A Portrait of Courage
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has looked deep and hard at the Muslim world in which she grew up and has challenged Muslims to think equally deep and hard, writes Salim Mansur, in a profile of the controversial figure who has dared to speak out at great personal risk.
June 24, 2007 - 12:54 am
In her memoir, %%AMAZON=0743289684 Infidel%%, Ayaan Hirsi Ali poses the questions, ‘How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice?’ The answers are likely few and none.
Hirsi Ali’s journey to freedom from the traditionally preordained life of a Somali woman, or for that matter most women in Africa and other parts of the developing world littered with the ruins of failed state and society, is an astonishing story of grace and courage. If Hirsi Ali had limited herself to recounting this journey – of the immense obstacles as a girl growing into a woman she confronted in her escape to freedom from Mogadishu via various sojourns in Saudi Arabia, then Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Nairobi (Kenya) to Holland – the story would have remained gripping and inspiring, and it would have opened a window for readers in the West to glimpse the doubly-wretched condition of one half of the population of wrecked states such as her native Somalia.
But Hirsi Ali’s story is much more than an escape to freedom from poverty, ignorance, civil strife and violence against women to security, peace and self-fulfillment. It is a story of a Muslim woman whose struggle to be free became eventually a confrontation with her religion, whose experience of genital mutilation and physical violence unmasked the extent of misogyny within Muslim societies that she eventually came to view as inherent to Islam, and whose escape to freedom culminated in abjuring the faith-tradition into which she was born.
This second aspect of her journey to freedom is the part of Hirsi Ali’s life which coincides with the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent global war against Islamist terrorists. Hirsi Ali’s story as an activist and public intellectual, as an elected member of the Dutch parliament and partnership with the film-maker Theo van Gogh in scripting and producing a documentary titled Submission that portrays violence against women within Muslim society, as a woman under threat for life after the murder of van Gogh in November 2004 in retaliation for the making of the documentary by a 26-year old Islamist (Muhammad Bouyeri) of Moroccan origin, and once again as an exile departing from Holland and its politics for a new life in the United States, has become unintentionally yet inextricably bound with 9/11 and what has followed since then.
The change in Hirsi Ali’s view of the world around her came gradually, prompted by her experience and her university studies in Leiden. Then she saw on the CNN the second hijacked plane flown into the World Trade Center and her self-questioning became more urgent and radical. Finally, she reached her conclusion and one night some months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington Hirsi Ali ‘looked in the mirror and said out loud, “I don’t believe in God.” I said it slowly, enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief.’
It might be assumed that Hirsi Ali did not at first fully grasp the level of anger she would provoke among Muslims in Holland by taking her views into the public. Hirsi Ali’s words on Islam, on the Koran and prophet Muhammad, were polarizing. She spoke from her own experience shared by millions of women in the Arab-Muslim world, and she was implacable, unrelenting and unwilling to be censored or silenced. In one interview for the Dutch media Hirsi Ali called the prophet a pervert saying, ‘By our Western standards, Muhammad is a perverse man, and a tyrant.’
Hirsi Ali might have been somewhat na√Øve not to consider in speaking out as she was doing she would be inviting the sort of censorship – death – pronounced by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 on Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. But when Theo van Gogh was killed and his murderer pinned a note on the corpse that threatened Hirsi Ali with similar fate, there was no mistaking the Islamist war against the West had arrived in Holland and for her had also become personal.
The mood of people in Holland and beyond in Europe was troubled. The peril of radical Islamism was undeniable as Europe became home for a growing Muslim immigrant population variously estimated to be somewhere between 15 and 20 million. In March 2004 and eight months before the murder of Theo van Gogh, Islamists brought their war to Spain when they bombed a passenger-train in Madrid. A Europe-wide debate began, and continues, on how to contend with Islamist threat and accommodate or assimilate Muslims without risking the Islamist war against the West be turned into the West’s war against Islam.
Hirsi Ali found herself at the centre of this political debate in Europe on Islam, Islamism as a political ideology, status of women in Islam and violence against women by Muslims, and the proper European response in engaging with Muslims at home and with the Muslim world. Hirsi Ali’s conclusion on these matters was unequivocal; Europe and Islam confronted each other as polar opposites.
‘When people say that the values of Islam are compassion, tolerance, and freedom,’ Hirsi Ali writes in Infidel, ‘I look at reality, at real cultures and governments, and I see that it simply isn’t so.’ In contrast, she opines, life is ‘better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedom that are recognized and protected by the state.’
European opinion is divided, and some of Europe’s intellectuals view Hirsi Ali, her courage aside, as Enlightenment “radical” or “fundamentalist” and hence, the flip-side of a Muslim fundamentalist. In this opinion Hirsi Ali having renounced her faith scorns Islam just as Muslim fundamentalists and Islamist warriors view Europe as the land of kufr (unbelief). But any comparison made of Hirsi Ali with Islamists is disgusting. Her struggle to be free of any dogmatically proscribed inhibitions is one waged by words and reason; for the Islamist defenders of the faith she renounced, their weapon is violence and murder.
Many Europeans skeptical of Hirsi Ali’s views believe enraging Muslims by disparaging their faith and traditions closes any promise of rapprochement between Europe and Islam. A pluralist Europe where cultures co-exist together in evolving harmony is the promise to strive for, they argue, and this promise despite difficulties reside in the politics of multiculturalism that countries such as Holland and Britain adopted.
Other Europeans view multiculturalism differently. In this perspective multiculturalism in the guise of accommodating other cultures results in the dilution of Enlightenment legacy of individual liberty, separation of religion and politics in the public sphere, secularism and democracy. Multicultural accommodation amounts to one-way concessions to other cultures, in particular to Islam as Muslims generally seek acceptance of their traditional practices without embracing European values.
This debate once simmering below the relatively placid European surface burst furiously into the open following the murder of Theo van Gogh and Hirsi Ali’s outspoken views on Islam. It has been carried forward in the pages, for instance, of the webmagazine signandsight.com.
Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam that explores the killing of Theo van Gogh and the politics surrounding it, wrote ‘I admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and agree with most of what she stands for.’ This was in reply to Pascal Bruckner, a very staunch defender of Hirsi Ali. But then Buruma went on to write that he is ‘not convinced that public statements, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made, that Islam in general is “backward” and its prophet “perverse”, are helpful.’ In other words Hirsi Ali’s views and those of her admirers subvert the promise of multiculturalism.
Timothy Garton Ash writing in signandsight.com agreed with Buruma. Ash also published a lengthy book review essay in the New York Review about “Islam in Europe”, and while he expressed like Buruma admiration for Hirsi Ali he wrote, ‘I do not believe that she is showing the way forward for most Muslims in Europe, at least not for many years to come. A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic. If the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European. For secular Europeans to demand that Muslims adopt their faith-secular humanism-would be almost as intolerant as the Islamist jihadist demand that we should adopt theirs. But, the Enlightenment fundamentalist will protest, our faith is based on reason! Well, they reply, ours is based on truth!’
Paul Bruckner had in some ways kicked off the debate in his essay reviewing the views of Buruma and Ash on Hirsi Ali. Bruckner was scathingly dismissive of Hirsi Ali’s critics in the name of multiculturalism. He wrote of multiculturalism as a ‘racism of the anti-racists: it chains people to their roots.’ Bruckner approvingly quoted Hirsi Ali from her memoir. ‘I moved from the world of faith,’ writes Hirsi Ali, ‘to the world of reason – from the world of excision and forced marriage to the world of sexual emancipation. Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other. Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally because of its values.’
The worlds of Europe and Islam are not alike, nor equal in terms of values. Muslims bent on proselytizing will, if unchecked, erode Europe of its Enlightenment legacy that makes of it a better place than the world of Islam; or Europe will need to turn Muslims around to accepting its values. In a subsequent response to Buruma and Ash, Bruckner wrote, ‘It’s not enough to condemn terrorism. The religion that engenders it and on which it is based, right or wrong, must also be reformed. Can one understand the Inquisition, the witches burned at the stake, the Crusades and the condemnation of heretics without referring to the dogmas of Roman Catholicism? The time has come to do for Islam what was done for Christianity as of the 15th century: by bending it to modernity and adapting it to contemporary mentalities.’
How can Islam be reformed as Bruckner insists, or is it open to reform? There is no simple answer. But any possibility of reform rests with Muslims, and any effort directed at reform must begin by Muslims acknowledging the state of their society. The malaise of the Muslim world indisputably burden and oppress most acutely the female half of its population. And when Muslim women bearing that burden speak out, though not often enough from fear of violence or other forms of punishment, their testimony of the living practice of Islam demolishes all the banal apologetics of Muslims and their non-Muslim friends.
Hirsi Ali’s testimony regarding the existing situation within Muslim societies, irrespective of her renunciation of Islam, comes from lived experience and not mere observation of an outsider or through academic study. She writes, ‘I first encountered the full strength of Islam as a young child in Saudi Arabia…the source of Islam and its quintessence. It is the place where the Muslim religion is practiced in its purest form…In Saudi Arabia, every breath, every step we took, was infused with concepts of purity or sinning, and with fear. Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret this reality: hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved, just as the Prophet Muhammad decided centuries ago.’
Muslim reform can only progress by Muslims first taking an honest and unflinching look at their world. And the most urgent of reforms is bringing to an end the religiously sanctioned denial of women as equal in all respect to men that lies at the source of violence directed at women. But the emergence of Islamism has become a formidable obstacle for Muslims to engage without fear in critically examining the state of their society and the role of Islam in inhibiting reform and progress. The situation has worsened since 9/11, and it is only someone with extraordinary courage and total disregard of the inevitable harm might engage publicly in speaking from within about Islam and the ills of the Muslim world.
Hirsi Ali is not alone as a woman in discussing and examining the malaise of the Muslim world. There are other female voices as noble and brave as those of Taslima Nasrin, Wafa Sultan, Nonie Darwish, Azar Nafisi, Necla Kelek, or those of an older generation such as Assia Djebar and Fatema Mernissi. It is the woman’s voice within Islam that is most searing in illuminating inequities and injustices of the Muslim society, and will remain the most powerful agent of change. The circumstances of the post-9/11 world provided Hirsi Ali with a deserving prominence in the Western media for her biography is riveting.
Yet all Muslim criticisms of Hirsi Ali cannot be simply dismissed as apologetics, especially when they come from reputable scholars such as Bassam Tibi. Tibi is an Arab of Syrian origin and German citizen teaching at Gottingen. In the debate carried in the pages of signandsight.com Tibi observed, ‘What Hirsi Ali says about Islam is an affront to Muslims and to anyone who knows anything about Islam. When, for instance, she claims that our prophet and our holy book, the Koran, are a fiction, she insults all Muslims and puts a smirk on the faces of all historians of Islam. Of course, Hirsi Ali has every right to turn her back on Islam in the name of religious freedom and this is what she has done. But she should not abuse the religion just to score points cheaply for herself’ (emphasis given).
Muslims are upset with Hirsi Ali. In my conversations with Muslim women in three continents, particularly in Europe (France), I have found all irrespective of their social background or professional occupation distancing themselves from Hirsi Ali’s views on the Koran and the prophet even as they agree with her on the malaise retarding Muslim societies. Admittedly my sampling is of limited statistical value, and yet it is anecdotally revealing for many of the women with whom I have conversed on the matter are highly educated, emancipated and professional women. For them, as for me, the vulgarity of Muslim fundamentalists and Islamists in display – (Taliban in Afghanistan, Iranian clerics and their medievalism, Wahhabis, Salafists and other variety of Islamists and their obsession with returning Muslim societies to the dictates of seventh century Arabia, and the limitless capacity of Muslim dictators to inflict cruelty on their people) – cannot be the only lens through which to read the Koran, the prophet’s life and the history of Islam over fourteen centuries.
The abuse of and violence against women did not originate with Islam, nor are they confined within the Muslim world. Jack Holland in a remarkable study of misogyny – he labeled it “the world’s oldest prejudice” – unveiled how ancient and how widespread across cultures and faiths has been the organized prejudice of men against women and the crimes committed as a result. This history should be, however, of little comfort to Muslims or provide them polemical escape from confronting the reality of misogyny in the here and now of Muslim societies. The misogynist history of Christianity and Christians is mostly in the past; the lesson for Muslims in this instance as in the wider case of Islamic reform is to draw upon that history of Christianity, hence Europe, by which Christians promulgated the reform of their faith and culture in adapting to the values of science and democracy as the pillars on which rests the modern world.
Hirsi Ali has much to contribute in the future even as she has done this far in a relatively young life. She has looked deep and hard at the world from which she made her break, and in the process she has done what Voltaire did in his time. Hirsi Ali has challenged Muslims to think equally deep and hard, even if they are upset with some of the language she has used, and if they refuse to engage with her it is more revealing of them in being in denial of their world’s broken reality than her so publicly visible stand on issues that can be mortally wounding.
A final thought, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s use of the word “infidel” (meaning simply an unbeliever) as title of her memoir and her identity brim with irony. She wears the word mockingly and boldly. But in Muslim perspective is unbelief unredeemable, and is an unbeliever condemned to an eternity in hell? For Muslim agitators and Islamist warriors from the late Ayatollah Khomeini to the lowly suicide-bomber in the ranks of al Qaeda the matter is settled; the place of unbelievers is indisputably in God’s inferno and they need to be dispatched there speedily and mercilessly.
Yet the matter is not simple nor settled as Muslims might think. Islamic history, apart from history in general, records how many an unbeliever has shown superior conduct in goodness than believers and God’s infinite compassion and justice give assurance of their redemption. The most instructive example of this in the history of Islam is that of Abu Talib, the paternal uncle of the prophet. Abu Talib raised Muhammad, who was an orphan, then protected him through his adult years and when he started preaching Islam in Mecca without ever abjuring the idol-worshipping faith of his ancestors.
The Koran indicts hypocrite (munafiq) as a worse offender of moral laws than an infidel. It devotes chapter 63 titled “The Hypocrites” to the perfidy of those who feign belief in public and behave perversely. In place where justice prevails and where the ruler in heaven as in earth is just, those Muslims learned and ignorant who have abused women or have failed to prevent their abuse, will stand condemned as hypocrites and for them redemption will be justly delayed.
Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and a syndicated columnist in Canada and the United Kingdom. A Muslim native to Calcutta, India, and a noted Islamic scholar, Prof. Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.
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