A parallactic observation ensues from viewing a distant object from different vantage points, thereby seeing the object framed by two dissimilar backgrounds. Consideration of the root causes for terrorist activity may be characterized by this phenomenon.

President Donald J. Trump’s establishment of the United States’ embassy in Jerusalem and the quick and almost complete destruction of ISIS have changed the landscape with regard to terror, but are there foundations that support the inculcation of terrorist ideologies that are separate and distinct from religious motivations or motivations impelled by foreign policy or geopolitical spurs? One such base and scaffold is the systematic dehumanization of women and female children that takes place in many of the countries and communities that suborn terrorism. This distinct perspective must be considered in any comprehensive discussion of the ways in which terrorism and the infiltration of terrorist thought should be fought.

Women’s rights and FGM

Human trafficking, one of the fastest growing crimes in the world while Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were Secretaries of State, has become a catastrophe. Sexual Slavery has exploded due, in large part, to the Bush and Obama Administrations’ criminally inept policies in the Middle East, which resulted in massive instabilities and in the destruction of whole countries, such as Libya, as viable, independent states. Another scourge, female genital mutilation (FGM; also known as female circumcision), has brutalized more than 200 million women and girls worldwide, according to the U.N. The Trump Administration must help eliminate these atrocities.

A comprehensive approach to combat radical Islamic terrorism must include efforts to secure basic human rights for women and girls throughout the world. It is critical to understand that to vanquish completely radical Islamic terrorism, the status of females throughout the globe must undergo a long-overdue transformation.

The Trump Administration must promote women’s rights so that it becomes a vital foundation of U.S. foreign policy. If we lead by example and support boldly women’s rights throughout the Islamic and developing world, forces of change and moderation will take root. Such effort will bolster judicious voices within Islam that seek to expunge destructive practices from the religion and establish boundaries between the religion and political governance.

Technological development and access to education, media, and family planning will serve, over time, as counterweights to entrenched, militant forces. Certain women’s advocacy groups within Islamic states may serve as surrogates for U.S. influence, to foster useful change. No nation that suppresses women’s rights should be considered a true ally of the United States. Sensitivity to cultural practices that injure half a nation’s population is not sensitivity, but willful blindness on the part of the American government.

An obvious area for increased involvement is action to eliminate human trafficking, with particular emphasis on the eradication of trafficking that supports sexual slavery (as committed by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and related groups). Another heinous practice that must be expunged from the world is female genital mutilation: I first brought up FGM when I served on the NSC Staff under President Reagan and dealt with global issues. After my briefing, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs found it impossible to believe that such barbarity was still practiced widely.

Since then, despite some paper bans in certain countries, this practice has grown and has spread. FGM is the fractional or total amputation of external female genitalia, or significant injury to the female genital organs for religious or tribal and not remedial reasons. FGM is very dangerous, is potentially incapacitating, and is an utter denial of the victim’s humanity, sexuality, and rights, as declared by numerous international conventions. Many women die as a result of these barbaric operations, often done without anesthesia.

The percentages

The percentage of women who undergo FGM in many African and Muslim countries is frightening, although it must be noted that it is very difficult to collect precise statistics. The following are the potential percentages of women and young girls who have undergone FGM: Egypt, 87% to 92%; Somalia, 98%; Sierra Leone, 88%; Mauritania, 71%; Indonesia, 97% (amongst Indonesian Muslims); Yemen, 80%. The number of women who have undergone FGM worldwide amount to hundreds of millions, according to U.N. authorities. In Egypt alone, the number exceeds 27 million, although, in 2006, the nation’s most senior authority on religious law denounced the practice ─ a position that the current Egyptian government shares.

Who practices FGM?

FGM can be a regional, cultural, or religious practice. Among the world religions, it is vested deeply in Islam, although it is practiced within the Ethiopian Jewish community and also by some Ethiopian Christians. Catholics and Protestants in several other African countries are known to perform FGM. There is no theological basis for FGM within Judaism or Christianity. As practiced by non-Muslims, FGM is essentially a product of ethnic traditions, particularly in the eastern, north-eastern, and western parts of Africa and within immigrant communities that come from these areas.

An Islamic Response

Though the Quran is silent with regard to female circumcision, within the four major schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, the Shafi’i School considers FGM obligatory, the Hanbali School states that it should be encouraged strongly, and the two other schools believe that FGM is to be preferred. Shiites generally hold that FGM is meritorious under Islam, but not obligatory. Key religious leaders in Sunni Islam have in this century, however, denounced the practice. Ali Gomaa, the past Grand Mufti of Egypt has condemned FGM (this distinguished title is held by the official who oversees religious law in this Sunni-denominated state).

Mohammad Salim Al-Awa, an important Egyptian Islamic theorist, has questioned the legitimacy of the practice under Islam: Al-Awa has stated that the Sunnah does not record nor suggest that Muhammad had any of the female members of his household, including his daughters, circumcised (the Sunnah chronicles the transmitted manner of life, statements, and actions of the Prophet Muhammad). If reaffirmed by a broad and inclusive range of Islamic scholars, such a pronouncement may serve as a most powerful force to end FGM, since Muhammad’s life is considered by Muslims to be the supreme example for moral behavior for all humankind. Further, simplicity in delineating a message, reached by consensus, should be considered critical: if revered theological authorities, institutions, and governmental bodies could issue a terse statement, for example, “The Prophet Muhammad did not practice female circumcision in his house, therefore we must not,” an international campaign could be mounted against FGM that would have great moral force and would bear a message that would be clear to all.

Target, a German human rights group, organized a landmark anti-FGM conference at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in 2006, in which leading Islamic scholars declared FGM to be unnecessary and unsupported within Islam (Al-Azhar is one of the oldest universities in the world and is the most important institution of advanced learning within Sunni Islam). The past Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a body which represents 47 Muslim-majority countries and ten other states with significant Muslim populations, has also decried the practice.

Unfortunately, a roadblock to this progress was erected when the Muslim-Brotherhood-backed government of Mohamed Morsi came to power in Egypt in 2012: this government and its leaders either supported or condoned FGM. The election of President Morsi engendered the tacit support of the Obama Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting with President Morsi in Egypt in July 2012. With the overthrow of the Morsi regime in 2013 and the assumption of presidential power by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014, the leadership of Egypt, once again, has stated their abhorrence of this practice, for FGM was banned in this pivotal state in 2008 and criminalized in 2016. Enforcement in Egypt is now the question, though numbers compiled by UNICEF, in a 2014 study, are demonstrative of significant progress there in reducing the prevalence of FGM procedures since the beginning of this century.

FGM in America

FGM is not limited to the Middle East and parts of Africa: due to the preeminence of Shafi’i School in Southeast Asia, the threat to women and to girls there is numerically extremely high. This is, in part, a function of the very large Muslim populations in Indonesia and in Malaysia. South Asia, which includes India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, has communities that practice FGM. Europe and the Americas are also at risk.

Extraordinarily troubling is the fact that in the United States, the number of women and girls who have undergone or who are at risk of undergoing FGM has more than doubled during the past ten years due to increased immigration from Africa and Muslim-majority nations. Although Congress in 1996 passed a law that made FGM illegal (when performed on girls under 18 years of age), concerted enforcement is almost nonexistent. Indeed, there seems to be a clear reticence at all levels of U.S. government to assert what should be obvious: that any informed immigrant population that condones this practice is at risk of placing itself outside the fabric of America. Implicit in this statement is the need for education in such communities; the issue must be brought out into the open, for without knowledge, countervailing action is impossible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated, in 1996, that 168,000 women and girls, living in the United States, had undergone the procedure; that number is, without question, much higher today. Of great significance is the concern that the physical damage done by FGM is likely surpassed by the psychological harm inflicted on the girls and the women who are so brutalized; this mental damage, in turn, may be passed to the children of those who have been physically assailed.

The Psychological Dimension

This situation is similar conceptually to the psychological damage that was inflicted on German and Austrian children by the sadistic pedagogical regime championed by noted, 19th-century, German physician, Moritz Schreber, who advocated the use of harsh discipline and torture-like devices to scourge children for improper posture and other supposed transgressions.

This abuse is documented, in part, by correspondence between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung concerning Moritz Schreber’s own son, Daniel Paul Schreber, who went mad, though he was brilliant and one of the leading German jurists of his time. Freud’s Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides), published in 1911, was, in part, instigated by Daniel Paul Schreber’s autobiographical work, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (originally published as Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken), which itself became important in the history of psychoanalytic thought. In total, three of Moritz Schreber’s children became mentally ill; of these, one committed suicide.

The Swiss psychologist and philosopher Alice Miller referred to Moritz Schreber’s type of child rearing as “poisonous pedagogy”; this term is, itself, a loose translation of German educationalist Katharina Rutschky’s phrase, “Schwarze Pädagogik.” Use of Moritz Schreber’s devices and the adoption of his poisonous pedagogy almost certainly played a central role in the formation of a collective mindset receptive to the brutal ideals of National Socialism: this, to discharge subconscious hatred, wrought by systematic abuse, against the “other.”

Thus, the psychological damage instigated by the practice of FGM may create a mental substrate conducive to instilling a predisposition for assertive hatred in sons or daughters, by a subset of mothers, who have undergone FGM. Male children, in such cases, may be viewed, by those afflicted, as surrogates for the men who supported the infliction of FGM in these women when they, themselves, were children (such subconscious anger by mothers is also conditioned by theologically condoned domestic violence). When such anger is visited upon sons by their mothers, it cannot be but an agent that shapes a mind that may be responsive to the terrorists’ totalitarian and eschatological ideals.

It is this intergenerational brutalization, which passes from one sex to the other and back again, that provides the ground in which terrorist ideologies may germinate. This said, the numbers of terrorists and terrorist adherents, compared to the numbers of Islamic women who have suffered FGM, and the correlation between these groups, must be studied. Certainly, significant numbers of Muslim mothers who have experienced FGM, if not the overwhelming majority, take care to not damage their children’s psyche, despite the adults’ pain. Unfortunately, given the lethality of modern arms and the nature of terrorist attacks, which are often indiscriminant, if even a very small cohort of affected Islamic mothers pass their understandable anger to their children, this constitutes a hazard that must be addressed. Therefore, the elimination of FGM must be considered as a corollary to the established means of suppression of radical Islamic terrorism.

U.S. Actions

In 2012, Secretary of State Clinton spoke against FGM on the issue’s U.N. sponsored awareness day: very small anti-FGM programs were funded by the U.S. government in some affected countries, but Secretary Clinton, despite her professed concern for women, accomplished next to nothing in eliminating FGM. Aside from several mentions of FGM in the context of general human-rights statements and a bland presidential proclamation against FGM in 2016, there is no record of Secretary Clinton’s or President Obama’s taking decisive action, though, during their tenure, an additional 15 million girls are thought to have been placed at risk worldwide, according to the U.N. Now is the time for a new administration to act.

In 2018, Emily Kearney and Megan Kamm of the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, the U.S. Department of State, recounted the U.S. government’s efforts to stop FGM. For example, Kearney and Kamm wrote that USAID and other cohorts, in 2017, designed a three-year initiative, “Koota Injena: Clan Engagement as a Tool for Abandonment of CEFM and FGM/C and Promoting the Value of the Girl,” which is now being tested in Kenya. To thwart this atrocious practice, these officials also note that other federal offices have implemented initiatives to assist and to educate at-risk communities as well as new immigrants to the United States, who come from countries where FGM is prevalent. These are important programs, but they fall far short of being enough.

What should be done?

Within Islamic communities throughout the world, Islam must provide the answer to FGM and to human trafficking. To battle FGM, no solution can or should be provided from without. Likewise, within affected African communities, the answer must come from within. For all Islamic or African nations, an initial set of goals needs to be emplaced. Consideration should be given to following Egypt’s model, which would entail first prohibiting and then criminalizing FGM; this will provide a legal framework in which anti-FGM enforcement may begin.

America is also a country at risk, as are other nations stretching across the globe. For America to become a beacon to the world on this issue, we must lead by example and do everything possible to see that the practice of FGM is extinguished in our nation and that American citizens and new immigrants who have undergone FGM get access to the medical help and counselling that can mitigate some of the life-altering effects of this offense. In doing these things, we must ensure that the individual and multidimensional worth of each affected person is not diminished by governmental efforts to highlight or expunge the practice. In undertaking this quest, it must be understood that the United States cannot be an effective and constructive voice in the worldwide elimination of FGM as long as the practice festers, hidden, in many of our communities.

Using the Target-led conference at Al-Azhar University and other successful initiatives, culled from various countries or organizations, as prototypes, President Trump should order that a comprehensive multi-agency action plan be produced in 180 days to mount an intensive, multifactorial effort to eradicate FGM from the world, with immediate enforcement in America (a companion effort targeting human trafficking is also required). In any efforts to extinguish FGM internationally, America must not try to supplant initiatives that spring from the many Muslim and African states in which FGM is practiced widely; rather, the United States, through international conferences and fora, must provide support and share best practices with other affected countries, to help ensure that concrete actions are undertaken by numerous parties and stakeholders. American efforts in these matters must not be perceived as supercilious, nor can our endeavors, if they are to be effective, be tantamount to interventionism, for such a strategy would be but a reconstitution of the failed policies of the recent past.

New, tailored plans must be produced without delay; all elements of the government should work with the U.N., other nations, national and international advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations, as well as the private sector, to defeat practices that harm women and girls. Such anti-FGM advocacy should include very substantial initiatives that need to be by mounted by the leaders in the field of social media, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, yet such initiatives must be country specific and will require the cooperation of each concerned nation in which social-media campaigns are to be mounted.


The Trump Administration should build upon the work done by the UN; UNICF; the African Parliamentary Union, a body that encompasses all the parliamentary institutions of that continent; various multinational Islamic institutions and organizations; and efforts by countries or groups of countries that seek to extinguish FGM. The World Health Organization (WHO), in cooperation with UNICF and many other UN agencies and programs, has assessed the treaties and consensus documents that proscribe FGM; they are numerous. In WHO’s 2008 interagency statement, “Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation,” the organization stated that efforts must be multi-sectorial, persistent, and community-led. These are important tenets to be followed.

The time is right for a new universal declaration concerning FGM to be proposed. Signatories should include political, religious, cultural, and tribal leaders of all lands in which FGM persists. As part of such a declaration, all signatory nations, communities, religious denominations, and tribes should proclaim an immediate ban on the practice. They should also stipulate that the practice is to be criminalized, within seven years from the creation of the document, by all signatory nations and concerned legal authorities. A new, interdisciplinary, international organization should also be established to oversee compliance, to share best practices and information, and to collect relevant statistics.

As noted, a new and concise message against FGM should be promulgated; such a message could then be adopted multinationally and be spread by religious or tribal authorities and by social media. Healing the physical and the non-physical wounds that have been propagated by FGM will require a sustained effort of great scope. Such action must be done in a manner that affirms the humanity and worth of those who are victims while being supportive of affected children and families.

There is much in this domain that the United States must face to make a difference. Most fundamentally, America, to realize its many policy objectives, must realize that there is no alternative to making women’s rights the hallmark of governmental policies and actions.

Richard B. Levine was Director of Policy Development on the NSC Staff under President Ronald Reagan; after six years at the White House, he became the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Technology Transfer and Security Assistance, serving under three Secretaries of the Navy. He is the recipient of two Presidential letters of commendation and the Department of the Navy’s highest civilian decoration, the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. Mr. Levine was a principal author of the Food for Progress aid program, whose allocations for FY2016 were valued at $153 million. He received his baccalaureate, with honors, from the Johns Hopkins University. He holds an MBA from Harvard.

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