Helens of the Jihad

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

In London three years ago, I breezed into one of those phone and fax services where you can make copies, send faxes or place international phone calls from your own booth, for a fee. As I was paying on my way out, the Arab who ran the shop muttered the word "slut" under his breath, almost but not quite too quietly to understand. I ignored him, and have regretted it ever since. Now I wonder if he wasn't one of the men carrying explosive Gatorade to the jetliners at Heathrow.

To the Islamists, western women are the ultimate Material Girls, all flesh and no spirit. They frankly hate us. We represent everything they loathe about modernity. We also present a more deeply personal threat in the reform by example of their head-covered women.

On the subway yesterday, I had one of those silent interactions involving the eyes only that women know about. I was sitting across from a fully robed and scarf-ed young Muslim woman. I know it's not politically correct, but 9/11 unleashed an inner intolerant atheist in me and the sight of that pious head-covering annoyed me more than usual at the hour of 6:30 a.m.

I stared at it rather too long, I suspect, and with a sour look. When I looked down into her eyes, I noticed the young woman boring a defiant look right back into my skull, eyes filled with superior disdain. We stared at each other in this unfriendly way for a few more seconds, then I looked away.

I know what I was not saying: The global jihad is really a war to keep her hiding her head in shame under that black polyester cloth.

I know what she wanted to say. In her eyes, I am no different than Jessica Simpson, performing fellatio on an ice cream cone on MTV.

The score on the Number 1 train in Manhattan yesterday, American slut versus Islamic Helen, round one? A draw.

That the Islamists are motivated by a big problem with women often gets overlooked in the discourse about terrorists. Lawrence Wright's new book, "The Looming Tower," about the founders of al Qaeda, gives an unusually full airing to that driving force behind the jihad.

He begins his narrative with vignettes from the angry life of the Egyptian Islamist Sayyib Qutb, executed in the 1960s. Here's what Qutb said about American women when he visited in the 1950s: "A girl looks at you appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches you can sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh."

By wearing the scarf, Islamic women perpetuate the belief that women are too inherently seductive to be seen by men. Under the scarf, they mutely support the idea that men are too weak to resist their own urges. Male self-restraint, a hallmark of maturity, is not a goal, it's not an option, in their world. On the contrary, Islamist men are assumed not to possess the ability to resist the inherently shameful, and thus utterly sexualized females in their midst.

For most Muslim women, the scarf is not a political statement. They think they are being pious, observant, religious, good women. Women in other major religions cover their heads in shame too - though their men aren't plotting to kills us all.

These covered and supposedly humble women are full participants in their own humiliation. They are the Helens of jihad.

As the war between the West and Islamic radicals heats up, covered women give strength and succor and motivation to scarily misguided men. Bombs won't change that, neither will Karen Hughes' and Condi Rice's desperate missions to the Middle East. There's very little we can do about it, it's up to them to change.