Monday, June 11, 2007

ESSAY: Holland's Hirsi: A gentlewoman she is not

AYAAN Hirsi Ali is a persona non grata in many Muslim circles. Fiercely independent and with little concern for the sensibilities of others, the Mogadishu, Somalia-born 38-year-old Dutch ex-parliamentarian is not afraid to take Muslims out of their comfort zones. She openly states that she is an ex-Muslim, and that she does not believe in any divine figure. Given the suffering she went through in a war-torn country and the victim of female genital mutilation, I cannot help but pause to some extent. Suffering generates its own reverence.

Many Muslims have attacked Hirsi Ali for her ignorance of Islam as well as for her links with far-Right groups in the Netherlands and now in the United States. She certainly has become a darling of cultural warriors from the lunar-Right, who are fond of her insider critique and exposure of aspects of Islam and Muslim cultures which Muslims allegedly try to hide.

Whatever one may think of her leaving Islam, Hirsi Ali's knowledge of the Muslim societies she condemns is certainly lacking. I discovered this during a robust 45 minute discussion I had with her on Tuesday in Sydney. Our discussion 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.

Hirsi Ali was in Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival. Although she was chief guest, many in the writers establishment were sceptical of her. After being exposed as an immigration fraud (she used the actual word "fraud" to describe her asylum application during an interview with Dutch journalist), she ended up leaving the Netherlands in disgrace.

Some years back, a number of Australian writers' festivals also made a huge issue of Norma Khoury, the author of Forbidden Love, a book dealing with the honour killing of her Jordanian Muslim friend Dalia. Khoury claimed to live in hiding in Queensland, allegedly fearing for her life from Dalia's family members. Her book became a huge bestseller and was used by cultural warriors to attack Muslim cultures and to reinforce the stereotype of violence in Muslim families.

Khoury was regarded as an untouchable figure in Australia. Taking enormous personal risks, and following an 18 month investigation in three countries, then literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Malcolm Knox declared Khoury a literary fraud. The writing establishment and Khoury's publishers ended up with egg on their faces. Its little wonder so many have been cautious to embrace Hirsi Ali.

I must say I have my own doubts about Hirsi Ali's claims. I reviewed her book The Caged Virgin for The Australian newspaper in October 2006. The book is a collection of speeches and articles delivered and written mainly during her period as a Member of the Dutch Parliament.

In May 2006, following the broadcast of an investigative programme on Dutch TV, Hirsi Ali admitted to telling lies about her migration status. The Dutch journalists exposed Hirsi Ali as a serial liar who made numerous claims about her family, her past, the countries she lived in and the circumstances of her allegedly forced marriage.

Those revelations led to the downfall of the then conservative Dutch government, and led to Hirsi Ali resigning from Parliament. For many Dutch former supporters of Hirsi Ali, she was a hypocrite who happily campaigned for other asylum seekers to be forcibly removed for telling less significant untruths than the ones she told.

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

She openly describes herself as "pro-Choice", though she doesn't believe that abortion should be seen as a form of contraception. In this respect, it is ironic that her views are probably close to those of the mainstream position of the syariah which 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. Christian conservatives will therefore have two reasons to hate her.

Indeed, Hirsi Ali is very insistent on the separation of religion and state, a staunch secularist who openly opposes anything that she believes compromises secularism. In this respect, her opposition to the current government in Turkey is most unusual.

Hirsi Ali told me Turkey is a staunchly secular country and that the AK Party wished to re-unite religion and state. She also claimed the AK Party wanted to implement shariah as the law of the land. Her evidence was that the Justice Minister allegedly tried to change Turkish law to make adultery a criminal offence.

I'm not sure if her claims are true or not. Supposing they are, how is declaring adultery a mere criminal offence an example of implementing shariah when the shariah insists that adultery be treated as a capital offence, with a mandatory death penalty? And was the proposed crime one of adultery or one of public indecency (having sexual intercourse in public), regarded as a crime in many Western jurisdictions?

Hirsi Ali's commentary on Turkey is just one example of a tendency to talk about issues way beyond her league. She suggests Kemalist secularism involves a separation of church and state. As far back as 1981, Turkish political scientist Dr Binnaz Toprak wrote in her Islam and Political Development in Turkey that

... the Kemalist version of separating Church and State took a different form from what is generally understood by the term ... Mustafa Kemal's programme of secularisation defeated its own purpose. Religious institutions were not separated from the State but rather became subservient to it.
Hirsi Ali's most unusual claim was that the dominant strand of Islam in Indonesia was 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?
Yet when I asked her evidence for her claims about Indonesia, it was clear she was the one conducting the witch hunt of the world's largest Muslim country. She stated that religious schools in Indonesia were called madressahs. She looked confused when I used the term pesantren, and even more so when I spoke of an organisation called Nahdatul Ulama who run Indonesia's largest network of pesantrens.

Her evidence that al-Qaeda influence in Indonesia was growing was the number of Indonesians who attended protests against the Danish cartoons. I'm not sure how protesting against cartoons is evidence of al-Qaeda membership. I cited a report in Asian media which said some 600 people took part in the protest at the Danish embassy.

That's 600 people in a city of 9 million. Ideas which only galvanise 0.0067 per cent of a community hardly represent evidence of a substantial growth in their popularity.

Hirsi Ali then claimed that Muslim extremists in Indonesia were now calling for shariah 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 thinktank 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-shariah parties has actually reduced.

Hirsi Ali is happy to make sweeping statements about a diverse range of societies whose only common feature is some element of Islam. She has not travelled through Muslim countries nor met Muslim communities.

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.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer who recently interviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali for This article was first published in the Brunei Times on 11 June 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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