Academic Feminists and Sharia · 06 December 2007

By Jamie Glazov - FrontpageMagazine.com
Filed under: News

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Daphne Patai, a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author and editor of twelve books, among them her 1994 critique of women’s studies programs, written with Noretta Koertge, which was reissued in a new and expanded edition in 2003 as Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies. Patai is on the Board of Directors of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and has long been a vocal critic of campus speech codes and harassment policies, as well as of the increasing politicization of academic life in recent decades. Her latest book, entitled What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs, will be published in March 2008.

FP: Daphne Patai, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Patai: Thank you, Jamie.

FP: Tell us your thoughts on David Horowitz’s Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week that transpired recently. What did you think about its reception on many American campuses? What did this signify?

Patai: The hostility to which some speakers were subjected itself demonstrated how difficult it is these days for criticism of radical Islam to be voiced. It’s one of the great ironies of contemporary academic life that on our college campuses, people whose every value and ordinary habits would put their lives at risk from Islamic fundamentalists, somehow feel compelled to pretend this isn’t so and, if not actively defending radical Islam, just ignore the problem.

But, as you know, it’s not only criticisms of Islamic fanaticism that get speakers shouted down these days; it can be any sort of expression at odds with the dominant ideology on campus, which in shorthand can be labeled political correctness.

It’s shocking, of course, that at universities – places ostensibly committed to the free exchange of ideas – the loudest voices are precisely of those who would shut down others’ speech. As it happens, the panel I participated in as part of Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, at George Washington University, didn’t encounter real hostility, merely the predictable mishearing. Thus, the very first question, directed to Michael Ledeen and me, criticized us both for making generalizations and criticisms of all Muslims, something we each were careful to avoid doing, as we repeatedly stated in plain language.

I was struck by the difficulty people have hearing what is actually said on particular subjects. It’s as though they’ve have been programmed to not hear what’s said and not note what’s actually going on—worldwide. I know, too, that many people were offended (or pretended to be) by the very term Islamo-Fascism, but the term is in fact appropriate for an ideology that aims to erase any distinction between political and religious life and any respect for individual conscience and autonomy. Numerous Muslim leaders (and followers) make absolutely clear what their goals are – destruction of Israel, of Jews, and of the West. As Michael Ledeen explained at the panel we participated in, the term “clerical fascism” has been around for some time and is an entirely apt description of the sort of theocracy that is explicitly promoted by many Muslim leaders today.

FP: Your angle on Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia? It is a bit intriguing that a dictator who runs a regime that brutally oppresses its own people, including women and gays, and who speaks of wiping Israel off the face of the earth, is applauded on an American campus, while those who try to stand up for Muslim women and Muslim dissidents who are persecuted under the forces of radical Islam are shouted down. What is your take on this phenomenon?

Patai: You’ve pinpointed one of the oddest phenomena currently going on. I sometimes think American students are so used to freedom of speech, to the enormous range of information to which we all have access, to open debate and passionate disagreement without fearing for their lives, that they simply do not take seriously an ideology that plainly is intolerant, murderous toward dissenters, totalitarian in the strict sense of the term, and that openly considers most of the values these same students hold to be anathema. In fact, the only thing I can think of that is shared by radical Islam and its apologists on campuses is antagonism toward the West, above all to the U.S.

Bernard Lewis has noted the patronizing or condescending attitude implied by the behavior of so many in the West (for this is also increasingly a problem in Europe), as if they don’t really believe radical Muslims mean what they say. Yet in the academic world these are the very same people who denounce any criticism of Islam as “Orientalist.”

The contradictions are mind-boggling. It was disgusting to read that Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University evoked protest only when he stated there were no homosexuals in Iran. Can it really be that this issue alone somehow caught the audience’s attention? I fear our students are living in a dream world, so mired in the security of having their views predominate on college campuses, so smug in their passion to criticize only the U.S. (and Israel), that they can’t even spot a threat when it’s openly declared and, indeed, acted on.

Do these students not understand that radical Muslims are serious? Have they failed to notice that these Islamists act on their beliefs and kill those who do not agree with them? And that their targets include political dissenters, Jews, Christians, other Muslims, homosexuals, writers, filmmakers, women who are thought to have transgressed, apostates, critics, infidels of all kinds – the list goes on and on. But it is especially shocking to observe the reticence of feminists to make criticisms of radical Islam. So, for example Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslim and former Muslim critics of Islam find little or no support among feminists in the academy. You can be as brave and outspoken as these women are, your life can be threatened by religious zealots, and yet feminists in the West will be hesitant to defend you, because you’re criticizing a group they’ve decided is off limits! This is disgraceful and ought to be a wake-up call about the decline in a serious feminist commitment to universal human rights and its replacement by identity politics.

FP: Can you expand a bit on your thoughts regarding Hirsi Ali?

Patai: In Hirsi Ali’s case, the identity politics work in a convoluted way: as a Black woman of Muslim background, she’d better be damn careful that any criticism she makes of Islam is couched in ways that don’t let the U.S. and the West off the hook. Instead, she’s unapologetic about her antagonism toward Islam and enthusiasm for the West, and this attitude is evidently not acceptable to her feminist critics, any more than to her Muslim opponents. Of course, in this respect, women’s studies is in perfect harmony with many others on campus – and beyond.

FP: So what is the state of women’s studies today? I wonder how many readings there are in the curricula about the oppression of women under the Islamic system of gender apartheid? Are most feminist professors showing the film The Violent Oppression of Women in Islam to their students? (To view the film, click here)

Patai: As far as I can tell, there is not a great deal of teaching of a critical kind going on in women’s studies programs about Islamic fundamentalism and the particular dangers it represents, or about how Sharia operates in countries where it is enforced. It’s been more than ten years since I parted company from the women’s studies program at my own university, out of dismay at its narrow politics and lack of intellectual seriousness. But I still follow the field and read what academic feminists say and how they define their programs, and I participate in discussions on the Women’s Studies E-mail List (WMST-L). I can tell you that identity politics continue to prevail, and this means that everyone is supercautious about which groups may be criticized, which not, and who is entitled to make criticisms. Third world “Others” are usually treated as a protected category, while the increasingly mythical White Patriarchy is constantly blamed for everything these feminists do not like about the world. This is why Islamic fundamentalism is not criticized while home-grown evangelicals certainly are.

The closest I’ve seen to criticism of radical Islam is a “plague on both your houses” attitude, which pretends that fundamentalist Christians are every bit as dangerous to the world as Islamic fundamentalists, and that “the West” manifests precisely the same problems as Muslim countries. This is sheer fantasy, but a very popular one at the moment. I wrote a piece about this issue not long ago, “Letter to a Friend: On Islamic Fundamentalism.”

The only kinds of films and readings critical of the oppression of women in Muslim and Arab countries that seem to make it into women’s studies courses are those that blame the U.S., Western imperialism, and globalization generally for any problems in the Arab and Muslim world.

In all seriousness, when people write in to the Women’s Studies Email List (which has about 5,000 subscribers and is devoted strictly to the field of women’s studies), asking for suggestions for class readings on Islam, the books by women who’ve left Islam are never mentioned, never recommended. Furthermore, about a year ago, when a few of us dared criticize honor killings in the Arab and Muslim world, someone wrote in and simply declared it “racist” to view this as different from domestic violence in the West! That, of course, shut down the discussion quickly. I have no way of knowing how many women’s studies teachers, behind the scenes, knew that this was ridiculous. The fact is, they for the most part do not say so. The double and triple standards at play are extraordinary. (For a recent example of the claim that “phallocentric thought” is equally harmful everywhere, readers can refer to the exchange about Benazir Bhutto on the WMST-List in October 2007). Labels have replaced real thinking.

FP: Can you talk a bit about your own intellectual journey? What do you think prevented you from conforming to the leftist Party Line?

Patai: Why some of us are capable of changing positions and others are not is something I’ve pondered for a long time. I hope we’re able to learn from experience. It certainly was painful for me to realize that my aspirations for a better world through feminism were bound to be disappointed, and that feminism was becoming part of the problem, not the solution.

But perhaps some of it has to do also with one’s nature – a concept rapidly going out of style.

I have always been a skeptic. The more utter conviction I see around me, the more I’m inclined to question it. Equally important, it’s hard to study the history of the twentieth century without being alerted to the dogmatic tendencies of the Left. On a personal level, even when I most identified with the Left, when I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I remember noticing that demonstrations against the war in Vietnam regularly took on frightening aspects. I remember feeling the destructive potential of group energy, when, for example, at anti-war rallies I participated in, protesters would start chanting “Burn the library!” I also noticed that people didn’t want to be rational. They shouted down speakers who were trying to provide information to strengthen the anti-war position; the crowd clearly preferred just to be roused to a fever pitch. Perhaps only a few individuals in such settings are strongly motivated by destructive impulses, but they have an inordinate influence on those around them. Groups and the herd mentality they encourage always struck me as dangerous, precisely because of how easily the individual dissolves into the group.

I also remember when a strike vote of the union of teaching assistants failed, and one of the union leaders, with whom I was friendly, said to me in all seriousness as we left the room, “We should have stuffed the ballot boxes. Another time, a close friend – in her Trotskyist phase — criticized me for not having the instinct to “go for the jugular.” And then there were quarrels with friends whose idea of successful political tactics included “the worse the better” – similar to the evident desire these days on the part of many people on the Left that the war in Iraq should be a total disaster, merely to gratify their hatred of Bush.

But I certainly never expected to have to spend time defending free speech – and from attacks coming primarily from the Left. I never could have anticipated that my generation, once it was in charge of universities, would not only attack free speech and academic freedom but that such attacks would now have institutional support. This is why I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to FIRE, a non-partisan organization defending First Amendment rights on campus. Their website (www.thefire.org) is an extraordinary source of insight into current campus orthodoxies, including the use of harassment policies and speech codes to regulate campus life.

FP: Looking back now, where were there some turning points, changes and significant evolutions in your outlook?

Patai: Without question the most significant political disappointment of my life was the result of the years I spent in a women’s studies program. Of course I must have been somewhat naïve to believe that we might be creating something new and wonderful. I had always been attracted to utopian literature (and for many years taught courses on utopian fiction, including women’s utopian fiction), but it didn’t take long for me to recognize that in fact we were doing a disservice to our students and that the doctrinaire attitudes in women’s studies could never usher in a better society.

I observed early on that ideological policing was the norm among my colleagues, and that “the personal is political” meant professional qualifications were not to count as much as personal identity and group grievances. I was turned off by the constant bickering, one-up(wo)manship, generalized antagonism toward men, grandstanding about who had the best and most committed politics, and so on.

Perhaps most disheartening of all was the discovery that there was little respect for scholarship. Some of the best-known women in the university – famous scholars who had made important contributions to feminism — were not welcome in the program because they didn’t have the “correct” position on particular issues. In other words, it became clear that women’s studies was different from other programs and departments, in that it required certain attitudes and tried to impose these on its faculty (and on its students, some of whom complained about these things), while excluding self-identified feminists with differing views, not to mention non-feminists, who I guess didn’t really count as women! The clearer it became that this was a program with an explicit political agenda, the less I found that acceptable. And no, comparable things were not going on in most other departments – at least not twenty years ago — despite the pretense otherwise.

A kind of collectivist mentality governed much that went on in the program. I became increasingly alienated, especially when identity politics became the predominant measure of who could talk about what and whose position was to be credited. I saw senior colleagues afraid to speak frankly and opportunism of every kind prevail. Many of these problems are described and analyzed in Professing Feminism, the book I wrote with Noretta Koertge, who is a philosopher of science and who was, and continues to be, particularly concerned about the feminist hostility to science. This was not a setting in which I wanted to spend more time.

FP: This isn’t, of course, just a problem in women’s studies, is it?

Patai: No, certainly not, but one key difference was that in women’s studies, personal conflicts and standard careerist moves were dressed up as political self-righteousness. By now, these problems, first evident in “identity” programs such as women’s studies and Black studies, have spread throughout the university, particularly in the humanities where “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are the verbal agendas and education is seen merely as a means to a particular political end.

Still, I don’t regret the ten years I spent in women’s studies. It was a valuable education in group dynamics, in the corruption that occurs when political passions override reason, when education is sacrificed to politics. And it taught me an unforgettable if painful lesson: that women are no better than men.

FP: I would just like to take this opportunity to inform our readers that you are the daughter of Raphael Patai (1910-1996), anthropologist, folklorist, author of more than 30 books on Israel, the Middle East, and related subjects. Can you tell us the reaction in academia and from the Left in general to your father’s book The Arab Mind? What does it say about what has happened to our discourse and the boundaries that have been placed on it by the Left?

Patai: My father devoted his entire life to scholarly work. He grew up in Budapest and began studying Semitic languages there. He always felt privileged to have studied with some of the great Arabists of the time. He went to Palestine as a young man, and lived there for fifteen years, and that’s where my sister and I were born. I wasn’t much involved in my father’s writing until after his death, when my obligations as his literary executor led me get to know his work more thoroughly. His book The Arab Mind, which was widely praised when it first came out in 1973, had been out of print for some time and was reprinted after 9/11. Edward Said, of course, had by then become an academic icon, and his tendentious and poorly researched book Orientalism (far inferior to his work as a literary critic, I should add) had had a profound effect on many intellectuals’ views of Europeans who dared to write about the Orient. And in fact my father was one of the scholars, along with Bernard Lewis and many others, attacked by Said in his book. Said did a highly sexualized and metaphorical reading of passages in these writers’ books that had nothing to do with sex. While protesting what he saw as the Western sexualization of the Orient, Said himself seemed to be in single-minded pursuit – I would say embarrassingly so — of that theme in the work of writers he tried to discredit.

In 2004, when news spread about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker in which he cited an anonymous academic who called The Arab Mind the “bible of the neocons” and stressed its supposed utility to the U.S. government because of its emphasis on sexuality and the honor/shame complex in the Arab world. My father in fact devoted one 25-page chapter to this subject, in a book of 400 pages.

The comments in Hersh’s article got amplified by the rumor mill as they passed from one writer to another, and before long my father’s book was being described as a torture manual for the U.S. military. This was an absurd allegation, of course, for which there is not an iota of evidence. But I have stated publicly that I certainly hope the government, the media, and all other key institutions of our society do indeed turn to scholarship for understanding of the world. What else should they be turning to? That’s a very different thing from blaming scholars for the use – real or imagined – others make of their work. By contrast, it’s obvious that most of the people who made these charges against my father — often ad hominem and grossly ignorant — have not read The Arab Mind, which is a sympathetic but also critical analysis of Arab culture and, incidentally, draws heavily on sources in Arabic. Again, so much of what passes for current intellectual debate is about identity politics – who has the right to say what. Apparently, my father’s identity as a European Jew is of more significance to his critics than his lifetime of learning and vast experience studying the Middle East.

It’s ironic that my father should have become a target of such criticism, because one of the things that makes The Arab Mind most relevant today is its discussion of the self-destructive role of anti-Western, anti-modernizing, and anti-Israeli attitudes in much of the Arab and Muslim world. These characteristics have become even more obvious, and more problematic, in recent years than they were when my father wrote his book.

FP: Some final thoughts?

Patai: I’d like to make it clear that I still believe being a professor and scholar is a noble calling, but it will remain that only as long as we don’t turn it into politics. I’m dismayed that many academics have abandoned a commitment to their profession as anything other than a venue for their political activism. They of course defend this degradation with facile assertions that “all education is political.” Evidently they have little idea what it really means to have “politicized” education and scholarship forced down one’s throat.

It’s not surprising, then, that our universities have little confidence in their own task of educating. One sign of this is the emphasis constantly placed these days on “outreach” – a current buzzword that’s all of a sudden crucial to our “mission” and that faculty should pursue.

If you stop to think about it, “outreach” is a bizarre preoccupation for a university, especially a public university. For isn’t “outreach” what we professors do all the time, by virtue of educating the young? Aren’t we by definition performing a crucial service for our communities and for the society at large? Yet there’s an implicit perception that we’re not really doing anything useful, and therefore our administrators are anxious to push some further tasks on us, ones that supposedly will benefit the “community” we are otherwise not contributing to! And this is what they call “outreach.”

But the system of education we have – the entire notion of a liberal education, of the integrity of research and teaching in their own right, not made subservient to some other agenda — is too valuable to allow it to sink without a fight. Universities should not be turned into a business, or into political training grounds. If we don’t believe that we’re doing something other than the politics-of-the-moment in our universities, why on earth should anyone, least of all the public – which in a free society will always disagree about politics — support higher education?

FP: Daphne Patai, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Patai: Thank you, Jamie, for the opportunity to talk about these important issues.

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Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine’s managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.