09/13/2006 11:02 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Helens of the Jihad, Part Two

Back in my feminist days of rage, I liked to imagine what would happen if the word "women" was switched with "blacks" or "Jews" in articles about how repressive Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan treated women. Imagine: There is a nation where blacks are ordered to cover themselves in black blankets and hide their faces in public. Imagine: There is a nation where Jews are prohibited from driving cars. Oh, and, umm, imagine blacks' and Jews' genitals are mutilated for "cultural" reasons.

Gets your attention, doesn't it? It would get the State Department's attention, too, and Congressional action, fast. We wouldn't be doing business with such countries, ambassadors would be pulled, world condemnation would be so severe that governments would reform or collapse.

Since we're only talking about women, though, that's not the case.

We apply the same blind eye about the treatment of females when looking at the Islamic fundamentalists today.

Last time wrote about how I feel about headscarves, readers accused me of bigotry and Muslim women wrote letters saying their headscarves freed them from the need to wear makeup and be sex-objects. Pardon me for looking at them, but when I walk around New York City among bare-headed women, I don't see sex objects. I see women dressed for the weather.

Fifteen years ago, I studied Arabic intensively, eight hours a day, for several months, hoping to get a freelance gig in Cairo. I ended up in Washington, and have forgotten how to read Arabic letters. Still, I learned some things. I loved the language, the writing, the history.

As part of the course, we received occasional lectures on Arabic history. I listened to tales about the silk road, Mohammed and the caliphate and I never left the lecture hall without marveling at how that side of the world was like the dark side of the moon to me. I consider myself moderately well-educated, yet my world history lessons somehow missed one whole side of the planet.

I have tried to read up on Islam, and I recently picked up some books by an English scholar named Martin Lings, who died of old age a few years ago. Lings was a Shakespeare expert who taught in Cairo and converted to Islam when he was young. He has written numerous books about Islam, including a biography of Mohammed that's supposed to be one of the best in English.

He's also written a book called "The Eleventh Hour," an impassioned call for a global Islamic theocracy, exactly what Osama and his boys are praying for in their caves, but written by a British scholar. Lings argues that the world has spun so far from its spiritual center, has become so materialistic, that only a complete and utter catastrophe will cleanse it, to be replaced by a global theocracy that will re-invigorate human spirituality. He praises the theocratic governments of the Middle East and finds value in extremely repressive corners of the Himalayas, where, he says admiringly, some sects even forbade bicycle riding.

Reading Lings helped me understand more about the yearnings of the jihadis, and why they loathe us so much. It's all about materialism. It also helped me understand why they want their women de-sexed and clapped in black. In Islam, as in all the patriarchal religions, birth-giving females are associated with the materiality of human life and thus inferior to men who - since they don't bear children - imagine themselves to be more purely spiritual and closer to God.

I think about these things when I see moderate Muslim women with head scarves on, because, as Sam Harris writes in "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason," moderates in all religions give tacit support to extremists. There's a slippery slope between the moderates and the female relatives of the killer of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who let their men build special walls into their kitchens (remodeling subsidized, incredibly, by the Dutch government) so they could enter and leave unseen, in Muslim tradition.

The women under the headscarves participate in something that both motivates and deranges their men. Looking at the personal lives of these men reveals a way to defuse them. Their own women need to help them understand that loving and respecting women as equal partners is not a hallmark of western materialism or a trope of radical feminism. It's a fundamental aspect of caring for and loving the life we all share on this planet.

For the left and moderate Muslims to continue to agree that the abasement of women at the heart of the Islamic fundamentalist tradition is simply a benign "cultural" matter, and not a sickening affront deeply connected with nihilism, is to give the neocons yet another "p.c." stick with which to bash us.

Part One