An interesting article by Rumy Hasan in Open Democracy last December: Beware of Islamism with a liberal veneer. We’re well familiar with that phenomenon. The two women sitting next to Abhishek and Chris on The Big Questions were classic examples – using liberal rhetoric to defend illiberal traditions and practices, while enveloped in degrading black bags.
The recent outcry among British politicians and the London press over gender segregation in universities has shone a light on a relatively new phenomenon: the recourse to the foundational principles of liberal democracy by Islamists in pursuit of their agenda. This approach appears to be working as is evidenced by Universities UK’s (UUK) policy guidance (now withdrawn) on gender segregation at events organised by Islamic Societies. In very reasonable language, UUK advised:
“Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system”.
A thoroughly reactionary, sexist, practice was justified on the basis of rights – specifically the right of Islamist speakers and Muslim women to have segregated seating. This demand is thought reasonable because of the importance afforded to religious beliefs – non-religious beliefs are not granted this privilege.
We get it in the US too – the “right” to home school, the “right” to deny children medical care on religious grounds, the “right” to refuse to vaccinate one’s children, the “right” to refuse to perform abortions or dispense the morning after pill even though it’s part of your job.
It is curious – and revealing – that similar ‘liberal-minded’, ‘reasonable’, ‘freedom of choice’ arguments are not invoked for segregation on the grounds of race or ethnicity along the lines of the judgment – that set out the doctrine of ‘separate and equal’ facilities for races – of the US Supreme Court in the notorious Plessy versus Ferguson case of 1896. But, pray, why are so many who would rightly denounce this doctrine on the grounds of race, apply it on the grounds of gender? To this question no satisfactory answer is provided; a simple appeal to respect for religious belief suffices.
I keep saying.
The General Secretary of the LSE’s Student Union, Jay Stoll, provided a simple answer to the outrage felt by UUK’s policy guidance: on Channel 4 News he baldly asserted that this was a manifestation of ‘Islamophobia’. He naturally hoped that such ‘analysis’ would quell the critics and end the debate. Now Mr Stoll has some form on this: back in October at the Freshers Fair, his Students Union forced two members of the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society to remove their ‘Jesus and Mo’ t-shirts on the grounds that this constituted ‘harassment’ of Muslim (not Christian) students (hence was Islamophobic but not Christophobic). Thankfully, after vigorous campaigning and threat of legal action, Craig Calhoun, the Director of the LSE – but not the Students Union – has apologised to the two students. One should, therefore, not be unduly surprised if the LSESU gives support to requests by Islamic societies for segregated audiences at meetings they organise on campus; and helps with its enforcement.
Well so far, that hasn’t happened that I’m aware of – and I think I would be aware if it had because I think Chris and Abhishek would tell me.
Whilst recognising that Islamists in Muslim-majority countries – from the Wahabbi House of Saud to Sunni Pakistan to Shia Iran – are contemptuous of liberal, democratic, values, many Islamists in the west now realise that this rejectionist approach is counterproductive to their cause. Hence they are skilfully resorting to arguments coated with liberalism. It is, therefore, imperative that those concerned by the corrosive values of Islamism: gender segregation, attack on freedom of expression, and veiling are only three instances – should see through this liberal veneer to reveal the reactionary agenda underneath and to put up robust opposition to their demands.
We’re doing our best. But there are always the useful idiots…like Bob, the author of one of the comments:
Presumably Hasan sees himself as someone who stands up for genuine liberal values. Yet he denies the right of Muslim women to sit separately from men if they choose – even if, as happened at the iERA meeting at UCL, a mixed-gender section is available to those who don’t want single-gender seating. And he justifies the French ban on women wearing the niqab.
Some liberal! What happened to John Stuart Mill’s principle, which is the bedrock of liberalism, that individuals should be free to act as they choose, free from interference by the state or anyone else, as long as they cause no harm to others?
See? That’s exactly what the two women next to Abhishek and Chris claimed, and it’s dead wrong. It’s dishonest. Nobody is denying the right of Muslim women to sit anywhere they want to sit – provided there are empty seats. All anyone is denying is a guaranteed pre-arrangement of segregated seats, which is to say, an imposition of segregation on everyone who attends.
We don’t get pre-arrangements like that in the normal course of things. We don’t get to stipulate what kind of people we want to sit next to on buses, in restaurants, on planes, in movie theatres, at concerts, at political meetings – even in church, as far as I know. (In mosques, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Well there you go. That’s why some people stop going to mosques.)
I wonder if Bob would say
Presumably Hasan sees himself as someone who stands up for genuine liberal values. Yet he denies the right of white people to sit separately from black people if they choose – even if, as happened at the iERA meeting at UCL, a mixed-race section is available to those who don’t want single-race seating.
My guess is that he wouldn’t, yet he feels comfortable and righteous saying it about gender. Spot the real liberal, eh?
“Spot the real liberal, eh?”
I reckon that after the calling out of Jay Stoll, and his relative failure to usher in silence, the game of “spot the hypocrite” seems to have become a lot easier.
A transgendered woman of my acquaintance has unfortunately jumped aboard the Islamist bandwagon because its a convenient stick to beat #whitefeminists with.
There has been some bad blood between transexuals and second wave feminists of late because of some extremely nasty transphobia from some prominent second wavers who are, ironically, also silent or actively supportive of Islamism themselves.
Lately her Facebook page has been graced with the smiling faces of hijabi wearers telling #whitefeminists just where to get off. I was kind of expecting this latest move as she’s been posting a lot about intersectionality lately and getting it wrong: intersectionality is a matrix of oppression not a simple branching hierarchy like a family tree.
I’ve can’t ask her where she thinks they’ll let her sit in the event of a segregated meeting (she works at a university) because of my cis male privilege.
There are several extremely stupid comments to the Open Democracy post some of them probably also Bob but not signed. I love it when people claim to lecture and have published on subjects and insist on telling you so – but remain anonymous so you can’t check.
Is there such a thing as Argument from Anonymous Self-Authority?
Ant (@antallan) says
“Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.”
Is it not enough to say that no religious group is being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system in its own venue?
Would UUK also say, “Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those promoting freedom of expression should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system”? Or “an art class”?
Maybe I’m just naïve…
deepak shetty says
The rights of women who don’t want to be segregated or who don’t want to wear a burkha are always somehow ignored by such “liberals”
Andrew B. says
I think that many of our opponents see venues with a “mixed-gender seating” as well as segregated sections as a reasonable compromise. But it isn’t. Segregation is an all or nothing thing. Once you tell a single person where they may not sit on account of being the “wrong gender,” IT IS NO LONGER VOLUNTARY.
Ophelia Benson says
And, again, it’s laughably easy to demonstrate this by switching from gender to race. Would they think it was a “reasonable compromise” to have a section for white people, a section for the non-white people, and a “mixed” section? Or a section for “native Britons,” a section for immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and a mixed section?
I doubt it.
Binary? Nah, it’s all or nothing. Right?
Even to accept the physical possibility of segregation is to go beyond questions of cultural values and accept an epistemology based on two clearly defined sexes.
Abdul Alhazred says
Repressive ideologues using liberals as ideological human shields?
Not a new phenomenon at all. Only who is doing it is new.
Bjarte Foshaug says
Here’s what I don’t get. Even if we accept that some people who are genuinely racist will try to exploit legitimate objections to Islamism in support of their racism (as I’m sure they will), why is that obviously worse than Islamists exploiting legitimate objections to racism in support of their misogyny (as I’m sure they will)? Why does the former delegitimize speaking out against Islamist misogyny while the latter does not delegitimize speaking out against racism toward Muslims?
Almost completely off-topic – except that it involves the collision of religion and education – the Ministry of Truth blog has a story on a creationist zoo in the UK which has been awarded the Quality Badge from the Learning Outside of the Classroom scheme (LOTC).
Apparently the award doesn’t take into account whether what is being taught is true, just whether other bureaucratic and safety requirements are met.
Ophelia has very lucidly exposed the flaw in the argument of Bob. I see absolutely nothing wrong in males and females being segregated in a public area as long as it is an entirely democratic decision involving all. And where there is absolutely no requirement to conform to this if one feels uncomfortable about it. But that is completely different to demanding that gender segregation should be a necessary pre requisite for giving a lecture in the educational establishment of a liberal democracy. The two are as far apart as it is possible to be. Bob needs to be aware of such blindingly obvious differences before making such an elementary error again
Always interesting to see too how in spite of the negative publicity that gender segregation is seen as less serious than other types. Why is that I wonder ? The answer is the perception that it is acceptable because of the ubiquity of misogyny in society. Somehow this is slightly more appealing than racism or homophobia when in point of fact it is exactly the same. All discrimination is wrong and equally so. But a patriarchal society can get away with it more if it directs its disapproval at its most favourite target. Progress is being made but in the twenty first century it really ought to be history by now. At least in liberal democracies if not necessarily elsewhere
Some it seems cannot differentiate between legitimate criticism and deliberate discrimination when it comes to all matters pertaining to Islam. It is not Islamophobic to question it at all. Long as one is doing so from a legitimate perspective with no ulterior motive then it is absolutely fine. Jay Stoll the President of the Student Union appears not to realise this. Simply wearing a tee shirt of Mohammad does not make one an Islamophobe. The liberal left need to have absolutely clear demarcation lines between what is and is not acceptable. The notion that one cannot or should not criticise a belief system for fear of offending the sensibilities of its followers is completely at odds to the principle of free speech. Which is apparently a fundamental belief of the left. Sad to see then that some do not believe in as much as they should
And finally on the wearing of the burka and niqab. Some need to understand that where there is completely free choice a woman can wear whatever she wants. What anyone thinks of it is neither here nor there. Feminists cannot have it both ways therefore. Either this principle is universal or it is not. If on the other hand the objection is because it is a symbol of patriarchy that is entirely different. But be very careful about stereotyping the entire gender of a belief system with over a billion followers. The reality as always is more far subtle and complex than that
Ophelia Benson says
@ 13 – well I’m not sure we’re saying the same thing there. I don’t think I agree with “I see absolutely nothing wrong in males and females being segregated in a public area as long as it is an entirely democratic decision involving all.” I don’t actually see it that way. I don’t think it can or should be any kind of *group* decision at all. It can only be individual, as in, “I will sit next to a man if I can find an empty seat next to a man.” It can’t be requested or arranged in advance. Again, this becomes (sadly) easier to see if we substitute race for gender: “Excuse me, could we trade seats so that I can sit next to a white person?”
It’s the ID strategy except with pseudo-liberalism instead of pseudo-science. To rephrase slightly: “…many creationists now realise that this rejectionist approach (to science) is counterproductive to their cause. Hence they are skilfully resorting to arguments coated with pseudo-science.”
There is no difference in principle between one individual making that decision and many individuals making that decision as long as each of them are doing so of their own free will with no pressure to conform. Though the point is an academic one because gender segregation is not the norm in liberal democracies where men and women routinely interact with each other. I only referenced it to expose the fallacy of the argument of Bob which you quoted
Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges says
Once something becomes a “group decision” there is always going to be pressure to conform. If each person is completely free, then what you’re describing is just people happening to sit where they like, not segregation.
To any self-described progressives still carrying the segregation-is-good banner, ask yourselves this, “How come not one single voice in the argument has said that a man should be able to sit away from women, and that banning segregation is inhibiting his free agency to do so?”
The UUK envisioned three sections, women, men and mixed gender. Pro segs keep assuring us over and over that women can choose the mixed section or the women’s section and retain their agency. It’s true they can’t pick the men’s section, but neither can the men pick the women’s, so it’s all very fair…right? Then why not argue for a man’s agency to choose the men’s section? ahem…is that section empty?