'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Does Mrs. Robinson Have a Thing About Muslim Men? 

Sara Robinson has posted periodically over the years at the Orcinus site, a fine blog created by David Neiwert that has done much to confront racial bigotry and violence. She is now one of the four contributors to the The Group News Blog, a successor to the late lamented Steve Gilliard's The News Blog.

Robinson is a consistently strong progressive, feminist voice, even if I find her liberal political perspective somewhat narrow, as she often concludes with the notion that replacing Democrats with Republicans will substantially improve the situation. OK, fine, that's what makes a horse race. She is one of those people who exploit to the fullest the opportunity to engage in effective advocacy over the Internet.

Accordingly, I have been taken aback about the following exchange that accidentally evolved out of an excellent post about the hypocrisy of the NFL and the mainstream media in condemning Michael Vick for animal cruelty, while they excuse a long history of assaultive behaviour towards women by athletes. Perhaps, I am overly sensitive, but I agree with As'ad Abukhalil, the secular, leftist Angry Arab, about the willingness of people here, even liberals and progressives, to ascribe evils solely to Islam, especially in regard to gender, that can be found amongst the practitioners of most religions.

Anyway, you decide. While doing so, please note that the purpose of this post, as should become evident in the analysis that follows the cited comments from The Group News Blog, is not to pillory Robinson in some tedious exercise of, for lack of a better term, political correctness, but, rather to place the dialogue within a much more thoughtful, serious context of our subjective perception of Muslims. Extraneous comments have been deleted:

It's an actual fact that Muslim men regard both dogs and women as unclean and untouchable.

Which explains a lot, really....
Mrs Robinson | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 3:40 pm | #


It's an actual fact that Muslim men regard both dogs and women as unclean and untouchable.

Any chance you want to take this one back? Even if it is meant to be snark (which it doesn't seem to be), it doesn't play well for obvious reasons.

We all stick a foot in our mouth from time to time. G-d knows I certainly have.
Richard Estes | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 4:14 pm | #


Richard, I'm not aware that the statement is in any way inaccurate.

Orthodox Muslims do not pet dogs (they're not part of the culture, which is why their use at Abu Ghraib was so horrific). They also do not shake hands with women, or even (if they can help it) look at women they're not related to. (Orthodox Jews are only slightly less rigid about this.)

Muslim culture has a lot of issues around women and cleanliness. And also around dogs.

If I'm wrong about this, I'm going to need a citation.
Mrs Robinson | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 4:46 pm | #


I cruised around the Internet today, and found numerous citations that indicate that Islam exalts sexuality within marriage, as do many other religions

Also, the statement is inaccurate, because your remark applied to all Muslim men, not just Orthodox ones, and most religions are known for having Orthodox factions that advocate much more rigid standards of personal behaviour than people who generally identify with the religion

for example, would you make a statement that attributes a belief of personal behaviour or values of Orthodox Jews to all Jews? Fundamentalist Christians to all Christians?

probably not

I think that these are important questions, because I think that we, as Americans, have a tendency to describe Islam and the behaviour of Muslims by reference to the most Orthodox elements of that religion, which is frequently Wahhabist in character, which is the equivalent of describing Christianity by reference to the most fundamentalist Baptists and the adherents of the Church of Christ

and, there is a serious political dimension to such a misrepresentation, as it plays into the neoconservative notion of a "clash of civilizations"

anyway, my sense is that cleanliness is an issue within Islam generally independent of gender (citation to follow), but don't you live up in the Pacific Northwest? I'm sure that there are some Muslims there that could explain the day to day social reality as opposed to Internet citations
Richard Estes | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 5:00 pm | #


I live in a majority Iranian neighborhood, Richard. "Explanation" is not required: I can walk down the main street of town and watch people interact for 15 minutes.

I'm not sure what your point is. I have male Muslim neighbors who are very Canadianized and will shake hands with me; and others who adhere to older traditions and will not. Just like when I lived among orthodox Jews in West LA. And you don't really know who's who until you reach out your hand and watch who jumps back.

Likewise: some of them have adopted the English Canadian passion for dogs (we have the most wonderfully accepting dog culture here I've ever seen); and others -- usually the newer arrivals --- give me and my dog a wide berth.

Obviously, where my neighbors come from, there are issues. How extensive these issues are does indeed vary with where they came from, how long they've been here, and which faction of the religion they belong to. But the issues are there, and they're quite real.
Mrs Robinson | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 5:13 pm | #


well, yes, I agree, of course there are issues within Islam about these questions of gender and sexuality, I never said otherwise (as a secular leftist I believe that these issues are endemic to all of the religions that I know), and was about to elaborate further on this exact theme until I read your response, but that's not what you said in your remark

and, if you can walk down the street and watch people interact for 15 minutes, and have some neighbors who will touch you and others who will not, then why was the behaviour applied to all Muslim men, when it is apparently contradicted by your own personal experience?

as for my point, I think that it is quite clear, it seems to be easy to make these kinds of reductionist statements about Muslims in this culture, attributing the most Orthodox values to all, obscuring the diversity of that community, when we would never make them about Jews and Christians

and, maybe, we should all think about why we are so willing to engage in this practice with Muslims, but not people of other religions

maybe, our willlingness to do so explains a lot about us
Richard Estes | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 5:30 pm | #


Gee. I thought the article was about American jocks, not Muslim men. Silly me, I guess.
Cassius Chaerea | 08.23.07 - 6:24 pm | #


yes, it was, until the author herself made the kind of generalized comment about Muslim men that we would never make about anyone else in this society
Richard Estes | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 6:25 pm | #


I made a lot of generalizations about American jocks, too. And I knew going in I was doing it.

There are jocks who aren't like this. There are a tiny percentage who are real, sane, normal human beings with intact moral compasses. And there's a larger group of "quarterback for Jesus" types who've bowed out of the pussy chase in the name of faith -- though, as Anita Bryant will be the first to tell you (and anyone who's been following the latest fundie scandals will be glad to fill in the details), they often have issues of their own.

But I'm making well-founded generalizations about the overall attitudes embedded in traditional jock culture. And equally well-founded generalizations about the overall beliefs that have been embedded in traditional Muslim culture.

Individuals may vary in the degree and manner that they partake of these attitudes; but they're still connected to that culture, and it forms the background against which they make their choices.
Mrs Robinson | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 6:32 pm | #


I am saddened by the silence of people who seem to believe that making this kind of generalized remark about Muslim men is appropriate, or, at least, not something that should be criticized, when Islam and Muslims are the product of a tremendously variegated culture, ethnically, culturally, socially and economically.

Like most people, I have made such insensitive comments over the course of my life as well, and, will undoubtedly do so in the future, and when challenged, I eventually, and admittedly, very begrudingly at first, accepted it as a necessary learning experience.

The last paragraph of Sara's last remark is interesting, perhaps, we should interpret it in light of why we are so willing to blithely stereotype Muslims, and the extent to which it empowers people here who use more sinister stereotypes to promote endless conflict with them.

I will limit my future remarks on this subject to the blog where I post, which can be accessed through the homepage link next to my name.

Finally, I do believe that this post is actually a very good one, and would have not made such an issue of the Muslim men remark if I did not feel very strongly about the subject.
Richard Estes | Homepage | 08.23.07 - 6:54 pm | #

It is all very odd. Precisely what does the purported belief of Muslim men that women and dogs are unclean explain, as stated in Robinson's initial remark at the beginning of the thread? As the dialogue evolved, we moved to other subjects, and never got an answer, but it came across as pejorative. It is a rather unfortunate omission, because, as a consequence, we did not realize that the primacy of cleanliness in Islam is something that applies to all believers, instead of being something that elevates men above women and dogs, or, alternatively, creates a grotesque equivalence between them.

Interestingly, Robinson lives in a neighborhood with many Iranian Muslims, whose conduct actually disproved her statement, but also revealed her willingness to characterize the attitudes of Muslim men, who reside in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Australia, Africa, North America, South America (and probably, even Antarctica), all over the world in other words, based solely upon her experience with the Iranian ones in her neigborhood.

Finally, Robinson excessively relies upon the notion of traditional Muslim culture as a way of conflating all Muslim men, something that, perhaps, she does with Christians and Jews as well (I don't know), but is not encountered very often elsewhere in this culture. Christians and Jews are commonly recognized, and rightly so, as having created modern, reformist, progressive variations of the practice of their religion. She implies, however, that Muslims are still somehow tainted, or constrained, by their traditional values, thus accidentally? deliberately? legitimizing others who separate the practitioners of Islam from practitioners of other religions.

Personally, I try to avoid these kinds of characterizations entirely for several reasons. First, I am a secular leftist, and I acknowledge my lack of knowledge when it comes to world religions, especially when I do not have any contact with many of the practitioners (I know, I know, I admit that I don't understand something, well, I can't be arrogant all the time, I have to leave that to the Angry Arab).

Second, the question as to the extent to which the behaviour of people can be defined primarily by their religion varies according to many factors. Race, class, national identity, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, education . . . just to name a few. So, while I do tend to believe, as my comments above indicate, that Orthodox practitioners do structure much of their life around their religions, I am hesitant to extend the principle beyond them.

Lastly, I strongly believe, as I said in my comments, that there are people who have a sinister motivation to explain the behaviour of peoples around the world, especially Muslims, in terms of their religious identity. Samuel Huntington gave credence to the frightening notion that there is a inescapable global conflict that is significantly, but not exclusively, centered around the inability to reconcile the values of what he describes as Western and Islamic civilization. Maybe, he had just gotten done reading The Lord of the Rings to one of his grandchildren.

More seriously, though, such doctrines, by reducing peoples and cultures to their points of disagreement, facilitate the emergence of neoconservative policies based upon the notion that violent subjugation is the only means of survival. Hence, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threatened attack upon Iran. Is Robinson a neoconservative? Of course not. But we should all avoid stereotypical descriptions of people that conform, however minimally, as here, to such a way of perceiving the world.

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