Progress and Stability:

Once in a while, you will meet a Muslim who will defend Islam's position on women in something like the following terms: 'Islam represented a great advance for women's status in the region. Before the Prophet Muhammad, the treatment of women was much worse. Islam's rules raised women's stature a great deal.'

Historians and anthropologists might contest the claim to some degree, but for the sake of argument let's say that it's perfectly correct. Islam, in the seventh century, vastly raised the status of women. It also created a stable floor, so that women could never again be traded like cattle. This progress had real value for the lives of women in that era, and the stability has continued to protect each new generation of women since then. Again, for the sake of argument, let's assume all this is exactly true.

The problem is that the same stability that continues to protect women from being treated like chattel slaves -- which we are assuming that Islam does, for this argument -- also prevents any further alteration. To the degree that you undermine that stability in order to change women's status for the better, you also risk undermining the positive change. Perhaps you will enjoy the change you say you want; but it's also possible that you will enjoy the change you didn't want. As women are -- even under this system -- less powerful than men, undermining the stability is a dangerous proposition. It might more easily result in a backlash against women that lowers their status below the floor they currently enjoy, than force society to adhere to these new standards.

The one thing that might prevent that collapse is a stern preservation of the Prophet Muhammad's reasoning for the "floor" position. If you're struggling for progress, it would be easy to see these people fighting for stability as your enemy. Yet actually they are not: your enemies are the ones who are pushing for a backlash. The people who are fighting for stability are your allies even if you find yourself clashing with them, because they are your backstop against a serious backlash. Given that the people pushing for progress are necessarily weaker than the forces that could impose a backlash, those who want progress should never forget the value of those who merely want stability.

The stable foundation they preserve is, after all, what you're pushing off from in your attempt to achieve some greater height. It'd be best not to undermine that foundation.

Mutatis mutandis, this is a point that I wish certain New York progressives understood as well. Of course, as Mr. Kristof notes, the difference is that in much of the developing world, the Catholic Church is not simply holding the line and preserving stability. It is the primary force advancing the cause.

Yet even here at home, the people who want stability are not the enemy of the progressive. As frustrating as stability may be for those who want change, it is the stable foundation that they are pushing against. If that foundation gives way, there's a long fall to the bottom.

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