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MSNBC: Mona Eltahawy vs. Leila Ahmed

FP Sex Issue

Mona Eltahawy is no doubt an engaging and well-spoken woman, and although her recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine was inflammatory and lacking in nuance, she’s raised some important issues about women’s rights in Egyptian society and the broader Arab world. Danios challenged Eltahawy’s sweeping generalizations in a feature article, Why Do They Hate Us? They Don’t.

Dr. Leila Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School’s first women’s studies professor, also challenged Eltahawy during an interview with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry.  Eltahawy said during the interview that Dr. Ahmed is one of her personal heroes.

However, the two women don’t see eye-to-eye on some key issues. For example, Eltahawy supports a ban on the burqa, but in the summer of 2011, Dr. Ahmed wrote her own article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Veil of Ignorance, advancing the notion modern feminists had gotten it wrong when it comes to the veil:

These are just the first stirrings of a new era in the story of Islam in the West. Historically, religions undergo enormous transformations as one strain of belief and practice gains ascendancy over another. Living religions are by definition dynamic: Witness the changes that have occurred in the last decades as women have become pastors and rabbis. A similar process is now under way within Islam, as the veil, once an emblem of patriarchy, today carries multiple meanings for its American and European wearers. Often enough, it also serves as a banner and call for justice — and yes, even for women’s rights.

Some of Eltahawy’s fiercest criticism has come from Arab and Muslim women, and it’s refreshing to see the mainstream media showing opposing views. The video starts out with a thoughtful discussion between Perry and Eltahawy, and the part featuring Dr. Ahmed begins about halfway through.

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  • Ilisha


    I just saw your question, so I’m sorry for the delay.

    I can’t claim to be unbiased. Mona Eltahawy is a native informant who promotes herself at the expense of Arabs and Muslims, which I don’t appreciate from the outset.

    As for the debate itself, I agree with Leila Ahmed that Mona makes broad, sweeping generalizations and in some cases, doesn’t get her facts straight. Also, if she is really sincere about changing the Arab/Muslim world, she should talk to Arabs and Muslims, not about them to the West.

    Think of it this way. If Americans had problems in their society, so you think they would want tutelage from Muslims or Arabs? I think not. They want to shape their own society, according to their own values and culture.

    Of course, others want the same. I think Arabs and Muslims in particular, and anyone else who’s spent decades, if not centuries, under the colonial boot, will be even more resistant to any notion that seems foisted on them from outside. The best way to discredit so-called “progressive” Muslims is to do exactly what Mona is doing.

    She said horrible things about Arab men (in her article, not the debate), and I think it was quite unfair and inaccurate. I don’t see that any good could come of it, nor do I think that was her motive. She wanted to promote herself at the expense of others–Leila Ahmed is far more sincere, and I have never seen her throw Muslims under the bus for her own personal enrichment.

    I was actually surprised that Leila Ahmed said so many positive things about Mona’s work, however, and I don’t agree with her on that point. I don’t hate Mona, as I’ve said before, but I certainly don’t think anyone should be fawning over her for the “work” she’s done.

    Anyway, in my opinion, Layla Ahmed won, both because of her motives and character, and of course, her actual arguments favoring nuance and factual accuracy.

  • The Knocker

    Mona initially strike me to malign Islam, however, after cornered by Dr. Ahmed she started to sign a different tune. I am sure she is well informed by Islamic detractors as to what it takes to pitch a book sale in the U.S i.e always blame the Muslim religion for every social problem in the M.E.

  • Just Stopping By

    @khushboo: Apology accepted. And it’s not as if you made the original mistake, so I don’t blame you at all.

  • khushboo

    JSB, I apologize. My mistake.

  • Just Stopping By

    @Khushboo and Sal: Sigh. The link wasn’t mine. It’s Sarah AB’s. Check her name at one of her comments.

    As for that link, I did a quick check and nothing really jumped out at me. Perhaps someone could link to a particularly offensive post there.

  • Sal

    Kboo, why should that link be snipped? Petty of you, to equate the two, DrM is a proven liar hence everything he says is suspect, JSB is not

  • Senor

    DrM is awesome. Enough said.

    Mona is somebody who is only on American television, because she has critical things to say about Islam and makes it look bad. It serves the purpose for the political climate here.

    The kinds of Muslims being propped up on American television are the likes of Mona. If she made Islam look good, she would be useless. She is one of those “Progressive Muslims” who thinks Islam is ancient and should be upgraded like a computer program. Of course, she wants Islam to be to her liking.

  • Just Stopping By


    Thanks. Believing Atheist pointed out to me that DrM presumably meant Sarah AB, whose direct link here is to harry’s place. I guess we do both end our screen names with a “B,” but I would think that that shouln’t be enough to confuse someone.

    Still waiting for the apology…

  • Believing Atheist

    Harry’s Place is not racist. Sarah AB writes for that blog. It has attacked Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller several times for their bigotry against Muslims.

    It has also published an Amnesty International Report showcasing the discrimination Muslims face in Europe.

    It has attacked Israelis for assaulting Arabs during soccer games.

  • Sal

    DrM you did not substantiate this

    Eltahawy only calls herself a Muslim to lend her regressive views credibility. The “secular” label is just to curry favor from ignorant westerners.

    Back this up. Source? What is Mona if she is not a Muslim? Why do you never back up your ‘facts’? Waiting..

  • khushboo

    er, JSB just gave the link. Shouldn’t that be snipped as well? Let’s be consistent.

  • khushboo

    methinks there’s favoritism going on here.

  • Danios

    @ DrM:

    Eltahawy only calls herself a Muslim to lend her regressive views credibility.

    I don’t think there is any way you can know this, and as such, it is just a baseless and inappropriate accusation.

    I think Sarah AB’s comment is basically correct: secular could mean atheistic/agnostic or it may simply be someone who believes in the separation of church/state. Either way, someone who takes an academic approach would label such a person as Muslim.

  • Danios

    @ Just Stopping By:

    I snipped it for you.

  • Just Stopping By

    @DrM says, “I wouldn’t pay much attention to JSB comment since she links to the racist Zionist site, ‘harry’s place'”

    Where do I do that? (And, since I know nothing of harry’s place, I am neither accepting nor denying the claim that it is racist.) Please either provide a link to where I do so or an apology.

    Throwing around accusations of racism is serious and it’s shameful if you did so without checking. I actually did the legwork for you, and it may be that you are confusing me with Yitzhak Goodman and his judeopundit site, which does link to harry’s place.

    Again, proof or sincere apology please.

    Also, LW, if there is either an apology or no proof presented, can you please insert an editor’s note into that comment noting either the retraction or failure of evidence?

  • DrM

    @Ilisha ,

    Thanks about clarification regarding the spam post. I wouldn’t pay much attention to [snipped] comment since she links to the racist Zionist site, “harry’s place.” Eltahawy only calls herself a Muslim to lend her regressive views credibility. The “secular” label is just to curry favor from ignorant westerners.
    Eltahawy worships the not-so-almighty dollar.

  • Ilisha

    @Zakariya Ali Sher

    “As for the whole ‘non-practicing Muslim’ thing, that strikes me as a little silly.”

    If you’re referring to my question about Eltahawy describing herself as a “secular Muslim,” I’m only questioning what she means because of the role she’s playing. Does she mean what JSB suggested, what Sarah AB suggested, or something else?

    To draw a parallel, I was relieved when Irshad Manji finally declared herself an agnostic. At least when she spews her nonsense, I know she’s not speaking “as a Muslim” in the religious sense.

    As far as how people self-identify in general, I think it’s for God and God alone to assess their sincerity.

  • DrM

    Loonwatch, my comment was likely caught as spam. It details how Eltahawy had no problems working for a Saudi rag. Please approve it.

    [None of your comments went into spam or trash. I do see a similar comment posted on the other Eltahawy thread. Ilisha]

  • Asif

    She is neither engaging nor attractive. In fact, I wish I had not seen her as she looks very much like a fish out of water in the interview…Really foxy lady who knows how to fool the naive west and make money representing the helpless east….

  • rookie

    Zakariya Ali
    “Mona Eltahawy strikes me as yet another one of those ‘native experts,’ who channels her accent, ethnic sounding name and dark skin to appeal to naive westerners.”

    I believe, her first step in this direction was, as she said, removing her headscarf.
    And I am quite sure she intentionally mentioned her decision in the debate concerning headscarf-something like “I am now liberated”.

  • Sarah AB

    I think the word ‘secular’ is important here. It is sometimes used almost as a synonym for atheist, and if someone described themselves as a ‘secular Jew’ I’d probably think that was intended. But ‘secular’ can just mean a belief in the complete separation of church/religion and state to ensure optimal freedom for those of all religions or none. I’m a strong believer in secularism, though it’s got different shades of intensity – for example, I’m opposed to bans on religious dress in the public sphere – I see that as the state interfering in one’s religion. In the context of Islam, and Islamist parties in Egypt, it seems particularly likely that Eltahawy was referring to the separation of religion and the state. That cover is a bit sensationalising – I’m less naturally inclined to take issue with her than most others here, but I can see why the way the piece has been framed has alienated people.

  • CriticalDragon1177

    That was a very well done interview.

  • Ilisha

    @Arab Atheist

    Ilisha, I rarely miss any article posted by you and I appreciate your reasoning and style.

    Thank you. :)

  • Sir David Illuminati membership number 16.69

    Writers dont pick the front cover , thats the editors job . They pick it to attract people to buy the mag . No other reason .
    For instance The Daily Express ( a UK crap right wing paper ) used to expect to sell 10000+ extra copies if it had a picture of Princess Di on the cover what ever the story about her was .
    I agree it is fair to challenge those who are against religious freedom by banning the Burkha .

  • Arab Atheist – ملحد عربي

    [Sorry this comment was delayed. I had to fish it from the spam folder.]

    I know you didn’t defend her. I apologize for not making my point clear enough, and I understand the balanced criticism you want to articulate. It’s just that I don’t find her “engaging.” And I felt personally offended by her article. She sounds engaging to Muslim haters everywhere, that’s true. But I know you said she’s engaging for a different reason, and obviously, you are not a Muslim hater anyway.

    Ilisha: for me it all boils down to one thing. Do those western readers who find her engaging do so because of how reasonable she is or because they hate everything Arab?

    Whenever there’s criticism about Islam or Israel (too incongruous to appear in one sentence, I know), I always refer in my mind to something Norman Finkelstein once said about genuine criticism of Israel: “If you support me because you hate Jews, I do not need your support”. This is what distinguishes antisemitism, from self-hatred, and from valid criticism of Israel. Isn’t this person worthy of one’s respect? I wouldn’t be a fan of anyone who hates Jews!

    The same applies to Islam. Eltahawy is a self-hating Arab, and those who applauded her are Arab haters. So is Noni Darwish and Wafa sultan, who believes Muslims have to be crushed.

    That’s also the difference between Sahar Khalifah and Fadia Faqeer: the one engages in genuine reformative criticism, and the other in west-ass-kissing criticism of her own culture.

    P.s. Ilisha, I rarely miss any article posted by you and I appreciate your reasoning and style.

    Good luck.

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