David Rothkopf

Women and Islam: The real test of our values

The Wall Street Journal runs a story entitled "TV Host Targets Afghan Women’s Shelters." It describes an effort by a 27-year-old Afghan TV personality named Nasto Nadiri to promote shutting down shelters for women, which he argues "are not acceptable for our people who have fought 30 years to put the word ‘Islam’ in front ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal runs a story entitled "TV Host Targets Afghan Women’s Shelters." It describes an effort by a 27-year-old Afghan TV personality named Nasto Nadiri to promote shutting down shelters for women, which he argues "are not acceptable for our people who have fought 30 years to put the word ‘Islam’ in front of Afghanistan." He resents that "some NGOs come and want to make another way for our country." Many of the women are in shelters seeking protection from death threats from their own families, families who condemn their daughters for "immorality" for running away from arranged marriages.

Time magazine a week earlier runs a cover featuring the image of a woman brutalized in the name of Islam and arguing that should we leave Afghanistan, countless other women will suffer her fate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues we will not forget the women of Afghanistan — that they are one of the reasons we are there. The government of Brazil makes a fumbled effort to offer sanctuary to a woman sentenced to stoning under Islamic law. The same fate and worse affects women across the Islamic world who violate religious precepts and are treated as second-class citizens according to the dictates of local clergy turned lawmakers.

For policymakers and for people who care about the moral and ethical underpinnings of policy, there is a dark and difficult conundrum presented here. If we embrace tolerance, celebrate diversity and promote religious freedom, what do we do when a religion or a subset of its practitioners or a culture promotes a view that is fundamentally inconsistent with the most basic, most universally acknowledged principles of human rights?

To answer this question honestly requires considerable courage. To live by the implications of that answer requires even more.

The fundamental human rights of women trump the teachings of any religion. To denigrate, abuse, or devalue in any way the majority population of the earth — mothers, daughters and sisters — is either an affront to God or alternatively, if it is argued that it is the will of God, it is an affront to decency.

For the United States, embroiled in a war in Afghanistan and entangled with allies and others throughout the world who promote or tolerate policies that are unfair or cruel to women, the challenges are great. As Time asks, "Do we leave if by leaving we sentence women to decades or centuries more of enslavement, compromise and debasement in the name of religion and cultural history?" Would we do so if the reasons for the abuse were that they were black or Jewish or Christian?

History suggests that the answer is, sadly, yes. And frankly, a prolonged stay in Afghanistan is neither in the U.S. interest nor, in fact, is it moral on its own because it produces an appalling waste of life and resources and much suffering in pursuit of an unachievable goal. (Regardless of how small the president argues that ever-shrinking goal has become.)

But we cannot leave Afghanistan nor can we continue to pursue our goals in Pakistan or develop our relations with the Saudis or consider the future of our relations with the Iranians…nor can we appropriately contemplate relations with any nation and at the same time turn a blind eye to the systematic abuse of women and its justification by friends, enemies and whatever it is you might call the Afghan or Pakistani governments.

Should we be providing aid of any sort to any nation that doesn’t honor the most basic tenets of the universal declaration of human rights? Should we be allied with or, worse still, should we protect with the young men and women of America any society that seeks to treat women as property, sets double-standards for "moral" behavior, punishes violation of those standards with torture, stoning or legalized murder?

Does realpolitik give these societies a pass? Does "honoring Islam"?

The answer should be no and no. What is going on in these countries is a disgrace every bit as grand and incomprehensible and awful as the Holocaust — only it is much bigger, much more ancient, and if possible, much more evil if only due to the extent of its reach and the breadth of our acceptance of what has happened.

We need a new international understanding on these issues, one that will produce a coalition of nations that will strictly enforce a ban on aid to countries that abuse women — and one that will introduce sanctions on those countries until they comply with what must be the most basic entry-level rules for participating in global society. No one has been more tireless or vocal in pursuit of these goals than Clinton and one hopes that the experience of Afghanistan and her increased exposure to the region will produce something beyond the heart-felt rhetoric and halfway measures we have seen on these issues.

We can’t be a moral society and turn a blind eye to this. Nor can we call ourselves honorable and ally ourselves to those who tolerate or empower the abusers. Our geopolitical objectives in the Middle East are not greater than the rights of women everywhere. Fighting terror is not greater than our obligation to those women. And no religion, nor any government that acts "in the name of religious values" that promotes the abuse of anyone, is worthy of our tolerance.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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