Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a worrying column in The Independent. It is not worrying because of the concerns she raises about "licentiousness", "social nihilism", "debauchery", etc., but because it is another example of blaming the victims. Somehow the blame for Islamist terrorism is to be sheeted home to the relative sexual permissiveness of Western (in this case, British) society. It is also worrying because Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be an example of a moderate Muslim, but when you see someone writing so emotively about the evils of sexual freedom you have to ask the usual question where "moderate religion" is concerned, "Moderate about what?"
Her supposed moderation does not extend to acceptance that teenagers and young adults are (quite rationally) largely focused on sexual pleasures, and will inevitably engage in various forms of sexual display - such as wearing revealing clothing - if they are allowed to. Moderate she may be about some things, but she still writes in the way you'd expect of someone who has been socialised into a prudish kind of moral vision that irrationally condemns sexual expression and understands the naked human body as shameful.
Let's be clear about this. Alibhai-Brown does not merely offer the descriptive sociological conjecture that there's a causal nexus between the relative sexual permissiveness of Western societies and some Islamist extremism. She could have said something like the following: "In contemporary Western societies, many young women engage in a great deal of sexual display, in particular by wearing clothing that reveals much of their bodies. Some young men from Muslim backgrounds find this frustrating because it arouses them sexually, yet they are taught not to engage in sex outside of marriage. Some of these young men may react by becoming religious extremists."
If she'd just said that, we could guess that at least some young men, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, really do match this description. We could then consider whether the alleged causal connnection applies to more than a small number of isolated cases. Is that claim supported by any sociological data, and if so what policy response, if any, is required?
However, that is not how Alibhai-Brown presents her thesis. Instead, she uses highly emotive language to condemn the degree of sexual permissiveness that she finds in the UK. She obviously considers it repugnant and morally outrageous.
Early in the article, she writes sympathetically of how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "tried to hold on to Islamic Puritanism in a country of no shame, no restraint." She then adds: "Millions of Britons of all backgrounds are alarmed by the dissipation and debauchery that now defines Britain." It might be thought that when she writes of "no shame, no restraint", she is merely representing how Abdulmutallab perceived things, but not so. The following sentence is clearly in her own voice: she actually does see Britain as now defined by what she calls "dissipation and debauchery". This kind of language continues throughout the article. She speaks of "social nihilism", of a nation that "has gone from Fifties uprightness to public striptease", of "libertine excess" and "a state of perpetual abandon". Make no mistake, Alibhai-Brown is not merely describing a clash between Muslim ideas of sexual modesty and the relative sexual permissiveness of Western societies. She is condemning the latter in strong and angry terms.
Some of her examples are silly. She writes:
A list was sent home to the parents of girls at a middle-class school in London last week sternly reminding non-uniformed sixth-formers that there were still rules of decorum to follow. A list followed of garments henceforth disallowed: no tops that show the midriff or cleavage, no tight mini-skirts, no underwear showing, no clothes with holes in them, etc, etc.
Now, there might be something to the idea that high school is a place to wear fairly modest clothing, to help everyone in concentrating on studies - though, frankly, I rather doubt this. First-year university students wore "immodest" clothing in the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, and they still do, though the fashions have somewhat changed (the thin see-through tops, with no bra underneath, that were commonplace among young women in Australia in the 1970s are not so socially accepted now). Undergraduates are not very much older than high school students (especially those in sixth form, i.e. Year 12), yet their attire doesn't seem to have any adverse effects from a purely pedagogical viewpoint. At least I see no evidence of this. Alibhai-Brown is probably barking up the wrong tree here, as elsewhere.
But even if we grant for the sake of argument that high school is different, that tight mini-skirts, etc., are not a good idea within school grounds, this doesn't justify the emotive description of "tops that show the midriff or cleavage ...tight mini-skirts ... underwear showing ... clothes with holes" as "wanton wear" or "public striptease". I can think of many outfits that have holes or show midriffs, or whatever, but are smart and edgy rather than blatantly sexy. But even if young women do choose to show their bodies to the world in unequivocal sexual display ... so what? It obviously upsets Alibhai-Brown, but she gives absolutely no reason why anyone else should find it upsetting or oppose it on moral grounds. Generally, when young women dress this way they are strutting their stuff, showing off in a fairly harmless way, and getting enjoyment from it. It's not because they're coerced. The resulting display is also enjoyable for many of the people who see it. It's enjoyable all round, except for the minority of prudes and puritans - but the latter don't get to dictate what everyone else does.
Of course, it's ridiculous to assert that the UK is a society that knows no shame or restraint. I'm sure that many people in the UK show restraint all the time, e.g. they probably restrain themselves from acts of violence or dishonesty that they might be tempted to in a vast range of everyday situations.
And they almost certainly feel shame in a similarly vast range of situations, perhaps when they fall short of their own moral standards (in honesty, for example) or in standards of skill and competence that they try to adhere to. It is nonsense to say that the UK is a society with no shame or restraint. No such society could survive for long.
What Alibhai-Brown means, of course, is that many people in the UK society do not show as much shame specifically about the body and sexuality as she'd like, or as much restraint specifically in sexual conduct and display as she approves of.
The truth of the situation is that Alibhai-Brown considers a certain high propensity for sexual shame and restraint to be a virtue, while many other people consider it to be a vice. Many people may think that a certain pride about the body and a certain degree of willingness to flaunt sexuality are actually the genuine virtues in this domain. If so, they are working with a more pagan set of virtues, perhaps, but they still have standards of virtue ... just different ones from Alibhai-Brown. That position may be growing more common, and those of us who share it are obviously pleased if our values are starting to seem normal. What Alibhai-Brown should not say, unless she is dishonest or ignorant, is that this amounts to "social nihilism". No, it is not a loss of values, or an absence of values, in the society, but the emergence of values that are different from hers. They are the values of people who do not use such words of condemnation as "debauchery", "licentiousness", and "dissipation".
It's true, of course, that life may be uncomfortable for people who don't share the dominant values in their societies. If sexual display, sexual permissiveness, sexual willingness or openness, and so on do become the dominant values in British society, then people with the opposite values may be psychologically uncomfortable - but no one has a right to control which values are prevalent in her society in order to ensure her own psychological comfort. The most she can ask is that she be legally permitted to live by her own (minority) values. I.e., she can ask that the state not coerce her to wear, say, a short, tight miniskirt and to expose her midriff. However, she cannot ask that other people be forbidden from doing so, or even that they be forbidden from making adverse judgments about her values if she chooses not to conform to theirs.
Alibhai-Brown either doesn't understand this or doesn't want to, because she indulges in the common statement of moral equivalence between (1) peer group, or other informal, pressure to wear revealing clothes and (2) the use of coercive political power to enforce wearing of the burka or other "modest" clothing. But peer groups inevitably establish norms of approved behaviour; no one can stop that happening. Nor is it surprising that many teenage peer groups develop a norm of approving a certain degree of sexual display in clothing, wherever this is legal (hint: teenagers of both sexes are typically as randy as stoats and want to be sexually attractive to other teenagers). Nor is it particularly surprising if an entire society moves towards values in which expressions of sexuality and displays of the body are valued (hint: sex is intensely enjoyable, and many human bodies are beautiful and sexually provocative ... so of course these things are likely to be widely valued).
Still, however much values may be shifting, Western society as a whole tolerates a very wide range of clothing. Alibhai-Brown can dress as modestly as she wishes without attracting much in the way of disapproval, let alone the punishment and stigma that goes with being a law breaker. Let her by all means wander the street in her veil, long dress, and sensible shoes - or whatever it is she wants to wear (I actually have no idea how she dresses). She probably won't suffer for it at all.
Sure, some younger people may find it psychologically difficult to go against the values of a peer group, but that is inevitable no matter what values their peer groups have. Alibhai-Brown's real beef is that she doesn't like the particular values that she sees. Fortunately, it is also inevitable that some people do manage not to conform to their peer groups, or to find alternative peer groups. This can't be guaranteed in each instance, of course, but even if going against the values of your peer group (or the wider society) is psychologically uncomfortable it is very different in kind from being locked up in a prison cell or being whipped or executed if you don't abide by the local code of sexual modesty.
Alabhi-Brown ends with this flourish:
With things falling apart and ethical compasses broken, you can see why so many are turning to self-discipline and certainties in an age of chaos. Islamic Stalinism is set to grow stronger. A society in a state of perpetual abandon cannot survive that onslaught. We need to sober up and see what we have become. The future is grim; it needs us to be serious.
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! First, there is no evidence at all that "things" are "falling apart" or that ethical compasses are broken. At most, certain traditional anti-sex values are being replaced by certain (in my view, more rational) pro-sex values that Alibhai-Brown dislikes. That may cause confusion if some families and cultures are still preaching the anti-sex values while much of the advertising and entertainment industries preaches the pro-sex ones, but that does not make the former values correct. Nor does it mean that the transition in values is to "things falling apart" - that is nonsense.
Nor is the society of Britain or any other Western country in a state of "perpetual abandon". Can't Alibhai-Brown understand that a commitment to pro-sex values, and an unashamed enjoyment of sex and sexual display, is perfectly compatible with many other values, such as the value of fighting any onslaught from "Islamic Stalinism"? Indeed, people with the relevant pro-sex values are likely to be strongly motivated to resist "Islamic Stalinism", with its extreme anti-sex values.
As for the need to "sober up", how is this to be achieved? If it involves abandoning the new pro-sex values, what public policy is Alibhai-Brown proposing to achieve this? Of course, we could all change our values individually (though she has provided absolutely no good reason to do so in her article), but is she hinting here at some kind of collective response? I hope not, because that way lies the very totalitarianism that we want to resist.
In all, this is a very bad article, one that goes too close to blaming people who have values different from the writer's (but not obviously false or irrational ones) for the evil of Islamist terrorism. We should push back against articles like this and assert our own pro-sex values even more strongly. Indeed, it's clear enough to me that, despite Alibhai-Brown's lamentations, the mass media are still permeated by suspicion of pro-sex values. Popular entertainment is still monogamist, pro-natalist, and somewhat puritanical about the body. There is a long way to go yet before we have a genuinely sexually permissive society.
Alibhai-Brown won't like it when we get there, but no one promised her a society that values just what she does.