Thursday, December 6, 2007

Jamie Glazov's Frontpagemag Interview with Professor Daphne Patai

I wonder if Professor Daphne Patai appreciates what strange company she keeps sidling up to David Horowitz and including herself among the ignominious likes of Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum in support of Islamofascism Awareness Week (IFAW). Strange bedfellows for an academic with her credentials—especially given Horowitz’ slapdash relationship with the truth and Coulter’s unquenchable thirst for attention. For Pete’s sake, Professor Patai, it’s not academic smugness that compels my query; a few minutes of honest research makes it abundantly clear that Horowitz’ “Freedom Center” is about anything but freedom.

Don't get me wrong, I neither support nor condone shouting down or otherwise disrupting pretty much any invited speaker to a campus—even Horowitz, Coulter, or Rick Santorum—however it may be that future historians are likely to record their rants as psychotic. I can hope that the legacy of IFAW will be that campus groups will be more thoughtful about whose solicitation to speak they’ll accept. I can certainly wish that student groups, especially the Young Republicans, will see that they’ve been exploited to ends they may really not endorse, and I can hope that Horowitz’ unprepared, incoherent, and adolescent ramblings at Columbia ends his speaker tenure there. Ahmadinejad may be dead-in-the-water wrong, but he neither rambled nor whined. Horowitz did. Nevertheless, if we, the critics of Horowitz and company, wish to be taken seriously—and I think we must be—we must also encourage the rational engagement that befits us as scholars and academics. After all, we in fact stand on the side of free exchange—and that’s what makes Professor Patai’s interview with Jamie Glazov so peculiar and disappointing.

I should point out that I’m no fan of anyone’s religious fanaticism. In fact, part of what I think the Horowitz camp just doesn’t get (or to which they’re willfully blind) is that what many of those noisy protesters at the IFAW “presentations” were trying to expose is the egregious hypocrisy involved in singling out fanatical Islam as if it were the world’s only example of religiously motivated oppression and terroristic violence. This is, of course, laughably false as is amply demonstrated in the work, for example, of Joe Bageant, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—not to mention many of the feminists Patai ignores. What makes this point even more poignant, however, is that two of the above pundits, Coulter and Santorum, are poster children for Christian Nationalists whose message is clear: Our (Christian) fanaticism is the right fanaticism and your Islamic fanaticism is the wrong fanaticism. God’s on the side of our anti-Semitic, racist, heterosexist oppression, not yours.

In her interview with Glazov, Patai asks: “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.” Patai criticizes what she perceives as a failure particularly of Women’s Studies academics to interrogate Islamic religious fanaticism, but she fails to ask the same questions about fanatical Christianity: “Do these students not understand that these Christian ideologues act on their beliefs and have killed those who don’t agree with them? That their targets include political dissenters, Jews, Muslims, other Christians, homosexuals, writers, filmmakers, women, apostates, and infidels of all kinds?” It’s not like we have to go back to the Inquisition or the Boxer Wars to find these examples. Coulter’s promotion of the forced conversion of Muslims to Christianity and her stunning remarks about how Christians are perfected Jews is cut of the same cloth as the Jihadist’s “striving in the way of God.” As Bageant puts it in Deer Hunting with Jesus, “The push toward theocracy and the infiltration of mainstream Protestantism by religious extremists was one of the biggest underreported political stories of the second half of the twentieth century” (p. 168). Right on Bageant; how could Patai miss this? She’s not living in the outback. She lives in Massachusetts—and has access to books and the Internet.

Am I paranoid to think that it might just be the ideological coup of the 21st century that the hysteria fomented by Horowitz and his minions serves an exceptionally effective dual purpose? First as a smokescreen to distract our attention away from the Freedom Center’s real agenda, namely, to exorcise academia of academic freedom and to substitute right-wing indoctrination for real scholarship and pedagogy? Second, to create an enemy in Islam so vile that it can be utilized as a recruiting tool for Christian Nationalists? Horowitz can point it out until the cows come home that he’s Jewish, but this fact didn’t raise a peep of protest from him over Coulter’s patently anti-Semitic remarks to Donny Deutsch—who’s also Jewish. But Maybe I’m nuts and Horowitz isn’t driven by ideology at all, just crass opportunism. In either case, Patai ought to know better than to encourage either his anti-Constitutional martyrdom or his fixated narcissism.

Patai claims to be (or has been) a feminist scholar. Fine, I take this at face value. So then how then can she ignore the wealth of feminist scholarship and criticism of religion? Many feminists are loathe to single out Islam for the special condemnation that Horowitz demands and, apparently, Patai endorses. But, as she should know, to do so would be a grotesque misrepresentation of history. As feminist scholars of religion show, there’s plenty of blame to go around, especially with respect to the oppression of women and indigenous peoples (for a partial list of these scholars please see this post). How can Patai have missed scholars like Saba Mahmood? Is it because she thinks that the only feminist scholarship worthy of the name is work that condemns in totality everything Islamic? How is this scholarship at all, and not just ideological declaration? History is vastly more complex than the “us against them” mentality Horowitz and company invite, and it’s just mystifying why Professor Patai would descend to what she knows is not merely simplistic but, in being so, false. Islam isn’t that special, it’s just a superbly convenient foil for the mission of the opposing religious fascism.

Horowitz’ aim is certainly not the bolstering of Women’s Studies programs. No, he’s quite clear: Women’s Studies is a nothing but a tool for recruiting the man-haters of the next generation’s feminists and should, as such, be eliminated. Does Patai endorse this too? Seems self-destructive, but apparently so: “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.” Really, Professor Patai? Or is it that a professor’s responsibility is to get her/his students to think for themselves about such religious practices—no matter whose they are—as opposed to simply telling them whom and what to condemn? Does Professor Patai really think that fanatical Isalm is the only threat to global stability? I find this hard to imagine given that religion itself is only one part of a much larger story which includes, for example, the end of Peak Oil, the growing abyss between the global wealthy and the global poor, and the daunting human population shifts portended by global climate change.

She continues: “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.” Really? Last time I checked, these lists were quite lively with debate. Perhaps what Professor Patai sees as “supercautious” is what I’d call mutual respect for differences of opinion—and the desire to keep the dialogue going. Perhaps, like Horowitz—though sadly—anything short of “us against them” damnation doesn’t rate for her as an adequate response to Sharia. I would, of course, love to see her evidence for this failure.

Instead what I come away with from this interview is hypocrisy. Professor Patai appears to have signed on to the Horowitzean mission to repress accounts of Western history that implicate the United States or Christianity—or men—in the manufacture of contemporary religious fanaticism. But history articulates a far more complex and nuanced vocabulary than what propaganda machines like IFAW would have us speak. The issue here is not whether feminist analyses of religious fanaticism are adequate; that’s the kind of scholarly quest Professor Patai has opted to jettison in favor of the undemanding vocabulary of “us against them.” No, the issue is how a seasoned professional could fail to see that behind the thin veil of propaganda like IFAW lay not a shred of concern for the status of women—Islamic or otherwise—but instead a vision of “how things ought to be” that puts Horowitz and Ahmadinejad in the same bed. Patai concludes the interview with a lament: “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.” In other words, scholarship resistant to professing the “right” politics of Horowitzean nationalism isn’t scholarship. Where’s you evidence, Professor Patai? What double speak, and how disappointing.

Wendy Lynne Lee

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