On Islamists and Rick Santorum

Crossposted from BJ.com:

On Islamists and Rick Santorum

Yesterday, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Lauren Morgan posted an interesting piece on “Islamism in the Popular Imagination” over at Gunpowder and Lead. It makes two main argument, one poorly and one quite well, but both are important in their own way. The piece is written using a HuffPo piece by David Briggs entitled “Is It Time to Reconsider the Term Islamist?” as a foil.

First the weak argument. From Gartenstein-Ross:

Briggs bolsters his case by quoting Mansoor Moaddel, an Eastern Michigan University sociologist, as saying that in his interviews, he found that “‘in some respects, Mr. Santorum is more extremist’ than leading figures of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” Nor is Briggs the only Western commentator to fatuously compare Santorum to Islamic extremists. To actually approach the claim being made by Briggs and others — that Islamist politicians possess an agenda that is less extreme than that of Rick Santorum — a better approach is to look at the practice in Middle Eastern states, as well as the policies advocated by Islamist politicians with significant audiences (as opposed to mere fringe players).

GR argues convincingly that policies put in place by Islamist parties throughout the Middle East are more extreme than Santorum. And indeed, on issues like religious freedom, women’s rights, and gay rights, GR is quite correct. Islamist regimes are worse than anything Santorum has proposed.

But I’d argue this is an apples to oranges comparison. Santorum’s limits are defined, I think, more by the limits imposed by American institutions rather his ideology per se. In other words, GR is comparing institutionally unconstrained ideological positions with those heavy constrained by institutions. It actually is not at all difficult to find actors on the right who would like to see religious freedom severely curtailed. Indeed, there is even a “Constitutional theory” out there among right wingers than Muslims should not receive First Amendment protections because either Islam is a “cult” or because it was not extant in any significant way in the United States when the Bill of Rights was ratified.

In terms of gay rights, there are also plenty on the right who would like to see homosexuality recriminalized, and even subjected to the death penalty. And, of course, Santorum himself has notable compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

It is surely true that Santorum is not worse than various Islamist regimes in the Middle East, in terms of religious freedom, women’s rights, and gay rights, but man that is damning with faint praise isn’t it? But the bigger issue is that comparing ideology to ideology is perhaps more useful than comparing policy outcomes simply because institutions matter. What makes Santorum less of a menace to Muslims, women, and gays isn’t his “moderate” beliefs; rather it is that he operates in an institutional context where his maximalist positions are so absurd that they don’t even become part of the discussion…. until they do, of course. Until this past year, who would have imagined that access to contraception would reappear on the national agenda? I could have sworn that was settled two generations ago.

On the other hard, Gartenstein-Ross’s piece raises what is, indeed, an important policy challenge for progressives, namely what our stance ought to be in dealing with Islamist regimes that do indeed have very poor records on issues of freedom of religious/conscience, women’s rights, and gay rights.

Now, I know that in merely broaching this topic, I will be accused on somehow shilling for Israel. Just to clarify, I’m not. I consider Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to be both criminal and criminally stupid, and I think our economic aid to Israel makes us complicit in this criminality and stupidity. I wish it would stop, or that we’d at least use the leverage it provides to encourage some sort of fair solution. But, I promise I’ll write more about Israel later. This piece is not about Israel, but rather about some of the appalling human rights issues in the Arab/Muslim world.

As Mona Eltahawy’s crie de coeur argues:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt—including my mother and all but one of her six sisters—have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing—or divorce either.Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women.

The status of homosexuals is, if anything, even worse.

The tension arises because I would argue that the three core tenets of a progressive foreign policy ought to be:

  1. A skepticism of the utility of military force, with a resultant anti-militarist orientation. (Not anti-military, but anti-militarism.)


  1. A deep respect for the concept of self-determination which often manifests itself through adherence to anti-imperialist principles.


  1. A commitment to promote fundamental human rights.


The third is less historically grounded in the progressive tradition than the first two, but it is becoming increasingly important. The notion of a “responsibility to protect” as a fundamental limitation on state sovereignty is increasingly broadly accepted, and I think it is, in any case, a logical corollary to a human-focused conception of “self-determination.”

I think it is important for us to stand up against Muslim bashing in the United States. It is equally important to note that the “anti-Sharia” lunacy on the right is just that, lunacy. And yet, there is a real issue here in terms of our international relations with countries that do have quite poor records on human rights. As a practical matter, think we need to embrace the “Arab Spring,” and even be open to working with Islamist regimes if they come to power through democratic means. And yet, it does make me uneasy. Finding a way to balance these competing pressures is difficult, and I admit, it isn’t clear to me what precisely our position should be toward Islamist regimes that are either emerging democracies or long-standing allies that nonetheless have poor human rights rights.

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