Civility is overrated

I’m often suspicious of calls for moderation in debate. In practice, such a call makes the subject under discussion seem less interesting than it really is: move on, there’s nothing to see here. More often, we see people with a veiled commitment to one side trying to discredit the other by portraying the whole discourse as a internecine clash between indentical fundamentalisms.


1) Azzam Tamimi, interviewed for a Guardian piece on religion and secularism, referred to ‘secular fundamentalism… The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth.’ Azzam Tamimi is a Special Envoy for Hamas who has called for the destruction of Israel.

2) Anti-abortion MP Nadine Dorries claims that, ‘The pro-choice and pro-life lobbies in America are far more vociferous, and unfortunately violent, than they are in the UK.’ This theme is taken up on CiF. It’s left to Unity to point out that violence in the abortion debate is used exclusively by the ‘pro-lifers’.

3) Opponents of the intervention in Kosovo, right and left, used to describe the conflict as a ‘quagmire’ of two backward tribes fighting it out over local totems, rather than systemic ethnic cleansing.

The same sort of thing is going on in Nesrine Malik’s article about ‘Islam’s refuseniks,’ in which she throws a lot of chaff around about Muslim or ex-Muslim women who criticise Islam. Focusing on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Wafa Sultan, she describes these three secularists as ‘hysterical,’ ‘confrontational and antagonistic,’ and accuses them of ‘self-promoting opportunism,’ and ‘faux extremity.’ They are ‘western media darlings,’ who ‘ride the zeitgeist and milk it for all it’s worth’.

You need to read the whole thing to understand how nasty and insinuating this article is. There’s a recurring hint that the experiences of Hirsi Ali in particular are exaggerated or simply made up: ‘stereotypical anecdotes of abusive overbearing men,’ ‘stereotypical buzz-stories, including genital mutilation and an unhappy arranged marriage,’ ‘personal stories [that] exhibit a disturbing tendency to twist half-truths into a media-friendly tale of woe.’

Does Malik think Hirsi Ali is lying about what she went through? Would she pick holes in the account of an abuse victim from London? She doesn’t have the guts to say so, either way. The one point she does make, that ‘male exiles from the faith do not seem to attract the same sympathetic open-armed treatment as the damsel in distress who has liberated herself from the shackles,’ – is nonsense – ex-jihadi Ed Husain is now a major voice in faith affairs.

Now we get to the call for moderation:

There is a paucity of credible, reasoned argument when it comes to the discourse between Islam and the west. Therefore when voices are heard, it is a tragic waste that they are pitched at a hysterical shriek supporting an irreconcilable “clash of civilisations” paradigm. What do these enlightened, brave souls hope to achieve? What end is justifying these means? If the ultimate goal is to capture the attention of strategic partners in the Muslim world in order to bring about reform, they are estranging the very people who have standing and influence in the community. Rather a fundamental miscalculation by such intelligentsia.

The essence of the refuseniks’ campaigns is a feminist one, women’s rights in Islam being the most inflammatory and least defensible of the repertoire of grievances. An ironic side-effect is that they have robbed the Muslim woman of her independence and free will, pigeonholing and victimising her as a “Caged Virgin”. It is undeniable that much needs to be said about the state of women in Arab/Muslim society and this needs to be done delicately, responsibly and with sensitivity to diversity in culture, heritage and religious practice.

Sounds reasonable – but it isn’t. Forget the fact that Irshad Manji remains a Muslim – as you can find out by following the link on CiF. A practising Muslim who is also in favour of female emancipation should be ‘moderate’ enough for Malik, but somehow isn’t. Again, tradition is higher than human rights: again the prostration before the false gods of authenticity and culture.

What needs to be said, and remembered, is that women in the Islamic world live under a sexual apartheid. This is, as Maryam Namazie says, ‘the outrage of the 21st century. Burqa-clad and veiled women and girls, beheadings, stoning to death, floggings, child sexual abuse in the name of marriage.’ We can’t and shouldn’t have any ‘strategic partnership’ with the wealthy and powerful men responsible for this state of affairs.

It sounds extreme, but there are precedents. You would have been called an extremist if you wanted the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s, if you wanted a universal healthcare system in Britain in the 1920s, and if you wanted an end to racial segregation in 1950s America. It all depends where the consensus is and what lies outside it.

The issue of a middle ground becomes a trap for Muslim dissidents. As soon as you leave the faith, you cease to be a moderate voice and it becomes easy to discount your criticisms.

As Christopher Hitchens said, civility is overrated, and it’s heat that generates light. And as an old friend of mine used to say: everything in moderation… including moderation.

2 Responses to “Civility is overrated”

  1. Nesrine Malik’s cavalcade of stupidity « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] by Nesrine Malik – who we met back in May. This week she’s letting us know that apostasy is really no big deal: Reading AC […]

  2. Nesrine Malik’s cavalcade of stupidity « Shiraz Socialist Says:

    […] by Nesrine Malik – who we met back in May. This week she’s letting us know that apostasy is really no big deal: Reading AC […]

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