Thursday, June 04, 2009

Good for Obama

From the Cairo address:

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.

I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

It's an extraordinary speech overall, hitting lots of very important themes and ideas. I started off a little annoyed, because the only terrorist attack mentioned is 9/11 and the reaction to it is made to seem like a purely American one. I understand that it's vital to avoid describing a civilizational war, and that this generates an impulse to compartmentalize 9/11. Making 9/11 a localized security threat against the United States, and the response to it a localized war in Afghanistan, is a way of forestalling Bush-era maximalism.

But it also makes the security account seem parochial: the U.S. responded to Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, and that's the extent of the American interest. I don't want to see the deaths in Madrid, London, Bali, Casablanca, Jakarta, Riyadh, and Istanbul disappear from our historical memory of 9/11 and its aftermath. And invoking them doesn't have to mean describing a global civilizational struggle-- indeed it allows one to emphasize that much of Al Qaeda's violence is committed against targets within Muslim countries. Through Obama's address, 9/11 is mentioned several times, and other attacks are only alluded to.

But that's my only substantial objection to a very important, and very effective, speech. And I was of course especially glad to see the passages with which I began, and don't at all mind the implied swipe at France and Turkey. The American doctrine of religious freedom does have a distinct position from the Jacobin doctrine of laicite, and it's worthwhile to stress the implication for Muslim liberty in America.


Aeon J. Skoble said...

Jacob, I'm going to have to disagree with you - Obama can't have it both ways. "Practice their religion the way they want" can mean _both_ "women should dress a certain way" and "women should not receive an education." One can try to split the difference and argue that while the latter is illiberal, the former is consistent with liberalism, but it's actually not, if (a) the women are coerced into dressing that way or (b) the aforementioned lack of education has resulted in de facto brainwashing. Inasmuch as the head scarves are a symbol of inequality and coercion, they're illiberal. That doesn't mean there isn't a way to split the difference, and maybe the French aren't doing it the right way, but Obama's distinction here is too simplistic.

Andrew said...

But what is your evidence that the hijab is per se and in essence a "symbol of inequality and coercion"?

Aeon J. Skoble said...

I don't know that it is or must be. Depends on whether they're coerced or not.

Andrew said...

But you said that they are a "symbol" of inequality and coercion, not that the headscarves are ok if voluntary and not ok if coerced. The implication seems to be that even voluntarily worn headscarves function as a symbol of the inequality of all women and the coercion of some women.

Aeon J. Skoble said...

No, look again, that's not what I said. Perhaps my use of "inasmuch as" was infelicitous; I was going for the same effect as "to the extent that."

Andrew March said...

Sorry. You are right that "inasmuch" is clearly the offending party! That is what I was drawing from.