22 August 2010

Using Aisha ~ Can We Get Beyond Time's Propaganda (Again)

A couple of days go I posted a response to this essay by Susie Linfield in which she agonizes (and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense) about the fate of women in Afghanistan in the event the U.S. were to withdraw from military operations there. Linfield's essay was occasioned by the notorious recent cover of Time magazine, depicting a young woman maimed by Taliban thugs for resisting an arranged marriage. My comment on Linfield was my second post on the matter.

The folks at Time importuned: "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?" And their reply was that the Taliban would be unleashed, placing the modest but real gains women have made in Afghanistan at grave risk. In the past couple of days, I've come across a couple of articles [1] [2] in The New York Times that suggest that the problem in Afghanistan is not just the Taliban, but other trends in Islam* as it is institutionalized there, putatively "moderate" or "mainstream" clerics who are more than willing to accommodate fundamentalists. In other words, the claim that we might just stay long enough to quash the Taliban (no minor feat, in itself) seems radically to underestimate the cultural problem. We are not, by military means, going to overturn or reform or whatever a traditional culture.

There are a couple of other matters. In the first place we are talking about a set of practices that we in the west deem 'barbaric' ~ "stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands." In the second place Afghanistan is hardly the only place where such practices ('stoning' specifically) are indulged ~ "in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria." These observations suggest that if we have concerns about human rights generally (you know, protection from 'cruel and unusual punishment') and women's rights specifically (since such punishments for 'sex crimes' tend to be meted out disproportionately to women) we ought to be intervening in those other places.

But let's set such messy, complicating factors** aside and focus exclusively and narrowly on Afghanistan. After all, such rhetorical narrowing is the point among pro-war types striking moralistic stances. Here is one telling passage:
"Perhaps most worrisome were signs of support for the action from mainstream religious authorities in Afghanistan. The head of the Ulema Council in Kunduz Province, Mawlawi Abdul Yaqub, interviewed by telephone, said Monday that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship, although he declined to give his view on this particular case. An Ulema Council is a body of Islamic clerics with religious authority in a region.
And less than a week earlier, the national Ulema Council brought together 350 religious scholars in a meeting with government religious officials, who issued a joint statement on Aug. 10 calling for more punishment under Shariah law, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashings.
Failure to carry out such “Islamic provisions,” the council statement said, was hindering the peace process and encouraging crime.
The controversy could have implications for efforts by Afghan officials to reconcile with Taliban leaders and draw them into power-sharing talks.
Afghan officials, supported by Western countries, have insisted that Taliban leaders would have to accept the Afghan Constitution, which guarantees women’s rights, and not expect a return to Shariah law."
So, all you pro-war types, what, exactly is the plan here? How long do you think we should we 'stay'? What would you count as 'success'? Uprooting the Taliban? Subverting the other "mainstream" actors who seem to endorse barbaric practices? When we finish in Afghanistan, shall we proceed to Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? (After all the connections between those countries and al-Quaeda are reasonably well documented.) What would count as 'success' there? If we want to pose the question the Time cover presses upon us, why not pose these questions too? The answer is that asking them does not allow us to be quite so moralistic, quite so certain of what we have grounds to do.
Military force is a blunt instrument. It is ill-suited to the task of trying to protect women - or anyone else - in Afghanistan from fundamentalist thugs or those who abet them. I am not sure how better to proceed. But that discussion is hampered by a preoccupation with 'winning' an impossible military mission. And propaganda of the sort that Time has spewed simply obscures that fact. But that, after all, is the point, isn't it?
* Please Note: The practices under discussion, as the essays in The Times make clear, do not derive from the Koran but from ancillary sources. The extent to which they are "Islamic" is contested.

** We can set aside too the hypocrisy of the U.S. with its official commitment to the death penalty and huge prison population of disproportionately minority and poor men has much claim to be scolding others about barbaric practices. We'll leave aside too the newly found willingness of American administrations to blatantly ignore the principles of international law in the prosecution of the GWOT.

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Blogger Ian said...

Somewhat similar to the fear of communism after the fall of Saigon I suggest.Nothing new!

23 August, 2010 13:30  

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