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Consider the latest stronghold of political Islamism - Ahmedinejad’s Iran, where last month 77 programs at 36 universities promptly became ‘single gender,’ instantly banning women from their studies. Ideologically, Iran is increasingly Islamist, promoting a way of thinking that is both ferociously misogynist and anti-Semitic. The global threat posed by Islamism is a central focus at this year’s International Institute of Counter Terrorism’s 12th Annual World Summit in Herzliya, Israel, that begins tomorrow.
I first encountered gender apartheid ‘in the name of Islam’ when practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia, an experience I explored in my first book. My upbringing as a pluralist Muslim daughter by liberal, yet devout, British Pakistani parents was poor preparation for Saudi Arabia indeed. Saudi Arabia excludes women from the public space by fallaciously claiming a ‘foundation’ in Islam. Saudi Arabia blatantly disregards Islam’s enshrinement of those rights of women most likely to be trampled upon by men.
Shia Iran’s confinement of women is identically motivated. Rather than faith-based however, both the extremist Shia administration in Iran and the Sunni Wahhabi theocracy in Saudi Arabia pursue identical political goals. The elimination of women from Iran’s universities solidifies increasingly Islamist-centric policies, while in Saudi Arabia, the traditional tribal monarchy relies heavily on legitimacy borrowed from a fundamentalist and misogynistic interpretation of Islam. Both demand first the bridling, and later, the complete subjugation, of the Muslim woman.
A Muslim public tightly coiled against an increasingly strained and hysterical leadership, Iran fears the growing power of its female intelligentsia, which presently outcompetes its male counterparts in Iran’s universities. These women trigger rising anxieties in a brittle leadership acutely aware that non-Arab Iran remains vulnerable to the aftershocks of the Arab Spring, never forgetting that the female Iranian university graduates who led the 2010 electoral protests were the vanguard of the uprisings in the Arab world, though sadly their protests would be brutally quashed as a disengaged West looked on.
Examining Iran’s constitution explains the intensifying Iranian Islamist appetites of which gender apartheid is integral. Originally born in the Sunni Islam of 1928's Egypt, political Islamism has only recently penetrated the Shia psyche. Today, Iran’s constitution is now brazenly Islamist, as Richard Horowitz, former Israel Defense Forces officer and New York attorney - who represents Iranian dissidents and former Iranian political prisoners - describes in the World Policy Journal. Speaking to Horowitz in New York City this week, he cited Article 20 of Iran’s constitution:
“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
Horowitz immediately observed to me that “the essence of ‘constitutional rights’ is that they are not subordinate to legislation or theology. Article 20’s ostensible protection of equal rights for women is immaterial if it must be ‘in conformity with Islamic criteria,’
Political scientist Dr. Bassam Tibi, a renowned global expert on Islamism, has also noted the vacuum on women’s issues within the political Islamist canon, a gap indicating the complete dismissal of women in Islamist society, even from the mere effort of discussion.
Just as perverse, Islamist anti-Semitism is an essential construct for political Islamist ideology. Make no mistake: just as the Iranian regime actively seeks to expunge the Iranian woman so too it seeks to expunge the Israeli and the Jew.
Islamized anti-Semitism is more dangerous than the lethal Eurocentric Nazi or neo-Nazi ideology with which the world is more familiar. Because Islamist anti-Semitism wields invented religious currency, (lending it false, but hugely influential import) it become orders of magnitude more dangerous. Religionized in this way, Islamist anti-Semitism can be localized whilst being camouflaged in the rites and responsibilities of the observing faithful – a grand deception indeed, and one which invests enormous cultural and spiritual capital in subscribing to anti-Semitism.
The new Islamist anti-Semitism is indeed rooted in Eurocentric origins, deriving inspiration particularly from genocidal Nazi ideologies. Initially transplanted during the Nazi era, Eurocentric anti-Semitism was first embraced by secular Christian Arabs and later by secular Muslims as an accepted tenet of pan-Arab nationalism seeking to overthrow the vestiges of European colonialism. It was thus disengaged from religious belief.
Present-day Islamized anti-Semitism is a different animal. Despite valiant Islamist efforts to portray an ancient origin to the contrary, the new Islamized anti-Semitism is very much a modern allegory standing in stark contrast to Islam’s scriptural texts or Islam’s recorded history of interaction with global Jewry.
While Islamists (including Iran) express global intentions seeking a borderless, supremacist Caliphate and are thus mortally opposed to secular nationalism, they are unscrupulous ideological plagiarists, borrowing multilaterally when it comes to anti-Semitism.
Infusing anti-Semitism with religious overtones amplifies both its legitimacy and palatability to the unthinking Muslim masses. Further, Islamists’ strenuous laboring to manufacture a fictional point of origin of this Islamized anti-Semitism - as an article of faith - is a serious attempt to retool anti-Semitism as an authentic integral component to Islamic belief, rather than reveal its modern Western Eurocentric origins. Cloaking Islamist anti-Semitism in religious rhetoric simultaneously seduces the uneducated Muslim, while shielding these offensive ideas from scrutiny. Any inquiry into these beliefs triggers cries of Islamophobia that both distances these beliefs from a thorough examination while also defiling the enquirer.
The Iranian university ban is a final canary in the proverbial mine - a deepening of Iran’s embrace of increasingly extreme Islamist ideologies. As hardships exacted on Iranian women accumulate, so too will the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric escalate. Iran's leadership is neither mincing its words nor attempting to appease its long-disenfranchised public, which has languished in misery since the Revolution. No, the Iranian public does not move the Iranian leadership. Instead, in the hands of Islamists, Iran's administration is clearly articulating its foreign policy intentions.
Understand: Iran’s is not an anti-Zionism nor an anti-Semitism based on aspirations of Palestinian self-determination. Palestinians are as irrelevant to the Iranian government as are their own women. It is for this reason that even the achievement of a two-state solution would not free Israel from the threat of Islamism, whether from Iran or elsewhere. Rather, these are the cries of an Islamist superstate.
The world is long inured to an 'acceptable' level of hatred of Israel - and many warning canaries in the mine will continue to die, unnoticed. Extreme speech, however, precipitates extreme action. Dyadic discourse becomes increasingly simplistic and bipolar as conflict approaches. We can already see the diminishing nuance in the Iran-Israel discourse today.
In Islamists, the secular Muslim, the anti-Islamist Muslim, the Israeli and every woman everywhere shares the same opponent - one that can be defeated only by joining forces both intellectual and military. At this critical moment, liberals here and abroad face a pivotal choice. They can either advance public dialogue within vibrant liberal democracies as we consider how best to scrutinize and head off the challenge of political Islamism. Or, if liberals choose to condemn such critical debate and analysis of Islamists – not of Islam in general - as ‘Islamophobic’, then we are handing a victory to the Islamists themselves who seek to silence this very discourse. Such liberals should know that our silence means we are colluding with those who seek our shared destruction even, so help us God, as we shield our nascent destroyers.
Qanta Ahmed MD is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women (2008), a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion and Associate Professor of Medicine, State University of New York, USA. Follow her on Twitter at @MissDiagnosis.