Terra Incognita: Sex, Islamism and the Old South

The relationship between conservative Muslim societies, slavery and prostitution is more common than one thinks.

By
April 5, 2011 22:54
Thai go-go dancer in Bangkok

Thailand prostitute 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

In a shocking article in Harper’s Magazine Lawrence Osborne tells of a “Pilgrimage of Sin: Booze, bombs and hookers in Islamic Thailand.”

He regales his readers with the seeming contradiction between Malay Islamists in southern Thailand and the brothel culture they patronize. He meets five Muslim Malay men from Malaysia who have crossed into Thailand to visit the Pink Lady brothel. The five come from a southern state where Shari’a law has been enacted, and where the government considers Valentine’s Day “synonymous with vice activities.”

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The author interviews local Malay men (southern Thailand has a large Malay minority), and finds that while they support the Islamist insurgents who murder Buddhist priests and kill policemen, they also love the female Buddhist prostitutes at the Pink Lady.

The relationship between Islamism, sex trafficking and prostitution is more common than one thinks. The 9/11 hijackers, Maj. Nidal Hasan of the Fort Hood massacre and radical preachers Abu Hamza al-Masri and Anwar Awlaki were all frequenters of strip clubs or prostitutes.

A RECENT article in The New York Times by Aubrey Belford reveals the latest twist in “Indonesia’s culture war between peddlers of titillation and Islamist conservatives.”

Ody Mulya Hidayat, an Indonesian Muslim filmmaker, has found a new secret to success – cast Japanese porn stars, with their clothes on, in his B movies like Evil Nurse 2. Aubrey writes that “many in Muslimmajority Indonesia will pay to see foreign porn stars perform – clothed – in local films. Just don’t expect Indonesians to own up to it.”

Why the obsession with Japanese porn stars in the “conservative” society of Indonesia, where porn is illegal and volunteer religious police routinely harass women for not dressing in appropriate Islamic attire? Perhaps the answer can be found in the deserts of Sinai.

A December 13 report entitled “Hostages, Torture and Rape in the Sinai Desert” by Physicians for Human Rights in Israel revealed that African migrants were branded, whipped and routinely raped by the Sinai Beduin. One young woman from Ethiopia related that the Beduin “would take me into the front of the pickup and do whatever they liked with me. The distress of this was too much for my husband.”

A third of the women interviewed by PHR claim to have been raped, and it is thought that many more are raped but, due to the shame, do not tell interviewers about it.

But when you go to the Sinai, the Beduin tell you they are a conservative Muslim society. They circumcise young girls, and their women are swaddled in embroidered black hijabs. So why does this “conservative” society engage in sex crimes against migrants? The same migrants in Israel are not raped by their employers, at least not that we know of.

THE ANSWER may lie in Iraq and the Gulf states. A recent article by the BBC related that “Ugandan women were trafficked into domestic slavery in Iraq.”

The report found 146 women who signed up to work in the country. Upon arrival they found they had been sold to Iraqis for $3,500. One woman recalled that she had been forced to work from 5 a.m. to midnight. She was also raped. Other women that Anna Cavel interviewed were raped as well. But Iraq is a conservative society. The women wear the black abaya, and since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the country has become more religious.

The story continues in the Gulf states. Many of the female domestic slaves (“servants”) imported from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere are subjected to sexual abuse. According to the Nepalese embassy in Saudi Arabia, “A majority of these women are raped, sexually assaulted, physically assaulted and have endured inhumane behavior.”

Lawrence Osborne, in his article on Thailand, related that some of the brothels in Bangkok were frequented primarily by Saudis and Gulf Arabs – people whose own countries either banned women from driving or have imprisoned Europeans “caught” making out on beaches.

All the stories related here have one thing in common.

A conservative culture claims moral superiority, but subjects members of other cultures to dehumanizing treatment and sexual abuse. It doesn’t seem like it can all coexist. But a very similar society existed in the American Old South.

The Old South was a conservative place, with a culture in some ways similar to what is found in the Islamic world. It was a society of large families that guarded the honor of their women. It imported servants and slaves, and took pride in its hospitality.

Historian David Hacket Fischer relates in his excellent book Albion’s Seed that this patriarchal society “condemned as unnatural and even dangerous to society” single men and women, and that arranged marriage was common.

The Byrd household of 18th-century Virginia may have been typical. The slaves were beaten and burned with hot irons. “Women were held to the strictest standards of sexual virtue. Men were encouraged by the customs of the country to maintain a predatory attitude toward women.”

William Byrd II kept a diary of his sexual exploits.


In a month-long debauch he “played with Mrs. Chiswell and kissed her on the bed... I neglected my prayers... we saw Molly King, a pretty black girl...[and] Jenny, an Indian girl, had got drunk and made us good sport... at night I asked a negro girl to kiss me... came to Mrs. Johnson and rogered her twice...I went to Mrs. Fitzherbert’s... walked away and picked up a girl whom I carried to the bagnio [bathroom] and rogered her twice very well... endeavored to pick up a whore but could not.”

Byrd would not be out of place in today’s Islamist states, where conservative laws, slavery, rape and sexual avarice can all be found in the same place.

Byrd’s diary reveals both his religious feelings – he complains often of “neglecting” his prayers – and his outright disregard for sexual mores. The “negro” and “Indian” women he encountered, the prostitutes and domestic white servants, were all fair game because of his sense of entitlement.

Is there any reason to think that the Beduin of Sinai or the Malays of southern Thailand feel differently?

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.


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