Originally published by The Sunday Times: 4 June 2017
Nothing that comes from Isis surprises me, even though it seeks to shock us to the core. But in the statement that the jihadist group released to claim responsibility for the horrendous bombing of the Manchester Arena, one word felt like a slap in the face. It was the word “shameless”.
“The explosive devices were detonated in the shameless concert arena, resulting in 30 Crusaders being killed and 70 others being wounded.”
Some commentators say there is no evidence that the attacker targeted women or girls but all the evidence you need is captured in that word “shameless”. In the West pop concerts are seen as a fun diversion from everyday life. In age the Manchester fans ranged from prepubescent, such as Saffie Roussos, 8, to women in their twenties — the same age as the attacker, Salman Abedi.
In the world Abedi grew up in, that is not how things are seen. Concerts such as the one given by Ariana Grande are condemned as pure evil. The pop icon and her fans are seen as shameless temptresses, aided and abetted by a culture that brazenly defies Allah’s law.
This is an attitude towards the whole of western culture, a culture that celebrates girls in revealing clothes that draw attention to the seductive parts of their bodies.
For now the immediate attention is focused on understanding Abedi’s ties to Isis, how big the terror cell is that he was a part of and foiling other attacks. In the long run, however, if we want to prevent more attacks on girls and women, whether at pop concerts, public transport venues, at New Year’s Eve celebrations (as in the Cologne sexual assaults of 2016), or hidden from sight (as in the Rotherham grooming and rape cases), we must understand how this culture shapes the minds of young men and women.
The author Kamel Daoud has observed that in the Arab world women “are seen as a source of destabilisation — short skirts trigger earthquakes, some say — and are respected only when defined by a property relationship, as the wife of X or the daughter of Y”. Daoud was promptly assailed for making this observation, but he was correct.
In the mosque, at school, at home, in the neighbourhood, on the internet and on television, every cultural medium of the Islamists divides women into the modest and the shameless. The modest are obedient. They stay at home. They wear clothes that cover most of their bodies. They lower their voices. They are taught to be proud of their modesty.
The more a family is attached to Islamic orthodoxy and the tribal cultures that so often reinforce it, the sooner it will marry off its daughters. They are more likely to be attached to practices such as female genital mutilation and policing girls through a complex, layered strategy of curfews, beatings, stalking by male relatives, going through the girls’ belongings in search of make-up and perfume.
This is the sustained campaign of low-level terror to which the girls inside Muslim communities in Britain and elsewhere are subjected. The larger the community, the more opaque it is — and the harder it is to see that these things are happening.
Where does such a world view come from?
In Saudi Arabia in 2002 firefighters were trying to rescue schoolgirls from a burning building. The girls fled without their abayas (covering cloaks) and this was an affront to the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Scuffles broke out between firefighters and members of the mutaween, the religious police. The latter were “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”. Fifteen girls died in the blaze.
In 2006 Australia’s top Islamic cleric, Sheikh Taj Aldin al-Hilali, compared women who do not wear a headscarf to “uncovered meat” in the context of sexual assault: “If you take uncovered meat and place it outside . . . without cover, and the cats come to eat it . . . whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [headdress], no problem would have occurred.”
Hilali alluded to the gang rapes in Sydney of 2000 for which a group of young Lebanese men received lengthy jail sentences. He said there were women who “sway suggestively” and wear make-up and immodest clothes “and then you get a judge without mercy [rahma] and he gives you 65 years . . . but the problem all began with who?” Countless Hilalis in the West now preach these ideas as part of a religious and cultural mindset incompatible with the western ideal of genuine autonomy and equality for women.
Islamists of various persuasions rely on admonitions such as the Koranic verse 33:33 (to women): “abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance”. (Reformers argue that verse 33:33 was meant to apply specifically to Muhammad’s wives, not all Muslim women, but the Hilalis of this world refute that interpretation.)
To a certain degree these communities succeed in controlling their female members; the problem is that they cannot control the non-Muslim culture to which they have migrated. In the West organised Islamist groups rail against adverts that use female models to sell products and seek from government all sorts of exemptions from laws that protect girls and women. Broadly speaking, however, these groups simply cannot impose their vision on an unwilling western culture.
In response to this powerlessness, the Islamists try to instil their vision into the young men of their communities, who are exhorted to avoid places where the sexes mingle such as cinemas, concerts, pubs, theatres, swimming pools and beaches.
This hatred sooner or later was going to be translated into terrorist attacks. It is the places where men and women mingle in large numbers in liberal societies that are the most vulnerable targets. A typical concert has all the components: crowds and relatively little security where an attack can be carried out at random. It is obvious that we shall see more of this, unfortunately.
Yes, there should be more demands to protect venues such as the Manchester Arena. But there should also be more demands to inspect and change the education in misogyny that these boys and men undergo. Non-Muslims can no longer afford to ignore the lethal curriculum of shame that is drilled into the heads of many young British Muslim men.
Intelligence and law enforcement can do only as much as they have the time and the resources for. But in the long run Muslim fathers, husbands, brothers and boyfriends living in the West must educate themselves. If they want to belong in the modern world of gender equality, they have no choice but to disavow the culture of female hatred that could glorify a massacre of innocents. It is the Islamists who are the shameless ones; shame on any Muslim who sides with them.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and founder of the AHA Foundation.
Read the op-ed in The Sunday Times here.