Rape, Islam and Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has come under fire recently for some Twitter comments regarding rape and Islam. There is no need to pretend that her critics have anything new to say, but nor is there any need to let her critics enjoy their misapprehensions without reply.

While her accusers formulate their criticisms in various ways, almost all can be boiled down to a peculiar sort of “GOTCHA” which suggests that Oates couldn’t possibly be correct in linking Islam to rape because white Christian American men rape women, too. The rest mostly comes in the form of the familiar charge that to say something critical of Islam is to say something critical and “racist” about all Muslims.

Were I an editor at The Guardian, or at Flavorwire, I might have replied to the writers pitching me these “stories” with something like the following:

Dear Passionate Writer,

I appreciate that you have no desire to see good, upstanding Muslims who consider themselves followers of The Qu’ran offended by the proposition that violence against women in predominantly Islamic societies can be linked to religious beliefs. However, let me remind you of the difference between Islam, a belief system, and Muslims, the people who identify with that belief system. Islam is not a race — in fact, the diversity in race of those who practice Islam should be enough to remind you of this. I’m afraid that in your eagerness to police those who disrespect people on the basis of race and ethnicity, you’ve managed to find yourself attacking an author whose concern for the victims of rape is at the very least legitimate.

On the matter of Oates’ critics pointing out that rape is possible outside of Islamic society, particularly in a predominantly Christian American society, I regret to remind you that the Christian Bible contains all manner of instructions regarding what women may be raped and/or kept as sex slaves after a war. If Oates’ tweet was flawed in any way, it’s only because it failed to draw the equally reasonable lines from the predominance of a misogynist religion like Christianity in America to rape in America. I’m not entirely certain, however, that one can attack a Twitter post which makes reasonable, conscientious objections to one religion simply because it fails to attack them all. 140 characters and all.

Self-appointed spokespeople for Islam and Christianity make daily claims that religion has an impact on human behavior. It seems utterly bizarre (not to mention logically and intellectually inconsistent) to allow that all to pass unremarked as long as religion is only being blamed for good behavior, then to send our publication into fight on one side of a firestorm the moment religion is being blamed for bad behavior.

Given the above mentioned diversity of Muslims, it might be worth keeping in mind that should one want to play the role of Western defender of the victimized Muslim, perhaps defending the Muslim women being raped by men who think God is on their side is as valid a way of doing that as any. Yes, some Muslims will toss out words like “Islamophobia” to describe comments such as those made by Joyce Carol Oates. But still others are perfectly capable of seeing the same connections between the misogyny in the religious text and the behavior in societies where a majority of the population venerates that text as a truth higher than any other. To imagine this is a uniquely white/Western insight is itself a kind of racism, as if no citizens of predominantly Muslim societies would ever think such a thing. They can and they do. The question is, rather specifically, with which of those Muslims would you care to toss in your lot?

Please keep these thoughts in mind for future pitches.

Your Editor,