Bronwyn Winter. Journal of Women’s History. Volume 13, Issue 1. Spring 2001.
Within feminist debates on Islamism, many issues remain both contentious and insufficiently explored, including the relationship of fundamentalism to religion, the situation of Islamism in relation to a supposed crisis of modernity and search for authenticity, its legitimation through “democratization” and “multiculturalism,” the connection between fundamentalisms and extreme right politics, and the qualitative value attributed to women’s widely acknowledged centrality to Islamism and cultural identity. This article explores these issues and, in doing so, discusses three problematic discursive frameworks within which the subject is generally approached: an “orientalist” discourse, which demonizes and essentializes Islam and the Muslim world; a “multiculturalist” discourse, which legitimates even the most fundamentalist Islamic voices in the name of “cultural difference” and “women’s agency”; and a “pluralist” discourse, which distances itself from overtly right-wing political uses of Islam while maintaining an apologist stance in relation to Islam.
The recent resurgence of Islamism has been a major focus in the West for two obvious reasons. First, Islamism is a significant political force in many parts of the world, and Islamist terrorism in some of these countries (e.g., Algeria)—as in some Western countries that have a historical relationship with them (e.g., France)—appears either to be on the increase or to be continuing relatively unchecked. Second, there are significant racialized Muslim minorities in many Western countries. Among these minorities, fundamentalist groups are active and vocal although far from representative, as a study on immigration and integration in France has demonstrated. This survey of thirteen thousand people found that young French people of Muslim culture, and especially those of Algerian background, are as indifferent to religion as those of Christian culture. These findings are contrary to the belief held by sections of the Euro-French population that associates Islamism in France with the present Algerian situation.
Current feminist scholars generally agree on the definition of “fundamentalism” (and by extension “Islamism”) as extreme right mobilization of religion to political ends, although they have contested the appropriateness of the terminology. They also have acknowledged that the control of women’s behavior is high on the fundamentalist agenda. Analyzing the problem of women and Islamism is not, however, as simple a task as one might assume. Out of the historical relationship between the Christian “West” and Muslim “Middle East,” as well as the political, social, economic, and cultural upheavals that have occurred in both regions since decolonization or deimperialization, some misunderstandings concerning the origins and political agenda of Islamist movements have emerged.
There would seem to be five major problems of interpretation: 1) the ways in which Islamism is or is not related to Islam as a whole; 2) the ways in which Islamism is situated in relation to the past and present (the latter usually referred to as “modernity,” and the issue discussed as a “crisis of modernity” and ensuing quest for an authentic identity); 3) legitimation through Western tacit or overt support for “democratization” or opposition to imperialism, or through liberal “multiculturalism”; 4) consideration of Islamism in isolation from extreme right movements elsewhere; and 5) the qualitative value attributed to women’s centrality to Islamism and the related masking or misinterpretation of the relationship between women’s behavior and both culture and/or nation building and religion in general. Of course, not all these dilemmas are present in all literature: some studies, for example, provide insightful discussion of one or two problem areas while the others are not subjected to critical examination. Moreover, not surprisingly, some issues are more resistant to clear analysis than they may have first appeared, when one considers that in speaking today of women and Islamism, our voices carry echoes not only of various experiences of Western colonialism and imperialism but also of a long precolonial history of exchange, rivalry, invasion, exoticization, and general distrust between the Muslim and Christian worlds. In tackling women and Islamism, one also tackles the sensitive political issues of religion, cultural identity (and its relationship to nationalism), violence, (“post”) colonialism, and racism (and their attendant cultural codes, such as orientalism), all in relation to women (and to each other). The possibilities for confusion, manipulation, and muddy thinking are endless.
The five dilemmas identified above emerge through three discursive frameworks, which I will call “orientalism,” “multiculturalism,” and “pluralism” (placed in quotation marks to demarcate my use of them from other possible interpretations). “Orientalism,” historically, is the first, developing throughout the eighteenth and particularly the nineteenth centuries, with roots that go back much further. It remained ideologically dominant in the West until recently when “postcolonial” scholarship intervened to challenge its assumptions; a wealth of feminist literature has also drawn attention to its sexualized nature. These scholars have rightly argued that the ideological fascination and demonization inherent in “world-behind-the-veil” orientalist fantasies continue to inform the terms in which the current preoccupation with Islam, in general, and Islamism, in particular, is couched within Western countries.
At the same time, cultural relativism and “multiculturalist” discourses and policies have developed in the West, largely as a reaction to the dominant culture’s guilt about its inglorious colonial past, which is itself a reaction to minority protest concerning this past and its consequences in the present. These discourses, in focusing on the positionality of the subject and the notion of minority communities—usually perceived as homogeneous—have tended, paradoxically, to give credence and even overt support to the very fundamentalist voices that have been demonized within orientalist fantasy. These two superficially contradictory sets of discourses—one that both fantasizes and demonizes Islam (“orientalism”) and one that fantasizes and gives tacit approval to Islamism (“multiculturalism”)—are not, in fact, as contradictory as they appear. They are different faces of the same essentializing and dehistoricizing of Muslim culture.
The third set of voices, “pluralism,” affirms a nonfundamentalist and antiessentialist cultural-religious minority identity based on progressive interpretations of the Quran and the hadiths. Ostensibly profeminist scholars such as Mohamed Arkoun and Ali Engineer have advocated these interpretations. There also has been an increasing focus on feminist exegeses of the Quran written by such historians as Riffat Hassan and Haleh Afshar, or that produced during a workshop organized in 1990 under the aegis of the organization Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML). In the face of historically ingrained and sexualized racism—focused on essentialization of a mythicized and homogenized “oriental” or “Islamic” culture—and of “multiculturalist” attributions of representativeness to highly conservative voices within minority, communities, such positive affirmations of religious pluralism are a predictable and understandable defensive reaction. As well as, of course, accurate: Islamist terrorism, for example, is as unrepresentative of Islam as a whole as is the Ku Klux Klan of Christianity.
This third “progressive” discourse poses its own problems, however. While it has the advantage of not essentializing religion, it maintains a “multiculturalist” mystique by imposing a taboo on critical analysis of religions associated with racialized minorities, other than in their fundamentalist expressions. Of course, given the close imbrication of religion and culture in almost every part of the world (whether this imbrication is implicit, as is now the case in most but certainly not all of the Christian world, or explicit, as is the case in most of the Muslim world), racialized minority affirmations of religious identity should not be critically examined without paying attention to the charged contexts of oppression in which they occur. This does not mean, however, that they should not be critically examined at all.
Before analyzing the five identified problem areas in more detail, with reference to these three discursive frameworks, a brief overview on terminology is warranted, given some apparent confusion and contention over the term “fundamentalism.” The term was first coined circa 1920 in relation to a conservative Christian movement in the United States (a fact that makes it difficult to assume that fundamentalism is a contemporary phenomenon or specific to Islam). Its meaning has since been generalized to describe any religion-based political movement that prescribes rigid adherence to restrictive interpretations of religious foundational texts and further to describe any religious political movement seen as extremist, or even, for some, an extremist potential within all political movements, although I find this last assertion both spurious and dangerous. I find it spurious because fundamentalism has been inappropriately used as a synonym for radicalism and thus rendered meaningless as a term relating to religion-based political movements. And it is dangerous because in the failure to distinguish between politico-religious extremism and minority left-wing movements, it leaves open the possibility for blurring the boundaries between right and left, as well as for generalizing the term “fundamentalist” to discredit radical left movements. (The epithet “sectarian,” for example, has already been slung at feminists on a number of occasions.)
I will opt for the first, more widely accepted interpretation, although even this definition is contested. It has been suggested, for example, that fundamentalism can only refer to Christian right-wing extremism, while others, such as Marnia Lazreg, have argued that the term is a misnomer in that Islamic fundamentalist groups make selective and even erroneous interpretations of the Quran, and so are not, in fact, using the “fundamentals” of religion. While it is true that their interpretations are selective, I am not, however, convinced that they are erroneous. I, of course, am speaking from a different perspective than Lazreg, as I see all monotheistic religious texts as oppressive to women, even if the occasional verse or liberal interpretation thereof may offer women some protection against disinheritance or male violence. For me, then, the validity of the term “fundamentalism” holds because religion cannot merely be seen as a text or group of texts; it is also a cultural and political structure of social control. Even historical and geopolitical variations (including such progressive ones as liberation theology) do not divest religion of this “fundamental” aspect. Religious fundamentalism, then, is a return to this basis: the reaffirmation of religion as a—the—primary tool of social control.
Since my discussion centers on the extreme right mobilization of Islam, I will use the term “Islamism,” although Lazreg has argued that even this term is problematic, because it creates confusion between Islam as a nonpoliticized religion and the use of Islam as a political weapon. This confusion, however, is found more frequently in the popular press than specialist feminist circles (although I have come across exceptions in both cases), and the degree to which one can speak of any religious expression as nonpoliticized remains debatable.
Although my primary references are France and Algeria, the issues I raise are relevant to discussions concerning women and Islam, women and fundamentalism, and women and the extreme right in other contexts, notwithstanding obvious geopolitical and cultural differences.
The Situation of Islamism in Relation to Islam
Within feminist approaches to Islam, positions have tended to fall, to varying degrees, into either the apologist framework or what Maxime Rodinson has called the theologocentric one. Scholars following the apologist framework claim that Islam made things better for women, but the fundamentalists misinterpret it—which corresponds roughly to the “multiculturalist” discourse—or that the Quran is open to interpretation, and feminist interpretations can be made—which corresponds roughly to the “pluralist” discourse. Those supportive of the theologocentric framework maintain that Islam is a hegemonic structure that is responsible for all social ills within the Muslim world; this Muslim world is considered to be uniform, which corresponds to the “orientalist” discourse. NonMuslim authors writing on Islam are often accused of taking this orientalist position. The extent to which such accusations are valid varies in function of both the work itself and political allegiances of those who interpret it. While the questioning of validity is also possible concerning apologist positions, these are given considerably more positive value at the outset in feminist academic circles, regardless of the content of the arguments, and are thus less easily dismissed, or even able to be critiqued, as schematic or oppressive. Juliette Minces’s La femme dans le monde arabe (The house of obedience) is one feminist work that has been criticized for its theologocentrism. Lazreg, for example, criticizes it for holding Algerian women in contempt. Her accusation is largely based on Minces’s analysis of men’s manipulation of women’s participation in the Algerian War and of the mobilization, by the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) and others, of a mythicized Islamic past and “authentic” culture as a rallying call against colonialism. While Minces has written as an outsider to the Muslim world, as I do, and while Islam is not the only oppressor of women in Algeria or elsewhere in the Muslim world, little that she has written is inaccurate. One may certainly regret that she has not tempered her words with a reminder that the performance of other religions in the area of women’s rights is far from brilliant, or disagree with her evolutionary analysis of the Arab world. I thus do not negate the existence of some degree of theologocentrism of the sort criticized by Lazreg in Minces’s and other Western writing on “other” women (and of some aspects of “orientalist” thinking), but I am wary of falling into the trap of dismissing any Western work, including Minces’s, that is critical of religion per se as oppressive to women as totally orientalist and therefore without value. After all, I do not completely Write off the work of Hassan or Lazreg as “multiculturalist” or “pluralist,” simply because I disagree with some aspects of it or even with some of its basic premises, particularly their premise, stated in the first case and implied in the second, that Islam per se is not oppressive to women.
The difficulties of escaping polarization—and the dangers of essentialism—in this debate (including the risk of being cast by others in a role one has not sought to play) are reflective of the problematic context in which discussions of Islam have been played out. Both apologist and essentializing positions are rarer within discussions on Christianity, for example (although with the creation of such “progressive” churches as the American Metropolitan Community Church and the Australian Uniting Church, and the publicity attracted by current debates on the role of women in Protestant churches, feminist apologist positions on Christianity are becoming more widespread). In fact, it is arguable that Christianity should be seen as more pervasive in Western/Christian societies (i.e., that analyses should be more theologocentric) than is usually the case, which leads me to the central issue in feminist approaches to religion in general. Here, the main ideological difference can be put quite simply: there are those, such as Hassan, who do not see religion in itself as a political tool of social control (in particular of women), and those, like myself, who do. Considering how “fundamental” this difference is, it is surprising that it is not made explicit more frequently.
For some, this may beg the question of the difference between my position and a purely “theologocentric” or “orientalist” one of the type I have criticized above. There are, in fact, three main differences. First, the “orientalist” position tends to characterize Islam as the overriding cause of women’s oppression (not to mention innumerable other ills) in Arab/ Muslim countries. As Lazreg has stated: “although religion is seen in Western societies as one institution among many, it is perceived as the bedrock of the societies in which Islam is practiced.” If women are poor or illiterate it is seen as the fault of religion rather than, for example, ante-Islamic tradition, the class system, or the continuing effects of colonialism, for the relationships of economic dependence of former colonies on their former colonizers continue to this day. Islam did not create these economic conditions, although Islamist movements have clearly been able to take advantage of them. As elsewhere, Maghrebian women bear the greatest burden of poverty. This is not solely or even primarily attributable to Islam, even though a combination of economic conditions and Islamic and ante-Islamic traditions have contributed to the maintenance of women’s illiteracy (which was twice as high as that of men in Algeria in 1995, and is a distressingly representative figure).
Saying that religion (in this case, Islam) per se is bad for women is not the same as saying that it is the only thing that is bad for women, or that it is always the main factor in women’s oppression (although it may be for some manifestations of such oppression). Nor is it claiming that all expressions of Islam are the same, which is the second distinction between my feminist atheist stance and an “orientalist” one. All religions have plural expressions, with as many implications for women’s freedom or, rather, degrees of lack thereof. The imbrication of religion and state, for example, is considerably more negative for women than religion perceived as a matter of personal choice. Yet I would argue that most religions are institutionalized in some way and as such leave little choice for women who have had the misfortune to be born into a religious family, at least during their childhood and adolescence. Of course, this can be nuanced further: the daughter of a Hasidic Jewish, Wahhabite, or Klan family is more likely to be denied personal freedom than the daughter of a less fundamentalist branch of these religions.
As concerns religion and the state, once again, distinctions need to be made. A liberal state and a fascist state are not the same thing. While both are harmful to women, the degree and type of harm and degree to which, and ways in which, women have access to autonomy and some possibility of acting to modify or eradicate some harmful state practices are not the same. Similarly, an Arab/Muslim state, even where there is no clear separation of religion and state, is different from an Islamist state, just as a Western/Christian state is not the same as a Christian fundamentalist state.
At the same time, the practices and processes of the liberal state may enable fascists or other extreme right groups to come to power (in France, four municipalities are currently controlled by the extreme right National Front [FN]), or to exercise considerable influence on national politics (e.g., the FN since 1983, or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party between 1996 and 1998 in Australia). Similarly, the lack of separation between religion and state can leave open the way for increasing religious incursions into politics (for example, through the basing of national laws on religious law), particularly if religious principles are enshrined in the constitution as they are in Algeria, the United States, and Australia, but not in France.
The third distinction is that I do not deny what is generally referred to as women’s agency in religion. Women can, and do, find involvement in religion empowering—even in fundamentalist expressions—and can develop areas of influence within religious movements. Contrary to popular stereotypes, women fundamentalist activists are frequently university educated, highly articulate, and vocal in their defense of women’s rights, conceptualized, of course, in Islamist terms. Acknowledging such agency is not, however, the same as approving of whatever minority religious women do or say (just as feminists would not approve of views espoused by women of the American so-called Moral Majority, for example), even in the name of feminism (just as some Christian women’s support for some feminist ideas, or self-identification as feminist, does not make Christianity feminist). To give such automatic approval would be to fall into either the “multiculturalist” trap of paternalism (“it’s O.K. because they’re A Minority”) or the “pluralist” trap of liberal acceptance (“it’s O.K. because they’re A Non-Fundamentalist Minority doing this in the name of progressive ideas”). I thus do not consider it productive to move, as Afshar has suggested, “away from the usual condemnatory approach to Islamic fundamentalism and consider it in the light of the views and activities of its adherents,” with the aim of determining “how, if at all, it could be used as a means for political struggles.” One would be hard pressed to find a feminist advocating that we seek to determine whether French FN ideology could be used to support feminist political struggles. Afshar, however, has not clearly distinguished between Islam as a whole and Islamism, which is a “multiculturalist” discursive problem that crops up often enough to be a matter for concern.
Much confusion in discussions of agency seems to stem from a blurring of the demarcation between analysis of the objective situation in which women find themselves and Eurocentric casting of “other” women in the role of passive-victims-needing-to-be-emancipated, or suspicion that this blurring is likely to happen. This does not mean that colonized and/or racialized women have never been duped nor appropriated or instrumentalized by men; they have, with depressing frequency. This, however, is also the case for white Western women. But in colonial or postcolonial contexts, Western women have frequently been unaware, or refused to be aware, of their own instrumentalization by Western men and their collusion in Western and non-Western men’s appropriation of non-Western women, even, paradoxically, in the name of antiracism.
The identification of patterns of male domination neither renders women passive, denying them agency, nor, conversely, does it—in the name of agency within a situation of oppression—render women unaccountable for their actions. Any human being in a situation of oppression has to negotiate a pathway of compromise to survive; the extent to which one compromises (or colludes) depends on many factors, including the existence of or aspiration to relative social, economic, or political privilege in relation to other members of one’s class and society in general.
To return to the question: Is Islam harmful for women? My answer is yes, but not to the same extent in all circumstances and not intrinsically more so than other religions, given similar political contexts and uses (or not) of religion by the community or state. Does Islam necessarily carry the seeds of Islamism? Yes, just as Christianity or Judaism carry the seeds of their own fundamentalisms. Whether Islam becomes Islamism depends on the context and particularly on how much room the state gives to religion, thus allowing its collective political mobilization.
The “Crisis of Modernity” and Ensuing Quest for an “Authentic Identity”
The second problem I raised was the perception of Islamism as the manifestation of a “crisis of modernity.” As applied to so-called developing countries, this phrase typically describes a cultural and political crisis accompanying the economic upheaval that has followed over rapid modernization (i.e., [capitalist?] industrialization) of formerly agrarian economies, and the sudden and massive Westernization that this upheaval has implied (the latter having in any case begun much earlier in former colonies of Western nations). People are left with, as Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis have put it, “a general sense of despair and disorientation” that has moved them “to return to religion as a source of solace and even more so as a compass and a solid anchor to provide a sense of stability and meaningful orientation, and coherent identity.” This contemporary search for an “authentic” cultural identity is said to provide the fertile terrain for Islamist movements, which preach a return to “tradition” and are seen as antimodernist.
Arguments based on the notion of a crisis of modernity are, however, somewhat flawed, not because the phenomenon they describe does not exist, but because the description is often incomplete and theanalysis is at least partly based on, or feeding into, the fallacious assumptions that a) Islamism is a purely postcolonial phenomenon; b) it is modernization, brutally aligned to a Western and secular model, that created the problem; and c) Islamism is a search for authenticity and as such opposed to modernity rather than firmly anchored within it. The widespread currency given to the second assumption could seem surprising, given the number of voices affirming that colonization hampered rather than enhanced development and the crisis of modernization has been as much a problem of arrested development as it has been of ill-advised development. I would argue, however, that this fallacy, along with the third, has been constructed and maintained largely through the propaganda of the Islamist groups that have supposedly grown out of this crisis.
Certainly, some scholars, like Valentine M. Moghadam, have given more nuanced accounts of the rise of Islamism. These scholars have taken into account the worsening economic climate (compounded by debts owed to former colonizers), the crisis of political legitimacy within this climate, and the traditionalist reaction to some degree of women’s emancipation as factors contributing to the cultural crisis favorable to the development of Islamism. Yet they invariably have presented the latter as a response to rather than a creator of this crisis, including as concerns the focus on women.
The modernization dilemma has developed in Algeria in ways that have much in common with many other decolonized Countries. Prior to independence, France considerably retarded Algeria’s development by maintaining it in a preindustrial state at the same time as the need for manufactured goods was stimulated, which was, of course, entirely beneficial to French industry. Following independence, Algeria moved into a phase of rapid industrial expansion (at the expense of the agricultural sector), which quickly became a new crisis of arrested development due to the fall in petroleum and commodity prices followed by the imposition of financial stringency and an increase in interest rates by Algeria’s international creditors.
This post-independence development, however, was arrested almost before it began, for, at a time when Algeria was investing in heavy machinery-based industrialization, the West was already moving toward post-industrialization. The result was that, when the late 1970s crisis hit, Algeria was ill placed to weather the storm, and it became evident that the modernization that had been embarked upon after liberation had, in fact, been a “lopsided pseudo-modernization,” as Moghadam has put it. At the same time, food shortages started to become chronic due to the double effect of reduced imports and precrisis reductions in agricultural production. The new middle class of young, urbanized university graduates, which had grown out of the combined policies of education and demographic growth, found itself without jobs to go to. Chadli Benjedid, who in 1978 replaced Houari Boumediene as the head of an army-supported compromise government faced with the difficult double task of keeping peace between major socialist and liberal factions and (after 1979) managing the economic crisis, increasingly chose to maintain order through austerity in zealously adopting the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policy. This zeal, along with what had become well-entrenched government corruption, largely contributed to exacerbating the feelings of discontent that led to a series of student revolts and blue-collar strikes culminating in a brutally repressed riot in 1988. What is interesting is that, as elsewhere in the “developing” world, “developed” powers put their full economic muscle behind Algerian “modernization,” but they also put the same economic muscle behind the halt to modernization through the imposition of structural adjustment. The road both to and away from modernization must, then, necessarily be seen as a conjunction of political and economic forces from both within and outside Algeria. During and following the 1986 to 1988 period of unrest, Benjedid made increasing concessions to economic liberalism through, for example, the National Charter of 1986. This was accompanied by democratization with the 1989 switch to multipartism, followed by the organization of local elections in June 1990, which gave an overwhelming victory to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
On the face of it, then, accounts that attribute the rise of Islamism in Algeria to the consequences of unequal and arrested development with an ensuing modern crisis in political legitimacy appear to fit perfectly. However, two things are missing. The first is what Shireen T. Hunter has called the “active manipulation of Islam” by postliberation governments, which has “paradoxically created a more congenial and receptive environment for the militants’ views.” In other words, the assumption of Islamism as a recent phenomenon that is purely reactive in the face of economic and political woes dehistoricizes it and disconnects it from other political uses of Islam within societies where Islamism has emerged. In Algeria, Islamist forces were at work at least two decades before the outbreak of the Algerian War in the form of the Association of Ulamas (religious scholars) regrouped around Ben Badis (1931). The ulamas movement, or its heirs, remained active following liberation and not only put political pressure on the ruling FLN to islamize but also were supported by members of the FLN. Practically all political formations in Algeria constituted between the 1920s and 1940s incorporated Islam into their political platforms, especially in relation to women. Messall Hadj, founder in 1926 of the Etoile Nord-Africaine (North African Star, later to become the Parti Populaire Algérien [Popular Algerian Party]), maintained that Islam was the basis of resistance to the colonizer. Even the more progressive Union Democratique du Manifeste Algérien (Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto), founded in 1946 by Ferhat Abbas (who later joined the FLN), while it advocated women’s emancipation in some areas, nonetheless stopped short of abandoning Muslim personal status laws. Only the Communist Party and its women’s organization, the Union des Femmes Algériennes (Union of Algerian Women) advocated equality between the sexes.
The second—and similarly paradoxical—missing element from the “crisis” picture of modern Islamism is the following: because it is seen as archaistic (and as thus looking to the past at the same time as its own sociopolitical history is ignored), Islamism is often not perceived as a creator of “modernity” and its attendant identity crisis, in spite of a growing body of work, particularly among feminist scholars, on “invented tradition.” Moghadam has described Islamist movements as “both reactive and proactive,” stressing that the “traditional” practices they supposedly espouse and impose are often new to the region in question. In Algeria, for example, the hijab (Islamic head scarf) and jilbab (Islamic tunic complete with head scarf and face mask, and, usually, gloves) are no more part of traditional culture than are high heels and makeup. The traditional haïk (long shawl-like head scarf usually held across the face to create a veil), worn particularly in and around Algiers, is not worn as a political uniform in the same way Islamist regalia is.
But Islamist movements are modern on a much deeper level than that of the superficial trappings of invented tradition. According to HéIé Béji, the groundwork was laid for the development of the political discourse of “cultural radicalism” through decolonization and its accompanying politicization of culture in both the West and its former colonies. The modern concurrent and paradoxical development of social and cultural uniformization (through capitalist and technological globalization), and the “the cult of individual identity” through which one attempts to escape this uniformization, subsequently laid over this political groundwork the fertile terrain in which cultural radicalism could thrive. It is in this sense, perhaps, that we may best speak of Islamism as related to a crisis of modernity. Even here, however, the crisis, although born of a modern situation, is not a crisis of modernity or even a crisis of political legitimacy. It is perhaps more aptly named a “crisis of modern political consciousness” of which Islamism is both the inheritor and creator. Fundamentalist movements, then, exploit the double movement toward uniformity and affirmation of a unique identity to become modern channelers of a fabricated need for authenticity and providers of a ready-made “authenticity” to respond to that need. They are, as Béji has maintained, the expression “of a will to enter the century, not to exit from it, but [they] do so through radical means by which the mystique of self is presented as substituting itself for the mastery of technique.” But this substitution is illusory, because the organizers of fundamentalist movements are skilled manipulators of the same techniques—market or political—they profess to eschew. Cultural radicalism has “received from its century enough lessons in propaganda and tools for training consciousness to be able to use them to its profit…. [It] is today a trait of universal culture, and it turns to its advantage the democratization of opinions and beliefs through new sectarianisms that no one is allowed to question nor condemn.” Béji also has pointed out that the modern invention of “tradition” by Islamists is further enabled through the modern (postcolonial) legitimation of politicized culture.
In brief, while the origins of the FIS go back in Algerian history at least to the 1920s and perhaps as far as the beginning of (resistance to) French settlement, it is nonetheless a modern movement that has exploited a difficult socioeconomic situation, the postcolonial ideologization of culture (to which it has significantly contributed), and the modern technical means at its disposal, such as the media and international financial and political—not to mention terrorist—networks.
In Western countries, the Islamist “crisis” is played out somewhat differently. Rather than being experienced by those who have suffered dispossession and dislocation, resulting in a return to religion/cultural identity (even if this identity is, to a great extent, collectively mythicized rather than actually remembered), it is a socioeconomic crisis experienced by the children or grandchildren of immigrants, whose search is less for a lost identity than for one they never had (even as collectively mythicized). Or it is an identity that they have experienced mainly as transmitted memory (not transmitted experience) or as crystallized tradition. That is, parents transmit their culture as they knew it when leaving their native country. Much anecdotal evidence from minority women suggests that, while their parents’ contemporaries in the home country are exposed to the fluidity of the events and culture that surround them and of which they are part, emigrant parents remain fixed within a crystallization of that dialogue at the point at which they left it. At the same time, a racialized identity of “second (or third) generation” is attached to young French people of Maghrebian background, the descendants of immigrant workers, whom France imported, often by the village-full and mainly from Algeria, during the postwar boom period known as the Trente Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years). The ensuing recession threw many of these workers out of jobs, and unemployment remains high among their children, many of whom do not attain high qualifications. (This is particularly marked for daughters of Algerian immigrants, contrary to popular myths about the scholarly successes of “second-generation” Maghrebian girls.)
The resulting socioeconomic marginalization and racist essentializing of their “Muslimhood” (at the same time as this “second generation,” particularly its female members, has been invested with the weight of memory, exile, and responsibility for family honor and cultural integrity) has problematized a biculturality that, outside situations of racism or exile, rarely is perceived as problematic. Once again, theidentity crisis, to a certain extent, has been fabricated and, for some, has been expressed through a militant affirmation of (invented) “traditional values.” This militant identity politics has had some spectacular and highly mediatized manifestations, such as the Head Scarves Affairs of 1989 and 1994, which centered on the expulsion from French high schools of girls who refused to remove their hijabs. It does, however, remain a marginal phenomenon, although not an innocuous one, as some—such as sociologists Françoise Gaspard and Farhad Khosrokhavar and well-known French fiction writer Leïla Sebbar—have suggested. Any expressions of extreme right and/or fundamentalist ideologies have to be taken seriously, and teenage girls who espouse those ideologies must be seen as girls at risk. Nevertheless, the expressions of Islamism in France that give direct financial and/or political support to Islamism and Islamist terrorism in Algeria are far more worrying at this point in time, but far less heavily mediatized, than the headgear of a minority (albeit growing) of female teenagers. Moreover, the Islamist organizations to which some of these young women belong or with which they have had contact, along with the male activists of these organizations, have come under considerably less public scrutiny than the fantasized hijab-wearers.
Legitimation through “Democratization” or “Multiculturalism”
The sensationalization of the Islamic head scarf along with the public (and feminist) polemic about whether or not it should be accepted in French secular schools and, more widely, about how Catholic and secular France deals with the presence of up to four million Muslim residents or citizens throws into sharp focus the problem of legitimation of Islamism within Western countries. This problem similarly arose during the Gulf War in 1991 and has most recently been posed in relation to developments in Algerian politics. The first of these developments was the FLN’s negotiations with the FIS (and other, smaller Islamist parties)conducted during two meetings in Rome under the auspices of the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio in November 1994 and January 1995, which led to the signing of a “Platform for a peaceful political solution to the Algerian crisis” on 13 January 1995. These negotiations were strongly opposed by other Algerian political parties, especially the Rally for Culture and Democracy and Ettahadi (Challenge, an offshoot from the defunct communist formation Party for the Socialist Avant-Garde), as well as by most Algerian feminists either living in Algeria or in exile in Europe. A second development was the organization of a second round of legislative elections in March 1997 (the 1992 ones, which the FIS had been poised to win, having been canceled by the FLN). The FIS was banned from these elections, but other, so-called moderate (nonterrorist) Islamist parties, such as Hamas, participated. Other developments included the Islamist massacre, on 28 August 1997, of some three hundred people near Algiers, followed by Abassi Madani (leader of the FIS, freed from jail on 15 July of that year) declaring his readiness to negotiate once again with the FLN. The FIS subsequently distanced itself from Islamist terrorist activity in Algeria, claiming that the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) had been disbanded and remaining terrorism was due to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA)—an organization not associated with the FIS—or covert government activity. The massacres escalated, however, during Ramadan in 1998 and prior to the March 1999 presidential elections, which have been condemned internationally as a farce. In August 1999, current Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika had granted pardons to a number of imprisoned or exiled Islamists and was engaged in an exchange of diplomatic visits with France. Indeed, French prime minister Lionel Jospin, returning from a visit to Algeria, commented favorably on Algeria’s more peaceful and liberal atmosphere. (Similar statements, however, had been made at the time of the Sant’Egidio talks.)
Now, European diplomatic missions aside, one could be excused for having assumed that the problem of legitimation had been resolved with relation to the FIS. International denunciations of FIS-organized terrorism in Algeria are so numerous that any attempt to consider the FIS legitimate appears ludicrous. Well, let us take a closer look at the ludicrous.
Western legitimation of many contemporary Islamist movements has taken three forms: 1) support for a process of (frequently anti-Marxist) “democratization” (e.g., as in Algeria or for the Afghan mujahideen, of whom a number subsequently emerged as the Taliban against Soviet forces); 2) opposition to “imperialist” forces (Afghanistan again or during the Gulf War, when Western countries threw their full military weight behind two of the most conservative countries in the Muslim world); and 3) support for Islamist self-appointed representatives of minority movements in Western countries through liberal multiculturalism (such as during the Head Scarves Affairs). A dangerous effect of such processes of legitimation has been to reinforce the idea of Islamism as the main (only?) expression of both Islam and the will of the people. There are signs, however, that excesses of the Taliban since circa 1997 have shifted “multiculturalist” public—including feminist—opinion to taking a harder line on Islamists, although, with few exceptions, this hard line has not been particularly evident in relation to Islamist movements elsewhere. Indeed, it is worrying that the suffering of women in Algeria (and elsewhere) in the name of “Islam” has been virtually ignored among English-speaking Western feminists while the outrage against the Taliban seems to have been steadily increasing. I have not been able to explore this phenomenon sufficiently to determine to what extent the feminist focus is directly proportional to media hype or lack thereof, but I have my suspicions. While none of us has the time and energy to direct systematically and simultaneously against all cases of women’s oppression in the world, the “flavor of the month” aspect of the sudden preoccupation with the Taliban and accompanying “orientalist” (re)demonization of all Islam—when we know that Islamism has been an active force in Afghanistan at least since the “popular” resistance to the Soviet invasion—to the almost total exclusion of Islamist oppression of women elsewhere (outside networks such as WLUML), is a matter for some concern.
We are faced, then, with a paradox: on the one hand, Islamism, apart from some isolated cases that have caught the public imagination for reasons yet to be fully examined, has eluded correct identification as an extreme right political movement and has been destigmatized (within “multiculturalist” discourse), while, on the other hand, the same Islamism has been reinforced as the caricatural representation of Islam as a whole (a return, then, to “orientalism”). In other words, in various parts of the world, some forms of Islamism have gone through a curious process of (temporary? relative?) destigmatization, while Muslim culture as a whole has become even more completely essentialized (stigmatized?) by association with the development of (the same?) legitimized fundamentalism.
A more recent development, particularly in the lead up to and aftermath of the 1997 and 1999 Algerian elections, has been the idea of “moderate” Islamist movements that remain within the law and respect “democratic” processes, as opposed to “extremists,” understood, within this discursive framework, to be Islamists who make overt use of terrorism. Sebbar holds this view. In discussing Islamism in Algeria, she has made a distinction between “extremist Islamists,” who engaged in terrorism (namely, the GIA and AIS), and “moderates,” who were represented by such political parties as Hamas (nonterrorist in Algeria). It is a view that has been held for some time outside as well as inside France. The 13 August 1994 issue of the British news weekly The Economist, for example, referred to the U.S. State Department’s “urging [of] the Algerian government to develop contacts with its more moderate Islamic opponents” and criticized the then French government’s failure to make a distinction between “extremist” and “moderate” Islamic opposition parties. While Sebbar seems to have made a semantic separation between “Islamism” as a generic term for the political mobilization of Islam by right-wing movements and Islamist “extremism” as based on the use of militia or terrorist groups, The Economist has distinguished between Islamic movements as a whole and fundamentalists (identified, more or less obliquely, as the FIS). We are faced, then, with what seems to be a new form of “pluralism”: some Islamists are more Islamist than others, and, conversely, some Islamists are more acceptable than others.
The arguments advanced by Sebbar and The Economist beg the questions: is the existence of terrorism or an armed wing a necessary condition for identification of right-wing political mobilization of religion as fundamentalist? Are the Iranian or Saudi regimes then not fundamentalist? The distinctions Sebbar and The Economist have made are not useful or even accurate. They, however, do raise the problem of interpretation attached to the legitimation of Islamism in the name of “democracy” (or multiculturalism”); fundamentalists no longer seem easily and clearly identifiable either as a sort of lunatic fringe or as illegitimate regimes by Western “democratic” standards. Fundamentalism seems to have become a floating concept, with Western attitudes to Islamist movements seeming to shift in direct proportion to the association of the latter with a real or imagined challenge to Marxist monopartism (another reason, no doubt, why the West can now oppose the Taliban whereas it supported the Afghan mujahideen), not to mention other Western political or economic interests.
Such confused and confusing legitimation of some Islamist movements while others are stigmatized, or legitimation one minute, stigmatization the next, of the same Islamist movement (as the cases of the FIS and Taliban have spectacularly demonstrated) raises the question of whether political mobilizations of Islam can be said to be more justifiable (and thus legitimate) in some sociohistorical contexts than in others. The mobilization of Islam in the name of national liberation or “multiculturalism,” for example, has often been supported or at the very least accepted by the Western antiracist left. This acceptance of “left-wing” mobilization of religion, however, has directly contributed to some of the present problems of definition and legitimation of fundamentalism, not the least of which is the legitimation of the oppression of women in the name of cultural or political liberation.
The other problem with “democratic” legitimation of Islamism as a logical response by an unspecified dispossessed group of people (assumed to constitute some sort of majority within their national or community context) to a crisis in modernity, antidemocratic Marxism, Western racism, postcolonial upheaval, or whatever, is that Islamist movements are assumed to be representative of “the people.” This not only masks the gendered nature of religion in general and Islamism in particular but also gives credence to the myth that Islamism is most strongly supported among the poor and dispossessed and is, in some way, beneficial to this socioeconomic group, at least in the short term. Once again, the Algerian example gives the lie to this theory. The FIS’s leadership is far from poor and dispossessed, and, while its membership comes from all socioeconomic groups, the majority of its supporters are men, and the middle classes are more strongly represented than is often assumed. In fact, the identity crisis exploited (and, to a certain extent, created) by the FIS is most accurately seen as a “crisis of the middle classes.” Moreover, various testimonies, particularly by women, indicate that after its landslide win in the 1990 municipal elections, the FIS, far from looking after the poor and the dispossessed, happily indulged in the same sort of graft for which sections of the FLN had become notorious, not to mention daily acts of intimidation and violence against women.
This assumption of the popularity of Islamist movements ties in with general assumptions concerning the democratic process, namely, that whoever happens to win an election a) was voted for by a majority of people, b) has a mandate to represent the interests of all citizens, and c) respects this mandate (assuming it exists). In January 1992, the FLN’s cancellation of the second round of elections after the FIS had obtained a majority in the first round met with condemnation in the West—including in France for the FLN had canceled a “democratic” process. Just how democratic this process had been remains, however, a matter for conjecture. Reports of intimidation of voters are legion, and a communiqué issued by WLUML indicated that the FIS, although it obtained twice as many votes as the FLN, stood to win ten times the number of seats had the second round not been canceled and obtained only one-quarter of all possible votes. WLUML further pointed out that as soon as the results of the first round were announced, on 2 January 1992, massive demonstrations in major Algerian towns erupted, with women at the forefront “demand[ing] that all democrats unite to block the FIS’s way.” For those women, neither the FIS nor the elections had anything to do with democracy. Many were either subsequently killed or forced to flee to France.
Islamism and the Western Extreme Right
The fourth problem in discussing Islamism is that the rise of the extreme right—and its political legitimation through democratic processes in the 1980s and 1990s was not limited to the Muslim world. This political development also occurred throughout the Western world, including in France, which prides itself on being the inventor of human rights and social-contract liberal egalitarianism, but which is home to one of the most successful postwar extreme right political movements in Europe; in Australia, which offers itself to the world as a model of a tolerant multicultural society, but which recently has had this image tarnished by the meteoric rise of Hanson and her One Nation Party; and in New Zealand, where the presence of a Maori man at the head of the extreme right New Zealand First Party is cruelly ironic. Nor is extreme right terrorism limited to the Muslim world, as the activity of antiabortion commandos in such countries as the United States and France has demonstrated, although this activity is nowhere near as widespread as Islamist terrorism in Algeria.
If Islamist movements are primarily a reaction to “a crisis in modernity” or in “political legitimacy” and to the ensuing quest for an “authentic” identity, to what crisis may we attribute the rise of the extreme right in the West? Recent studies have suggested some answers. Some scholars have attributed the rise to a backlash against progressive movements (an argument often advanced in connection with the American new right). Others have looked at the social anomie resulting from a combination of economic downturn, crises in the legitimacy of the political elite, and in cultural/national identity in the face of changes brought about through “postcolonial” immigration (often advanced in relation to the European new right). They have interpreted such crises as reactions to both official policies of multiculturalism and a bureaucratic political elite increasingly preoccupied with economic rationalism and the international marketplace and, as a result, increasingly removed from “ordinary” people, implicitly or explicitly defined as the urban lower middle classes and the entire rural population (an argument often heard in the Australian and New Zealand contexts).
These explanations are different in terms of context from those advanced in relation to Islamist movements. However, the types of phenomena described are similar. The first of these is a backlash against women’s emancipation (although I would argue that in both the Western/Christian and Arab/Muslim worlds, this backlash developed not subsequently to but concurrently with emancipatory movements). Should one not then consider the reaction against such emancipation in the Arab/Muslim world as being less against the supposed westernization of society as against any empowerment of women in relation to men and the family, given that a similar backlash exists in the West, which, by definition, cannot be westernized? Is not the westernization argument one that has, as I suggested earlier, been fabricated by Islamist movements themselves?
The second similarity is the generally accepted idea of dispossession or dislocation that has resulted from the economic “downturn” (a term that I put in quotation marks as the downturn in question would be better expressed as a consolidation of wealth and power by a minority at the expense of the majority that does not control them). As I pointed out above, however, the dispossession/dislocation on which extreme right movements feed is less that of the very poor (which is not to deny that the poor bear the brunt of any economic “downturn”) than that of the petite bourgeoisie (both urban and rural), some sections of the professional classes, and those with inherited wealth. This is, in fact, a fairly consistent pattern among supporters of extreme right groups, with some local and/or historical variations. They are, moreover—and without exception -overwhelmingly masculine, despite the presence of a vocal core of female activists, although these activists, with the exception of the Australian case, are rarely the movement’s leaders.
The third similarity is the “cultural identity” element, which is articulated as a reaction to an assumed or real westernization in the Arab/ Muslim world and to its opposite of assumed or real dewesternization in the Western/Christian world. The FN’s main identity argument, for example, is based on the threat of France supposedly being overrun by Muslim hordes. It is interesting to note here that such movements as the FN are rarely identified as fundamentalist, despite their obvious affirmation of national-Christian values. The difference is that the attachment of Western extreme right movements to religion is expressed less through direct reference to (selected excerpts from) religious texts than through the idea of “culture” as manifested in “traditional (and/or Christian) values,” safeguarded by the family, and symbolized in national-religious iconography (such as Joan of Arc in the case of the FN). This allows their defining characteristic to be seen not as their religiosity (perceived as cultural) but as their fascism (perceived as political). Conversely, Islamist movements rarely are called extreme right; their defining characteristic is not seen as their fascism but as their religiosity. This is not to say that fundamentalist movements and more secular extreme right movements are the same. The former explicitly advocate the integration of religion and state, while the latter do not, even though religion will—usually explicitly—inform their policies and practices.
Another similarity between the emergence of the Western/Christian and Arab/Muslim extreme right groups in the 1980s and 1990s is the process of legitimation through the “democratic” electoral process. One major difference, however, is that while Western extreme right movements’ political legitimation is countered by widespread moral delegitimation in international (and much national) opinion, this is not as consistent for Islamist movements. Even where such moral opposition to Islamism exists in the West, the combination of “multiculturalist” and “pluralist” imperatives means that this opposition is less frequently and transparently expressed in relation to so-called moderate versions of Islamism than in relation to either the Western extreme right or terrorist Islamism. It is noteworthy that during the 1989 Head Scarves Affair there was scant public reference in France, and almost none internationally, to the way Islamists were manipulating the affair. (In 1994, these forces were so clearly in evidence that it was impossible not to refer to them.)
A final similarity between Western/Christian and Islamist extreme right groups is that social commentators perceive them to be symptomatic of a social malaise for which the state is held to be primarily responsible. This malaise is variously seen as technocratic, elitist, overly economically rationalist (or conversely, overregulatory), authoritarian, weak, corrupt, or any combination of these. The focus on the errors of the state in terms of its inability to assume properly a role of demagogue and distributor of wealth rather than on, for example, state collusion with the economic power of world financial institutions or multinational companies or with the sociocultural power of family and religion, is perhaps one reason why Western and non-Western extreme right movements are often considered in isolation from each other, rather than compared as part of a wider political phenomenon.
In fact, non-Western and Western extreme right movements are considerably more alike, in the reasons for their emergence, the type of support they obtain, and their discourse, than would seem to be assumed from the literature, as Western and non-Western extreme right groups are invariably treated in separate volumes, although there is some evidence that this may be changing. Some scholars have also started to draw parallels between Islamist women and other fundamentalist women. Moghadam, for example, compares Islamist women’s values to those of the American Orthodox Jewish women studied by Debra Renee Kaufman, as well as those of the Christian new right women studied by Rebecca E. Klatch.
Women, Religion, and Politics
The identity/modernity crisis arguments, along with the legitimation of Islamism in the name of “democracy” or “multiculturalism” in nonfeminist literature, also mask the centrality of women’s subordination to Islamist projects. In more specialized feminist literature, where women are correctly identified as primary targets of Islamism, they are said to be instrumentalized as the repositories or guardians of identity in both Islamist and anticolonial nationalist movements. This cultural identity is defined in male supremacist terms. It is also widely acknowledged that in colonial times as well as within contemporary Islamism, (post)colonized women have been the battleground over which colonizing and (post)colonized men have fought for supremacy.
In Algeria, there was a peculiar tension between frenchification, as part of France’s self-professed “civilizing mission,” and the exploitation of Islamic/Arab/Berber traditions to the colonizer’s advantage. This relationship of the colonizer to indigenous culture was often, if not primarily, articulated through legislation and practices relating to women. Similar to the nationalist project in “mainland” France, as it was called, one way to frenchify colonies was through primary school education. Girls’ education was seen as particularly important, both in the process of acculturation (of future husbands and sons) and disempowerment of the (Catholic or colonized) fathers and brothers through the inculcation of French republican values in their daughters and sisters. At the same time, as Zakya Daoud has pointed out, few Algerian children received French schooling. Frenchification was still mainly restricted to (male) elites who were perceived as appropriable.
The manipulation of women within the French colonial project and Algerian resistance to it is most evident in matters concerning family law and the wearing (or stripping) of the head scarf. While French laws concerning family status and property ownership ostensibly overruled the traditional Algerian order and “emancipated” women, they nonetheless left Muslim personal status laws intact for all who did not declare that they wished to be placed under French law. Moreover, French courts often upheld Muslim law as a means of controlling women. Women also fell prey to—and in many cases were party to—reaffirmations of traditional values provoked by a combination of the all-or-nothing cultural choice offered by the French legal system, dispossession and pauperization, and frenchification of urban areas and administration while most of the population remained illiterate.
The traditional head scarf was the other great cultural battleground. As much as the French deplored the “veil” (while at the same time fetishizing it), indigenous Algerians waved it as a cultural banner. The forced public unveiling, on 13 May 1958, by right-wing French putschists, of around one hundred women has often been cited as a notorious landmark in the French appropriation of Algerian women. Frantz Fanon’s 1959 characterization of unveiling as the “rape” of Algeria (this metaphor is in itself significant), along with his celebration of the veil and women’s traditional role within Algerian society as emblematic of the affirmation of an authentic and independent Algerian cultural identity, have just as often been cited as justification of veiling in the name of “liberation.” Even the FLN, which had not shown an overly great attachment to Islam during the war, was eager to invoke religion and tradition (including veiling) in relation to women, in celebrating women’s “ardent love for their homes and families” and the centrality to the cause of (women’s sacrifice in) the maintenance of the family according to Algero-Islamic tradition.
This, then, was the cultural-religious-patriarchal climate in which Algeria attained its independence. It would be false to assume that women’s participation in the fight against the colonizer brought them nothing. As Lazreg rightly has pointed out, it brought their country independence, which is hardly negligible, not to mention the various skills acquired and the use of their voices for change in their societies. It is equally false, however, to assume that women’s battles were largely over after independence.
While women had other grievances against the FLN that were not solely related to the mobilization of Islam (such as the requirement that they relinquish their personal jewelry to the National Solidarity Fund set up to build national financial reserves), it is the latter that has prepared the ideological terrain that the FIS has found so fertile. In particular, the FLN’s increasing concessions to the ulamas culminated in the adoption of the Family Code in 1984, based on the sharia (Islamic law). Women had strongly resisted this code and had campaigned against it since the idea was first mooted circa 1965, the year before the government created a Higher Islamic Council to “‘constitute a spearhead for Islamic culture, to create a means of defense on an ideological level against attacks from abroad.'” It is important to stress that the Family Code is not an isolated case since similar regressive paths in relation to women have been followed by other countries in the region. Furthermore, this legislation was not introduced by Islamists but by an ostensibly secular government.
The FLN’s preoccupation with the control of women’s behavior was so strong, and so strongly linked to Islam, that it must be seen as having contributed to the rise of the FIS. Indeed, the FIS did not have far to move once the FLN had laid the groundwork through increasing incorporation of Islam into its politics and policies, particularly as concerned women. Even if the FLN stopped short of imposing Islamic dress, obligatory prayer, and mosque attendance, or other visible acts of repression and/or violence against women, and even if many women opponents of the FIS continue to maintain, as one woman put it: “Between the plague [the FIS] and cholera [the army/FLN], I’ll choose cholera any day, because at least you can cure it,” it cannot be asserted that the FLN’s possible “curability” renders its mobilization of religion less dangerous. In fact, it has often been observed (but for other reasons) that the FLN is the “father” of the FIS (this being a play on words, the FIS being a homophone of the French word for “son,” le fils). While the son of FLN argument is not entirely convincing in other areas (the usual assumption being that it is the FLN’s totalitarianism, corruption, and general economic mismanagement that paved the way for the FIS, which, although partly accurate, is not the full story), it has some bearing on the centrality of the control of women to both the FLN’s and the FIS’s projects. Given this extraordinary preoccupation by male power groups with the control of women’s behavior and frequent mobilization of religion to that end, it is surprising that while most feminist literature acknowledges that women’s subordination is central to the success of these various nationalist movements, it is rarely presented as constituting one of their major goals. This seems to be less unanimously the case for Islamism, perhaps because the targeting of women as women—what Malika Mehdid has described as “an expression of deep hatred—and phobia—of women” through violence and “the systemic demonization” of women in Islamist discourse—is so obvious as to leave no room for doubt. There is widespread agreement that the FIS shares with all other fundamentalist (extreme right) movements, whatever their cultural context, an obsession with women’s sexual and family behavior, whether this obsession is seen as an end in itself or as a means to another end.
Even where the centrality of women is clearly identified as an end rather than a means, we are still faced with a problem. For the “pluralist” demarcation of Islamism from other expressions of Islam, in associating woman-hating solely with the former, tends to downplay the importance of the appropriation of women or of use of religion in this appropriation within other anticolonial or postcolonial ethnicist or nationalist projects. This is again surprising, for religion has invariably been invoked by anti/ postcolonial independence movements and post-independence states, however progressive or even secular they may be in other areas, both to ensure and justify, in the name of “cultural identity,” the appropriation and subordination of women. This has, in fact, been so systematic (and so similar to the use of Christianity in the West, although Western women seem to be so accustomed to this that they are far less adept at spotting it than they are at spotting similar uses of non-Christian religion) that one is hard pressed to make a case for the separability of religion from either politics (in particular, culture and nation) or women’s oppression (also politics, of course). In fact, when one looks at the myriad political uses of religion (the “political use of religion” being a rather tautologous phrase in any case), one soon finds that they mostly relate to the control of women’s behavior. Given this obsession, can one maintain that women are simply being instrumentalized within cultural-religious-nationalist projects, or is their subordination part of the project itself? Should we not, in fact, reverse this question? Rather than women being the means to a culturalreligious end, is it not religion, whatever its other cultural and political functions may be, that is a primary cultural means of ensuring men’s political domination of women? Which leads to a third question: is the FIS’s project fundamentally different, at least concerning women, than the FLN’s, or simply more extreme?
Progressive tendencies exist within all religions, as they do within most social and cultural institutions, such as the police force or the family. In Australia, for example, most state police forces now have lesbian and gay liaison officers, as well as special training in handling matters involving sexual violence or necessitating cultural sensitivity. And in 1996, the United Nations Year of the Family, the Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras rallied its supporters around the slogan “We Are Family Too.” Laudable as such initiatives may appear, they are not unproblematic and do not mean that the police or the family have some intrinsic progressive value that can be found within them if only one cares to look. On the contrary, these two institutions were founded with the aim of ensuring the perpetuity of the existing social order, and, in particular, male domination. They are, as such, conservative, and no amount of progressive interpretations or reformism from within will change that. The same can be said of religion, which is why it is so odd that religion, as a similarly male supremacist institution (as any thorough exegesis of religious foundational texts and practices will show) is increasingly escaping such scrutiny.
It seems that the postcolonial politicization of culture (to paraphrase Béji) has created a peculiar historical amnesia concerning where Islamism came from and why, which has led to a disturbing inability both to identify religious fundamentalisms as extreme right political movements and to recognize the fundamental political function of all religion in relation to women. While no discussion of the collective political mobilization of religious identity can afford to ignore the context in which such politicization occurs (social marginalization, economic recession, racism, postcolonial imperialism, and so on), it is naive to suggest that such political mobilization can ever be innocuous for women and paternalistic to disallow any disagreement with women who espouse (I use the word advisedly) religious ideology (whether fundamentalist or not). It is particularly a matter for concern that women, in being identified as primary targets of Islamism, are generally perceived as “symbols” or “instruments” in what is perceived first and foremost as a battle to impose a particular cultural-religious identity. Apart from the failure to recognize the problem as being one of political domination and not of identity, this argument neither acknowledges women as social and political actors, nor does it explain adequately why Islamists put such enormous amounts of energy into controlling them.