Veiled talk of American imperialism

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A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, by Leila Ahmed, Yale, RRP£18.99, $30

The historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote of his fascination that fashion designers “sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors”. If you could say why a few women under the influence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood began donning the veil half a century ago, just as historians, sociologists and politicians were pronouncing its obsolescence, then you could explain a lot about Islam today and about the west’s conflicts with it. This is what Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-born professor at Harvard Divinity School, aims to do in a book that traces the meanings of the Muslim veil from postwar Egypt to the present-day US.

The hijab and the forms of Islamic dress you see on the street in Egypt are the uniform of Islamism, or political Islam – and they are an innovation. “These were not styles that the women’s mothers or grandmothers had ever donned,” Ahmed writes. She correctly poses the central question – whether women choose to dress this way or are forced to. She never, alas, arrives at an answer. On the one hand, she notes, sociologists in the 1970s gathered a lot of highly personal rationales from veil wearers. On the other, male Islamists saw the veil as vital to their political projects, and even subsidised it.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna and banned by Egyptian governments starting in the 1940s, is at the centre of Ahmed’s account. It has at times been violent and at times renounced violence. But, like Sinn Féin, it has always given rise to violent groups of defectors and rivals who claim to be drawing the logical conclusions of its message. Ahmed, who has a positive assessment of the Brothers, admits to having once considered them “people who bombed places”. In exile, many Brothers wound up in Saudi Arabia, funded by a government eager – more for cold war reasons than theological ones – to subvert Egypt.

Out of that same mix of Saudi money and Brotherhood networks and doctrine grew the major Muslim organisations in the US – the Muslim Student Association and the Islamic Society of North America in the 1960s, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the 1990s. The second half of the book describes how Islamist groups, particularly Isna, evolved after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001.

“Whereas once working on this subject had meant burying myself in libraries and reading obscure articles, now I followed the most significant events and publications on the topic by following the news,” Ahmed writes. It shows. The Egyptian chapters draw on the accounts of historians and sociologists. The American ones recount a bunch of five- and six-year-old political squabbles. The veil drifts out of view almost completely.

Ahmed has a political axe to grind. She believes the theme of the “oppression of women in Islam” – always in quotation marks – serves an ideology, and that that ideology is imperialism. Criticisms from such feminists as Azar Nafisi, Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are a “rearticulation in native voice of the imperialist theses about the inferiority of Islam”, she believes. Deplorably, Ahmed refuses to engage these writers’ arguments directly, hiding behind accusations and epithets that earlier adversaries have flung at them.

The Islamists of Isna, Ahmed argues, have developed a better way of addressing such issues. She is struck by the Islamist background of Muslim political activists of almost all persuasions. They dominate discussions not just of religious themes but of liberation struggles – and not just of women but of gays. But mostly, she believes, by pressing for more recognition of Islam, they are making the country better. They are “assimilating into the American tradition of protest and activism” that respects the “heritage of social struggle in the name of justice”.

Ahmed has not thought this out. There is an American heritage of protest, sure. Every country has one. But by definition, protest is not the main part of any country’s identity. You might as well expect to be welcomed in France for wanting to assimilate into its tradition of regicide. What is special about the US’s protest tradition is the moral legitimacy lent it, across centuries, by the special cruelty of slavery. This is not a legitimacy to which a group of newcomers can simply lay claim. Gestures that Ahmed presents as contributions to American political culture – for example, the Isna speaker who says that the US needs the Muslim message in order that it “not be remembered in history as a technological giant but a moral pygmy” – will appear to many Americans as signs of contempt

The writer is an FT columnist

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