Ladies First, Women Last

NEW YORK – Many people still believe that the attacks of September 11, 2001, were not just acts of political terrorism, but part of a cultural war, a clash of civilizations. The two things that get people most excited in cultural conflicts are religion and sex, specifically the way that men treat women. They are of course intimately linked: religion is commonly used as a way to regulate sexual behavior and relations between the sexes.

The cultural interpretation of 9/11 as a civilizational clash explains why a number of former leftists have joined conservatives in their hostility to Islam. In the past, most American leftists would have regarded the war in Afghanistan as a neo-imperialist venture. But, since 9/11, the tone has changed. The Taliban subjugated women, stopped them from being educated, and kept them wrapped in burqas. So a war against the Taliban and their guest, Osama bin Laden, could be construed as a war for female liberation.

It is, in fact, unlikely that feminism played any role in President George W. Bush’s decision to take the United States to war. But cultural concerns allowed him to recruit quite a few unlikely allies.

The response to 9/11 and to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s recent encounter with an African chambermaid in a New York hotel have very little in common, except for one thing: once again, cultural conflict was invoked in a misleading way.