04 December 2015
An immodest woman
The latest revelation about the husband-wife team who shot up San Bernardino on December 2 raises the question of who wore the pants in the family. The wife reportedly made a video in which she swore allegiance to the self-styled Islamic State, while no similar evidence has yet emerged for the husband, and since the husband, an American citizen, met her in Saudi Arabia, the current speculation is that she radicalized him. One of the most peculiar things about the latest fashion in jihad, at least to outside observers, is the attraction the IS or Daesh has for young women. We're used to thinking of Islam in general as demeaning to women because of the dress code strict observers insist upon and the underlying assumption that women in public inevitably tempt men sexually. Western or secular women who see difference as implicitly hierarchical tend to assume that an observant Muslim woman is a second-class citizen of the umma. There's evidence to the contrary throughout the Muslim world, from women in the Iranian legislature to Kurdish female militia fighting ISIS to mass murderers like the San Bernardino shooter. The dress code appeals to some women who hope it will keep them from being objectified sexually, judged by appearance, etc. To a Muslim, also, religiously mandated dress is often less the livery of subjection and servitude, as outsiders assume, than a uniform conferring identity and power. In a horrific way Islam in its extreme (and presumably misogynist) form empowered this woman. This should make clear that Islamic extremism in the 21st century is not about "going back to the seventh century," as many still assume.It has also gone beyond the point where we could say it's all about legitimate grievances that need to be addressed to quiet Muslim rage. It is all about power now, and if Muslims look to the first century after the Hegira for inspiration, it's because faith inspired the successors of Muhammad to conquer the Middle East and much of the world beyond. The problem with women like the shooter is that they think Islam is their only route to power or their only way to share in it. Worse, as the Shiite-Sunni struggles in the Muslim heartland show, the struggle for power among Muslims remains a zero-sum, win-or-die, rule-or-ruin game, and the Muslim struggle against the west and the rest is seen by many Muslims in similar terms. Meanwhile, this week's news that American women are now eligible for all combat units in the U.S. military, after the first women passed the Army Ranger tests earlier this year, suggests that those women who do see Islam as subjugation and second-class citizenship are acting on their beliefs and finding empowerment in uniform as well. Some of us like the idea of women warriors, be they Kurds, Americans or other, taking the fight to the slave-taking, slave-raping men of Daesh, but when they fight women as well everyone will have a better idea of what this struggle is really about.