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The French Revolution Returns to Columbia By: Phyllis Chesler
Pajamas Media | Thursday, November 15, 2007


Shades of Harvard’s Larry Summers! Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger, has just come under faculty-fire for having mistreated Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, and in so doing, having “sullied the reputation of the University with (his) strident tone.” Bollinger has also been castigated by seventy faculty members for having “allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq” and for taking “partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East.”

This is no parody. This is a seventy-gun opening salvo and the unmistakable sound of a bloody drumroll; the French Revolution has returned to Columbia’s campus.

I did not think that Columbia should have invited President Ahmadinejad to speak or that President Bollinger was honor-bound to either introduce—or insult him. I wrote about this HERE and HERE.

I am not familiar with the work of all seventy faculty signatories but seven names jumped out at me: Professors Nadia Abu El Haj (an American-born anthropologist of Christian and Palestinian origin who just received tenure after much controversy); Lila Abu-Lughod (an American-born Muslim-Jewish Palestinian anthropologist); Hamid Dabashi (a Muslim Iranian, who founded the Palestinian Film Project which is dedicated to preserving and safeguarding Palestinian Cinema); Mahmood Mamdani (a South Asian Ugandan anthropologist and political scientist); Rashid Khalidi (an American-born academic of Palestinian origin, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, the head of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, former President of the Task Force on Palestine and current editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies); Alice Kessler-Harris (an American-born historian who specializes in gender and labor issues); and Bengali-born Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak.

Is absolutely everything about Palestine? Just asking, a merely rhetorical quibble. And yet, this is not a minor quibble. About six or seven years ago, nearly every feminist and left academic listserv group from whom I received email, began systematically dumping propaganda about Palestine and against America and Israel into the ongoing conversation about psychotherapy, the nature of trauma, contemporary struggles for women’s rights. Anyone who did not salute this particular flag was no longer welcome online or was reduced to silence.

Now, these kinds of academics are staking a more public claim to their campus. For now, let me briefly focus on the work of two of these Columbia signatories.

Bengali feminist and postcolonial academic Chakravarti Spivak writes in a way that renders whatever she is saying fairly incomprehensible. Such aggressive, postmodern obtuseness is often confused with both brilliance and courage. Spivak has nevertheless been lionized for her attack upon the (potential) western feminist critique of non-western cultures as just another kind of imperialism. Spivak has been widely acclaimed for viewing (such imaginary) western feminists as similar to white men who are saving brown women from brown men. She views doing so as both racist and sexist.

Got that? In other words, if (white) westerners dare to save a brown-skinned woman from being genitally mutilated, honor-murdered, or hacked or stoned to death—doing so is a racist, sexist act.

Lila Abu-Lughod is a bit easier to understand and presents complex arguments. She argues the case for hijab and polygamy or rather; she tries to explain the various non-western meanings that such customs may have. She reminds us that while many British colonials may indeed have saved and tried to emancipate colonized women, but they did so “as a way of weakening local culture; at the same time, these same men were opposing female suffrage back home in England.”

Got that? In other words, if western colonial intentions were one whit less than pure and if the colonizer was not himself absolutely consistent then it does not matter if he actually saved a woman from having to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre or won an impoverished, lower-caste girl the right to a minimal education.

Abu-Lughod also suggests that polygamy may allow women sisterly companionship and respite from the isolation that often plagues women in western-style nuclear monogamous marriages. And yet, every Memoir I have ever read about polygamy, every interview I have ever done—my own long-ago experience in Kabul, Afghanistan, all document that co-wives also suffer profoundly because of polygamy—as do their children who become rivals for both paternal attention and inheritance.

Actually, both Abu-Lughod and Chakravarti Spivak are quintessential western-style feminists. No matter one’s country of origin or religion at birth, all feminists with a perch in today’s western academy think alike. They are all multi-cultural relativists and reject universal standards of human rights. This puts women, especially “brown” women, in grave danger.

Abu-Lughod and Chakravarti Spivak view a western-style fight for women’s rights in the Muslim and Arab world as a dangerous diversion. Abu-Lughod recommends that we continue to focus mainly on “the colonial enterprise.” Why? Perhaps as a way of reminding western thinkers —heirs to the colonial enterprise—that, given their ancestors ’ past crimes, they dare not feel “superior” to the Islamic world and above all, dare not intervene to free Muslim or Arab prisoners from Muslim or Arab jailors, or African slaves and female sex slaves from their Muslim and Arab tormenters.

I strongly suggest that these signatories read a book that has just been published by Ibn Warraq. It is titled Defending the West. A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Ibn Warraq and I recently spoke at Columbia PRESS HERE. It is a pity that none of these signatories came to hear what we had to say. I invite them to do so. Just name the time and the place. It can be a private meeting. (For a review of Ibn Warraq’s book PRESS HERE.)

Actually, I invite President Bollinger to read my most recent book about Islamic gender and religious Apartheid (The Death of Feminism. What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom). He will need to arm himself with just such ideas in the battle that has now been thrust upon him.

NEWSFLASH: I have just been told that, as of yesterday, the anti-Bollinger petition had ninety signatures and that, (how could I have doubted it for an instant!), an alternate petition is being circulated at Columbia which boasts about ninety signatures. I have been advised that at least half the professors who are currently castigating President Bollinger also signed the petition to divest in Israel.


Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the well known author of classic works, including the bestseller Women and Madness (1972) The New Anti-Semitism (2003) and The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom (2005). She has just published a new edition of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (2009). She is an Emerita Professor of psychology and women's studies, the co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969) and the National Women's Health Network (1976). Her website is www.phyllis-chesler.com.


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