Thursday 29 November 2007

An old-fashioned feminist on the religion vs atheism debate

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting article by Katha Pollitt in The Nation, on 'the current vogue for atheism'. Pollitt is at pains to offer balanced coverage of recent debates on the role of religion. For example, she attempts to understand what lay behind Ian Buruma's now-notorious description of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an 'Enlightenment fundamentalist', while maintaining her own admiration for the latter, 'despite her conservative associations'. As she says: 'Not every feminist has to be a social worker or a grassroots organizer. I'll bet plenty of women, Muslim and not, have been given courage by her books and example. Just to speak out is a feminist act.'

And while Pollitt is critical of the decision to ban Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan from entering the United States, she is clear that 'he is no friend of women's rights'. She adds: 'If Hirsi Ali is too alienated from her former community to speak for it, Tariq Ramadan strikes me as the latest edition of the elder who claims to represent the community but actually represents the interests of fathers, husbands and brothers.'

Still, wonders Pollitt, why do discussions about Islam in the modern world always revolve around people like Ramadan:

I'd rather hear from Marjane Satrapi, whose 'Persepolis,' a brilliant graphic memoir of growing up under the Ayatollah Khomeini, has just been made into a dark, tragicomic and equally brilliant animated film. And from Pakistani-born Mohsin Hamid, author of the hilarious novel 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'.

But Pollitt's main argument in the article is that tirades against religion by atheists are unlikely to cause Muslims or other believers to 'wake up one morning and abandon their ancestral faith':

Even if you are a ferocious Sam Harris-style atheist who thinks religion is completely stupid--the province of shysters and fools--you have to admit it would be quite astonishing if that view persuaded the devout anytime soon....

...if all you can offer people is reasons to quit their religion--which also often means their community, their family, their support system and their identity--you're not going to have many takers. For every brilliant angry teenager you strengthen in doubt, there's a mosque- or churchful of people who'll choose the old-time religion if the only other choice is nothing.

Pollitt comes to the conclusion that it's 'pointless' for non-Muslims to weigh in about Islam: 'Why should Muslims care, any more than a Jew cares what a Hindu thinks about Moses? It's their religion, and they'll figure out what they want to make of it.' She doesn't claim to offer an alternative, except for encouraging the media to feature a more diverse range of voices to represent Islam - including writers such as Satrapi and Hamid. As she concludes: 'Maybe art can go where atheism cannot.'

Katha Pollitt's writings (she's a prize-winning poet as well as a regular columnist) are little known in Britain. I came across her name for the first time quite recently, when a collection of her essays was discussed in the New York Review of Books. Reviewer Cathleen Schine describes Pollitt as 'a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist' who is also 'an exquisite observer' of life, love and politics, as well as being a very funny writer - 'a sort of M. Hulot of the feminist left.' The extracts that appear in Schine's review certainly whet the appetite for more.

Since writing this I've discovered Katha Pollitt's blog, which links to articles and reviews of her work, including this and also this from the Guardian.

No comments: