My column on the “women’s issues” part of Obama’s Cairo speech is here.
See also this excellent piece by Christopher Hitchens on Slate.com on the same topic.
As I said in my previous post, I had a largely positive reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech. However, I agree with David Frum’s criticsm of Obama’s comments about women’s rights — which should have been a key part of an “outreach to Muslims” speech. In contrast to Obama’s strong affirmation of the principles of democracy, his discussion of women’s issues and Islam was too general, too weak, and afflicted with excessive even-handedness. (Contrary to what many readers on Reason.com’s Hit & Run blog believe, I am not really a champion of indiscriminate moral equivalence.)
Here is the passage in its entirety: Continue reading
So, here comes Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, to decidedly mixed reaction. I am not going to dwell at the moment on the specifics of his Israel policy (for a very pessimistic assessment see this post by Ron Radosh, though there are many Israel supporters who do not share Ron’s endorsement of the settlements). I also agree that the part of the speech dealing with Iran was rather weak, full of lofty sentiment signifying nothing. But some of the scathing criticism directed at Obama strikes me as rather misguided. For instance, Charles Krauthammer found it to be infected by “self-absorption”; but was Obama’s talk of the aspects of his personal story that were relevant to the issues at hand all that different from what, say, Ronald Reagan did?
Does it really matter that Obama never used the words “terror” or “terrorism,” referring instead to “violent extremism”? The power of the T-word has been somewhat diluted by overuse; besides, to many (non-terror-sympathizing) Muslims it is undoubtedly a red-flag word, due to their common belief that the West looks at a Muslim and sees a terrorist. I think it was a positive thing to say, and drive home the point, that terrorism by any other name would smell as foul.
The President’s powerful affirmation of the memory of the Holocaust, and firm condemnation of Holocaust denial, was a key part of the speech. Some believe that, by transitioning immediately to the plight of displaced Palestinians, Obama drew a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian displacement. Re-reading the speech, I see no such equivalence (though someone who wants to believe the two tragedies are equal could read it that way). I think Obama was simply saying that the Palestinians have their own history of suffering which cannot be denied. Should he have said more to acknowledge the Palestinian (and Arab) leaders’ own responsibility for perpetuating this suffering? Probably. Did he go too far in suggesting that each side’s view of the conflict was equally valid? Probably. But here’s an important point: the speech was intended as outreach to the Muslim world. To say “Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians bear 100% of the blame,” even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) would not be very productive. Confronting a Muslim and Arab audience with the fact that Israel’s stiff-necked stance has something to do with “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” is a pretty good start.
A fascinating article in The Washington Post about a controversy in France over the annulment of a young Muslim couple’s marriage, obtained by the husband on the grounds that the wife was not a virgin. After news got out that the French courts approved the annulment, political activists and commentators were incensed.
From the left and right came a barrage of criticism, suggesting that the decision had given French legal sanction to a Muslim’s demand that his bride be a virgin. Elizabeth Badinter, a longtime women’s rights campaigner, said she felt “shame” that such a court ruling could be handed down in France.“This ends up simply pushing many young Muslim girls into hospitals to have their hymen reconstituted,” she said.Laurence Rossignel of the Socialist Party’s secretariat for women’s rights qualified the decision as “amazing.”“It violates the constitutional principles of equality between men and women and of nondiscrimination, because it cannot be rendered except against a woman,” she added. “It makes a mockery of the rights of women over their own bodies and to live their sexuality freely, the way men do.”
Under pressure, the Justice Ministry — headed by Rachida Dati, the daughter of Algerian immigrants (and an unmarried mother-to-be) — reversed the annulment, effectively remarrying the couple. They will now have to seek a divorce (complicated by the fact that the husband has remarried).
The groom’s lawyer thinks the “politically correct” journalists and protesters have invaded the couple’s private life to the detriment of both the man and the woman (the wife also wanted the annulment). There may be some truth to the charge that those who made the case public were more concerned with abstract women’s rights and liberal values than with the welfare of this particular woman; on the other hand, there is a solid argument to be made that European law should not be enshrining the idea that a man can repudiate his wife for not being a virgin at marriage.
What I find interesting, though, is something else. This is not a conflict between Islamic and Christian culture so much as it is a conflict between traditional and modern culture. Not that long ago, virginity was as much of a requirement in a bride in European societies. There are, indeed, many people in the West (and perhaps especially in the United States) today who are nostalgic for those old-fashioned values, at least in moderate forms. I can think of quite a few American conservatives who would vehemently disagree with the notion that women have a right to “live their sexuality freely, the way men do.”
Should everyone who lives in modern societies be required to assimilate to modern values? No, of course not. They should, however, be required to understand that the virtues they cherish cannot be imposed by law or by force. Though, in this case, the annulment may have been unobjectionable since the wife agreed to it.