Earlier this month, New Atheist Sam Harris took to his blog to uphold the courageous Malala Yousafzai as both ally and object of his quest to save Muslims from Islam. Harris attempts to make of the internationally celebrated Pakistani activist an Islam-escapee in the mold of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, offering Malala’s work as the sort of truth-telling that “Islam’s apologists” must heed:
Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam.
And yet, as Murtaza Hussain points out at Salon, Harris can’t possibly have respected Malala enough even to understand her own feelings on her culture and religion. Where Harris assumes Malala strives to be rescued from “traditional Islam,” Malala herself seems far more intent on rescuing Islam from groups like the Taliban, those whom Harris depicts as Islam’s most devout and representative.
Given her own words, Malala is ostensibly among the “Islam apologists” he is targeting; but this doesn’t come into play in Harris’ myopic worldview. Although Malala may claim to be a devout Muslim acting in accordance with Islam, this is merely an inconvenient detail that can be safely ignored… When you don’t even feel you have to listen to the voices of the people whose cause you’re championing, it’s a reasonable indication of the fact that this has less to do with them than with you.
Harris serves here as a particularly blatant example of a kind of crusading for Muslim women’s rights that anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod says became commonplace after 9/11. While Harris is fairly transparently using a young woman as a tool in his own ongoing war against Islam, the impulse noted by Abu-Lughod is just as likely to manifest as well-meaning—if ill-informed—concern expressed by ordinary Westerners for the status of women in the Arab world. For Abu-Lughod, author of Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, it’s critical that we ask where that impulse comes from, and what work it’s doing in the world:
This book seeks answers to the questions that presented themselves to me with such force after September 11, 2001, when popular concern about Muslim women’s rights took off. I worry about the ways that representations of Muslim women’s suffering and arguments about their lack of rights have been working politically and practically. I follow the concept of “Muslim women’s rights” as it travels through debates and documents, organizes women’s organizations and activism, and mediates lives in refugee camps and the halls of the United Nations. I try to uncover what this framework that describes distant women’s lives only in terms of rights, present or absent, hides from us about both everyday violence and forms of love. I ask what evaluating lives in terms of rights does for (and against) different kinds of women. Along the way, I uncover how key symbols of Muslim women’s cultural alienness—from the veil to the honor crime—are deployed in twenty-first-century political projects, and why these symbols grip us.
Abu-Lughod traces these representations and arguments as they appear in venues as disparate as UN reports, New York Times opinion columns, book-length philosophical inquiries, and a genre of “pulp nonfiction” that seems to flourish in airport bookstores. Her argument is not that Muslim women are in fact carefree, but that their lives are as diverse and complicated as all lives are, and that when we make facile and unfounded judgments about culture’s role in those complications we forestall consideration of any actually effective strategies for playing an appropriate role in their alleviation.
Here’s more from Abu-Lughod: