This war is also about sex

Posted: May 07, 2004 12:00 AM

  WASHINGTON -- On Sept. 11, America awoke to the great jihad, wondering: What is this about? We have come to agree on the obvious answers: religion, ideology, political power and territory. But there is one fundamental issue at stake that dares not speak its name. This war is also about -- deeply about -- sex.
 For the jihadists, at stake in the war against the infidels is the control of women. Western freedom means the end of women's mastery by men, and the end of dictatorial clerical control over all aspects of sexuality -- in dress, behavior, education, the arts.

     Taliban rule in Afghanistan was the model of what the jihadists want to impose upon the world. The case the jihadists make against freedom is that wherever it goes, especially America and Europe, it brings sexual license and corruption, decadence and depravity.

     The appeal of this fear can be seen in the Arab world's closest encounter with modernity: Israel. Israeli women are by far the most liberated of any in that part of the world. For decades, the Arab press has responded with lurid stories of Israeli sexual corruption.

     The most famous example occurred in the late 1990s when Egyptian newspapers claimed that chewing gum Israel was selling in Egypt was laced with sexual hormones that aroused insatiable lust in young Arab women. Palestinian officials later followed with charges that Israeli chewing gum was a Zionist plot for turning Palestinian women into prostitutes, and ``completely destroying the genetic system of young boys'' to boot.
    Which is why the torture pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib prison could not have hit a more neuralgic point. We think of torture as the kind that Saddam practiced: pain, mutilation, maiming and ultimately death. We think of it as having a political purpose: intimidation, political control, confession and subjugation. What happened at Abu Ghraib was entirely different. It was gratuitous sexual abuse, perversion for its own sake.

     That is what made it, ironically and disastrously, a pictorial representation of precisely the lunatic fantasies that the jihadists believe -- and that cynical secular regimes such as Egypt and the Palestinian Authority peddle to pacify their populations and deflect their anger and frustrations. Through this lens, Abu Ghraib is an ``I told you so'' played out in an Arab capital, recorded on film.

     Jihadists, like all totalitarians, oppose many kinds of freedom. What makes them unique, however, is their particular hatred of freedom for women. They prize their traditional prerogatives that allow them to keep their women barefoot in the kitchen as illiterate economic and sexual slaves. For the men, that is a pretty good deal -- one threatened by the West with its twin doctrines of equality and sexual liberation.

     It is no accident that jihadists around the world are overwhelmingly male. It is very rare to find a woman suicide bomber. And when you do, like the young woman who blew herself up in Gaza killing four others last January, it turns out that she herself was a victim of sexual subjugation -- a wife accused of adultery, marked for death, who decided to die a martyr rather than a pariah. But die she must.

     Which is what made one aspect of the Abu Ghraib horrors even more incendiary -- the pictures of American women soldiers mocking, humiliating and dominating naked and abused Arab men. One could not have designed a more symbolic representation of the Islamist warning about where Western freedom ultimately leads than Thursday's Washington Post photo of a uniformed American woman holding a naked Arab man on a leash.

     Let's be clear. The things we have learned so far about Abu Ghraib are not, by far, the worst atrocities committed in war. Indeed, they pale in comparison with what Arab insurgents have done to captured Westerners, and what Saddam Hussein did to his own people.

     The American offenders should surely be judged by our standards, not by others'.  By our standards, these were egregious violations of human rights and human dignity. They must be punished seriously. They do not, however, reflect the ethos of the American military, which has performed with remarkable grace and courage in Iraq, or of American society.

     The photographs suggest otherwise. Which is why the abuse at Abu Ghraib is so inflammatory and, for us and our cause, so damaging. It re-enacted the most deeply psychologically charged -- and most deeply buried -- aspect of the entire war on terror, exactly as bin Laden would have scripted it.