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

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

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

Yet if we think it probable or possible that a man would mutate into such a monster only after undergoing the Guantanamo experience, then I can suggest one reason that may be. Nothing prepared me for the way in which the authorities at the camp have allowed the most extreme religious cultists among the inmates to be the organisers of the prisoners’ daily routine. Suppose you were a secular or unfanatical person caught in the net by mistake. You would still find yourself being compelled to pray five times a day (the guards are not permitted to interrupt), to have a Koran in your cell and to eat food prepared to halal (or sharia) standards. I suppose you could ask to abstain but, in such a case, I wouldn’t much fancy your chances.

The officers in charge were so pleased by this ability to show off their extreme broad-mindedness in respect of Islam that they looked almost hurt when I asked how they justified the use of taxpayers’ money to create an institution dedicated to the fervent practice of the most extreme version of just one religion. To the huge list of reasons to close down Guantanamo, add this: It’s a state-sponsored madrasah, or Muslim religious school.

The same near-masochistic insistence on taking the extreme as the norm was also present in Obama’s smoothly delivered speech in the Egyptian capital. Some of what he said was well-intentioned, if ill-informed. The US should not have overthrown the elected government of Iran in 1953, but when it did so, it used bribed mullahs and ayatollahs to whip up anti-communist sentiment against a secular regime.

The John Adams administration in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli did indeed proclaim that the US had no quarrel with Islam as such (and, even more important, that the US itself was in no sense a Christian nation), but the treaty failed to stop the Barbary states from invoking the Koran as permission to kidnap and enslave travellers on the high seas, and thus Thomas Jefferson was later compelled to send a fleet and the marines to put down the trade.

One hopes that Obama does not prefer Adams to Jefferson in this regard.

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

Take the single case in which the President touched on the best-known fact about the Islamic world: its tendency to make women second-class citizens. He mentioned this only to say that Western countries were discriminating against Muslim women! And how is this discrimination imposed? By limiting the wearing of the headscarf, or hijab (a word that Obama pronounced as hajib; imagine the uproar if George Bush had done that). The clear implication was an attack on the French law that prohibits the display of religious garb or symbols in state schools.

Indeed, the following day in Paris, Obama made this point even more explicitly. I quote from an excellent commentary by an Algerian-American visiting professor at the University of Michigan law school, Karima Bennoune, who says: “I have just published research conducted among the many people of Muslim, Arab and North African descent in France who support that country’s 2004 law banning religious symbols in public schools which they see as a necessary deployment of the ‘law of the republic’ to counter the ‘law of the Brothers’, an informal rule imposed undemocratically on many women and girls in neighbourhoods and at home and by fundamentalists.” (See media/22/CHAP5. Bennoune.Headscarves.pdf)

But to the women who are compelled to dress according to the requirements of others, Obama had nothing to say at all, as if the only right at stake were the right to obey an instruction that is, in fact – if it matters – not found in the Koran.

In Turkey, too, headscarves are outlawed in some contexts. Is this, too, Islamophobia? Does the president think that the veil and the burka are also freely chosen fashion statements? This sort of naivety is worrying, and it means that among the global Muslim audience, the wrong sort of people were laughing at us, while the ones who ought to be our friends and allies were shedding a disappointed tear.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and online magazine Slate, where this column first appeared. He is the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California.

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