As some of you may know, Bill Maher and Sam Harris have been criticizing Islam lately, with pushback from Reza Aslan and Ben Affleck, among others. For an interesting discussion of one of these conversations, see this post by Avicenna. Heck, if you want more reading, see this post with a video of Reza Aslan, this response on the Friendly Atheist, and Reza Aslan’s recent piece in the New York Times. But in this post I want to touch on a very specific statement made by Sam Harris (during this segment).
Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984. But when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us.
I have to say, when I heard this bit my jaw just dropped. That Harris could move smoothly from dismissing the very real and very present threat of violence against abortion clinics and abortion providers to condemning the treatment of women in “the Muslim world” is mind boggling. This is not how supporting women’s rights works. But even with that aside, Harris is so factually off on anti-abortion violence that I’m actually honestly surprised. I would have thought him more informed on this topic.
Violence against abortion clinics and abortion providers dates back to at least the 1980s and continues in the present. Eight doctors or clinic providers have been murdered, the last one only five years ago. In fact, the clinic that was bombed in the 1984 incident Harris mentions was bombed again in 2012—and completely gutted as a result. I hear of arson and death threats, and it shakes me. I’ve served as an escort at my local Planned Parenthood clinic. It can be very scary—for all involved. Women often have their license plate numbers recorded by anti-abortion protesters calling them “murderers,” and in some areas of the country doctors who perform abortions have to wear masks when entering clinics to protect their identities. Just recently a writer for the high-profile National Review called for hanging women who have had abortions.
To have Harris present concern about anti-abortion violence as “getting agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984” is horrifying. He should know better.
I’m tired of seeing people emphasize the challenges women face in Muslim countries while downplaying the challenges women face elsewhere. This sort of thing makes it look like it’s more about having it in for Islam (or for religion) than it is about women’s wellbeing. That Harris is willing to dismiss not simply structural sexism but also opposition to women’s healthcare access is bizarre.
Should we criticize laws in Muslim countries that legislate inequality? Absolutely. But we should also call out the horrific violence women face in countries like the Congo, or sex trafficking in Thailand, or slut shaming and victim blaming in our own country. Sexism and barriers to women’s equality should be called out wherever they are found. Are all of these challenges or barriers equally as harmful? No, but that doesn’t make focusing on some while dismissing others okay. Calling out challenges and barriers women face in Muslim countries while ignoring or dismissing those women face elsewhere, including in our own country, is not okay.
Many Christians have historically held some of the same views of women as many Muslims do today. We need to remember that we are where we are today as a result of women of all stripes who have worked to demand equal legal rights for women (remember that only two centuries ago it was legal in the U.S. for men to beat their wives, and that women in the U.S. gained the right to vote less than a century ago) and accompanying reforms within Christianity (most Christians in the U.S. today hold very different views of women and their role than Christians did one or two centuries ago). We should use our own history as a reminder that improvement is possible rather than as a platform from which to judge others.
We also need to remember that we ourselves still need improvement. Whether or not Harris is aware of it, women still face challenges and barriers in the U.S. Women in the U.S. are not guaranteed paid maternity leave. Abortion access has been chipped away slowly and steadily, and it is increasingly difficult for poor women and women of color to access reproductive healthcare. Women make up the large majority of stay-at-home parents, performing labor that is neither paid nor factored into future social security benefits. And this is without even getting into slut shaming and victim blaming.
Do women in other areas of the world face greater challenges and barriers than we do here in the U.S.? Yes. But the fact that other women have it worse should not be used to downplay the very real challenges and barriers women in the U.S. continue to face today.
I have to believe we can do better than this.