The only Muslim women in the village

Brian Whittaker spotlights a long essay in the Nation magazine today. Written by the expatriate Moroccan author Laila Lalami, the essay called The Missionary Position, dismantles and demystifies the Muslim women “reformers”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji.

To many these women represent the lone voices, howling in the Islamic wilderness, the sole purveyors of the Reform, which the ignorant Muslim masses reject and malign, doing no one but themselves a disservice in the bargain. Its the line taken, here in Britain, by everyone from the likes of Melanie Phillips to The Euston Clubbers and beyond.

Editors and TV producers love ‘em. Their strident views make for entertaining television and, of course, the things they say are generally what the US public wants to hear. The trouble is, their approach is so simplistic and confrontational and so insensitive towards the culture they are trying to change that it does more harm than good. Among ordinary Muslims - the people they are supposedly seeking to help - their credibility is virtually zero.

Lalami’s bases her essay on two overarching points:

1. The perception that these women are well-informed and well-versed on all matters of Islamic theology and jurisprudence and are expert enough to comment on Islamic practice throughout the Muslim world. Lalami picks off failings and disengenuities in the theses of both Manji and Ali. Here she comments on Ali’s bugbear: female genital multilation (FGM) and its practice my Muslims:

This lumping together of various Islams-the geographical region, the Abrahamic religion, the historical civilization and the many individual cultures-is symptomatic of the entire book, and makes it particularly difficult to engage with Hirsi Ali in a useful way. Her discussion of female genital mutilation (FGM) is a case in point. In at least six of the seventeen essays, she cites the horrendous practice of FGM, which involves excising, in whole or in part, young girls’ inner or outer labia, and in severe cases even their clitorises. Hirsi Ali is aware that the practice predates Islam, but, she maintains, “these existing local practices were spread by Islam.”

According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa by Animists, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as by Ethiopian Jews, sometimes in collusion with individual representatives of the faiths. For instance, the US State Department report on FGM reveals that some Coptic Christian priests “refuse to baptize girls who have not undergone one of the procedures.” And yet Hirsi Ali does not blame Animism, Christianity or Judaism for FGM, or accuse these belief systems of spreading it. With Islam, however, such accusations are acceptable.

2. That there is no crtitical, self-reflexive thought operating in the Muslim world today. The hubris, inherent in this notion, is piled on even further when Manji and Hirsi supporters claim them as two of few women who represent examples of that very rare breed: The Muslim woman activist. The perception being that these two are the only women working for the emancipation of Muslim women, while their sisters remain shackled and bewildered in a backward religion.

Along the same lines, Hirsi Ali seems to