Monday, April 16, 2007


I've spent the last couple of days devouring Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. It's been a long time since I devoured a book with this kind of desperate hunger, and I think my compulsion to lock myself in my room in order to finish the book surprised even me.

Hirsi Ali is the Somalian-born former Muslim woman turned atheist, women's activist, and member of Dutch Parliament. She is best known as the woman who wrote Submission, the short film that criticises the Quran's pronouncements about women and the carrying out of those prescriptions toward women in Islam. In answer, there were protests and riots throughout Holland, and director Theo Van Gogh was stabbed shot, stabbed 28 times and had his throat cut in broad daylight in front of 30 witnesses by a Muslim fundamentalist. A death threat to Hirsi Ali was pinned to Van Gogh's chest. She's been living under high security ever since, and currently lives in the US.

I'd first read about Hirsi Ali when I was in South Africa, and I remember feeling uncomfortable about what she was said to believe in an NYT piece about her rise to Parliament. Hirsi Ali - first and foremost an advocate of Muslim women's rights - believes that in order for Muslim women to become truly emancipated, there's going to need to be a revolution within Islam. She calls it an Enlightenment: a concerted study of the Quran not as the Holy Absolute Word of God but as a text written by human beings, and therefore a text open to interpretation. One of the reasons her film was seen as so obscene was because words of such incredible holiness - the words of the Quran - were written on objects of such incredible baseness - women.

What she wants Muslims to do is, roughly, what Christians have had to do in order to reconcile the words and prescriptions of their faith in the Old and New Testament with modern ideas about freedom of expression, women's rights, the rights of children, incest laws, corporal punishment, and etc.

Though "an eye for an eye" is still set down in the Old Testament and having sex with your father and marrying multiple wives and bloody stonings and chopping people were seen as OK in the text, most Christians like the idea of following the far less bloody New Testament teachings of Jesus: the he who casts the first stone school.

When most Christians describe their faith, they call it a faith of peace, of love. Hirsi Ali argues that when Muslims call Islam a religion of peace, they're flat wrong, because according to their faith, the Quran is holy and absolutely right, and if that's true, it advocates the beating of women, flogging in the streets, hands getting chopped off for stealing, and above all - the slaughtering of anyone who doesn't believe as you do. A number of fundamentalist Christians who insist that the Bible is the absolute word of God can get themselves stuck in the same line of reasoning. She insists it's a package deal, and until Muslims deal with this and come out and say, "Well, really, we understand that we're interpreting the book and we're not to take it literally because these were the ideas set down for the bloody, brutal world the prophet lived in a thousand years ago," then they can't pretend it's a religion that preaches peace.

This is, among other things, why Hirsi Ali is such a controversial figure. The liberal hippie in me was appalled at the idea of telling people how they had to observe their religion. Afterall, what about freedom of religion? That, too, is a freedom of Western society just as much - if not more so (certainly historically!)- than the equality of women. On the other hand, watching anyone justify rape, beheading, slaughter, the confinement of women, and etc. to a holy book of any kind pisses me off. Instead of opening your eyes, making observations, and coming to your own conclusions, there are people who want to swallow somebody else's ideas about the way the world should be as set down a thousand or two thousand years before.

One of the fascinating things about reading Hirsi Ali's book is watching her go down the road of working through all of the contradictions of her faith. When she first questioned the teachings of the Quran, she was told to shut up and believe; to be silent, to submit. Submission to one's husband, one's clan, one's God, was what Islam was all about. Once she escaped to the West she began to delve into these contradictions more deeply with the help of access to a broader range of thinkers, of ideas.

As a writer, one of the most moving parts of the book is when she talks about the impact reading books had on her as a teenager and young adult. They gave her windows into other worlds, into other ways of thinking, and they got her to question the way the world was. Until she was exposed to other ideas, the harsh, brutal world in which she lived, where women believed that their endurance of violence, spousal rape, and etc would put them on the path to Heaven, she believed this was simply the way things were. There was nothing else. Being exposed to other worlds, she realized things could be different. Incredibly so.

I was admittedly uncomfortable with Hirsi Ali's complete embrace of the Western world and her turn from Islam to athism, because I worry that her example is going to be "this is how all Muslim women should be!" She does make very clear, however, that she does not want or believe that her path is the right path for anyone; only the right path for her.

For better or worse, as Westerners, we love stories like this: the brutalized woman who is emancipated in a Western country; gosh yay, look how much better we are than other cultures! We get to pat ourselves on the back. But Hirsi Ali talks about many other women from similar circumstances who did not embrace the West so whole heartedly. I do get the impression that she believes it *is* possible to reconcile Islam with Western values of free speech, individual freedom, but it's going to be a long, bloody road, and she doesn't seem terribly optimistic about it.

And, to be honest, yeah, the West is loads better than anywhere else she talked about for somebody like me. I wouldn't trade places; but I do know that much of the violence in the world, particularly in former colonies, is taking place because of the shitty way things were and are being handled by Western countries. That's not to blame the despots any less, but a number of them would have had a lot less hardware if we'd stop giving it to them.

Radical Islam is very much a reaction *against* the West, and it's going to be the moderates, not the radicals, who are going to work on reconciling these ideas, according to Hirsi Ali. There are always going to be radicals - there are radical fundamentalist Christians who blow up abortion clinics, after all. Above all, though, I feel like Hirsi Ali's crusade - if you want to call it that - is to tell the truth as she sees it. She lived in a world where you didn't talk about the way things really were, how you really felt, what you really wanted. You submitted everything to the will of your parents, your clan, your God.

I trolled Google video for some interviews with her, and one of the most striking things about her is that she's actually incredibly soft-spoken. She's this little, fine-boned woman who does not raise her voice or make wild gestures. She takes her time answering questions. She doesn't let anyone rush her.

Above all, this is a powerful book, and an incredible read. How do you go from being the daughter to a Somalian revolutionary who's got three wives scattered across three countries, living in a two-room concrete block and getting beaten by your mother and cicumcised by your grandmother to becoming a member of the Dutch Parliament and living with constant security because so many people want you dead? I think what struck me so much about the story is that it wasn't that it was impossible. It was that it took courage. Huge amounts of courage. And will.

Anyone who stands up for themselves, for their right to tell the truth: it's not as if that's a physically difficult thing. Sometimes it just takes getting on a train. Buying a ticket. That first step. One foot. You just stand up. You refuse to shut up. It *sounds* so easy. And yet the guts it takes to do that - and to keep doing it, even after suffering bodily harm and being threatened with more of it as a result of your actions - that's the most incredible thing.

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