Monday, November 19, 2001

The most important of the top 10 taboos that could get you kicked out of the Taliban, according to David Letterman, is “shaving your beard just to see if the Gillette Mach 3 with patented comfort edges really does give you the cleanest, smoothest shave possible.”

Gillette could certainly make a commercial around all those clean-shaven Afghan boys and men whose smiles of shorn freedom exude spontaneous joy. Talk about earthly paradise. No wife who suffers a husband’s bristly 5-o’clock shadow could be happier.

A woman who covers herself modestly (and exotically) with chadors and veils can be beautiful wearing cloth of many colors, cut in sensual lines, but forcing her to hide her beauty is a cruel insult to femininity. Women who threw away their veils in Kabul were radiant. Nothing could be a greater affront to the fascist Islamists than the dancing in the streets of Kabul to the music on the radio by men and women celebrating the casting-off of fanaticism. If war is made up of relative evils of killing, it’s also made up of relative joys in celebrations.

But in sharing in the success of Afghans freed, we ought not to forget that lurking within the liberation of the oppressed are many conflicting interpretations of Islam.

George W. Bush has gone out of his way to make distinctions between good Muslims and the blasphemers of their faith, between the tolerant Muslims and murderous, nihilistic terrorists. We are frequently warned against negative stereotyping and demonizing of freedom-loving Muslims in the wake of September 11.

But as Charles Paul Freund writes in a perceptive analysis in Reason magazine of the many faces of the modern followers of Mohammed, “locating Islam’s contemporary mainstream is not a simple task.” In fact, it’s a matter of contentious dispute among Muslims themselves.

The puritanical, confrontational, repressive and anti-modern Islamist movement as opposed to Islam has wide popular support in several Arab countries (Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria) where political ideology cannot be separated from faith. The Islamists seek to create a revolution in social values designed to destroy the freedoms we take for granted.

“The primary enemy of many Islamists is the United States, not only for its alliance with Israel,” writes Mr. Freund, “but because America’s seductive and pervasive secular culture undermines their revolutionary goals.” In our eagerness to follow the president’s example to hug a Muslim twice a day, we must realize that some of these Muslims are neither huggable nor our friends, nor do they want to be.

Saying so is not easy without being branded a “racist,” or in more trendy academic circles as an “Orientalist,” a phrase put forward by Edward Said, the Columbia University professor whose book, “Orientalism” attempted to set the terms of debate, to blame the West for condescending treatment of the Arab as primitive and inferior. (This is the same Professor Said who threw rocks at Israeli soldiers on the West Bank and said it made him feel good.)

Movies, books, erotic paintings and exotic tales of slaves and harems in the 19th century, and recent violent and vulgar television images of the Arab, reinforced that image. That stereotype has dissipated, but the “racist” label applied to anyone who takes a close look at the contradictions of modern Islam has chilled critical analysis. Muslims, on the other hand, including those who cheered the events of September 11, freely stereotype Americans as decadent, immoral and inferior.

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, was one of the few scholars who before September 11 identified the peril to the West in the Islamist philosophy. He stands out today as a prophet who warned that militant Muslims in America are far more numerous than the agents of Osama bin Laden, and share the hijackers’ hatred of us. They may not represent the majority of Muslims in the United States, but they do represent major Muslim organizations here. These militants are not your ordinary Muslim moms and dads, and we must be careful to make distinctions between faithful Muslims who are good Americans and the malign fanatics of the faith.

We must not stereotype, but neither can we be lulled into thinking that there is a single Islam or that the repressive Islamists are isolated on the fringe of the faith. Clean-shaven smiles must not lead us into misunderstanding mainstream Islam.

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