11/17/2006 10:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

All in the Family?

Just in time for the digitally remastered version of the Lena Wertmuller 1975 classic "Swept Away," starring the Italian to die for, Giancarlo Giannini, in a rare appearance on You Tube, Mufti of Egypt Sheik Ali Gum'a, speaks openly about how wife beating is permitted by Islam in Muslim countries, according to the Quran 4.34.

The You Tube appearance is taken from the May 26th broadcast on Al-Risali TV, out of Saudi Arabia. In this broadcast, the Sheik contends that, while Allah "permitted wife beating" as a way to preserve the family, attitudes towards the controversial practice depend largely on "the cultural status of women." While he argues that different societies may be permitted to have different worldviews, the bottom line is that Allah gives the thumbs up to those husbands who find it expedient to beat their wives. Ali Gum'a suggests wife-beating may be seen as a way to "preserve the stability of the family." This is very disturbing to women of our culture, or for that matter, to women of any culture who don't like bring hit. Even more disturbing is the kind of linguistic latitude the Egyptian leader affords himself when distinguishing between aggression towards women, which he insists is disallowed by Islam, and wife beating, which he says is permissible. One can only marvel at this nuanced moral relativism given the staunch absolutism of Islam, and the meticulousness with which those who observe the religion follow the letter of its teachings.

It is important to understand that Ali Gum'a is not suggesting that Islam recommends, or urges, domestic assault on women, only that it is permissible under Islamic law. And, one may also point to the biblical maxim, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" to see that Christianity sanctions physical abuse in certain situations. Some might argue that the Sheik, too, is saying that it might be beneficial for the health of the patriarch if the father took rod to mother, too.

What is intriguing about his argument is his insistence that "in some cultures women are not averse to beating," but instead see the use of physical force as an affirmation of "masculinity," as well as as a kind of control they desire. Which brings us back to Lena Wertmuller, and "Swept Away" a movie in which an assertive, powerful woman finds herself drawn to machismo. Is it something in his aftershave that makes her long to be overpowered, or is it merely a surplus of estrogen? If one could travel through time, back to the days of Petronius, would one find Julius Caesar smacking Cleopatra, or would he have to marry her first?

There are those who would argue that it's would not be unthinkable for Wertmuller's protagonist to smack his woman in an effort to assert his familial control, and that political correctness, in these matters, dates back to the Puritans not the Romans. To understand the Romans, we must remember that "paterfamilias" is not merely a free male citizen, but the head of a Roman family, the father. The difference, of course, is that the Roman gods didn't sanction wife beating, and their heirs, the Catholics, likewise disavow physical abuse in the name of providing for a stable family. When comparing how notions of family change from Cairo to Rome, consider, too, the irony in that the term "la famiglia" is often synonymous with the mob.

One of the big problems we, in the west, have when talking about Islam is that when we confuse it with Islamofascism. In simple point of fact, it would be outrageous to assert that Mussolini's could find permission to smack Madame Mussolini in his bible, but that doesn't mean he didn't slap her. What is disturbing is that any religious credo would say that wife beating is ever accceptable. What may be even more disturbing is the lack of concern for fundamental differences in world views on the part of western leaders. We have a president who brags about never reading newspapers; can you just see him reading the Quran? Is this what I'm suggesting; if that's what it takes to solve the problem of clashing ideologies, and to gain greater understanding, yes.

While it's wrenching to think that Allah approves, under any circumstances,, the striking of a wife by her husband, textbook Christianity prohibits the practice, but that doesn't prevent basic human cruelty from finding its way into our homes. Like it or not, as crime statistics show, what we find in our holy books, more often than not, has little, if anything, to do with what we practice. Our foreign policy, over the past five years, is living proof that when God said "Vengeance is mine" he wasn't talking to President Bush. Maybe the world needs a break from organized religion, or maybe we need to think in larger terms than the nuclear family about how to preserve the "stability" of the human family.