It’s the Middle Ages all over again

BRITISH MP George Galloway is welcomed by Palestinians in the town of Rafah on Jan. 6

It's the middle ages all over again

Given my own experience as a lightning rod for schadenfreude—a posh word for “isn’t it great the bitch finally got what she deserves”—I’m careful in delighting in the misfortunes of others. So I’ll only note that Egypt expelled British MP George Galloway last Friday as an “unwelcome individual,” after his peace-loving convoy to bring aid to the inhabitants of Gaza ran into a bit of a roadblock—a stone-throwing session that left one Egyptian soldier dead and quite a few Palestinians bloodied. Galloway is an old foe, a spitting mad hater of the Jewish state of Israel who successfully sued the Daily Telegraph for libel when it claimed that he had been in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

The next year, a U.S. congressional report investigating the UN’s infamous Oil-for-Food program concluded that despite Galloway’s denials, documents and testimony showed Iraq had granted him allocations for millions of barrels of oil under the program. Only in Britain, with constituencies heavy with Muslim immigration, could such a man be re-elected as a member of Parliament, first on the Labour ticket and then on the party ticket of RESPECT, a wondrous acronym which covers all bases: Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community, and Trade Unionism. Take each element and parse the movements that support it for anti-Semitism and you’ve got the seeds of quite a few Nuremberg rallies.

But this time, Galloway got it wrong. Egyptians aren’t as sentimental as Anglo-Saxon countries about the medieval mindset of fundamentalists and terrorists; they aren’t prepared to offer them Lebensraum as they do in Britain, or lawyers as they do in the U.S., and they definitely take a dim view of a British MP offering humanitarian aid. Egyptians are taking various measures to contain the Dark and Middle Ages: a discreet underground wall is being built at the border with Gaza; in October, Egypt’s minister of higher education announced a policy to ban the niqab in female dorms and Cairo University refused admission to females wearing it. This got students affiliated with Egypt’s Labor party into a froth, but then the Labor party, originally socialist but now Islamist, has been suspended by the Egyptian Political Parties Affairs Committee since 2000.

The soppier elements of this approach to Islamism are catching on in Europe. In France the head scarf is outlawed in public schools; Switzerland banned the construction of new minarets. Other European countries are expressing anger at the hijab. The time is rapidly approaching when Islamists from Yemen to France will have to escape to Britain and possibly Canada for wardrobe freedom. But there is a dilemma here: the two sorts of people with whom I have the least affinity are the ones who wear the niqab and the ones who would stop others from wearing it. Not surprisingly, one can see an immense resemblance between the two—under the skin they’re much the same.

Time magazine called the burka a “body bag for the living.” Some feminists have called for a crusuade against this “global patriarchy.” In a valuable piece of analysis, Stanley Kurtz, a fellow of the Hudson Institute, pointed out that this was “both mistaken and dangerous.” America helped shovel Iran into the iron arms of the ayatollahs by encouraging the shah to make more concessions to Western modernization, and the shah, thinking he would win more money from America, gave Iran his “White Revolution” (in which women got the vote in 1963). Our focus on unveiling women in Islamic countries where the veil is used in tribal areas is the wrong end of the stick.

Outside cities in tribal areas, the veil serves a legitimate cultural purpose. Kin and tribe offer protection and act as mini-governments. To maintain property and lineage safely, women usually marry within their large extended family (cousins are a favoured spouse) or at the very least within the tribe. In those areas, women don’t need to wear the full veil much. They don it only when out in places like cities where they are among men who are not part of this trusted group. This slows modernity, of course, but stabilizes and protects their own unit.

We see this as slavery, but then all societies interpret human life according to their own feelings and notions. Primatologists like the late Dian Fossey knew that if she wanted to gain the trust of gorillas, she first had to respect their customs (including scratching and crouching on all fours). We apply that bit of common sense more easily to gorillas than to Afghan burka wearers.

In Western society, the niqab has no protective function. The extended tribe no longer exists and veiling is most often a political statement supporting an anti-Western and anti-modernity mindset. Just what the appeal of a medieval mindset is baffles me. Never mind suicide bombers and fundamentalists demanding Islamic law in Europe and Canada, we’ve got old-fashioned stone throwers back persecuting Christians. This past week Islamists have been chucking stones and petrol bombs at Christian churches in Malaysia because Christians had the temerity to use “Allah” as the name for God. (It will take hard work to see the hand of Israel there, but I think we can count on Galloway’s set.)

Human society in the West spent a lot of time in the Middle Ages on this sort of thing: Christians were massacred and Christians massacred back. Everyone threw stones, razed and burned in the name of Him. When it comes to Mr. Galloway, his mind is not so much medieval as it is malignant. And perhaps it is geographically challenged. He could, after all, have skipped Egypt and simply gone to Malaysia. Then, instead of being in the middle of a stone-throwing session, he could have had a whale of a time with fundamentalists throwing stones himself.

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