The women's studies department at George Washington University certainly doesn't come across as a threatening institution. Overshadowed even on its own block by the large, glassy Benjamin T. Rome Hall and the Smith Hall of Art, the small, white brick townhouse at the corner of 22nd and Eye streets NW doesn't even contain the offices of most of the faculty listed on the department's Web site.
And yet, last Wednesday, students associated with the conservative Young America's Foundation (YAF) protested outside the department as a light rain fell, arguing that it was hindering the United States’ attempts to fight Islamic extremism. The students were participating in Islamo-fascism Awareness Week, a national event launched by David Horowitz's Terrorism Awareness Project (an offshoot of his Horowitz Freedom Center) "to confront the two Big Lies of the political left: that George Bush created the war on terror and that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat."
Sergio Gor, president of the YAF chapter at GWU, explained why the small group of protesters chose that particular corner to pass out pamphlets and collect signatures on their petition denouncing Islamo-fascism. "We're here in front of the women's studies department, which is filled with self-described feminists," he said, "and yet you don't hear them condemning radical Islam. Why are they not speaking out louder for women's rights?"
Horowitz told Inside Higher Ed that, during Islamo-fascism Awareness Week, students at individual schools would research whether their campus' women's studies department addressed the issue of women in Islam, and would protest those that do not. "Women's studies, as everybody knows ... are about unequal power, the oppression of women, so if they don't have a course on oppression of women in Islam, they should," said Horowitz.
This makes GWU somewhat of an odd choice for this particular protest. Kelly Pemberton, an associate professor of religion and a member of the women's studies department, teaches a course called "Women in Islam." So it's not as though the subject goes unaddressed at GWU.
Though GWU's Islamo-fascism Awareness Week included other activities -- a counter-terrorism panel, a Horowitz speech, and a movie screening -- the small protest outside the women's studies department was the only action by YAF that specifically addressed academics at the university. This was no accident, as the marching orders to target women's studies departments came directly from Horowitz's national campaign.
But YAF's protest seemed to be more about hurt feelings than the department itself. Gor couldn't name any particular women's studies professors with whose work he disagreed. Rather, he said the source of YAF's dissatisfaction with the department stemmed from the fact that, when YAF contacted the department looking for support and co-sponsors for Islamo-fascism Awareness Week, the department never responded.
And Iris Somberg, YAF's vice president at GWU, said that the fact that the department had a course about women and Islam did not absolve it of guilt. "It's not that they don't have the class, it's that they have not come out denouncing these acts," she said. In other words, YAF was less concerned with whether or not the topic of women in Islam was discussed at GWU than with whether the women's studies department agreed to join in with their specific campaign.
"We picked out different parts [of Horowitz's campaign] that were applicable to GW," said Somberg. "So we decided to ask them to condemn acts against women, not because they don't have awareness about the subject, but because they would not take a stand on the issue."
Like Gor, Somberg couldn't cite any specific professor as failing to meet YAF's criteria for proper awareness (nor could she name any professors within the department). "I just think that the entire department should at the very least condemn the acts that are occurring against women in the Islamic world," she said.
Daniel Moshenberg, the director of the department and an associate professor of English at GWU, said he had never heard from YAF, and challenged the organization's critique of his department. "We are a program that studies and promotes and researches and even helps write public policy from the various perspectives of women, of those who support women, and of feminists more generally," Moshenberg said. "And within that, we are always debating questions of women's rights and human rights of all sorts, here and everywhere else in the world, and it's an ongoing and vibrant debate."
So it's unclear what exactly Horowitz, Gor, and YAF have to complain about, unless they expect women's studies departments to denounce Islam qua Islam. Tactically, though, their approach makes sense. It usefully updates one of the most tried and true conservative narratives: that college campuses are breeding grounds for those who sympathize with America's enemies. Horowitz, not exactly an innovator, has brought Cold War-era campus fear-mongering into the 21st century, and his views fit nicely into the popular hard-right meme that post-9-11 liberals are so disgusted with America that they actually hope Islamic terrorists succeed in destroying it. (Indeed, Horowitz's site mentions the "‘unholy alliance' between campus leftists and jihadists seeking to undermine the War on Terror.")
The issue of women's rights serves as a useful vehicle for Islamo-fascism Awareness Week's agenda. By starting from a point that nearly everyone can agree with, regardless of political affiliation -- that women in many foreign countries and in much of the Muslim world are not treated well -- Horowitz is attempting to open up his ideas to a more moderate audience.
But his is not a moderate movement. Gor may have led a quiet, peaceful protest, and may have described YAF (however laughably) as a "nonpartisan" organization, but the materials he and his colleagues were distributing didn't criticize fundamentalist Islam, they decried the religion itself. According to one pamphlet, "The Violent Oppression Of Women In Islam," (coauthored by Robert Spencer, who also wrote Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't) "Islamic gender apartheid is ... indigenous to Islam both theologically and historically." In "What Americans Need To Know About Jihad," also by Spencer and also distributed at the GWU protest, he asserts that "jihadis" and "their allies in the American and European Left have learned to portray themselves as victims and their actions as an effort to fight back against colonial oppression."
However, in targeting women's studies departments, Horowitz and his underlings may have brushed up against a legitimate debate, if accidentally. Pemberton, the professor who teaches the GWU course on Islam and gender, said she couldn't help but agree with a sliver of YAF and Horowitz's argument. "I think, certainly in the recent past, there has been a tendency among many people -- certainly not just feminists and not just people who study the Muslim world -- to justify or turn a blind eye to certain practices with the reasoning that, 'Well, you know, this is somebody else's culture, and who are we to say anything about it?'" she said.
Certainly not all women's studies academics would agree that this controversy exists as Pemberton described it -- Moshenberg, for one, did not -- but it may have served as the impetus for Horowitz's decision to have Islamo-fascism Awareness Week, which deals almost entirely in abstractions, generalities, and false conflations, hone in so specifically on one area of study. It provided a trap door, in other words, for the thoroughly anti-intellectual term "Islamo-fascism" to work its way into an academic debate.
Horowitz may argue otherwise, but it's clear that Western academics are engaged in an ongoing discussion about women's rights in the Muslim world. According to Pemberton, the best hope for more constructive dialogue on this topic is for people to understand the nuances involved. She said there's "a real tendency to go in terms of one or two poles when discussing the question of women in Islam," in which people either deny the existence of any problem whatsoever vis-à-vis women's rights and Islam as it is practiced in much of the world, or reactively decide that the religion and its symbols (such as the veil) are inherently oppressive.
"There's no sense of where the grey areas are," she said, "of where they exist, how circumstances change, and how, in some cases, what we're talking about is not necessarily something that's evenly done across the board. There are class differences, there are ethnic differences, there are all kinds of differences."
These distinctions are what make the subject of women in Islam so vexing -- and so thoroughly ill-suited to Horowitz's desire to sweep into a single category anyone associated with Islam who opposes American policy. Of course the subject of women and Islam is worthy of a nuanced, reasoned discussion. But Horowitz is probably the person least likely to provoke such a discussion, especially under the banner of "Islamo-fascism Awareness Week."