08/21/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Veiled Hostilities

"Do you wanna see me naked lover? Do you want to peek underneath the cover?" These lyrics from a leaked Lady Gaga track, "Burqa," as I learned from a gay Muslim friend, provoked the blogger at Post Modern Veil (PMV) to write, "Why is it that white pop stars are so unoriginal that they have to ridicule, mock and appropriate other cultures to garner attention?" Thus our summer of protest and boycott yields a culture clash. Let's have a peek.

PMV says, "Lady Gaga is an American cultural icon, and thereby, an extension of the imperialist and capitalist propaganda industry of the USA. Gaga's obsession with Muslim women ... is strategic and in line with America's foreign policy, militaristic endeavors and orientalist understandings of the Muslim other...."

Wow, thanks for sharing! PMV translates Gaga's statement supporting LGBT Russians, "We will fight for your freedom," as "We will bomb the oppression out of you." This is an easy mistake to make; I blame the grenade dress.

Much of PMV's screed has as little to do with Gaga as the song itself has to do with the lives of women who wear burqas. Blogger and singer are each advancing an agenda. In Gaga's case, she reduces the burqa to a fetish object, a tool of self-promotion that exoticizes rather than examines.

But set aside pop singers who exploit other people's lives to strike revolutionary poses. PMV's invective is about more than a cheesy demo from a shock artist. If criticizing other countries' mistreatment of women is a form of cultural imperialism, that suggests misogyny is okay as long as it's part of your culture, and human rights defenders are neo-colonialists.

No. We can respect religious diversity while disagreeing with particular practices. I criticize the French for prohibiting religious veiling, just as I criticize governments that require it. But dress codes are not the only issue. There is a wide range of policies, many of them pre-Islamic, regarding women in the Muslim world. To weigh in usefully, we must study both lives and laws. For example, veiled women in America often encounter hostile stares and police stops; but they enjoy constitutional protections unavailable to dissenters in many nations.

It is fair to ask Americans concerned about the rights of Muslim women to begin with Saudi Arabia, whose repression receives American subsidies. Hypocrisy is a poor beginning for a global conversation. But it is hardly better to begin with a ritual branding of all things Western as oppression. Speaking of which, are Western science and medicine also to be rejected? That would be like driving off a cliff to avoid an accident.

Neither the West nor Islam is monolithic. Calling unwelcome messages "propaganda" infantilizes people in the global South who willingly partake of American culture. A marketing campaign is not a military invasion. Aggressive advertising cannot long conceal an inferior product, any more than angry sloganeering changes minds.

As for unsolicited expressions of solidarity, the question is whether we bother to consult those we seek to help, such as Islamic feminists. As for appropriation, whether of ideas or music, it occurs in both directions when different cultures collide. A better question is whether a particular act of appropriation is done well or poorly.

My late colleague Frank Kameny used to say, "What the world needs is more and better blasphemy." I would put it less provocatively, but Frank was right. One person's free speech is another person's sacrilege. We cannot square that circle. Attempting to police offensive religious or cultural critiques, as some liberal countries do, falls afoul of America's First Amendment, which allows vigorous religious and political disagreement. I think America is better for that. So call me names.

This piece appeared in Bay Windows and Metro Weekly.