Genital Mutilation Isn't a Tradition to Preserve

May 25 (Bloomberg) — The immigrant lives in Glendale, Arizona, and drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee. His 20-year-old daughter works at an Applebee's. When she leaves a marriage arranged by her father and moves in with her boyfriend, her father gets angry. He hops in his Jeep, tracks her down in a parking lot and runs her over. Then he hightails it for Nogales, Mexico, yapping on his cell phone all the while. His daughter later dies of her wounds in a Phoenix hospital.

These allegations — the father pleaded not guilty to charges of murder — weren't lodged against an illegal immigrant from Mexico. This case involves Faleh Hassan Almaleki, an Iraqi, and his daughter, Noor.

It reminds us that even as the much-publicized debate over illegal versus legal Mexican immigrants moves forward, there are other immigration questions the country also has to deal with. One is how authorities — often local or state authorities — should respond when Islamic fundamentalist men in the U.S. harm Muslim women in the name of cultural or religious tradition.

The intrepid soul raising the question is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born philosopher who fled to Holland rather than submit to an arranged Muslim marriage. In the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali learned Dutch, studied at a university in Leiden and won a seat in parliament before she reached 40. Her rise was a feat of enlightenment, intelligence and tolerance, a joint victory achieved by Hirsi Ali and Dutch society.

Orders to Kill

Then came the murder by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker with whom Hirsi Ali was working on a documentary about abused Muslim women. Van Gogh's murderer placed a fatwa, an order to kill, on Hirsi Ali. Half a decade later, she still travels with bodyguards and has written a memoir about her ordeal, "Nomad: From Islam to America," published this month.

Fundamentalist Islam as practiced in much of the world, Hirsi Ali points out, hurts girls in three ways. Some Muslim women are forced into an arranged marriage, even as minors, and face possible death if they refuse. They are often pulled from schools and deprived of secular education. And they are subjected to the abusive practice of genital circumcision.

The procedure isn't comparable to male circumcision. It's mutilation. Specifically, the clitoris is cut, the inner labia are cut and, in millions of cases, the opening of the vagina is sewn together to ensure chastity.

"Virginity is the obsession, the neurosis of Islam," Hirsi Ali wrote in "Nomad." The victim of such mutilation as a child, she has established the AHA Foundation to combat the practice in the U.S.

Arranged Marriages

These abuses happen in the U.S. more often than we imagine. The Asian American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights, for example, has reported that thousands of young Pakistani-American women in the New York area have been involuntarily shipped home for arranged marriages.

U.S. federal law bans female genital cutting, sometimes known as female circumcision. Yet so many parents get around the law by sending their daughters abroad for the procedure that New York Congressman Joseph Crowley has proposed legislation that makes sending a child abroad for the procedure also illegal.

Pediatricians are encountering more cases of female circumcision, and the volatile mix of cultural, religious and human-rights issues it presents clearly makes them uncomfortable. How else can one explain this statement made by the American Academy of Pediatrics: "It might be more effective if federal and state laws enabled pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm." In other words, the group proposes doing a little harm to preclude more dramatic disfigurement.

Tolerance Can Backfire

Hirsi Ali's main point is that this abusive practice spreads easily in tolerant societies such as the U.S. She also maintains the controversial position that Islamic moderates will lose to radicals in the worldwide battle for the future of their religion.

The same openness that welcomed Hirsi Ali also led the Dutch to ignore the growth of Islamic extremism within their country. Gradually extremists got hold of the Dutch soul. The murder of Van Gogh and the fatwa on Hirsi Ali so terrified the nation's leaders that they expelled her rather than defend a heroine they had helped create.

She then fled to the U.S. and became a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Hirsi Ali says U.S. feminists, who should be fierce defenders of Muslim women, focus more on "cultural identity" than the women's welfare. For Americans weary of war, the rights of Muslim women are less important than the possibility of antagonizing the radical Muslim community.

Christians and Muslims

Recently prosecutors in Maricopa County said they wouldn't seek the death penalty for Almaleki. The decision came after his attorney, Billy Little, asked for "some level of assurance that there is no appearance that a Christian is seeking to execute a Muslim for racial, political, religious or cultural beliefs."

There is dark humor here: If Little's request was being honored intentionally, then he managed what a thousand liberal lawyers have dreamed of — to get a cowboy state like Arizona to waver on the death penalty. Nonetheless, such wavering wouldn't mean progress for Muslim women. Hirsi Ali is right: If the U.S. won't view abuse consistently, who will?

(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2010 Bloomberg

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