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Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2001 / 19 Kislev, 5762

Barbara Amiel

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We are not risking world war so women can show their ankles -- WHEN Cherie Blair and Laura Bush gave horrifying descriptions of the Taliban as villains who would "tear out fingernails of women wearing nail polish", one could see the beginning of a new politically relevant Benetton ad campaign.

Back in October, when I read President Bush's speech promising to protect "women of cover", I thought he was showing an unexpected satirical streak. But he too was venturing into this new geo-political fashionista territory.

He was referring to his concern about American-Arab women being set upon after the September 11 bombing because of their distinctive clothing. It seems we must fight to liberate women from the tyranny of the burqa under the fundamentalists of the Third World, but be vigilant in protecting a woman's right to wear it safely on Fifth Avenue.

The Left has split over the war. Feminists have had to choose between their anti-militarism and the Taliban's appalling treatment of women. Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda issued a petition, "Not In Our Name!", sponsored by their Worldwide Sisterhood Against Terrorism and War.

Considering that terrorists aren't likely to go away for the asking, I'm not certain how one can be against both terrorism and war, but their answer is to ask all women "urgently" to unite against military action while beginning an airlift of food and medicine to Afghanistan.

Take this petition, urge its sponsors, and "sing it, shout it, make buttons" or "send it to the mothers of George Bush's inner circle". These tactics were certainly successful in achieving the current state of matriarchy in America, but I doubt if they will be sufficient to reorganise militant Islam.

Commentators such as the New York Times's Maureen Dowd and the Guardian's Polly Toynbee are supporters of the war. For Dowd, the work of George W. Bush will not be done until an Afghan government guarantees that Afghani women have the same rights as those in the West to dump the burqa, and in countries such as Saudi Arabia to drive cars, or in Kuwait to vote.

Dowd wants to see more of "the shy radiant smiles" that appeared briefly when the Taliban fled and "women threw off their veils".

Toynbee and Dowd fear that the Northern Alliance may not treat women much better than the Taliban and that the transitional government may not be as forward-looking as Western governments.

"If the US can bomb a path to victory for the Northern Alliance," wrote Dowd, "we can lay down some terms for what women can attain in the new Afghanistan." Really? My understanding was that the point of the action in Afghanistan was to lay down clearly that the West would not tolerate being attacked.

If attacked, it would respond in kind. On the other hand, the West not only can, but also arguably should, tolerate what others do to themselves. Anything else used to be called cultural imperialism.

I don't like the single-child policy in China or female circumcision in Africa, but I don't expect Mr. Bush or Tony Blair to put Western soldiers at risk to change this. Buildings destroyed in Manhattan or Western embassies bombed in Africa are very much our problem, but we are not firing our missiles and risking World War Three in order to let women of cover show an ankle or make a three-point turn in their cars.

We did not attack Hitler's Germany because it persecuted Jews. We declared war only when Hitler attacked Poland, whose sovereignty we had guaranteed.

Normally the Left and liberals would take this for granted and would protest if we tried to impose such values as our liberal democracy or rule of law on countries not blessed with them. But the Left-liberal obsession with "gender roles" supersedes qualms about cultural imperialism.

There is a darker side to the Left's response to this war. After a ritual condemnation of the World Trade Centre bombing, many of them revert to an anti-American and anti-Israeli stance.

London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, said 10 days ago that British Muslims who fly to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban and attempt to kill British and American forces there should not be prosecuted for treason if they return to this country.

He explained that "the Taliban are flippin' nutters", but, he continued, they and al-Qa'eda "feed off a genuine injustice" in the Middle East. "You're not going to get young Muslims giving their life for some call for the restoration of the caliphate, but they will give their life because they see their Palestinian brothers being shot."

To put it generously, nothing illustrates Mr. Livingstone's "bee in his bonnet" about Jews and Israel better than the error of this remark. For decades, young Muslims have fought for the political cause of Palestine, but planned suicide was not part of the deal.

The political terrorists of Fatah, Black September, the PFLP and Abu Nidal didn't strap bombs to themselves. They blew up other people. Then the Islamists, with their religious fanaticism, came along. They resurrected the idea of establishing the caliphate that had lain dormant for several centuries.

This divides the world into the House of Islam and the House of War (all the world outside Islam). The fanatics of Islam believe in martyrdom and their reward in paradise.

The restoration of the caliphate is the main motivation of suicide bombers and that is why, whatever the (considerable) merits of a solution to the Arab-Israel dispute, solving it will not end religious terrorism, no matter how much Jack Straw and the Foreign Office tell us otherwise.

But the darkest aspect of the Left these days is a virulent anti-Americanism, exemplified in America by Noam Chomsky, and in this country by Harold Pinter. On September 10, Pinter gave a speech at the University of Florence.

In earlier speeches he had condemned the 1999 Nato action in Yugoslavia as being motivated by America's "one reason only - to assert its domination over Europe". His September 10 speech went further, verging on pathology.

He said that America was a murderous state, a vast gulag of torture and rape. Without a scrap of evidence, he asserted that the bombing of a southern Yugoslavian market town was not a mistake, as America claimed, but a deliberate act of murder and part of Nato's policy to terror-bomb.

Pinter listed 15 countries as partial examples of the "considerable sections of mankind" where people had been deliberately tortured and killed: South Korea was on the list as a country where the "mere articulation of the word 'freedom' has resulted in torture and death", but not North Korea.

His speech also listed the agenda of the Left, from the Kyoto Accords to the International Criminal Court of Justice, and stated that, by rejecting these initiatives, America had "come out of the closet" as an "authentic rogue state . . . the most dangerous power the world has ever known".

Pinter being Pinter, that is to say a witty man with a superb ear for language, he will find room even in a pathological rave for a clever explosion of some mindless cliche. He writes of Bush's reference to "freedom-loving people" and wryly notes: "I must say I would be fascinated to meet a freedom-hating people."

Which goes to show, I suppose, that talent can strike in the most unlikely places. His speech ends with this call to arms: "There is, however, as we have seen, a profound revulsion and disgust with the manifestations of US power and global capitalism which is growing throughout the world and becoming a formidable force in its own right." He praises the philosophy of the Zapatistas in Mexico as the inspiration for opposition to America. "We will not accept your terms. We will not abide by your rules. The only way you can eliminate us is to destroy us and you cannot destroy us. We are free."

In conclusion, Pinter, a man whose life and liberty have been largely guaranteed in the past century and this new one by America, told his audience in Florence: "But we are free. And I believe that this brutal and malignant world machine must be recognised for what it is and resisted."

The next day, the World Trade Centre was destroyed. Pinter sent out a letter to some of his friends and acquaintances, which he called "A Rejoinder". In it, he said that he used words, not bombs.

Of course, there was no direct relationship between his speech and the bombing. But for years Pinter's words, in speeches such as these, have been an incitement to violence. No amount of bon mots can quite distance him morally from what took place the next day.

JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

11/20/01:"Anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian Nights' "open sesame"
11/06/01: We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes
10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel