:239–240 which caused many to leave out of panic; expulsion orders by Zionist authorities; the voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes,[11] the collapse in Palestinian leadership,[12] and an unwillingness to live under Jewish control.[13] Later, a series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented them from returning to their homes, or claiming their property. They and many of their descendants remain refugees.[14][15] Later in the war, Palestinians were expelled as part of Plan Dalet.[16] The expulsion of the Palestinians has since been described by some historians as ethnic cleansing,[17][18][19] while others dispute this charge.[20][21][22]

    Most of these were not necessary as the bikinis did a great job – Write Jeff

    • Yes, copy and paste something from somewhere, and end it with the words “Write Jeff,” whatever that means. Are telling some to write to me?
      So here we have Haycock’s brilliant analysis for why Arab civilization has been in decline for 600 years.
      Absolutely brilliant.

  6. Hundreds of years ago, Islamic civilization stood at the pinnacle of global achievement, politically and intellectually.

    Err…no.

    Almost all these “achievements” were either stolen (what we now call plagiarism) or came to the West via Muslim lands.

    Why is it that anybody who criticise Islam, its many conquests and its dangers to our freedom and democracy always, almost out compunction, have to mention the mythical “Islamic Golden Age”, and thereby perpetuating the lie.

    • Sorry June, Muslim architecture of the time was better than European one.
      Stolen or adapted?
      We all stole things to progress them.
      Arab, Muslim (or neither) doctors were having their works analyzed and studied during that era so the learning and asymilations became a central core.
      You cannot say the same about the Islamic world today.
      It’s like they are frozen in time or going backward.
      If you look at the conditions in England during the 1100 you see very little.

  7. “This formal dominion was later reversed, but by voluntary European retreat, not Muslim force of arms.”

    Of course it did.
    De Gaulle?
    Palestine mandate?
    Lybia?
    Not mentioning the first Afghan war.
    The ever shrinking British Empire had everything to do with the inability to maintain it as a result of constant strife with the locals.
    This is the same re the French.
    Painiting it as if they could have held on had they wished to is short of nonesense.

    • Painiting it as if they could have held on had they wished to is short of nonesense.

      But as the authors then say: the British didn’t need to hold on to the region physically to continue profiting from it.

      • If you reffering to Thatcher gaining from Arms deals with the Saudis than I guess diplomacy and back handers were always in good place in the ME and the British and French loved to play that game.
        Why is the British economy so low now than?
        The author is trying to make a point of 600 years of downgrading by clinching it to the last 70 odd years.
        It is very effective to say that Europeans controlling the ME as well as Ottomans liked to keep the avarage Joe uneducated for the same reason Mubarak wanted to do it for the Egyptians.

        • In other wards what I’m saying is that it’s not Islam alone that caused the problem in the ME and central Asia.
          Wars fought over it for centuries made the area what it is.
          Rise of oil for example changed everything.
          Let’s face it, before 1800 Europe wasn’t much better than the ME other than the fact it managed to find a way out of the land mass to the new world and drain it.
          The Arabs were never good sailors and so they lack resources.
          What resource could they have after losing to Spainish Christians?
          Internal strife and corruption of the Ottoman landlords took their toll and froze the north African desert and the Me in a time warp.
          As for India and Indonesia, these areas were never that advance and while China closed itself they remaind in their habbits. The 19th and 20th centuries dragged them into distruction and we all know what happened there.
          I think the main reason we see such difference is that the west managed to utilise it’s resources in ways to maintain stability and through it create thinkers.
          It could all went very wrong for them 70 years ago.It went wrong for half of Europe 70 years ago.

  8. “Israel–where women don bikinis on the beach, attend university in large numbers, and are required to serve in the military–represents a deeply subversive example for many of its Middle Eastern neighbors.”

    I believe you’d find that many of the neighbours of Israel are the more seculer of the Arabs countries.
    It’s going south towards the Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf that you’d find the worst offenders.
    Iran is very much forward in having it’s women the freedom to study, elect and join society in many aspects, though it is very hard on their ability to be voted into office or have loose clothing.
    The Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians are more academic and used to be very seculler.
    It is the current drive from the MB that changes these elements.
    Hamas rise created an atmosphere where religion doctrines are being rewarded.
    Also the West treatment of women was not so great 60 years ago.
    It was the Palmach that have had their women fighters brought forward.
    While in my kibbutz in 1947 women were trousers, in France 1970 woman used to wear skirts on a regular basis.
    I think the issue why Arab countries legged behind has more to do with corruption of the Ottoman Empire than anything else.

    • Also the West treatment of women was not so great 60 years ago.

      And bear in mind that homosexual “activity” was outlawed in the UK until just a few decades ago.

      • Strange. Why would three individuals vote down a mere statement of fact?

        Ah, probably just the usual trolls …

  9. Itsik You think Bikinis in Soudi Arabia soon – good luck mate – why did we spend so much on WMD? I ask