This morning the Wall Street Journal published this critical review of The Rule of the Clan by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history the University of Notre Dame. I’m happy to receive the review (as I’ve noted here, I begin each morning with a bracing perusal of the Journal’s editorial page), and I send my greetings across the blogosphere to Fernández-Armesto and to readers who support his views—from which, I hope, all right-minded people will recoil in head-shaking disbelief.
Without writing more extensively about the review than it warrants, I’d like to use it as an opportunity to clarify my own views, because Fernández-Armesto’s remarks represent the kind of worrying trend in American political culture and intellectual life I criticize in the book: the rejection of the modernist values of the liberal Enlightenment.
Fernández-Armesto frames his review by recounting a story I tell in Chapter Three involving a civilian analyst for the U.S. Central Command. During one of his tours of Afghanistan, the analyst witnesses the proceedings of a Pashtun tribal jirga adjudicating a case of murder. In a practice known as swara, the council prevents a blood feud between the victim’s family and the perpetrator’s family by forcing the sister of the murderer to marry the brother of the murdered man.
As Fernández-Armesto notes, I indicate that “the young woman had no choice in the matter,” and I criticize the custom because it violates her autonomy.
Fernández-Armesto takes me to task for precisely this criticism, suggesting that I “can’t appreciate” that the “Afghan newlyweds may feel fulfilled as peacemakers.” He accuses me of endorsing “one-size [fits all] individualism.”
If condemning swara and defending the autonomy of young women is an exercise in cultural imperialism, then I hasten to plead guilty. But it’s worth noting that swara has been the subject of profound self-examination and criticism within Afghanistan and Pakistan (including in the television drama whose revealing promo I include above). For readers interested in a few recent headline-grabbing cases, consider these articles:
“Jirga’s verdict: another teenage girl may fall victim to swara” (The Express Tribune, Karachi)
“Another swara case: Two arrested for ordering six-year-old girl’s marriage” (The Express Tribune, Karachi)
“Swara girl decreed by jirga rejected” (Daily Times, Lahore/Islamabad/Karachi)
“Court tells swara girl to stay at crisis center” (Dawn, Lahore/Islamabad/Karachi)
Apparently these young women and girls—“newlyweds” by Fernández-Armesto’s heartwarming appellation—were not excited enough by the prospect of a fulfilling role as a peacemaker to choose it freely.
Reasonable people can disagree about the scope and range of universal values, debating which ones are justified by reason and human dignity and which ones are not. But I should hope that a condemnation of forced marriage falls well within the circle of universally accepted liberal norms.
Just the other week I was corresponding with a friend who lives in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He’s a liberal Pakistani school teacher and devout Muslim—the kind of “elite” Fernández-Armesto chides me for supporting against what I call “the rule of the clan.” My friend was moved by the incident of swara that I recount, and he earnestly explained to me his hope that one day the practice would end. I proudly stand with him.
Indeed, I feel a deep kinship with my friend, because we are part of a common effort to advance the same underlying ideals—and I believe that those ideals are under threat in the United States, too, as Fernández-Armesto’s review suggests.
That a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal would put my criticism of forced marriage front-and-center of his engagement with my work illustrates a deeply troubling trend in American political life: a retreat from the values of the liberal Enlightenment and the wavering of support for the robust state institutions capable of vindicating liberal civic ideals.
What are the reasons for this retreat, which one can witness in various manifestations across the political spectrum?
One reason is suggested by Fernández-Armesto’s own work. Tellingly, writing about contemporary culture in the United States and Britain, the Oxford-educated professor has suggested that “the entire project of creating universal, compulsory, free education was misguided.” It seems Fernández-Armesto believes that, like education, women’s rights and the principles of individual freedom are really only for people like himself.
Liberals of all political stripes cannot afford to be confused about the importance of all people being able to construct their lives according to their own free choices—of which the decision whom to love is the most basic and emblematic.
Nor should we be confused about the institutional precondition—effective government—that makes such free choice a possibility for everyone.
N.b.: This is the second time I’ve appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The first time was in a letter written with a colleague at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, in which we noted that “the lesson drawn by the international community” from the disaster of the Titanic “was not to abandon maritime regulation and set the market free to do its work,” as implied by an op-ed writer. Instead, we noted, “it was to create a better legal and regulatory structure to ensure public safety: the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which is now widely regarded as one of the most successful examples of government regulation anywhere.”
3/26/13, 10:45 a.m.: For readers interested in a previous post that considers the relation between individual liberty and government institutions—in the context of a discussion of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the travels of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, global climate change, and Alfred Hitchcock—see “Distraction from the Storm.”
Update: On April 1, shortly after I wrote this response, the New York Times published a story about a forced marriage in Afghanistan. My discussion of the story is here.