Cohen, Kristof, and Collins

In “Olympians in Hijab and Bikini” Mr. Cohen says the West’s image of Islam and the Muslim image of the West are often mutually incommunicable. No area is as sensitive as the treatment of women’s roles, dress and sexuality.  Mr. Kristof, in “Obama’s Worst Mistake,” says yes, there are steps we can take in Syria.  Ms. Collins says “You Choose or You Lose,” and that picking between major party candidates is the only way to effect the race’s outcome.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Since I saw a photograph of an Egyptian and a German beach volleyball player confronting each other at the net in Rio, I have been unable to get the image out of my head. Doaa Elghobashy, aged 19, wears a hijab, long sleeves and black leggings to her ankles. Kira Walkenhorst, 25, is in a dark blue bikini. The outstretched hands of the Olympian women almost meet, the ball between them.

The photo, by Lucy Nicholson of Reuters, juxtaposes two women, two beliefs and two dress codes, brought together by sport. The world confronts less a clash of civilizations than a clash of identities, concertinaed in time and space by technology. The West’s image of Islam and the Muslim image of Western societies are often mutually incommunicable; the incomprehension incubates violence.

No area is as sensitive as that of the treatment of women, women’s roles, women’s sexuality, dress and ambitions. The story is often presented as one of Western emancipation versus Islamic subjugation. That, however, is an inadequate characterization.

What follows are accounts by two women, an Egyptian and an American, of their experiences with the hijab. Chadiedja Buijs is a graduate student in Cairo. Norma Moore is a former actress living in Boulder, Colo., who recently visited Iran, where the rules obliged her to adopt Islamic dress codes.

Chadiedja Buijs:

My parents — Egyptian mother, Dutch father — separated when I was four, and I grew up in the Netherlands. My mom doesn’t wear a head scarf and when I began to at the age of 19, five years ago, she said, “What the hell are you doing? I left my country so that you could be free and this is what freedom did?”

I had a lot of issues with myself, with my spiritual needs and my state of being. I was very hardworking, very controlling. I began to feel that as a religious person I needed to realize that some things are bigger than me. I started with prayer. I stopped drinking. I began fasting. I’d been so obsessed with material things. After a while I became convinced that it would be good if I could wear the head scarf out of devotion and humility, as a sign of giving up some of my control. It worked.

Our Prophet says faith is like the ocean. Sometimes the waves are high, sometimes low. Sometimes I am shaky in my faith, sometimes very strong.

The hijab is a matter of representation. I know the person I am and the ideas I have. But the person in front of me sees only the exterior. With the tension in Europe, things are worse. In a Dutch village, in a café full of rich white people, a man tore my veil off. It was shocking but not as frustrating as some of the looks and comments, the job rejections (“You do not fit the image of our store”).

After the attacks in France, my mother said, “Please take your veil off.” It is my choice to wear it. I will die with it on. That is my right. Nobody will take it away.

But balance is important. There is this life and the afterlife. Sometimes you need to think about your spirituality. Sometimes you need to adapt. In the West, now, I may wear tighter jeans, or have my neck showing, or use short sleeves. Here in Egypt I may wear maxi-skirts, long and wide. They do not look great. They make me fat. But, hey, that’s the point! My family here is quite conservative.

There is very little religious literacy in secular Western countries. And there is a crisis within Islam, over what it means to be a Muslim. As Muslims we have to acknowledge the problem. ISIS controls what Islam looks like in Iraq and Syria — religious symbolism, flags, statements and verses. This is real. We cannot deny it. But we create extremism by talking about Islam only through this prism. The head scarf becomes a fetish.

Elghobashy is wearing leggings in the photo. I think she represents people like me. International-minded, young, modern Muslims who want to go out and study and work and play. We need different images of Islam.

I got different responses from men when I chose to wear a head scarf rather than a short skirt. It created a kind of distance. But I still have my sexuality in my own hands. I can be very flirtatious, go out and meet a man — but I decide in what mode I want to be. I can be focused on my spirituality, prayers and study without distraction, or I can have a period when I choose to be sexy even in a head scarf through how I act or speak. I feel I have more power and independence vis-à-vis men now.

Norma Moore:

I am a deeply religious person. I don’t have a label to attach to my faith, but it is there nonetheless at the core of my being. I believe that God created me and created me with love as I am — just as God creates every other person. When I put on the hijab in Iran and the shapeless tunics I experience an attempt to deny how I have been made — an attempt to neutralize me.

It has made me afraid. I started this trip almost completely covered by my hijab. Before coming I practiced with the help of an internet video so that no trace of hair or neck or calf would show and make me vulnerable to stares or the humiliation of being chastised. I had come here voluntarily and accepted the terms of admission, so I began the trip in a willing state of submission.

But then the weather got hot — very hot. I got overheated and all I could think about was tearing this hijab off. I felt suffocated. I thought how I wouldn’t let an animal suffocate like this. If my animal were covered like this and suffering I would tear the fabric off out of simple decency.

My hair, the curves in my body, were given to me by God. To cover my head and wear shapeless clothes feels like I am pretending not to be a woman and that somehow I am responsible for keeping men’s sexuality within social bounds.

I just can’t wrap my head around God making me responsible for men’s sexuality.

The Olympics volleyball photograph is tantalizing. The few inches between the women’s hands may as well be a chasm. More than once I have heard Iranian imams, with preposterous certainty, equate flimsy women’s attire in the West with decadence and prostitution. To Western sensibilities, the covered Muslim woman must de facto be the disempowered woman awaiting liberation.

Reality is many-shaded. Elghobashy wears an anklet of colored beads. The only colors on Walkenhorst are those of the German flag. Who is to say which of the women is more conservative, more of a feminist or more liberated? We do not know. What we do know is that we need more events that provoke us to ask such questions and discard tired certainties that may be no more than dangerous caricatures.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

A crazed gunman’s attack on an Orlando club in June, killing 49 people, resulted in blanket news coverage and national trauma.

Now imagine that such a massacre unfolds more than five times a day, seven days a week, unceasingly for five years, totaling perhaps 470,000 deaths. That is Syria. Yet even as the Syrian and Russian governments commit war crimes, bombing hospitals and starving civilians, President Obama and the world seem to shrug.

I admire Obama for expanding health care and averting a nuclear crisis with Iran, but allowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy. It is also a stain on all of us, analogous to the indifference toward Jewish refugees in the 1930s, to the eyes averted from Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur in the 2000s.

This is a crisis that cries out for American leadership, and Obama hasn’t shown enough.

In fairness, Obama is right to be cautious about military involvement, and we don’t know whether the more assertive approaches favored by Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus and many others would have been more effective. But I think Obama and Americans in general are mistaken when they seem to suggest: It’s horrible what’s going on over there, but there’s just nothing we can do.

“There are many things we can be doing now,” James Cartwright, a retired four-star general who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me. “We can do many things to create security in selected areas, protect and stabilize those safe zones and allow them to rebuild their own country even as the conflict continues in other parts of the country.”

Cartwright, who has been called Obama’s favorite general, acknowledges that his proposal for safe zones carries risks and that the American public should be prepared for a long project, a decade or more. But he warns that the risks of doing nothing in Syria are even greater.

Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, agrees that we can do more, like set up safe zones. She emphasizes that the U.S. should be very careful in using force so as not to make problems worse, but she adds that on balance, “We should be prepared to try and create these humanitarian areas.”

This critique is bipartisan. Kori Schake, director of defense strategy in the George W. Bush White House, says, “Yes, there is something that we can do.” Her recommendation is for safe zones modeled on Operation Provide Comfort, which established the highly successful no-fly-zone in northern Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf war.

Many experts recommend trying to ground Syria’s Air Force so it can no longer drop barrel bombs on hospitals and civilians. One oft-heard idea is to fire missiles from outside Syria to crater military runways to make them unusable.

One aim of such strategies is to increase the odds of a negotiated end to the war. Obama’s reticence has robbed Secretary of State John Kerry, who is valiantly trying to negotiate a lasting Syrian cease-fire, of leverage. The U.S. was able to get an Iran deal because it held bargaining chips, while in Syria we have relinquished all clout. And Obama’s dithering has had a real cost, for any steps in Syria are far more complex now that Russia is in the war.

Two years ago, Obama faced another daunting challenge: an impending genocide of Yazidi on Mount Sinjar near the Iraq-Syria border. He intervened with airstrikes and may have saved tens of thousands of lives. It was a flash of greatness for which he did not get enough credit — and which he has not repeated.

While caution within Syria is understandable, Obama’s lack of public global leadership in pushing to help its refugees who are swamping Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey is harder to explain. The international appeal for Syrians this year is only 41 percent funded.

“If you care about extremism, you’ve got 200,000 Syrian kids growing up in Lebanon with no education,” notes David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary, now head of the International Rescue Committee.

Perhaps it’s unfair to reproach Obama when other politicians and other countries are also unmoved — and the U.S. has been generous with financial aid — but ultimately the buck stops on Obama’s desk. He will host a summit meeting on refugees next month and I hope will seize that chance to provide the global leadership needed to address the crisis.

I met recently with two brave American doctors who, at great personal risk, used their vacation time to sneak into Aleppo, Syria, to care for children injured by barrel bombs. They described working in a makeshift underground hospital and their quiet fury at the world’s nonchalance.

“Sitting idly by and allowing a government and its allies to systematically and deliberately bomb, torture and starve hundreds of thousands of people to death, that is not the solution,” Dr. Samer Attar, a surgeon from Chicago, told me. “Silence, apathy, indifference and inaction aren’t going to make it go away.”

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

If you’re a Republican politician, announcing you’re not going to vote for Donald Trump is a little like declaring that you’re not going to rob a bank to finance your next campaign. Really, you don’t get any credit unless you say what you’re going to do instead.

“I truly don’t know,” said Senator Susan Collins unhelpfully.

Collins made news this week when she penned an op-ed for The Washington Post, announcing that she couldn’t support her party’s nominee because “Mr. Trump’s lack of self-restraint and his barrage of ill-informed comments would make an already perilous world even more so.”

It’s tough being a high-profile Republican these days. People are always demanding to know what you think about your candidate’s latest horrific remark. But unless you come up with an alternative, disavowing a candidate is more like a sulk than a solution.

There’s been a lot of this going around. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, an early evacuee from the Trump train, said he was going to wait until October to deal with the problem. Senator Lindsey Graham said he might “just pass — I may write somebody in.” Mark Kirk, who’s generally regarded as the Senator Most Likely to Be Defeated in November, gave Illinois voters an excellent example of his leadership capacity when he announced that he was going to write in David Petraeus or maybe Colin Powell.

Obviously, all these people are trying to avoid taking responsibility for Donald Trump without being accused of betraying their party. But it’s very strange to hear elected officials embracing various versions of a don’t-vote strategy. Nobody knows better than they do that politics is a world of imperfect choices.

Collins freely admits that she’s worked well with Hillary Clinton in the past. But she ruled out voting for the Democrat, telling CNN that Clinton wanted to spend too much money. (“Promises of free this and free that, that I believe would bankrupt our country.”) Faced with a choice between a guy who could compromise national security and a woman who wants universal early childhood education, the former chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee claimed to be at a loss for an answer.

Here’s the bottom line: There are only three things you can do when it comes time to elect a president. You can stay home and punt; you can choose between the two major party candidates; or you can cop out by doing something that looks like voting but has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the race.

That includes strategies about writing in the name of a retired general, leaving the top line blank, or voting for a third-party candidate who has as much chance of winning as the YouTube Keyboard Cat.

The only third party that might have a line on all state ballots is the Libertarian, whose platform includes eliminating Social Security, ending gun control and wiping out drug laws. This year’s Libertarian candidate is Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. Johnson does not seem to agree with the platform on many points, but to be honest, he’s not the world’s greatest explainer. Libertarians like the idea of a charisma-free candidate, since he’d be incapable of getting much done.

But truly, this is a silly choice. Voting for Johnson is exactly the same as staying home, except that it involves going outdoors. Ditto for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a doctor who appears to have a rather ambiguous attitude toward childhood vaccinations.

Susan Collins said she could support the Libertarian ticket if only it had been reversed, with vice-presidential candidate William Weld on top. You can’t totally dislike Weld, who once told me that being governor of Massachusetts was pretty much a walk in the park. (“I used to go on vacation for a week at a time and I wouldn’t even call in.”) However, he’s been out of office for nearly 20 years. He is not the presidential candidate. And the Libertarians are never, repeat, never going to be elected.

Right now we live in a world that’s been messed up by the bad decisions George W. Bush made about invading Iraq. He was elected president in 2000 thanks to a few hundred votes in Florida. A state where Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got 97,488 votes.

Most of the Green voters undoubtedly thought they were showing their disdain for both Bush and the deeply imperfect candidacy of Al Gore. And Nader is a man of fine principles. But look where those 97,488 votes got us.

Nader himself doesn’t feel guilty. I talked to him on the phone the other day, and he argued, basically, that if Gore couldn’t win his home state of Tennessee, it’s not Nader’s fault that he couldn’t win Florida.

And he’s not voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in November. “They’re not alike,” he said, “but they’re both terrible.”

Ralph goddam Nader should be stuffed in a barrel with 10 pounds of sharp scrap iron and rolled down a steep hill.

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