I've recently ready two books, Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai. These two books have a lot in common, and they both describe life in a Muslim society. Infidel, through the story of one woman and her family, The Arab Mind through a study of the Arab world. Besides a short stay in Saudi Arabia, Hirsi Ali, though, did not grow up in an Arab environment, and it is interesting to see the differences between the two. I will go deeper into that in my analysis of The Arab Mind.
Hirsi Ali's book is a very emotional book. In it she tells the story of her life, and it is indeed an inspirational story. In this review, though, I will focus on the other points I had picked up from it.
In Infidel, Somali society comes across in this book as crass, violent and racist, but it doesn't stop in Somalia. Hirsi Ali's experiences in Africa show a humanity with little humanity. In her book Hirsi Ali describes how she was a victim in two cases, both of which took place in a Muslim context. As a kid she was circumcised, despite her parent's wishes, and she was almost killed when an Islam teacher decided to teach her a lesson. Hirsi Ali also writes of other violent episodes: she witnessed the lynching of a thief in Nairobi and saw the Somali women fleeing the civil war raped by Kenyan soldiers in a refugee camp. Those last episodes took place in a Christian country, supposedly by Christians. I doubt the people engaged in this violence received any religious dispensation for their acts, but they did them nonetheless.
As a child Hirsi Ali was taught to suspect the stranger, to assume anybody will attack you, to fight for yourself since nobody else will, to support your own clan above anybody else's and see the others as the enemy. These are needed skills in Somali society. Western society prefers to teach their kids to be trusting, to believe in the common good, to believe in liberalism and democracy as self-evident truths. But looking at how the Western world views its enemies, and at how it thinks it can solve global conflicts, I wonder if they shouldn't internalize those lessons as well. As Hirsi Ali recently said in an interview to Reason Magazine: the West is too naive in its approach to Muslims.
Hirsi Ali also describes how she was taught both by word and deed that a woman is worthless without a man, and that Jews are the evil of the world, this last one specifically in Saudi Arabia. The West tends to excuse the sexism, racism and antisemitism of others.
Her book shows that integration takes effort, and a conscious will. After leaving the Dutch refugee center, Hirsi Ali's started losing her Dutch, she simply wasn't speaking it enough, and didn't really need to. Additionally, I think that her book shows the main problematics of reforming immigrant religion or changing immigrant cultural practices. Hirsi Ali herself stood in front of a Somali clan tribunal while still in the Dutch refugee center, for refusing the marry the man her father had chosen for her. The tribunal had decided to rule in her favor, but I am left to wonder - what would have happened if it hadn't? Why were the tribunal, and previously, her husband-to-be, even allowed onto the grounds of the refugee center? The center's employees were obviously not aware of the danger to which they were exposing their refugees, when letting in strangers, or even family members, without first clearing it with the refugees themselves.
Hirsi Ali has left religion, and is a professed atheist. In her book she brings the religious dilemmas she had faced. I don't fully agree with her theological discourse. The problems she poses might be most acute in Islam, but they appear in some ways in Christianity and Judaism as well. How can a merciful God cause suffering? How can such a God not treat humans equally? Doesn't circumcision show disbelief in God?
Hirsi Ali is an example of how issues can cross political boundaries. She started off on the Dutch left, but when she realized she was not being given the opportunity to bring up the issues that really mattered to her, and when she was offered a parliamentary spot on a right-wing party, she switched sides. Hirsi Ali describes herself as a one-issue politician. Her main claim being that Muslim women are oppressed and that this oppression must stop, not only for their sake, but for the sake of their societies. This is quite similar to a report by the UN this past year, which said economic development in Muslim countries is stunted since women do not participate in the labor market (I could not find this report online). The oppression of women had been imported into Europe, and the Europeans should be aware of that, in order to protect those who need help.
In the past I have reviewed Unni Wikan's book, where she generally says the same thing. Immigrant women in Europe are not given the protection they deserve and the rights that European women enjoy, all in the name of multiculturalism and understanding of the 'other'. The difference is that Wikan does not see Islam as the problem, while Hirsi Ali blames only Islam.
Unlike Irshad Manji, who calls on Muslims to reform Islam from within, Hirsi Ali is calling on the West to force those changes. In the interview to Reason Magazine, Hirsi Ali stated that the West must crush Islam. "Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims .. Once it's defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful." Islam is already now mutating. Hirsi Ali tells how a marriage in Islam is not valid unless it is done with permission of the women's guardian. She doesn't even need to be there. In today's modern world, Islamists are leading Islam reformation. Young Islamists in the Netherlands have contracted 'living room marriages', without their parents' knowledge or consent. This might be seen as progress by some, but it is really exactly the opposite. The women in these marriages are even worse off than in regular marriages, since they do not see the state as an authority and therefore do not enjoy the protection it offers. Reforming religion without reforming the basic values that are at the root of the problem, will not help.
Hirsi Ali is now world famous, both because of her abilities of expression, but also because she is an ex-Muslim, a woman who has beat the odds and has stood up to tell of the crimes of her co-religionists. For example, she has brought the Dutch parliament to discuss honor murders, and to start following up on it. In her book she tells of a study that found 11 Muslim girls had been killed in a period of 6 months in two police regions. This past year, the special team set up to deal with honor related violence dealt with 470 cases a year.
Ali is black, African, Muslim and female to boot. It is hard to accuse her of racism or neo-Nazi leanings, though I understand there are those who do so. When she speaks she is widely quoted in the international media, unlike other local politicians like Dutch Geert Wilders or Danish Pia Kjærsgaard, who are often perceived as extreme-right and racist. She therefore in quite a unique position to press the agenda of Muslim women, both in Europe and elsewhere.