Saturday, March 10, 2007

On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

In 2003, Dutch voters voted in as a Member of Parliament a woman of Somalian origin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The remarkable thing about this was that it had been only a decade since Hirsi Ali had been a young refugee seeking asylum in Holland - a complete outsider.

At that point she had never held a job in her life, and knew nothing about European history or of the Dutch language. A Muslim girl brought up in the conservative milieu of Somalia and Saudi Arabia, she was unused to, even shocked by, the values of the West. But in this new world she "saw for the first time that human relations could be different". Her new life gave her a vantage from which to examine the ways of the old, as also a sense of the sovereignty of the individual she had never known before.

The wonder and empowerment of this intellectual journey, more than her physical or the political one, animate the pages of Infidel, Hirsi Ali's plainspeaking and revelatory autobiography. Infidel is about nothing less than a kind of rebirth of the self. In the world Hirsi Ali came from, "because I was born a woman, I could never become an adult", but in the West she was able to become "a person, an individual". Her autobiography - the story of the self's journey through time, contemplating the meanings of what it has gone through, and believing in the value of such a quest - is itself the most powerful symbol of that break.

Ali was born in Somalia, and spent her childhood living in a number of either failed or repressive states while her father, a prominent Somalian opposition leader, cobbled together a resistance against the country's corrupt dictator. The values she grew up with were, on the one hand, those of the clan, and on the other those of Islam. While still a child she had to undergo the female genital mutilation commonly found in, though by no means exclusive to, the Islamic world.

Women had little or no independence: before marriage they were the property of their fathers, and after that of their husbands. In public life there was very little respect for the rule of law, government was hopelessly ineffective and mired in corruption, and the warring clans made a travesty of the idea of a civil society. It is Hirsi Ali's argument in Infidel that all these things were related.

Infidel takes unusual positions on many issues, from religious fundamentalism and feminism to multiculturalism and immigrant assimilation. As someone who has seen and lived through both sides of the story on all these questions, Hirsi Ali's views are arguably more important than those who might approach them in a more theoretical way.

Central to her argument is her wideranging critique of Islam, a religion of which she was once a faithful adherent. Not only that, she also differs from those who would make a careful distinction between mainstream Islam and militant or fundamentalist Islam. Her problem is with what is taught by the Quran itself, and the message of absolute submission it preaches.

Hirsi Ali regards the Quran less as a transcendent text that communicates the word of God than as "a historical record, written by humans". Its mindset is too is that of a certain time and place, that "of the Arab desert in the seventh century". Further, there is no distinction in Islam between the religious and the secular sphere: the Quran legislates on every aspect of life. Women suffer particularly badly, for they are subjugated in the name of the Quran. Their sexuality is seen as provocative and in need of being controlled, and their men are granted absolute rights over them. Many of the Quran's verses propagate ideas incompatible with modern notions of freedom, equality and individual rights, yet debate on these matters is forbidden because "worship of God means total obedience".

In Europe, though, Hirsi Ali finds that nothing is too sacred to be debated. Registering for a degree in political science instead of one of the standard vocational courses preferred by refugees, Hirsi Ali finds her old worldview buffetted by the shock of unfamiliar and startlingly powerful ideas:

Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas.
People had contested the whole basis of the idea of God's power on earth, and they had done it with reasoning that was beautiful and compelling. Freud said we had power over ourselves. Darwin said creation stories were a fairy tale. Spinoza said there were no miracles, no angels, no need to pray to anything outside ourselves: God was us, and nature. Emil Durkheim said human beings fantasized religion to give themselves a sense of security.
In every way, to read these books of Western history was sinning. Even the history of how modern states formed confronted me with contradictions of my belief in Allah. The European separation of God's word from the state was itself haram. The Quran says there can be no government without God; the Quran is Allah's book of laws for the conduct of worldly affairs.
Almost everything was secular here. Society worked without reference to God, and it seemed to function perfectly…. This man-made system of government was so much more stable, peaceful, prosperous, and happy than the supposedly God-devised systems I had been taught to respect.

In the past, contends Hirsi Ali, the Christian world too was equally close-minded and suffocating, but the revolution ushered in by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment - Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire, Mill, Locke - brought about a separation between the church and the state, and a new respect for reason and the individual's right to choose his or her own way of life. "The Enlightenment," writes Hirsi Ali, "cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kingship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule - so long as he did not threaten civic peace and the freedom of others."

In her opinion Islam, too, needs a similar Age of Reformation. She is critical of the way in which Western governments and intellectuals have become nervous about this right to freedom of speech, of free debate and criticism, out of respect for the pieties of multiculturalism and a fear of being called racist. She herself defied those pieties by collaborating with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a short film sharply critical of the treatment of women in Islam. She writes:
When I approached Theo to help me make Submission, I had three messages to get across. First, men, and even women, may look up and speak to Allah: it is possible for believers to have a dialogue with God and look closely at Him. Second, the rigid interpretation of the Quran in Islam today causes intolerable misery for women. Through globalization, more and more people who hold these ideas have traveled to Europe with the women they own and brutalize, and it is no longer possible for Europeans and other Westerners to pretend that severe violations of human rights occur only far away. The third message is the film's final phrase: "I may no longer submit." It is possible to free oneself - to adapt one's faith, to examine it critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.
It is a controversial message, liable to further incite the very people it is aimed at. Van Gogh was stabbed to death in 2005 by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin, and Hirsi Ali herself now lives in the United States after facing death threats. But like many of the thinkers she admires, her unorthodox ideas have set off a far-reaching debate. (Time magazine named her one of its "100 Most Influential People of 2005".) This exemplary autobiography provides an unforgettable lens on the most vexing problems of our age.

A crackling discussion of the questions raised by Hirsi Ali's book can be found on the European website Signandsight here, with pieces by Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur and Ulrike Ackermann among others. Another piece, by Christopher Hitchens, is here.

And here is a piece by Hirsi Ali: "The Right to Offend". And in the same vein, a piece by Salman Rushdie, "Defend the Right To Be Offended". And here is a very good essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb: "Three Paths To Modernity: The British, American, and French Enlightenments".

And it seems to me that Infidel might be read very fruitfully in comparison with - even the single-word titles of the books seem to point at each other - Minaret, the novel by Leila Aboulela published two years ago. Aboulela also tells the story of an immigrant Muslim woman arriving in the West in mid-life, but her book charts, just as persuasively, a journey in the direction opposite to that taken by Hirsi Ali. Her protagonist Najwa, floundering in the anomie of the highly secularized world of the West, eventually seeks refuge in the order and certitude of religion, and finds comfort in the sense of being "safe with God". "We never get lost because we can see the minaret of the mosque and head home towards it," goes one sentence of Aboulela's novel.

And two old posts on films with a powerful feminist message: Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor, and Tahmineh Milani's Two Women.


Szerelem said...

The debate at signandsight (which I have been following for a few weeks now) is really quite interesting. Hirsi Ali makes me very uncomfortable though. She does raise important questions no doubt but I just find her entire approach not just a bit offensive but also eventually pointless. She comes up with such blanket generalisations that you really cant take away much of any use.
Plus she has a very biased and unidimensional take on Islamic history that is disappointing to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I liked your review and just placed order for the book. It was a thought provoking review.

Anonymous said...

For several days I have been debating wondering [trying to divine from various reviews]If Ms.Ali's story is nuanced enough to be an interesting read.
Thanks to your review, finally, now I know.
Seems it is..

Rezwan said...

The repression against women is not limited to Islam - most religions especially those interpreted at a fundamentalist level are repressive generally and in particular towards women.

Taslima Nasrin's view on this:

'Humankind is facing an uncertain future. The probability of new kinds of rivalry and conflict looms large. In particular, the conflict is between two different ideas, secularism and fundamentalism. I don't agree with those who think the conflict is between two religions, namely Christianity and Islam, or Judaism and Islam. After all there are fundamentalists in every religious community. I don't agree with those people who think that the crusades of the Middle Ages are going to be repeated soon. Nor do I think that this is a conflict between the East and the West. To me, this conflict is basically between modern, rational, logical thinking and irrational, blind faith. To me, this is a conflict between modernity and anti-modernism. While some strive to go forward, others strive to go backward. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.' - From her personal pages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the straight forward review on Ali's book, I will get a copy. I've seen and heard this woman a few times on various television shows, and find her captivating in her intellect. I suspect I differ from those that feel we must be "experts" in all/most aspects of Islam in order to develop our own opinions about the religion, in general. As well, I feel those that simply play the "you're just generalizing" game, tend to, simply, fool themsleves. One can imagine just how completely impossible it would be to get through a day (perhaps, even a few minutes of a day) without constant generalizations about all that goes on within and around us. Blow up enough people, cut off enough heads, cry "foul" enough times, and one (or a group) is likely to find/make all kinds of enemies.

Anonymous said...

Throughout the ages all women have been stigmatized by other women as well as men. It takes a very secure person to review another persons'sex, religion, creed, lifestyle, hurts and pain and title without biased judgement.
God said we are All created in His Image and Likeness and we are to Act as such Created Agents.
There is too much smut and anguish (Sin)in this World today.
It only takes one changed person to help another person who is looking for change and a better life and lifestyle. Look at Christ and how He was chastised for being so radical in His time.
When we step out for what we believe to be true, we open ourselves up for critisicim.
Life is Just Not Fair!

Portugal said...

Infidel is a book that focuses on not hatred or spite, but rather the differences that exist and the need for citizens of the world to recognize the role of Islam in modern culture. No other book has ever dared to cross the extremes of the political and religious realms . Ayaan Hirsi Ali defiantly challenges the traditions of Islam and their beliefs towards Western culture. She exposes the harsh realities of female mutilation and numerous other discriminations that preside within the Muslim community. Infidel brought the reader into a world of alienation, civil war, and family values. Ayaan Hirsi Ali manages to survive the death and violence that constantly traps her in Africa through an arranged marriage of which she flees from and seeks refuge in Holland.