Over the summer, when Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in Canada promoting her new book about the atrocities she’d endured in the name of Islam, she ended up on Avi Lewis’ CBC television talk show, On The Map. The result, recorded for posterity on the Web, was one of those over-the-top examples of left-wing bias that critics of the national broadcaster (Canada’s equivalent to the BBC) are forever mass-forwarding to one another. The biggest whopper came when Ali — who’d endured both genital mutilation and forced marriage before escaping to the Netherlands — explained one of the key reasons her early life was so hellish: Whereas the Koran invades every aspect of life in Muslim countries, Western Christians respect the line between church and state.
To which an appalled Lewis replied: “Whoa. You live in the United States of America. This is a country where Evangelical Christianity has ascended to the highest ranks of power — where conservative social values drawn [from] and justified by the Bible are imposed on people every single day.”
Ali interrupted Lewis: “I think you’re exaggerating …”
Lewis cut her off: “They shoot abortion doctors in the United States of America!” Interested readers can see how Ali ably defended herself against this nonsense by visiting this Youtube video of the episode and advancing to the 4:30 mark. But what sticks in my mind about the exchange — even months later — isn’t Ali’s eloquent reply, but Lewis’ casual tossing off of this ludicrous equivalence into the face of a guest who has tragic firsthand knowledge of what real religious fanaticism looks like. Sure many primitive Islamic societies turn a blind eye to honour killings, treat women like chattel and marry off their adolescent girls to polygamous old men. But Americans … shoot abortion doctors.
Except they don’t — not for almost a decade. Not since the reign of that notorious social conservative, Bill Clinton. In all of U.S. history, exactly seven abortion doctors have been killed as a result of their professional identity — an arithmetic nullity compared to the daily slaughter committed across the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of Islam.
But what matters isn’t the scale of the bloodshed, is it? What matters is the talking point. Whether you’re on TV or debating some turtle-necked Harper’s type at a dinner party, the phony rhetorical tit-for-tat is predictable. It doesn’t matter what Islamist barbarism is up for discussion, there is always someone willing to offer up some offsetting American sin — Hurricane Katrina, racism, fast-food culture, etc. — as proof that the United States is just as bad, or worse. It is the post-9/11 version of those Cold War liberals who defended Soviet communism on the grounds that the Russians’ alleged “freedom” from poverty and inequality made up for their lack of freedom from gulags.
I was reminded of the phenomenon last Friday, when TorontoGlobe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin served up a particularly fine example of the genre. His subject was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a theocrat who denies the existence of the Holocaust, even as he plots to perpetrate a second. Naturally, Salutin sees Ahmadinejad and Bush as two “buffoons” to be dismissed in the same breath. His logic: “Criticisms like those made against the Iranian leader can easily be made of the West, and George Bush, and often are: about Western hypocrisy regarding gays or women; or science being subjected to religious standards; or human-rights outrages such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.”
It’s not quite clear what Salutin means by “Western hypocrisy regarding gays” given that in Iran, as in many Muslim countries, gays get whipped, stoned or executed; while in the West, they hop on floats and get feted in big urban parades. Nor have I any idea what he means about women. Or science. But that’s the not the point is it? When you’re playing the equivalence game, you just spit the topics out, and your target audience connects the dots based on some half-remembered Clinton-era factoid about abortion doctors.
The Western world is the only civilization in history whose intellectual class has embraced societal self-loathing as a mainstream ideology — even as we have single-handedly launched a global human-rights revolution that, to our everlasting glory, has liberated gays, women and a dozen other formerly persecuted groups from discrimination. In the Cold War, our ivory-tower “guerillas with tenure” (to cite Irving Howe’s phrase) didn’t sink our ship because the enemy was itself a hollow shell spouting an ideology nobody believed. But militant Islam is different: Men like Ahmadinejad truly do ardently believe their loathsome world-view is ascendant, and that the green tide they champion will one day conquer the decadent West.
Salutin seems quite pleased that, in this globalized age, specimens such as this Holocaust denier are now able to “laugh” at us: It shows, he says, that “the civilizational playing field is finally being levelled” after all those centuries of Western cultural hegemony. But I have a feeling that isn’t why Ahmadinejad is laughing. Back home in Tehran, when ordinary citizens praise the enemy or challenge the government, they get thrown in jail or worse — as a Canadian named Zahra Kazemi learned in the most horrible way possible. Here in the West, people who do the same thing get lifelong gigs as profs, talking heads and op-ed columnists. How do you say “sucker” in Farsi?
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