Am I my brother’s keeper?

The case of the Swedish Foreign Minister, her critique of the situation of Saudi Arabian women and the subsequent, inevitable, backlash, strikes me as worthy of deeper reflection than that involved in a choice of placard with which to take to the streets. ‘Down with Islam!’, ‘Up with Women!’, ‘I am [add name]!’, ‘Death to Infidels!’ lack nuance, and omit the historical context of the overlapping and competing discourses which they summarise.

Margot Wallström may indeed be seen as Woman, a being either in compliment or opposition to another known as Man; as White, a quality of a minority of beings in some kind of relationship to the majority known as Black; as Christian (by virtue of her nationality and saintly first name – whatever her personal beliefs happen to be) as distinct from Muslim. You can see where I’m going with this. She is also the Foreign Minister of a small but powerful country, with a reputation for academic excellence (Nobel Committee etc.) high suicide rates, bureaucracy (admittedly it’s only the Norwegians that call Sweden ‘the land of rules’) and a historical legacy of very lively ambassadors arriving on longboats. As you can immediately tell, I know almost nothing about Sweden and during my short time there as an interpreter for the European Social Forum held in Malmö I was struck by two things: one was ‘the ghetto’, as our guides called it, which made me laugh as it was so peaceful and pristine. I live in Glasgow which is often neither; the other was the sudden appearance of an entire blond family cycling through the city about 11pm! This last was quite normal behaviour apparently.

So when I say that I think that the ‘feminist foreign minister’ as she’s been billed, seems to have got it wrong, it’s in context of my firm (though rather uninformed) belief that Sweden, indeed Scandinavia as a whole, often seems to get it right. I think that context matters. Margot Wallström may have previously established her awareness of the agency of Saudi Muslim women, that they are not just victims. Which I believe was the essence of Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly’s treatment of women in two thirds of the world in her searing exposé of global misogyny, Gyn/Ecology. In fairness to Daly, she did quite a lot of exposing of US and European misogyny too. I don’t know if Margot Wallström has campaigned against Swedish girls being put under social pressure to have breast enlargements, to have sex when they want affection, to have sex for money to get through university (or is the sugarbabe phenomenon only happening in the UK?), to have an abortion as their mum doesn’t like the colour of the father’s skin (I know the latter happens in the UK, I don’t know about Sweden). I don’t know if she has spoken out against the hidden genocide of poor African American men, in overwhelming disproportion on Death Row, or the economic pressure on African American women to be sterilised.

Note that I’m aware of what I don’t know. Note that when I talk about this minister and about her country, I say ‘seems’. I don’t believe Bishop Berkeley’s famous ontological maxim: esse est percipi (‘what you see is what you get’, as I’ve freely translated it in my latest novel) but in terms of media presentation, what is apparent is taken to be real. I have no evidence for this other that a hunch but I bet Margot Wallström doesn’t see herself, or Sweden, as a policewoman. I think that’s a political delusion of grandeur peculiar to the USA. I bet she sees herself as a sister. A sister to the oppressed. To the women of Saudi Arabia and to at least one man. If I’m right, and I could be wrong, then her motivation seems laudable. So why am I questioning it?

Cain, after killing Abel, is famously asked (by the Omniscient, so it’s a bit of a set-up) where his brother is and responds with ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ meaning that he obviously thinks ‘no, I’m not!’ – whereas the audience to this pantomime is obviously supposed to shout out ‘OH YES YOU ARE!’ My point is that if one is to indulge in fraternal or sororal correction, especially if one happens to represent a country that’s the 12th biggest global arms dealer (it seems) and as head diplomat one is inevitably put into the position of broker to such deals, then one must first establish kinship. And be seen to have established kinship.

People who seem to be White Christians bearing arms, with reason and God on their side, and lotsa money (mostly from persecuted European Jews but let’s not get sidetracked) have historically had a tendency to descend upon Araby with fire and sword. The recent, and they are comparatively recent, militant doctrinal and political tendencies of the wahabi, salafi and now IS (can we please stop calling it that other very pretty name?) seem to have caused a collective amnesia, in at least one third of the world, about the history of Islam. The European (this includes Russia, remember) monarchs of Christendom were by and large tyrannical to Jews and Muslims; the Moorish monarchs, by and large, were not. In 1492 the countries which welcomed the majority of expelled Spanish Jews were Morocco and Turkey. The Ladinos are in the latter to this day (I know cos I met one on a bus in Istanbul, who answered politely when I abruptly asked her about what seemed to be her mediaeval Spanish). During the Third Reich it was the same story, while Christendom shut its borders. This Jewish-Muslim thing is a set-up. It’s divide and conquer. All those Christian European politicians who read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in their private schools and decided to play at that game when they grew up.

I don’t believe that Margot Wallström is playing games. I don’t believe that the UK should be selling arms (do use your upcoming vote wisely UK voters!) and I don’t believe any other country, including Sweden, should be doing that either. I highly recommend Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology (read together with Audre Lorde’s critique in Sister Outsider) which, disgracefully, is not outdated. It seems to me that the treatment of women in three thirds of the world may still be categorised as global misogyny. Of that I, unfortunately, have compelling evidence. As, I’m sure, have you.

I believe that in Margot Wallström’s spirited defence of Raif Badawi there lies the conviction, the moral claims, of sisterhood. But if Margot is Raif’s keeper, then does she really know where he’s at? And would this foreign minister admit that the imprisoned campaigner may have something to say about Sweden, about Europe? Could it be that we haven’t actually got it all right and that, amazingly, we (post)Christian secular enlightened White people might have something to learn from a Saudi Arabian man? Who is not just a victim. Living in Saudi, he would know the trouble he’d be getting himself into. Did she?

We are right to condemn injustice. We are wrong to perpetrate it. Prisons and corporal punishments oppress and may kill; but perceptions may also harm. It’s not the outcry about foreign injustice which is wrong but the silence about domestic oppression, and the fuelling of foreign conflict, which accompanies it. Margot Wallström may be quite aware of this and may speak out in this way but, crucially, that is not what has been reported. Could a culturally aware diplomat not have been more diplomatic? In attempting to shame the Saudi authorities, whose reaction to criticism of their values is already violent, has this foreign intervention of critique without kinship helped – or has it made the situation of the campaigner worse?

red-no-signal

‘Red No Signal’ in Public Domain by Piotr Siedlecki

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