Trashing Islam

Posted: Nov 13, 2002 12:00 AM
On Monday in Tehran, thousands of university students risked death to defy tyranny: "You can cut off our tongues, you can take us to jail as you have jailed many other students and scholars, but you can't capture our hearts, you can't prevent freedom of expression and thoughts," student leader Saeed Razavi said, as thousands of students protested the mullahs' death sentence for history professor Hashem Aghajari.

Prof. Aghajari's crime? Daring to say that Islam and clerics' statements about Islam are not the same thing, that each generation has a right to read and interpret the Koran without fear. For that, Aghajari has been condemned in Iran as an apostate, and the penalty for apostasy in Islam is death.

Meanwhile, at about the same time, New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd was touring Saudi Arabia, mesmerized by what she saw as the internal contradictions of Islamic repression: "Frederick's of Hollywood-style lingerie shops abound, even though female sexuality is considered so threatening that the mere sight of a woman's ankle will cause civilization to crumble," she ponders.

The sight is a challenge to the deepest presumptions of elite American women of a certain age, who raised themselves to believe that an orgasm was a revolutionary act of liberation, and who as adolescents engaged in portentous battles with their parents for the right to wear miniskirts. Saudi Arabia, Dowd decides, is a society "torn between secret police and secret undergarments." Fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was even worse, apparently spending his precious visa in Saudi Arabia going up to veiled Saudi women and asking them why they did not show him a little leg.

This in a country where women are not allowed to drive, have no rights to their children, can be divorced at will, are denied the right to travel or get an education by a father, a brother or a husband, and like most men in Islamic societies, lack the basic rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

What is it with these stereotypical puerile Americans -- ignorant, provincial, obsessed with sexual license as the marker of human liberty?

Every human society has a dress code, including our own, and the puzzlement over the idea that Muslim women can wear a veil and still enjoy sex is particularly embarrassing. It is also extremely dangerous to the larger and important task of helping Muslims who want to modernize. Elites who claim to want to promote a better understanding of Islam should start by realizing that democracy and human rights do not require sexual libertinism. To suggest that in order to modernize, Muslim societies need to embrace the worst of the trashy commercialism of Western culture is not true and deeply self-defeating.

India, for example, is still a sexually conservative society (which censors french kissing), and it has maintained a developing democracy for 50 years. America itself was a free society for 200 years before the Supreme Court decided it could not distinguish between art and porn. Provincial Americans might step out of their narrow world to recognize that, in poor countries, where the family is still the primary source of economic security, wholesale dismantling of sex codes could threaten the economic well-being of millions of the most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, back in Tehran, students set up a wooden post and rope, attaching a sign: "His crime was revealing the truth." An Associated Press photo shows one brave Iranian woman student approaching a barricade of Iranian police. Clothed head to toe in full, modest Islamic dress, her hair completely concealed beneath a scarf, she points one finger at the soldiers.

To me, she looks just fine.