Letters

Readers respond to Andrew Sullivan's "Beauties and the Beasts."


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Salon Staff
November 29, 2002 4:12AM (UTC)

[Read "Beauties and the Beasts" by Andrew Sullivan]

I don't often agree with Andrew Sullivan, but in this instance he's so plainly correct that it worries me to think that his is a dissenting opinion.

When I read Julia Morley's statements the day after the pageant left Nigeria, my stomach turned. In multiple interviews, the Miss World organizer publicized her belief that a 21-year-old columnist, fresh out of school at the University of Lancashire here in the U.K., was responsible for the bloodletting in Kaduna. ("[If] you are asking me 'did we do it?' the answer is 'no we didn't.' It was a journalist that made a remark and it is absolutely unfortunate that young Muslims were killed. Even the young Muslims accept [that the contest was not to blame]. The president accepts it and the whole country accepts it.")

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Morley's comments are so profoundly offensive that it's hard to know where to begin criticizing them. For penning an innocuous column -- for making "a remark" -- a reporter bears the responsibility for hundreds of gruesome murders and a wave of arson that has left thousands of families homeless? What about the violent criminals who dragged women and children from their cars, set them on fire, and cheered as they burned to death in the streets? What about the thugs who burned entire neighborhoods to the ground, and utterly demolished the Kaduna offices of This Day? What about the bloodthirsty tyrants like Zamfara state commissioner Umar Dangaladima Magaji, who have cheerfully called for Isioma Daniel to be hunted down and murdered? These men, apparently, are all innocent -- or guilty, at worst, of "bad judgment." If Morley is to be believed, they may even be the true victims. (It's " ... absolutely unfortunate that young Muslims were killed ... " Less unfortunate, presumably, that so many Christian families were murdered by those same young Muslims).

Even if Ms. Daniel had written an obscenity-laden screed against Islam, she would bear no responsibility for what has happened in Nigeria. To say otherwise is to position oneself against every freedom true progressives have ever championed. But that, increasingly, is what leftists are all too willing to do: to side with sadistic misogynists and mass-murderers as a matter of "principle." Apparently, it's impossible to condemn the hard-line conservative, anti-internationalist policies of George W. Bush without apologizing for the barbarism, brutality and hatred of ferocious bigots.

"Progressives" who would use the riots in Kaduna as an opportunity to chastise Western institutions for their insensitivity to radical Islam are, to put it gently, terribly misguided. When did the left become so cowardly -- and so intellectually lazy? If Adolph Hitler were the deputy governor of a Muslim state within the Federal Republic of Nigeria, would modern-day liberals condemn his genocide? It's hard to think so, when hacks like Jill Nelson can identify no distinction between voluntary participation in a beauty pageant and the systematic enslavement and terrorism of millions of women and children. Is this the end-product of cultural relativism?

-- Matt Williamson

Mr. Sullivan can rant and rave all day, but there's no getting around the fact that holding a Miss World contest in an area populated with devout Muslims is simply dumb. In itself the event was a provocation, and the remark made by the journalist outright incendiary. If a woman were to walk into a mosque, and suddenly remove her burka to reveal a skimpy bikini, would she not assume at least some of the blame for the consequences? Clearly it is assumed that the violent acts of religious fundamentalists are wrong, but stupid is as stupid does, as the saying goes, and to turn your wrath on those who are pointing that out is to create a false argument.

And while we're at it, fundamentalist Christianity is as much a threat to our basic freedoms as any other kind of fundamentalism. For proof of this, just take a careful look at some of the provisions of the Homeland Security Act.

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-- Richard Klein

The most educational aspect of the Nigerian Miss World crisis is that there is no legitimate side to take. These are the choices: murderous Muslim fanatics, vapid beauty queens, and doctrinaire feminists. Gosh. You have to love a long-running news serial that doesn't even try to engage your sympathies, but lets you vote "none of the above."

The only real hero in this mess appears to be Ms. Daniel, who wrote the article that sparked the violence. She has since fled to the United States, where her heroic stature will no doubt soon be diminished by self-righteous PEN banquets, out-of-breath literary agent frenzies, and six-figure book deals that most serious American writers would never be able to achieve in 50 years of keyboard pounding.

Just as disappointing is Sullivan's right-wing attempt to fit all of this stupid tragedy into the war-on-terror agenda. He posits the source of radical Muslim rage as a hatred of our freedom. It doesn't enter his right-wing head that parading Western wealth and glamour in the heart of a Third World country, whose wealth is being sucked out daily by Western oil companies, might have something to do with that rage.

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He concludes, "If I don't like such a pageant, I have many ways to protest. But killing people isn't one of them." The logical retort is too delicious not to deliver: Mr. Sullivan, if you don't like the fact that a Stalinist madman in Baghdad is sitting on one of the world's largest oil reserves, you have many ways to protest. But killing people shouldn't be one of them.

-- Robert Young

I just wanted to let you know that the article really hit a nerve for me. While I don't typically agree with Mr. Sullivan, I do think it's about time we stop tiptoeing around these crazy fundamentalists and force the world to acknowledge that they are completely out of control.

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And on a second note, this further exposes the president's Iraq focus as out of line. Why are we focusing on Iraq, when Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others are producing these crazy religious zealots that are killing us and others?

-- Matt Harp

Events like the Miss World fiasco portray Islam in its poorest possible light, and tar the entire religion and its practitioners as fanatic and dangerous. So where are the voices of the moderate Muslims? Why don't they condemn such actions? They are the only valid counterweight to such a radical misinterpretation of Islam, yet they remain strangely silent. They need to stand up for their beliefs and, yes, oppose their "brothers," if only to show the world (and the fanatics) that there is an alternative view. Or are they too scared?

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-- David Price

Andrew Sullivan writes that "Radicalized Islam -- on every continent -- is stepping up its assault on Western freedoms." Now I'm a bit confused because the last time I checked, Nigeria was not part of the West, geographically or culturally. Perhaps Arianna Huffington could organize another campaign among Salon readers -- like she did with the SUV ad campaign -- but this time to buy Andrew Sullivan a map of the world.

Why does Mr. Sullivan assume that Nigerians or Muslims hold -- or should hold -- the same values that Westerners do? Are Muslims supposed to tolerate disrespectful remarks about Mohammed, or to allow an event contrary to their religious beliefs to occur in their state, just because Americans would tolerate it?

I don't agree that the rioters accomplished anything useful or justifiable by their violence, but I don't think that's the real issue in Sullivan's piece. Rather, it seems to be more of a condemnation of conservative Muslim values and beliefs that anything else. To Sullivan, the rioters were not wrong because they resorted to violence, but because their values don't match his or his society's.

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Maybe conservative Islam does pose a barrier to adoption of Western values and beliefs. But so what if it does? Who is Sullivan, or any of us, to decide what the "correct" belief is?

-- Sarunas Krukonis

Yes. I will say it. Andrew Sullivan is right. His column on the inconsistencies of the left when it comes to criticizing other cultures and beliefs was dead on. People were barbarically murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time under the flimsiest of pretexts.

I choose to live my life free from religion while fully respecting others' decisions to believe what they choose. Fundamentalist Christianity is just as dangerous to my freedoms as fundamentalist Islam is, thank you very much. The problem is fundamentalism. Not Islam, not Christianity. Once you say that only your version of the truth is acceptable, it is a short hop to crashing airplanes into buildings, or burning witches at the stake.

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-- Sean Driscoll

To argue that the journalist Daniel's comment or the pageant itself was the cause of the riot, and therefore that this is an "Islam denies freedom of expression" issue, is to overlook Nigeria's recent, unhappy history. The country is deeply divided along geographic, ecological, tribal and religious lines. Islam in sub-Saharan Africa is not the same religion as Islam elsewhere. According to Robert Kaplan, who wrote the book "Ends of the Earth," it is modified by local animist beliefs, its passage across the Sahara, and generally low levels of literacy. As was the case during the last dozen or so outbreaks of violence, the rioters were motivated only incidentally by a journalist's comments (or an arrest, or an otherwise random act of disrespect). A thuggish, medievalist worldview and political opportunism are the common threads binding Islamic Kaduna and Kabul to Christian Sarajevo and the Skankill/Falls Roads.

-- Paul Brown

The riots associated with the Miss World pageant were horrible -- of course it's insane and wrong that the reaction to an offhand comment is to murder innocent people. None of the quotes Sullivan cited appear to disagree. On the other hand, is there no room for the common-sense notion that maybe you pick a more sensible location for parading around scantily clad women than an area rife with political instability and Islamic fundamentalism? I'm completely for free expression (even if I think pageants are idiotic), but I'm also for being smart in an increasingly volatile world. For having this opinion, according to Sullivan, I'm evidently not strongly pro-woman enough for his newfound feminist taste? Give me strength.

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Like many feminists, I have been outraged at some of the misogynist practices of Islamic fundamentalism for years, not just since 2001. For Sullivan to act like feminists don't care about the impact of fundamentalist Islam on women's freedom ignores a long history of feminist activism. What groups have campaigned against female genital mutilation? What groups campaigned against the treatment of women in Afghanistan long before it became a co-opted cause for Laura Bush to champion after 9/11? Sullivan references the fatwa against Rushdie as being a warning that was unheeded. That Sullivan ignores the raft of women's issues on which feminists have warned the West for many years now demonstrates his ignorance.

Of course, Sullivan also ignores the dangers of Christian fundamentalism in the United States by citing a lack of murderous rioting following the play "Corpus Christi." While he's right about the rioting, Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. has a misogynist body count of its own, as those who mourn murdered abortion-clinic healthcare providers can attest (just to pick another feminist warning that Sullivan didn't see fit to notice). I don't equate the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide with Christian fundamentalism in the United States but neither provides hope for a world in which women can express themselves freely.

Sullivan is right to criticize the murderous rioting, even if he's not being terribly novel. However, his criticism of feminists insults the real lives of feminists throughout the world who risk their lives to challenge religious fundamentalism.

-- Ellen Fulton

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Wow. I never thought I would ever agree with Andrew Sullivan on anything, but on this I have to give him some credit. Though I find beauty pageants boring and implicitly conservative endeavors (when was the last time you heard of a contestant espousing "liberal" views without the pageant lashing out?), I cannot blame them for the fundamentalist-incited riots. Nor can I blame the journalist even if her comments were unnecessary or unwise. The blame does rest squarely on the shoulders of those who incited the riots, causing an unbelievable number of deaths.

Having said all that, I believe Mr. Sullivan (as usual) misses a crucial point by comparing the events in Nigeria with a hypothetical one in current-day New York. It is unfair to history to compare a developing nation to the premiere developed city. Perhaps it would have been more fitting to use a certain town in Massachusetts known for their warm-glowing public fires?

Excitation of hatred by "religious" leaders is nothing new, but change certainly cannot come about by direct challenges and providing of easy targets. Unfortunately, the pageant and the article were too present to ignore.

-- Stella Park

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Salon Staff

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