Ellen McLarney, who teaches Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke, would have you believe that a “pacifist struggle for civil jihad” led by Islamic feminists offers a benign “alternative kind of jihad” to that practiced by Islamist terrorists worldwide.
She peddled her thesis to about twenty listeners (mostly graduate students) in a February 8 George Washington University lecture, reprising discussion of her recent book, Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening. McLarney’s lecture omitted the totalitarian jihadist ideology underlying what she described as a “protracted struggle with non-democratic regimes over matters of human rights.”
McLarney lauded the 1995 book (in Arabic) Women & Political Work: An Islamic Perspective, by Cairo University political science professor Heba Raouf Ezzat. Yet McLarney neglected to mention the book’s publisher, none other than the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia, an entity founded by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB). She noted that Ezzat explicated her concept of feminine “soft force” Islamist subversion, itself derived from the American political scientist Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power.”
Beginning in the 1970s, McLarney explained nonchalantly, an Egyptian Islamic revival developed via a “passive revolution” to spark an “Islamic civil society that runs parallel to the more secular civil society in Egypt.” As foreshadowed by the 1960s Egyptian writer Nimat Sidqi—who according to McLarney’s slides wrote that “Raising Children is Jihad”—women “have a pivotal role to play in this struggle.” Borrowing from the American feminist slogan “the personal is political,” Ezzat and others developed the “Islamic family as a place for the cultivation of Islamic sensibilities”—the “very seat of politics.”
American University in Cairo sociology professor and feminist Mona Abaza has previously pushed back against this rosy thesis. Her daily contact with this “parallel society” led her in 2012 to decry Egypt’s “increasing ‘Islamization’ of the public sphere for at least four decades.” Whereas McLarney discussed Islamist “resistance through forms of cultural production,” Abaza argues persuasively that “intolerance and censorship was mutual among both the ancient regime of [Hosni] Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
But McLarney was having none of it. Her optimism towards “civil jihad” skewed her discussion of Egypt under the MB rule of President Mohammed Morsi following the overthrow of Mubarak’s dictatorship in the “Arab Spring”:
Under the Morsi government, I am going to get in trouble for saying this, there was a flourishing of certain freedoms, because it was post-revolution. There was a lot of political tumult.
McLarney even claimed, against all evidence, that the 2012 Egyptian constitution drafted under the MB “came out pretty progressive” and included a meaningful gender equality provision. Even Alaa Alwad, the graffiti artist and secularist whose Cairo mural graces McLarney’s book cover, as she discussed, stated in 2013 that the “Muslim Brotherhood has captured the government.”
Interviewed after the lecture, McLarney conceded that many of her secular Egyptian friends had feared the Morsi government, but downplayed the 2012 constitution’s sharia elements. “In that constitution there wasn’t really any sharia,” she claimed, but there “was the question: would the Morsi government start interpreting everything through the lens of sharia?” Her answer remained predictably optimistic: amidst that revolutionary situation, “I don’t think they could get away with it.” Had she forgotten her 2013 observation that Egyptian “[g]ender inequalities remain encoded in the personal status laws with regards to witnessing, polygamy, and divorce”?
Ultimately, McLarney could not overcome the reality undermining her evocation of Ezzat and the others as feminist sisters-in-arms struggling for liberation, rather than as Islamic totalitarianism’s propagandist enablers. During the interview, even she acknowledged that “soft force” could merely serve as an ideological flank to all-too-hard jihadists like the MB, whom she admitted had resorted to violent tactics when circumstances allowed.
Evoking the American “mommy wars” over the right career/motherhood balance for women, McLarney, an Ivy League-educated mother, gushed over her study subjects. These Muslim women “really spoke to my own critiques of Western feminism and of the fetishization of the male realm of paid work as the path to emancipation.” Yet McLarney, whose stylish outfit and V-neck blouse contrasted with the veiling emphasized by her subjects, failed to acknowledge that Islamist “mommy wars” have far more nefarious implications.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. You may follow Harrod on twitter at @AEHarrod.