Middle East studies in the News
How Academics Think About Freedom of Speech: Fisking the Email that Killed Phyllis Chesler's Talk on Shame-Murders
by Richard Landes
In preparing an article on how Phyllis Chesler, one of the few scholars and feminists to tackle the problem of honor-killings/shame murders in the Muslim world (and elsewhere, eg, Hindus in India, Sikhs to a much lesser extent everywhere), got disinvited from a conference on the subject of honor-killings, I managed to get a hold of the email that nixed her invitation. Written by three professors from the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies at University of Arkansas: Joel Gordon (History, author of email), Ted Swedenburg (Anthropology), and Mohja Kahf (Comparative Literature), it addressed Thomas Paradise, the Head of the King Fahd Center.
The letter is deeply embarrassing to its signers in its stupefying polemic, its craven reasoning, and its complete disregard for academic integrity. My guess (hope) is that its authors will object to its being made public in much the same way that "professors" of Middle Eastern Studies object to having their talks and class lectures made public.
UPDATE: Tom Paradise has been suspended as a result of his canceling Chesler's participation, and the brave people who scuttled her are busy scrambling to get out of the hot seat. Ted Swedenburg told a journalist:
You be the judge of whether the letter quoted below reflects this disavowal.
NB: issue of terminology. "Honor-killing" is a supposedly neutral term that does not judge. Instead, I think, it enables, using "to kill" where, by any standards of modern democracy, these are murders. My use of "shame-murders" not only identifies the act as murder, but makes it clear that this is not restoring family honor – what family is honored by killing its daughter? – but rather it is a grotesque and criminal way of trying to wipe out shame.
Below, a fisking of this McCarthyite letter attempting to ban a major researcher on the basis of a dogmatic and anti-intellectual ideology.
"Right-wing" is thus, by definition, not acceptable. Merely the use of the term in describing someone renders that person unpresentable, outside of the realm of acceptable speech.
Of course, the Southern Poverty Law Center has just disgraced itself by calling people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz "Islamophobes," revealing a deeply disturbing willingness to join with triumphalist Muslims in banning any criticism of Islam. That may be suitable for majority Muslim nations where, even if they don't adhere to Shari'a formally, they still maintain the most important rules about infidels (dhimmi): do not insult Muslims with criticism.
Presumably, in the Western world of academia (where academia means free speech), that taken insult would not suffice to silence a scholar's voice.
This is a code word for students and scholars whose accusations against Israel violate both academic standards of honesty, and engage in demeaning language (Israelis=Nazis), any of which kinds of accusations, diluted by a factor of 10, if directed against Muslims, would break the Islamophobia meter.
Here we have the classic "essentialist" argument which, ever since Orientalism, has been a code word for racism. If something is essential then it can't change, so, even if it's cultural it's like genes. So discussing honor-shame culture can be dismissed as racist because it "essentializes" the culture in patterns that cannot be changed (not true, but very hard to change). It is, by this reasoning, then racist to argue that the horrors inflicted on Muslim women by their men are part of the essence of Islam.
But note that Chesler and Spencer do not argue "essentialism", a term attributed to them by the authors. On the contrary, the main purpose of the sentence quoted is to oppose the argument (which one could also consider essentialist) that whatever violence and maltreatment Muslim men inflict on their women is a reaction to Western colonial oppression, and to assert rather, that the gender apartheid that enables this behavior is indigenous to the region both theologically (ie Shari'a legalizes the apartheid), and historically (or, one might say, culturally over a longue durée). After all, honor-killing has the explicit approval of one of the highest Islamic authorities, the 14th century Reliance of the Traveller:
Now some scholars, acutely sensitive to the negative impact that western imperialism had on those it conquered and colonized, might want to argue that at least some of the mistreatment of women is the result of outside influences. (One often runs across the argument, for example, that Israeli oppression causes Palestinian men's violence against Palestinian women.) But the notion that anyone who expresses the idea that gender apartheid and honor-killing is both theologically and historically part of Islamic civilization, should be prevented from making that claim, is to sacrifice historical evidence for correct belief (ie, orthodoxy=right thought). One ends up, like Britain, victims of a cecity for which there is apparently no remedy.
Anyone familiar with the record, and not twisting in the wind to disexplain it, would agree that gender apartheid – superior legal status for Muslim men over women (and Muslims over infidels) – is historically and theologically indigenous to Islam. Anyone who wants to explain male-female relations in Islam, past, present, and (alas, for some time) future, without an awareness of this fundamental, Muslim-male-assumed difference in status between men and women, will lack precisely the explanatory depth that – as a scholar – he or she owes her or his readers. To ban such a position as unpronounceable is an act of deliberate stupefaction.
The problems of Islam with infidels, the many Qur'anic and subsequent passages that revile them and rejoice at the thought of their humiliation and suffering on the Day of Judgment, the long tradition of reading Wala wa Bara – love and hate – as "love your fellow Muslim and hate the infidel," the Muslims who teach that infidels are, by their very rejection of Allah and his prophet, not innocent civilians, but guilty and worthy of death, are too legion to chronicle. The Islamic literature of hatred and hostility towards infidels outweighs – by how much? – that of love and respect for those who do not accept Muhammad as the One God's final prophet.
So what is Chesler's sin? Has she gone too far in not specifying "triumphalist Muslims" and instead tarred them all the with brush of their tradition? Perhaps. Do people need to ask themselves how great the percentage of Muslims who have been/are still subjected to the harshest teachings about infidels by their religious guides? Yes. Does one chase out someone who brings up the subject, or discuss it?
Even the harshest part of Chesler's comment, that Muslims who want to "impose on the rest of us its laws and strictures" (ie Shari'a) – are "dying to kill us," was alas, true of groups both religious (Hamas) and "secular" (Fatah) in 2007. The problem is that in the language of the "left", even Hamas is a progressive force, so their "weapons of resistance" were seen as noble, to be celebrated. To dwell on the moral depravity involved is to, in the words of a Muslim participant in a dialogue I was part of in 2002 – "dehumanize my people." Humanitarian racism: how dare you judge Muslims negatively.
The transparency of the motives and deeds here leads one to wonder: do these people actually believe what they're saying? Or do they privately recognize their betrayal of Western academia. (Maybe the latter, and they think it's a good idea.)
The language here is sloppy. Unpacked this means
Actually, no. The Executive Order says:
Who would not want to protect their fellow citizens from such violence and bigotry? But because this order targeted only (some) Muslim nations, it is deemed prejudicial, and Islamophobic (that's the meaning of "capitalizes on the fear of Muslims"). Heaven forbid we should show concern about the high levels of shame-murders in Muslim culture, and seek to protect the lives of our female Muslim citizens, from this particularly vile form of patriarchy! That would be bigoted!
This is a classic and elementary logic fallacy: all honor-killing cultures are rape cultures, but not all rape cultures (a much more widespread phenomenon which one finds in the West as well) are honor-killing cultures.
This definitional sleight of hand is designed to say that since rape culture can be found everywhere, hence honor-killings are (presumably) to be found everywhere (not). In an alternative version, honor-killings are just part of domestic violence and do not deserve any special attention. So, by this logic, one should not taint denunciations of shame-murders with the bigotry of pointing out that a) they are largely a Muslim phenomenon in their native settings (Arab and Muslim world, present but less pronounced among Sikhs, Hindus), and b) Muslims predominate even more in their committing honor-killings in the West. But if one cannot, in the name of avoiding "bigotry" and "Islamophobia" make that observation, then one is forbidden to discuss empirical evidence.
The flabbiness of the thinking, the mechanical application of polemically defined definitional terms, the dogmatic assertions of closed positions, all reflect a tremendous decline in academic standards. No wonder there's dissentophobia at King Fahd's Center: anyone speaking intelligently would undermine the credibility of the credulous.
Given the definition of bigotry – pointing on the empirical evidence for the prominence of honor-killing among Muslims, especially Muslim immigrants to the West – then this is clearly not respectful of either debate or diverse opinions. On the contrary, it is a world of discourse deeply damaged and compromised by a fear of offending Muslims and a fear of being (seen as) bigoted.
"Prominent Islamophobe." No definition needed. Quotations provided sufficient to prove it. And what is the message we wish to "send to our students."? Don't criticize Islam. We here at the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies would never do anything like that.
This is especially precious. We must protect our students from hate-based violence so we have to keep out a speaker who contributes to that. Interestingly, the only violence that Phyllis Chesler seems to provoke is the hatred of her message, not the hatred inspired by her message. In the case of the King Fahd Center, rocks through the windows of the center, and the suburban home of the head of the Center, and the threat of angry Muslim students. In other words, we must keep Chesler away lest we suffer the violence of those who hate her for what she says.
Don't know why this was not deemed feasible, but it's not really appropriate: have her speak, then have someone rebut, period. I would have thought that a Center that "welcomed respectful debate and diverse opinions," would have arranged for just that: a respectful debate, which I'm quite sure Phyllis Chesler would have been delighted to participate in. After all, it's a long-standing academic tradition to have someone comment on a paper and then allow back and forth between the speaker and the commenter/critic.
What would King Fahd say? We can't be associated... don't want our students to be exposed to such empirically sound ravings.
Now we get to the core of the issue: Islamophobia. Read the syllabus. It is a dogmatic assertion in a thousand intersectional ways that any "blaming the victim" is bigoted, cruel and inhuman, and the victims we designate – especially American Blacks and Muslims – innocent victims who must not be criticized for in any way contributing to their own distress. Rather than "Islamophobia" then, we should use the oxymoron "anti-Muslim racism" (as if 1.x billion people of so many different races and ethnicities could be termed a "race"). Far from testimony to a love of respectful debate and diverse opinion, the syllabus is a long litany of group think of the most dogmatic and radical kind. Not a single critique of the notion of Islamophobia or race, not a dissenting opinion present. No mention of Douglas Murray, no Sam Harris, no Frans Groenendijk, no discussion of how Islamophobia can be used to curtail freedom of speech, no discussion of the dangers of criminalizing Islamophobia.
It's essentially the equivalent of the papal index: de libris non recipiendum (of those (heretical) books not to be received, not to be made available for reading). Having located Phyllis Chesler on the list of "right-wing Islamophobes," it's a simple step to banning her.
There it is in a nutshell, the folly of the alleged left: in the name of gender justice do not dare criticize Islam despite its prominent place in the universe of gender injustice. Back in the day, Ronald Laing would have called this knot schizophrenogenic.
If there were any scholarly integrity here, they'd be handing out copies of Chesler's corpus on the subject of shame-murders to those attending to challenge their thinking.
Not a snowball's chance in hell. On the contrary, we have a terrorized community of scholars hiding behind a twisted ideology that conceals their fear and stupefies their students and colleagues. Some, like Paradise, are just terrified, others, like Gordon and Swedenburg, are the traditional dhimmi leaders making sure the infidels don't offend or upset the triumphalist Muslims. All in all, it's a pathetic picture of academia in major decay.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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