Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: Ayaan Hirsi Ali "Infidel"

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press: New York; 2007.

I read this book at the request of a friend. I honestly had a lot of hostility towards the author, partly because interviews I heard or read in which she, in my opinion, presented her distorted ideas of Islam, partly because I thought she was a tool of neo-conservative warmongers, and mostly because I was sick of johnny-come-lately, new-kid-in-town pundits feeding crap to ignorant U.S. citizens. I waited until the book became available at the public library, and I still ignored it for several weeks, accumulating fines, until I’m just now reading it.

I wrote a number of criticisms down as I was reading, as part of the note-taking process, and I’m including them as a sort of appendix to this blog entry, but they’re not what’s important to this book.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali asks that she wants to be “judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim.” She does not want “to be dismissed as the bizarre ranting of someone who has been somehow damaged by her experiences and who is lashing out.” p. 348

I’m going to try to list her most important claims:

1. Islam, through its rules regarding many aspects of life and its threat of Hell, promotes character vices such as dishonesty and cruelty.
2. In particular, Islam mandates violence towards and subjugation of women.
3. There is no God. In other words, the solution is not to embrace Christianity or any other religion.
4. European and North American countries must not allow adherence to multiculturalism or accusations of racism to accommodate themselves to Muslims in their societies. Specifically, women’s and gays’ rights must not be eroded or threatened. The state should not support any Muslim institution.
5. If Muslims would embrace the Enlightenment and reject Islam, they would make rapid material and social progress.

I’m not planning to discuss the first three claims, as one can delve into the ocean of religious polemics to determine one’s position on these matters. I only say this: I don’t recognize her interpretations of Islam as accurate. That does not mean that some Muslims don’t behave according to her interpretations. Just don’t consider me ignorant or duped because I don’t
believe Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden are “true” Muslims, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes. Don’t quote to me your translated passages of Qur’an and Hadith and then claim that you understand a religion better than people who have practiced it their entire lives. Don't tell me that I saw something in Saudi Arabia, and every "true" Muslim is obligated to do whatever people there do.

The fourth claim is of course the most important, since her apostasy and writings won’t eliminate Islam just as Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead” did not eliminate Christianity. And I should add here that it is time for us Muslims to protect freedom of speech and religion, including public atheism and ethical Christian proselytizing.

I do believe the United States has the best balance between society, state and religion of the European democracies. So some of the positions Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes in her memoirs regarding the Netherlands make perfect sense to us Americans, such as eliminating subsidies to religious institutions (although they are tax-exempt in the U.S.). I would also never advocate that a Muslim should be given special treatment by law. For example, a Muslim man who murdered his wife should not be given a lighter or harsher sentence than a non-Muslim.

But there are tricky gray areas where I’m sure I’d disagree with the author. For example, the United States, by law, no longer discriminates in its immigration policy by national origin or religion. Would she propose that Muslim immigration be restricted? Social service agencies are allowed to use religion as a matching tool for adoption and guardianship. Would she oppose a social service agency or family court ever awarding custody of a minor to a Muslim on the grounds of preventing abuse? Would she oppose public accommodations for Muslim rituals, such as animal slaughter for the holiday Eid al-Adha or days off from school or foot baths in public restrooms? Would she suppose that there is such a thing as “hate speech” against Muslims? Should incarcerated Muslims’ religious practices be accommodated by hiring Muslim chaplains?

The fifth claim is to me standard International Monetary Fund and World Bank development ideology. The Marxist in me says, "Changes in the means of production produced the conditions of the Enlightenment in Europe. How are other countries in the world to have an Enlightenment when there's no causative change in their means of production?" Furthermore, if China is development's success story, can China really be called a child of the European Enlightenment? Again, this is too big a topic for a blog entry.

I struggled to read the book, mostly because a lot of it reads like a tale of woe and suffering and poverty and war, and I read a lot of these types of books. The 350 pages could have been cut down considerably, IMO. Nevertheless, if the reader is not satiated with this kind of material, it probably would be an engaging read. I’m sure a reader who has his or her heart set on saving the planet from Islamofacists will probably get an invigorating jolt of self-righteous indignation.

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As promised, what comes next is my raw notes. For whatever they’re worth.

A frustrating aspect of this “memoir” is its failure to specify names, places and sources. One important point which the published book never makes is this book is ghostwritten. This is clearly pointed out in the Sundance Channel documentary “The Fortune Hunter.” Memories of events are thick in narrative, emotive details and short on details which would enable an investigator to verify their occurrence. Events she could not have witnessed are related without specifying the source.

There are many passages which I believe are inaccurate and misleading.

p. 12-Definition of baarri
"A woman who is baarri is like a pious slave. She honors her husband's family and feeds them without question or complaint. She never whines or makes demands of any kind. She is strong in service, but her head is bowed. If her husband is cruel, if he rapes here and then taunts her
about it, if he decides to take another wife, or beats her, she lowers here gaze and hides her tears. And she works hard, faultlessly. She is a devoted, welcoming, well-trained work animal. This is baarri".

My guess is that this word is borrowed from the Arabic word barr. It appears in the Qur’an in several passages to describe filial piety and general righteousness.

Chapter 2, Verse 44. English Translation
Chapter 2, Verse 177. English Translation
Chapter 2, Verse 189. English Translation
Chapter 2, Verse 224. English Translation
Chapter 3, Verse 92. English Translation
Chapter 3, Verse 193. English Translation
Chapter 3, Verse 198. English Translation
Chapter 5, Verse 2. English Translation
Chapter 19, Verse 4. English Translation
Chapter 19, Verse 32. English Translation
Chapter 52, Verse 28. English Translation
Chapter 58, Verse 9. English Translation

You can see from these passages that these have no mention of spousal relations. Of course this does not preclude that the meaning of the word has changed in modern Somalia to reflect the meanings Ayaan mentioned. I am just suspicious, and I want to ask my informants about this. Your comments are welcome.

pp. 12-3. The story of her mother’s divorce from her first husband
At this point, Ayaan is not even born yet, but she doesn’t even tell us who told her how these events unfolded. The first statement in this passage is “Of course, my mother had no right to a divorce under Muslim law.” Without specifying the amount of time which passed since her request for divorce, she writes: “Finally, he agreed not to contest her claim for a divorce.” Honestly, it really could have happened exactly like she wrote, but she does not give much of a chronology or a listing of sources, which to me is a red flag.

Siad Barré assumed power October 21, 1969. Ayaan is born November 13, 1969. Ayaan’s father was imprisoned in April, 1972.

p. 20-“One of my first memories, from when I was perhaps three years old, is of watching my grandmother engaged in an inexplicable performance. She was crouching facedown on a mat in her bedroom with her nose on the floor. I thought that she was playing some kind of game with me, so I pranced around and made faces at her, poking. She ignored me, and continued bending up and down, muttering things that sounded maddeningly strange.”

To me this passage is a typical example of her making every aspect of Somali society, Saudi Arabian society and Islam intrinsically and inherently repulsive to her North American reader. On the one hand, I’m not certain if it’s psychologically possible for a young child to be able to form these kinds of impressions. But let’s assume she’s such a precocious child. If so, is it possible that she’s never seen a Muslim praying that she would be surprised at age three? But the conclusion to which she leads her reader is that Muslim ritual prayer is patently degrading and worthless. Even a three year old can perceive it.

p. 31 "In Somalia, like many countries across Africa and the Middle East, little girls are made pure” by having their genitals cut out. … Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic."

I think this passage is misleading in the following ways:

1. While mentioning the various forms of female genital cutting, it leaves the impression that total excision is the most widespread.
2. The (vast, I suspect) majority of Muslims don’t practice this. Outside of Africa, the strongest reference I could find to female genital cutting (Is Female Genital Mutilation an Islamic Problem? by Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Thomas Uwer, Middle East Quarterly Winter 2007, pp. 29-36), indicated that recent health surveys in Iraqi Kurdistan indicated that the practice was widespread in rural areas, and the organization which conducted these surveys assumed that similar conditions obtained in Iranian Kurdistan and in Syria. Von der Osten- Sacken and Thomas Uwer suspect that the lack of health survey data in countries of the Arabian Peninsula and Iran covers up the widespread practice. Now, even if one grants that all these places covertly practice female genital cutting, the number of Muslims in historical India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey outnumber all the Muslims in Africa and the countries of southwest Asia.

3. If historically the practice predated the spread of Islam into an area, than why should religion emerge as a central factor in this practice unless one proves that people who practice female genital cutting were more likely to embrace Islam?

Having said this, Somalia is probably the worst place in the world in terms of this practice. Not only is the incidence nearly 100%, the form practiced, total excision, is the most dangerous and harmful. I’ve listed several sites below to provide more information:

World Health Organization fact sheet Number 241 May 2008
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Debates about FGM in Egypt from ReligiousTolerance.org
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from the Third World Women’s Health site
Deanna M. Tucker’s Annotated Bibliography
United Nations Population Fund
Female Circumcision Surfaces in Iraq by Nicholas Birch, Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 2005
A Woman’s Approach to Ending a Perilous Rite of Passage by Tara Tidwell Cullen, Christian Science Monitor, June 8, 2005
Africa Spurns Female Circumcision by Mike Crawley, Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 2005
Slowly, Africa Rethinks a Tradition by Donna Harman, Christian Science Monitory, February 11, 2003
Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children
Stop FGM in Kurdistan

Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be commended for efforts to end this practice. But the reader should not allow the justifiable emotion of condemnation to overflow the banks of reason and accuracy.

pp. 37-44 Observations about 1970s Saudi Arabia
Are these recollections or something she read somewhere?

p. 49-Aswad Abda-“black slave girl”
The author claims that her Egyptian teacher would call her aswad abda. Not to be the Roman
solider in Life of Brian giving the Latin lesson
, but it’s impossible that this was the actual phrase used to insult her. An Egyptian would say, in the Egyptian dialect, abda sawda (note the agreement in gender between the two “nouns” and the reversal of position). And, as an FYI, standard Arabic word for a female slave is ama. There is no such word as abda, but Egyptians don’t use ama, and instead they say abda.

Does this mean that her teacher did not insult her this way? I would not say that, but I find it awfully strange that a person could not remember something that was supposed to be traumatic. Can’t she tell us the name of the school and the teacher? ***I add after finishing the book: So many bad things happen throughout her life, this particular incident is probably not a big deal!

p. 49 She praises one anonymous Saudi man for rescuing her during a rainstorm. So I do have to acknowledge this.

pp. 50-1 Description of an eclipse in Riyadh and a mocking description of Saudis’ reaction to it
Muslims, on occasions of eclipse, have a ritual prayer. If she can understand religious and gossiping conversations involving her neighbors, why can’t she remember how she was insulted? I believe she embellishes her memories.

As the book moves into her young adult years, I find the prose much more believable. And I actually begin to sympathize with the author, whose home life is dysfunctional. I am not as worked up about the inconsistencies I identified earlier in my notes. In other words, I suspended judgment regarding the narration of her memoirs and just considered it a political manifesto.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali basically attributes every character flaw in Somalis she knows to Islam.

p. 218 Johanna [the volunteer Dutch conversational partner] taught us other important things, too. She told us to speak to people directly, not pussyfoot around, just get to the point. If you had no money, you admitted it, then you looked at why you’d overspent. There was no honor, no shame, no complex preamble: you admitted the problem clearly, and you learned your lesson. She taught us to be self-reliant, and to deal with problems squarely. All my life I had watched my mother veer off and pretend problems weren’t there, hoping Allah would just make them disappear on their own.”

p. 219 “Every Islamic value I had been taught instructed me to put myself last.”

p. 222 “This was an infidel country, whose way of life we Muslims were supposed to oppose and reject. Why was it, then, so much better run, better led, and made for such better lives than the places we came from?”

The most important part of the book is Chapter 14, “Leaving God.” The process of Ayaan Hirsa Ali’s embracing atheism began with the debates regarding Muslim immigrants in Holland in 2000. On September 3, 2001, she began working at the Wiardi Beckman Institute, the political bureau of the Dutch Labour Party, as a junior research on the question of immigration. Reacting to liberals who distanced the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, she thought, “I have to wake these people up.”
It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam. War had been declared in the name of Islam, my religion, and now I had to make a choice. Which side was I on? I found I couldn’t avoid the question. Was this really Islam? Did Islam permit, even call for, this kind of slaughter? Did I,
as a Muslim, approve of the attack? And if I didn’t, where did I stand on Islam?
Regarding Mohamed Atta’s letter to his co-conspirators, she wrote, “I read it and I recognized it. Everything about the tone and substance of that letter was familiar to me. This was not just Islam, this was the core of Islam.” (p. 269) “Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam—the Muslim Brotherhood Islam, the Islam of the Medina Quran schools—even if they didn’t actively support the attacks, they must at least have approved of them.” (p. 270) “Not frustration, poverty, colonialism, or Israel: it was about religious belief, a one-way ticket to Heaven.” (p. 270)

She then begins to discuss the negative impact of religion on an individual’s character and society. “We Muslims had been taught to define life on earth as a passage, a test that precedes real life in the Hereafter. In that test, everyone should ideally live in a manner resembling, as closely as possible, the followers of the Prophet. Didn’t this inhibit investment in improving daily life? Was innovation therefore forbidden to Muslims? Were human rights, progress, women’s rights all foreign to Islam? … By adhering to [the Prophet’s] rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we choose. We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert of the seventh century. … [The Quran] is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war. … The Prophet did teach us a lot of good things. I found it spiritually appealing to believe in a Hereafter. My life was enriched by the Quranic injuctions to be compassionate and show charity to others. … Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Quran; we are taught it in Arabic, which most Muslims can’t speak. As a result, most people think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant. … True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behavior.” (p. 271)

From these thoughts, she rejected the idea of Hell, which had up to this point restrained her from criticizing Islam. This forced her to think about the idea of God. Four pages into The Atheist Manifesto, “… I already knew my answer. I had left God behind years ago. I was an atheist. … It felt right. There was no pain, but a real clarity. … From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.” (p. 281)

Another important topic in Infidel is the author’s transition from European “left-wing” politics to “right-wing” politics. I put these in quotation marks to remind readers from the United States that, in European terms, both the United States Democratic and Republic parties would be
considered “right-wing.” “In Holland, all the political parties are in favor of an active, almost invasive degree of government intervention in the business of buying and selling, with high taxes and redistribution of wealth. … But in reality, the Labor Party in Holland appeared blinded by multiculturalism, overwhelmed by the imperative to be sensitive and respectful of immigrant culture, defending the moral relativists. When I said the position of Muslim women had to change—to change now—people were always telling me to wait, or calling me right wing. Was that what they told the mine workers in the nineteenth century when they fought for workers’ rights?” (p. 294)

When the leader of the Liberal Party offered Ayaan Hirsi Ali an opportunity to stand for election as a member of parliament, she decided that, if elected, her first goal would be to have the Ministry of Justice collect data on violence against women by ethnic background. On January 22, 2003, she was elected to parliament, winning many voters’ individual preference votes.

It’s sad that Ayaan Hirsi Ali regurgitates European Middle Ages character attacks on the Prophet Muhammad, when she said in an interview in late 2003, “By our Western standards, Muhammad is a perverse man, and a tyrant.” (pp. 303-5)

Pages 313-14 are a description of the film Submission, Part One.

Saudi Arabia is the source of Islam and its quintessence. It is the place where the Muslim religion is practiced in its purest form …. p. 346

“ … [W]e in the West would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life.” p. 348

“Similarly, Muslims don’t have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way that they think about equality and individual rights.” p. 350

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