Monday, September 18, 2006

Toward Understanding Ayaan Hirsi Ali Part 1

Many readers will not have heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch MP who abandoned her ancestral faith some years back. I’ve been reading Ali’s book, a collection of speeches and articles translated from Dutch and collectively entitled The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason.

Ali’s book has also been published in the United States as under the title of The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. It has received mixed reviews, with perhaps the most detailed review published in The Nation in June this year by Laila Lalami.

Lalami provides the following short and matter-of-fact biography of Ali.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan
Isse, was a prominent critic of the Siyad Barre regime, and the family had to
flee the country, first to Saudi Arabia and then to Ethiopia and Kenya. When
Hirsi Ali was 22, her father arranged a marriage for her with a distant
relation. On a layover in Germany en route to Canada, where the man lived, Hirsi
Ali escaped to the Netherlands, where she applied for and received asylum. She
worked as an interpreter for Somali refugees and studied political science at
the University of Leiden. Hirsi Ali first came into the public eye in 2002, with
the publication of De Zoontjesfabriek (The Son Factory), whose vehement
criticisms of Islam made her the subject of death threats. She joined a think
tank affiliated with the social-democratic Labor Party but a year later switched
membership to the right-wing VVD Party, which had invited her to run for a seat
in Parliament. She won, and became a member of Parliament in January 2003. Hirsi Ali explained her shifting allegiance by saying that the VVD granted her greater ability to advocate for the rights of Muslim women. Then in 2004, she wrote the script to the short film Submission, which was directed by Theo van Gogh, a man who was known for his virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. That fall, van Gogh was slaughtered in Amsterdam, in broad daylight, by a Dutch man named Mohammed Bouyeri, whose parents had emigrated from Morocco. A letter left on van Gogh's body made it clear that Hirsi Ali was the next target. She
immediately went into hiding and has needed heavy protection ever since. A few years ago, Hirsi Ali admitted to lying on her asylum application, but a Dutch TV documentary challenged her on other details of her life, including whether or not she was forced into marriage. The revelations sparked a row that culminated when Rita Verdonk, the Minister of Integration and a member of Hirsi Ali's own party, informed her that she could no longer consider herself a Dutch citizen. Although there has been no specific move to strip her of citizenship, Hirsi Ali has already announced that she is resigning from Parliament and moving to the United States, where she will take up a position at the right-wing American
Enterprise Institute.

Ali provides some details about herself in the preface to her book entitled Breaking Through the Islamic Curtain. She says she was brought up by her parents

… to be a Muslim – a good Muslim. Islam dominated the lives of our family
and relations down to the smallest detail. It was our ideology, our political
conviction, our moral standard, our law and our identity. We were first and
foremost Muslim and only then Somali.

From this excerpt it appears that Ali came from a family of conservative Muslims for whom Islamist politics reigned supreme. Her father was a political activist and a critic of the government of his time.

Ali explains what growing up as a Muslim meant to her. She was taught to regard Muslims as separate from and superior to non-Muslims. The “us and them” mentality seemed to be drilled into her.

Some 12 years ago and aged 22, Ali arrived in Western Europe. She had fled an arranged marriage to a distant relative who lived in Canada. Her whole outlook on life changed.

Ali described 3 elements of her Islamic faith following her exposure to European civilisation. First, Muslims’ relationship with their God was one of fear. Second, the only moral source for Muslims was the infallible Prophet Muhammad. Third, Islam is strongly dominated by sexual morality derived from tribal Arab values dating back to the 7th century.

The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen. Her veil functions as a
constant reminder to the outside world of this stifling morality that makes men
the owners of women …

For Ali, these three elements largely explain why Muslim nations lag behind both the West and emerging Asian nations. The fact that emerging Asian nations include Muslim majority states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei doesn’t seem to figure. The fact that Muslim minorities play active roles in the development of both Muslim and Western nations also seems to be ignored.

Ali paints a selective picture of the West, Western cultures, Muslim cultures and Islam. Her analysis is simplistic and based on anecdotes. Her referencing is poor, which seems strange given that much of what she has written has quite likely been written by political staffers and speech writers assigned to her as a Member of the Dutch Parliament.

I do not doubt Ali’s sincerity. She has clearly had troubled experiences that have left her with deep emotional and psychological scars. Her childhood as a refugee uprooted from her home and almost always on the run, must have been unsettling. She was shipped off to Canada to marry a man she had never met.

Perhaps Ali’s most troubling childhood experience was her exposure to the disgusting practise of female genital mutilation (FGM). In this respect, she will disappoint those who claim FGM is an Islamic practice. She acknowledges it is a tribal African practice, though claims Muslims spread the practice far and wide.

The title of Ali’s book is “A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason”. Yet in what sense Ali regards herself as Muslim remains unclear. She certainly acknowledges that she no longer regards herself religiously or even culturally as Muslim. And if her descriptions of Islamic doctrines and Muslim cultures are any indication, Ali has had little exposure to various forms of Islam beyond her conservative middle-class Somali upbringing.

(To be continued. And this time I mean it!)

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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