Helle Klein brands humanist criticism of ideas as islamophobia

Published: 2011-01-23, Updated: 2011-01-24

The past days saw the launch of the new culture magazine Sans. The theme [of the premier issue] is religious oppression of women, and the main article of the magazine is an interview of the American feminist and author Ophelia Benson, who in the book “Does God hate women?” charts how women’s human rights are violated within conservative religious traditions around the world.

On the front page of Sans, which bears the headline “A God for women?”, we publish a picture of a woman dressed in a burqa.

The magazine has barely left the presses before the Christian think tank Seglora Smedja, run by Helle Klein among others, brands Sans as islamophobic. Apart from a failure of research (Sans is published not by Humanisterna but by the Fri Tanke publishing house), Klein makes the following remarkable comment on the Seglora home page:

The premier issue will be about religion and oppression of women, and the front page is graced by a woman in a burqa with the headline ‘A religion for women?’ embedded in the picture. As usual the criticism of religion receives an islamophobic subtext. Seglora Smedja will however put off a review of Sans until we have read the entire premier issue.

Putting off the review until one has read the magazine is a friendly gesture, but it seems that one can render the judgement “islamophobic” by spinal reflex. Also note that one wrongly quotes the front page headline as “A religion for women?” (our italics). Maybe it’s case of a Freudian vision problem. Likely Seglora Smedja would prefer to see that we pointed to Islam as the only cause of the global oppression of women. Such a journalistic one-sidedness would make it easier to sow suspicions against Sans.

If Seglora Smedja does in fact bother to read the magazine, one will see that we give our attention to religiously sanctioned opression of women within all the Abrahamic world religions, that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One example is the extreme abortion laws which characterize many Catholic countries and which take the lives of close to a hundred thousand women every year. Additionally we write about more subtle gender conservative patterns within the Swedish church and point out insidious difference feminism both in religious and secular forms.

Undoubtedly the degrees of oppression run a wide gamut, and there is a multitude of different expressions of religious difference thinking surrounding gender, as well as religiously motivated violence and contempt directed at women in today’s world. Not all these expressions are grounded in islamism, as is made clear in our theme issue.

At the same time we see no reason to deny that the most obvious forms of gender apartheid and the most egregious violations of womens’ humarn rights today take place in the name of Islam, as Benson too points out in her well researched book.

It is indeed hard to find a more eloquent symbol for this reality than the burqa. The garment is – unfortunately – not a product of neurotic atheists’ brains, but one of the true faces of Islam in this world. Calling the burqa oppressive to women would be an understatement. Rather, the garment is symbolic of the total eradication of woman as a citizen, an individual and independent subject. Far from all Muslims embrace the extreme view of gender and sexuality that lies behind the insistence on the complete covering of women, but the garment is still an Islamic reality.

It is, mildly put, disappointing that an authentic picture of this reality cannot be published without eliciting shouts about islamophobia from certain quarters, as if the burqa image were a caricature or montage.

With Helle Klein’s definition one should be able to discern “islamophobic subtexts” not only in Sans’ cover image but in many documentary reports from the moslem world. As an example, SVT:s [Swedish government TV] news reports from Afghanistan must for consistency’s sake be branded as islamophobic, since it is the rule rather than an exception to see burqa clad women there.

Sans’ theme issue contains a wealth of facts about religious oppression. We are now waiting with bated breath for Seglora smedja’s comment to this description of reality. Will the information be questioned? Will one deny, relativize, or perhaps try to tone down the seriousness of the situation?

Presenting different facts or different evaluations of the facts is completely legitimate in a debate about the role of religions in society, but the reflexive charges of islamophobia are depressingly off target. They risk paralyzing the discussion of human rights in general and serious violations of women in particular.

Maybe this is intentional. Let us not forget that the truths in the criticism of religion hurts. Perhaps particularly so for well-intentioned liberal theologists.

Let us also not forget that those participants of the debate who would rather brand humanist criticism of ideas as islamophobic hand out their diagnoses from a particularly safe and protected corner of the western media landscape. Rather than opening their eyes to the unfathomable subordination and suffering of women in other parts of the world many choose again and again to try to silence the critics with imagined pronouncements of disease.

The denial may be psychologically understandable, but it is intellectually and morally untenable.

About the Author

Translator’s note: 

First, please note that I am not a professional translator. I have done my best, but may inadvertently have changed the authors’ intended meaning of the text in some places. I find myself constantly pulled between the goals of staying close to the original text on one hand, and writing reasonably idiomatic English on the other. But that must be the dilemma that faces all translators. The reader should always keep in mind that what they read may not be what the original author intended.

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