The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, May 9, 2014

Weaponizing Women

It’s Much Worse than Any War on Women

Baseball and English language-mangling legend Yogi Berra was once asked why he no longer patronized Ruggeri’s, a well-known St. Louis restaurant.  Yogi replied, “The place is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore.”   After reading the second dozen set of columns/articles bewailing why nobody is writing about the kidnapped Nigerianschoolgirls, I think I better understand what he meant.

The girls in question are from northern Nigeria.  They were abducted from a government run school featuring Western-style education by a group called Boko Haram.  The group’s name translates as "Western education is forbidden."  It is particularly hostile to the education of women.  It has threatened to sell the girls or have them married to its members before allowing them to be retrieved.
A Muslim woman endures caning as
punishment under sharia law.

In light of the growing outrage, Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson defended his government’s efforts to date and vowed to do more to find the girls.  For his part, President Obama called the abductions "outrageous" and "heartbreaking'' and sent experts and other assistance.

Boko Haram has a long history of violence, particularly since 2009, when an attempted government crackdown resulted in the arrest and subsequent execution of the group’s founder, Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf.  The group’s actual name for itself is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which is Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."  It has killed thousands of Christians and Muslims in an attempt to bring strict Islamic law to all of Nigeria.

The usual caveat by authorities is that Boko Haram is an extremist group whose views do not reflect mainstream Islam.  There is even some hesitancy to label them a terrorist organization.  However, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fellow of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Boko Haram in its goals and methods is in fact all too representative.”  She goes on to condemn “Baffled Westerners, who these days seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as ‘Islamophobes’ than to stand up for women's most basic rights.”

Proponents of Islam like to point out the rights granted to women in the Qur'an and by the prophet Muhammad were a vast improvement in comparison to the situation of women in Arabia prior to the advent of Islam.  Most historians agree this is true but some note, “After the Prophet's death the condition of women in Islam began to decline and revert back to pre-Islamic norms.”

There is no question that women often suffer disproportionally in contemporary Islamic communities under traditional sharia law, even those lacking extremist groups.  Recently, a twenty-five year old widow in Banda Aceh, Indonesia was invaded in her home and gang raped by a group of five men because she allegedly was having an affair with a married man.  The Jakarta Globe reports the rapists then dragged the woman to the Wilayatul Hisbah or sharia police.

Most of us would view this woman as a victim and survivor requiring healing and compassion.  However, Ibrahim Latif, a regional sharia official, insists the woman and her lover should both be publicly beaten nine strokes with a cane for the crime of adultery.  He did not see the woman’s brutal rape as extenuating circumstances but he did concede the rapists also warranted nine strokes with a cane for their actions.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports other cases from the region.  In 2010, three sharia policemen raped a twenty-year-old university student after they found her riding a motorcycle with her boyfriend.  In 2012, a sixteen-year-old girl hanged herself after sharia police published her full name in local media and scolded her for acting “like a prostitute” with friends at a concert.

This week, Malala Yousafzai announced her solidarity with the abducted Nigerian girls.  Yousafzai is the Pakistani teenager who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, also for attending a Western school for girls.

The problem is that an attack on Islam will do nothing to help the girls and simply enflame passions against the West.   More to the point, Islam is not the only – or even the primary – institution that should be targeted for action in countries like Nigeria and Indonesia.  Instead, it is the secular governments of these countries that need to be held more accountable.

To be clear, these governments are not in league with extremists but they have been notoriously passive.  In Nigeria, the BBC reports long-standing tensions between the Muslim-dominated north and Christian-centric south.  “Many Muslim families still refuse to send their children to government-run ‘Western schools,’ a problem compounded by the ruling elite which does not see education as a priority.”  In Indonesia, Ismail Hasani, a scholar at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University explains, “When we talk about law [here], we talk about three different systems that are not clearly delineated – common law, sharia law and national law. There is no boundary.” 

Lauren Wolfe, Director of Women Under Siege project in New York, recently penned an op/ed piece in the Winnipeg Free Press in which she argues, “Crimes against women and girls are not only commonplace, but they go ignored, unprosecuted and unreported by the international media every single day, especially when they occur in the global south . . . Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized.  It is targeting society's most defenseless and fetishized.”  Hires Ali makes the same point in her Journal piece.   “Where governments are weak, corrupt or nonexistent, the message of Boko Haram and its counterparts is especially compelling.”

Attacks against women serve an even more sinister end.  Rape and other crimes against women are often devastating not only to the victims but to the other members, male and female, within their families and communities.  Muslim extremists are not merely waging literal war on women but using women as weapons against any who will not accept their version of "pure" Islam.  

While boundaries between different religions, cultures, and nationalities are worthy of respect, there are certain concepts of basic dignity that are universal.  Fair treatment of women, especially the most young and vulnerable, is one of them.  Governments everywhere must take a stand to protect their citizens rather than protecting themselves from political displeasure by groups within that citizenry.  Currently, we paradoxically state, much like Yogi Berra, the problem is so important that nobody does anything about it. 

Outrage we got.  What we need is action.

Monday, May 5, 2014

How Many Racists Do You See?

You Might Want to Count Again

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling were recently in the news for making what were widely viewed as racist statements.  Now that the dust has settled a little on both of them, I wanted to take a look at each one.  Many people tend to see them as equivalent and label both racists.  Others argue that label is misapplied.  While both may indeed be racists, there are enough differences and similarities between them to make any judgment about them a little more complicated than a simple thumbs down.

Cliven Bundy took to musing about “the Negro” at a press conference following a stand-down between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and his followers over Bundy’s right to graze his cattle on federal lands.  As first reported by the New York Times, Bundy lamented poor blacks on government support for lacking cultural and moral values.  “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.  And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?  They didn’t get no more freedom.  They got less freedom.”
Embattled Nevada rancher Cliven
Bundy (left) and  Los Angeles
Clippers owner Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling berated his girlfriend, who describes herself as a mixture of black and Mexican, for publicly associating with black professional basketball players.  As first reported by TMZ Sports, Sterling criticizes the young woman for lack of pride.  “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people . . . You can sleep with [black people].  You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it . . . and not to bring them to my games.”

There is no doubt Bundy and Sterling have certain things in common.  Both are self-promoters who like to hear themselves talk.  Both are less than sterling characters.  Bundy has a long history of legal run-ins with the government over his refusal to pay for grazing rights.  He categorically denies the legitimacy of the federal government and U.S. Constitution, even when his supporters were pushing him as a champion of the First and Second Amendments.  Sterling has a string of past lawsuits in which he is accused of being a slumlord.  He has carried on an extramarital affair for years while separated from his wife.  Both men are blunt-spoken and cantankerous.

Yet there are differences between their cases.  Bundy meant for his comments to be placed in the public domain, while Sterling intended his rant to be private.  Both men expressed traditional views of racism – things were better in the old days when blacks and whites were more segregated.  Yet Sterling’s desire for separation is obviously deliberate while Bundy’s skirts the line of the subconscious.

Although Bundy is the one who mention the relative “benefits” of slavery, it is really Sterling who exhibits a classic plantation mentality.  Bundy wants to see African Americans as self-reliant as he imagines himself to be.  Sterling congratulates himself on his largess toward his black players and denigrates what he perceives as their lack of gratitude.  Bundy takes a factual observation – that social welfare program have not broken the cycle of poverty experienced by many minorities – and conflates that with the “values” instilled by slavery.  Sterling stresses the importance of showing a politically correct face in public by lying.

Columnist Chris Jepson of the Seminole Voice candidly differentiates the two men.  He argues that Bundy is “unbelievably ignorant,” while Sterling is “the height of hypocrisy.”  He feels Sterling’s Jewish ancestry particularly places him in a position of knowing better “that one’s ethnicity, race or religion is no justification for bigotry.”

Complicating all this is the ever-evolving idea of a “post-racial America,” a meme that has gained credence in conservative circles since the election of a black President.  Republicans and others needed to be able to criticize Barack Obama without immediately opening themselves up to charges of racism.  It began the day after Obama’s election in 2008, when conservative black columnist Shelby Steele wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that asked, “Doesn't a black in the White House put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism?  Doesn't it imply a ‘post-racial’ America?”

Conservatives have since taken this meme beyond the defensive and gone on the offensive.  It used to be that a racist was someone who hated another person simply because of their race.  That idea has been twisted to redefine a racist as anyone who first introduces a racial aspect into another’s hate speech or action.  Race, ethnicity, and religion might cause people to form different ideologies and philosophies but the disagreements are now between “the content of our characters” rather than “the color of our skins.”  In this post-racial America, all hatred is reduced to legitimate differences of opinion.

There has been some pushback on this from the left.  African-American columnist Mary Curtis writes in the Washington Post, “Whenever the weary chide me at a mere mention of the lingering legacy of racism, I tell them the truth – I never think about race unless I’m reminded of it . . . and I’m reminded of it all the time.”  Ditto for liberal columnist Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker.  “Bundy and Sterling represent an ugly corner of contemporary American life, but it is one that is entirely invisible in recent Supreme Court rulings.  In the Roberts Court, there are no Bundys and Sterlings; the real targets of the conservative majority are those who've spent their lives fighting the Bundys and Sterlings of the world.”

However, their counter-attack is counter-counter-attacked by Toobin’s almost namesake, Jonathan Tobin in Commentary magazine.  “Surely even Toobin has noticed . . . Sterling and Bundy have showed that anyone who dares to speak in this manner is not only scolded but also effectively shunned in a manner more reminiscent of closed religious societies dealing with public sinners than someone expressing an outlier view.”

Finally, Andrew Napolitano, a former judge and FOX News analyst, notes in a Washington Times op/ed piece that, despicable as they may be, Bundy’s and Sterling’s words never translated into actions.  Bundy is not donning a white hood and riding with the Ku Klux Klan.  There is nothing to indicate Sterling pays talented black players any less than he does white players.  “Racially hateful speech is protected from government interference by the First Amendment.”

 In this sense, labeling Bundy and Sterling as racists may well be accurate but less than significant.  There is little doubt that ignorance is entirely capable of making the jump to hatred and racism.  However, some seem too quick to make that link while others refuse to concede such a link can exist.  How many racists we see when we look at figures like Bundy and Sterling probably says more about each of our places in a supposed “post-racial America” than anything else.