Susan Jacoby, feminist, atheist, and crusader for human rights, has a bone to pick with liberals who dislike condemnation of other cultures. And it is certainly true that the left in both Europe and the US has issues with forcefully criticizing how people live and think in other parts of the world. Opposition to colonialism was one of the left's main causes for a century, and having campaigned so hard to free Africans and Asians from their European and American masters it is not easy to switch gears and lecture them on their faults.
On the other hand Jacoby says she is "lonely" on the left because only she is standing up for the rights of women in the Islamic world, and all I can say to that is, look around a little harder. She has no trouble producing numerous examples of leftists who attack people for criticizing patriarchal cultures. As I said, it is an issue for many on the left. But there are many on the other side of this question as well. I am not really a leftist, but I am certainly no conservative, and I have no trouble condemning the abuse and confinement of women. Genital mutilation is wicked. It is wrong that women should need the permission of their husbands to get a job or go to school.
But, really, there is more at stake here than taking the right positions and placing ourselves on the right side of various lines. The actual lives of millions of people are involved, and in such circumstances we have to ask, what are the real consequences of our actions?
To take a deliberately extreme example, consider the situation of Armenians under the Turkish empire. Western governments were constantly harassing the Turks about the treatment of Armenians, and they used the pretext of defending Armenians from persecution to install monitors inside Turkey, and they gave lots of money to Armenian groups to build churches and the like. Instead of helping the Armenians, this led to many Turks who never had feelings about Armenians before to hate them and regard them as symbols of their humiliation at the hands of Europeans, and persecution of Armenians actually intensified, culminating in the genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. In moral terms it may be wrong to blame those who sought to help Armenians for their deaths, but that is what happened, and in the face of such a mountain of corpses claims of good intentions ring a little hollow.
What good does it do when white Americans or Europeans lecture Africans or Middle Easterners about how they should live? Does it in any way do any good at all? Or, if it does some little good by helping to buck up women in those countries who want to push for more freedom, is that undone by angering nationalists and religious conservatives who then launch anti-western, anti-feminist pogroms? In a world where anti-western, anti-capitalist, pro-Islam sentiment is very strong, does rhetorically focusing the conflict on the rights of women help women or hurt them? After all, feminism is so well entrenched in the west that support for women's equality is almost automatically part of any westernizing agenda, and I think it might work better in practical terms to let the more universally popular things about western culture, like economic growth, draw people into the western world.
I have the strong feeling that to be lectured about the faults of one's own culture by outsiders never has any effect but the reverse of the one intended. When white westerners denounce Middle Easterners for how they treat women, their response is most likely to be outrage and an increased determination to celebrate their traditional patriarchy.
One of Jacoby's heroines is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled her traditional Muslim home in the Sudan rather than accept marriage to a stranger and has become a strident anti-Muslim activist. Jacoby's leading example of a liberal who won't take a stand against patriarchy is Nick Kristof, who reviewed Hirsi Ali's Nomad for the New York Times. I found this weird, because while Kristof certainly does criticize Ali, but he also praises her and the review is on the whole positive. Besides which, Kristof devotes his life to trying to actually help people in poor parts of the world, and he is the author, with his wife, of a book about how to help women win equality. Kristof's main complaint with Hirsi Ali is that strident denunciations of Islam as a whole only antagonize those Muslims who want to create humane societies. If the choice is set up as "Islam or rights for women," which is how Hirsi Ali frames it, most Muslims will choose Islam. To help Muslim women, we have to get away from that sort of thinking. The particular argument of Nomad is that Islam leads to toxic family life, and I agree with Kristof that this argument is both objectively false -- surely even the most rabid anti-Muslim must admit that many Muslim families are loving and successful -- and calculated to be as offensive as possible. And it's not like westerners have any special success in creating loving, lasting families that we can share with the world.
It seems to me that any thinking, feeling person ought to have a strong ambivalence about these questions. Many things about traditional patriarchal cultures are offensive to anyone with democratic sensibilities. But it takes a special ignorance not to see how moral criticism from westerners looks to people in those cultures, and to understand how lectures on family values from people whose cultures have massive problems with divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drug abuse, and crime only play into the hands of conservative imams. And yet, is it ever right to be silent in the face of evil? In cases like these I reach for the old wisdom, that has been handed down the longest: speak in love, not anger; feel compassion, not contempt; look first to the problems of your own house, and learn humility from them before condemning another.