Sunday, August 05, 2007

ESSAY/PROFILE: An Unreliable Narrator

When I was growing up, there weren’t many English language books on Islam available in Australia. The ones that were available were usually about current events. Hardly the stuff my mother could use to teach me about my ancestral faith.

Instead, my mum’s aunt in Pakistan used to send over books printed in Pakistan and India. Mum’s aunt was a senior member of the women’s wing of Pakistan’s Right-wing religious Party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (which literally means ’the Islamic Group’ — not to be confused with the nasty Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia, the dreaded Gemaah Islamiyyah of Egypt or the ruling Jamiat-i-Islamia that dominates the Northern Alliance Government of Afghanistan.)

Hence, most of the books we received were written by officials and ideologues of the Pakistani JI. They used bombastic Indian English and were filled with spelling and grammatical errors.

In 1983, I was in my third year attending an Anglican school. I had a huge chip on my shoulder and assumed my divinity teachers conspired to convert me. I was always on the lookout for anything vaguely related to comparative religion.

Then a shipment arrived, containing an intriguing book by an American woman living in Pakistan. I opened the book, but I couldn’t tell if she really was American. Her photo showed her covered head to toe by a large black veil. Not even her hands or feet were showing — just a black figure with 'The Author' typed underneath.

The woman’s name was Margaret Marcus. She claimed to be from a New York Jewish family, growing up in a secular Jewish household and later studying Jewish theology and literature. She also had a history of mental illness, writing of being hospitalised.

Eventually Marcus struck up a chain of correspondence with the late Abul Ala Maududi, founder and head of the Pakistani JI.

Marcus abandoned Judaism, adopted Islam, left her parents, changed her name to Maryam Jameelah and moved to Pakistan. There she wrote books about political Islam; her underlying assumption always being that Islam and anything she deems Western (including Judaism and Christianity) are necessarily on a collision course. Marcus managed to beat Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilisations by at least three decades.

The book I had in my hands was entitled Islam versus Ahl-i-Kitab: Past and Present, a summary of which can be found here. The phrase ‘Ahl-i-Kitab’ is an Urdu corruption of the phrase Ahl al-Kitab (literally ’People of the Book‘) that appears in the Koran and is a respectful term used to describe Christians and Jews.

Marcus’s book mentions a letter she received from her parents. They enclose for her a newspaper clipping of a New York imam who visits a synagogue and speaks of peace between Jews and Muslims. That imam was none other than Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has visited Australia at least twice.

Marcus shows contempt for her parents’ overtures, declaring there could never be peace between Jews and Muslims until Israel was destroyed and its leaders executed. I was hardly 14 when I first read the book, and even at that age I could tell Marcus wasn’t exactly the most objective source on her ancestral faith.

Sadly, for many Pakistani Muslims, Marcus’s views on Judaism are all they ever get to read. Pakistanis assume this Muslim convert Maryam Jameelah must be telling the truth. She must know what many Jews try to hide. She has ‘insider’ knowledge.

Despite having a fair few Jewish friends at school and as family friends, I always wondered whether they were hiding the things that Jameelah/Marcus revealed. And now, I’m sure some of my non-Muslim friends must look at my mother and wonder if she has been mutilated.

For many non-Muslims, the first book on Islam they read will be Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin, or her autobiography Infidel. No doubt many non-Muslims will regard Hirsi Ali as a reliable source; someone who was brought up as a Muslim and now wants to reveal all the secrets that Muslims have allegedly tried to keep swept under the carpet.

In this sense, Jameelah and Hirsi Ali are similar — both 'insiders' of their ancestral faiths (which they now reject), both writing critically about their upbringing and the communities and cultures they were nurtured in.

Furthermore, they have both been adopted by the lunar-Right of their respective societies. Jameelah remains an ideologue of Pakistan’s JI, her works cited and used by some of the most rabidly anti-Semitic Muslim groups and writers.

Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch Parliament on an anti-immigration ticket, and is now employed by a neo-conservative think tank. She continues to project herself as an authority on just about anything and everything even remotely associated with Islam and Muslims.

But the similarities end there. While her conclusions on Jewish theology and culture are far-fetched, Jameelah’s works on Judaism are impeccably researched and referenced. Further, she maintains a certain reverence for her ancestral faith and its symbols.

Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, is happy to lampoon and malign the symbols of her ancestral faith, even if it means unconsciously lampooning the faiths of non-Muslims (including Jews) who share these symbols.

Further, Hirsi Ali’s knowledge of Muslim societies is in many cases non-existent. I discovered this during a robust 45-minute discussion New Matilda editor José Borghino and I had with her last month in Sydney. Our interview covered political, social, cultural and theological issues. At the conclusion, Hirsi Ali said it was one of the better and more enjoyable interviews she had done in Australia.

I’d already reviewed Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin for The Australian in October 2006. The book is a collection of speeches and articles written mainly during her period as a Member of the Dutch Parliament.

It's unclear whether Hirsi Ali will last very long in the lap of US conservatives. I have many doubts about Hirsi Ali's knowledge of Islam, but I have no doubt about her ability to speak her mind. Her views on abortion and Creation science will not sit well with a US conservative establishment that builds its support base on conservative protestant Christians.

Hirsi Ali openly describes herself as 'pro-choice', although she doesn't believe that abortion should be seen as a form of contraception. In this respect, her views are probably close to those of the mainstream position of the sharia (Islamic sacred law) she so despises.

Further, Hirsi Ali believes that creation science should not be taught in schools. She regards Creationism as unscientific, an attempt by religious people to impose religion on secular education. She even calls for people promoting Creation science to be jailed. Christian conservatives will therefore have two reasons to hate her.

Hirsi Ali's most unusual claim in our interview was that Indonesia’s dominant strand of Islam was Saudi-style wahhabism, and that Saudi Arabia funds the majority of Indonesia religious schools. I asked her if she had been to Indonesia. She replied: ’Do I have to go there to know a self-evident truth? Do I have to have lived in Salem to know of witch hunts?’

I’ll try using that line in court next time a judge asks me for evidence I don’t have.

Yet when I asked her evidence for her claims about Indonesia, it was clear she was the one conducting the witch hunt on the world's largest Muslim country. She stated that religious schools in Indonesia were called ‘madressahs’. She looked confused when I used the Bahasa Indonesia term ‘pesantren’, and even more so when I spoke of an organisation called Nahdatul Ulama, who run Indonesia's largest network of pesantren’s.

Hirsi Ali then claimed that Muslim extremists in Indonesia were now calling for sharia to be implemented in Indonesia. I asked her whether she had any evidence of this in terms of Indonesia's electoral politics. She had no idea. I advised her of a speech delivered to conservative Sydney think tank the Centre for Independent Studies by legal academic and Nahdatul Ulama leader Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh, who said that in each successive Indonesian election since independence, the number of seats held by pro-sharia parties has actually reduced.

Hirsi Ali makes sweeping statements about a diverse range of societies whose only common feature is some element of Islam. She hasn’t travelled through many Muslim countries, nor met the Muslim communities she comments on. She is the equivalent of the ignorant mullahs who condemned Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses without having even read it.

One would think that, as a former Dutch MP, she would have had occasion to meet many Indonesians living or studying in the Netherlands. Indonesian and other sources of classical Islam are freely available in universities such as Leiden, also home to the respected International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World. The Netherlands has no shortage of scholarly material on Islamic cultures and theology, almost none of which is reflected in her book.

Yet none of this appears to have left any impression on Hirsi Ali. I left the interview feeling sympathy for Hirsi Ali after all the suffering she had been through as a child, but more so for all the Islam-haters out there who could not find a more credible insider to promote their cause.

It’s the same sympathy I feel for Islamist groups who use the works of a bitter and twisted ex-Jew to pursue an anti-Semitic agenda.

First published in NewMatilda.com on Wednesday 25 July 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the interesting comments on both of these writers. I have not read books by either of these women. In Hirsi Ali's case it was a conscious decision, because I feel it is dangerous to read such an indictment without the necessary knowledge to fairly evaluate her points. I did hear Hirsi Ali interviewed on National Public Radio in the US and was somewhat taken aback (as was the host, I believe) when she said that, in the US, the Democratic party is very close to Communism. What passes for "far left" in the US is just a tad left of center, and might even be considered the centrist party in some European countries. While there may be rash accusations from the far right of the Republican party, anyone with an understanding of history and political science knows that the Democratic party doesn't even come close to true Communism or even Socialism.There is not even a consensus on socialized medicine.

That baseless analogy did cause me to question how much I should accept strictly on her say-so.

Jim Fryar said...

Irfan, Thank you for your comment.

When I started the post I was mainly interested in the libertarian sentiments expressed by Geert Wilders, which I found when I was researching were mainly old statements, while the more recent ones have tended to concentrate on Islam.

I have in the past repeatedly made the point that it is unhelpful to lump all Islamic people together with the extremist elements, many live together with us quite peacefully. This appears to be the tactic of some of the right. Making pariahs of them will push the youth towards those who would use them as cannon fodder for their extremist ideals.

Elizabeth A. Leib said...

Irfan -

Thank-you for your comments. It is clear I must dig deeper to get to the truth.
Here is the link to my second blog entry about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. http://mitzvahmom.podbean.com/2007/09/09/anniversary-of-911/

I'll continue researching and then do another update after I've had the chance to become more informed.

Elizabeth