Conservatives have got The Handmaid's Tale all wrong: Muslims aren't the problem

Conservatives have got The Handmaid's Tale all wrong: Muslims aren't the problem

Comment: Conservatives' criticism of The Handmaid's Tale reflects their lack of introspection, and a blinkered understanding of Islam, writes Yousef Khalil.
7 min read
14 Jun, 2017
Atwood has stated very clearly, "The book is not 'anti religion'" [Hulu]

The Handmaid's Tale was released on Hulu in April, and wrapped up this week to critical acclaim. Set in a near-future United States taken over by religious fundamentalists amid a fertility and environmental crisis, it has been called a timely critique of patriarchy and authoritarianism as the Trump administration enters its fourth month.

Margaret Atwood, the author of the novel upon which the series is based, has not been ambiguous about the book's political message.

Conservatives, however, take exception to the idea that Atwood's message is relevant to the United States in 2017. Especially those writing for the National Review.

Heather Wilhelm says understanding the show as a hyperbolic commentary on the state of women's rights in Trump's America is "hysteria". If anything, women should not be worried about the designs Trump and his "I-won't-eat-alone-with-women" vice-president might have on their access to healthcare and their autonomy, they should focus instead on other, presumably more reasonable, issues.

"I might choose North Korea," she writes.

In fact, Wilhelm feels contemporary feminists have unwittingly become their own oppressors by defending the hard-won freedom to determine if and when women may have children and access to reproductive healthcare:

"Weirdly, for all of their talk about women needing to 'control their own bodies', feminists often act as if women are helpless and completely incapable of doing so on their own - unless, that is, they're guided by a large, expansive, paternalistic government."

It seems that the show's popularity has triggered a renewed interest in internationalist feminism among National Review contributors

It seems that the show's popularity has triggered a renewed interest in internationalist feminism among National Review contributors. 

Jim Geraghty goes one stage further; western feminists need not worry about these issues in the United States, because, of course, Islam still exists: "The world has plenty of awful places that can be fairly compared to Atwood's fictional dystopian regime of Gilead. They're just mostly Muslim."

Western feminists, Geraghty argues, need to get their priorities in order. "They’re upset about how far some American women have to travel to an abortion clinic, while the world has plenty of girls who risk being scarred with acid for trying to go to school."

Atwood should have focused her attention on the Muslim world when she wrote her novel in 1985, not on the western society in which she was living. It is, after all a waste of time to fight the patriarchal agenda of one's own government, when there are governments out there that are much worse.

That these critics miss the point of the book and the significance of the series is perhaps just as revealing about the state of conservatism in the US as the show's message itself.

Atwood has stated very clearly, "the book is not 'anti religion'. It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether." Setting the events in the United States allows Atwood to convey a powerful and universal message; established orders are always fragile, and never farther than one crisis away from collapsing and giving extremists of any ideology the opportunity to put their projects into practice.

That these critics miss the point of the book and the significance of the series is perhaps just as revealing about the state of conservatism in the US, as the show's message itself

So in a very narrow sense, Geraghty is correct in his claims: Women in the United States do not face the same level of oppression that they do in many Muslim-majority countries.

But therein lies the problem, conservative analyses of social issues often are superficially correct, but devoid of any context that would allow deeper analyses to complicate their conclusions. 

The presentation of systematically decontextualised facts is pervasive in conservative discourses. Black people - we are told - fill America's prisons, not because the legacy of American slavery pervades almost every aspect of their lives, and Jim Crow is still very much in living memory, but because "a disproportionate number of black people commit crimes".

Poor people are poor largely because they make stupid or immoral decisions, like dropping out of school or having children "out of wedlock".

  Read also: Arab autocrats and Trump: Cut from the same cloth

No further exploration is necessary; conservatives have the statistics, they say.

This type of thinking opens the discursive space for conservatives to collapse racism itself into an inter-subjective phenomenon, completely detached from the hundreds-year-long process that was integral to the creation of a modern world dominated by white Europeans. The point of entry and the problem itself collapse into each other.

Devoid of context, these statistics serve only to add a very thin veneer of objectivity to analyses which, at their core, reduce social and economic problems to what Samir Amin called "cultural invariants" which "are able to persist through and beyond possible transformations in economic, social, and political systems".

Crime and poverty are not symptoms of the economic and political problems facing black people in America, they are the causes. Christendom has triumphed over Islamdom, because the former is conducive to democracy and economic dynamism and the latter to authoritarianism and paternalism. At the centre of conservative analyses are unchanging cultural traits that explain and justify the established order its ideologues sit atop.

The fictional crises in The Handmaid's Tale provide the context that makes it possible for the revolutionary theocratic state of Gilead to exist in the United States.

But, for much of the rest of the world, and unfortunately, the majority of the world's Muslims, particularly those living in the Middle East, no fiction is necessary to understand how extremists use crises to take power.

Far from the immutable traits of Islam posited by the conservative narrative, the rise of Islamism as a popular ideology, the proliferation of extremist violence and corrupt authoritarianism are symptoms of a deep, decades-long crisis that has befallen the Arab world since the mid-1970s.

The Arab Spring and the rise of the so-called Islamic State group, are just its latest manifestations. By the 1970s, the state capitalism that fueled rapid development and modernisation in the region during the decades after independence sputtered to a halt, and the ideology that underpinned that growth, Arab nationalism, was discredited.

This opened the way for its ideological inverse, Islamism, to become a significant political force. 

Arab nationalism, the ideology of high modernity in the Arab world par excellence, was the successor to, if not the product of, an intellectual and cultural renaissance that started amid the decaying of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century.

In the face of an ever-encroaching European imperialism, intellectuals in the Empire, then the political centre of the Muslim world, "aimed at [creating] an entirely new synthesis of Islamic traditions with modernity".

But that synthesis was subsumed by the chaos and disorientation of the World Wars, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the abolition of the caliphate, and the region's division at the hands of European powers.

It devolved into vulgar distortions of its constituent parts; Islamism on the one hand, and Arab nationalism on the other. 

As Peter Harling put it in 2014, "the Arab world is paying the price for a wretched twentieth century".

But one would be hard-pressed to find any understanding of Islamism as a political response to social and economic crises in the National Review or any other conservative outlet.

For conservatives, Islamism and jihadism are the product of Islam itself; "the natural and inevitable outgrowth of a faith that is given over to hate on a massive scale, with hundreds of millions of believers holding views that Americans would rightly find revolting".

This understanding of Islam, Orientalist to the core, has been pushed in the wake of September 11 and the rise of the so-called Islamic State group, not only by conservatives, but by self-styled liberals like Bill Maher and the "New Atheists".

It is this discourse which has opened the way for a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Muslims, for Donald Trump's nakedly Islamophobic campaign to succeed in winning the presidency, and for his administration to propose a travel ban which targets Muslim-majority countries whose nationals "have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on US soil between 1975 and 2015".

It is ultimately an analysis that offers no solution to the problems that plague the relationships between the West and Muslims, an analysis that creates an untraversable chasm.

If jihadism and Islamism are posited as problems inherent to Islam, the only way to address jihadist violence is the way that reinforces the discourse of both the Islamophobes and the Islamists, and requires no introspection on the part of the West or Muslims: that of unending war.

Yousef Khalil is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of The New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs interested in the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefTAK

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab