Book Reviews

The Un-Reluctant Fundamentalist

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: brave critic of Islam on the grounds of its illiberalism–and champion of illiberal means to crush it.

By Michelle Goldberg

Tagged Ayaan Hirsi AliIslam

Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations By Ayaan Hirsi Ali • Free Press • 2010 • 304 pages • $27

This past April, I was at a conference at Miami University in Ohio where Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the fantastically brave, inspiring, and completely maddening feminist opponent of Islam, was the keynote speaker. The security in the auditorium was airport-like, with metal detectors and swarms of stern men in headsets, because, as the world’s most outspoken Muslim apostate, Hirsi Ali lives under constant threat of assassination.

Onstage, despite the ever-present danger, she didn’t seem at all anxious or intimidated. She was funny, erudite, a little self-mocking, and transfixing as she spoke, seemingly extemporaneously, about her childhood in Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya; the daring flight from forced marriage that brought her to Holland; and her slow, painful shedding of her Muslim religion. Her sangfroid was particularly striking during the question-and-answer session, when several outraged young Muslim men lined up to challenge her, some of them barking Koranic verses at her in Arabic, which she coolly translated for the audience and then elaborated on. She stuck relentlessly to her message: Islam oppresses women. Secularism must be protected at all costs. Every person–particularly, every woman–must be the absolute master of her own life, body, and conscience, freed from the dictates of religion, family, or clan. She probably used the phrase “reproductive rights” a half-dozen times.

Watching her, it was easy to think that American liberals and feminists had made a serious error in letting this charismatic dissident be co-opted by the American right. Hirsi Ali is, after all, a champion of a great many cherished liberal values, yet she’s now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Her new book, Nomad, is dedicated to Chris DeMuth, AEI’s former president. It’s been truly dispiriting to see where she’s ended up.

She landed at AEI somewhat by accident, after her life in Holland had become untenable. In 2004, in one of the landmark Islamist outrages that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century, Theo Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali’s collaborator on a short film about Muslim women’s oppression, was murdered in the street in Amsterdam. His killer pinned a multi-page death threat against Hirsi Ali to Van Gogh’s chest. At the time, Hirsi Ali was a Dutch parliamentarian, but in 2006, in a disgraceful maneuver by a political rival, she was briefly stripped of her citizenship. Neighbors in her condo building had her evicted on the grounds that her presence there was a danger to everyone.

Hirsi Ali moved to the United States, but she needed a job. She met with officials at the Brookings Institution and the RAND Corporation, as well as Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and George Washington universities. “Everyone I met there was effusively polite, but I felt their support for me and my ideas was tentative,” she writes in Nomad. Brookings, she says, was particularly worried about offending Muslims and thus jeopardizing its programs in Qatar. Only AEI embraced her completely, and so she put aside misgivings about its conservatism and took a position there.

For the right-wing think tank, landing such a brilliant, cosmopolitan heroine was a coup. The American right often alleges that liberals, full of mushy-headed cultural relativism, can’t even bestir themselves to defend their own values against reactionary Islam. The liberal intellectual establishment’s rejection of Hirsi Ali appeared, at least on the surface, to bear this out.

That’s certainly what Paul Berman argues in his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. “A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist,” he writes of Hirsi Ali, asserting that the left’s failure to rally around her is evidence of deep intellectual corruption. Pointing to her liberal critics, particularly the writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, he says, “The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented–at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press.”

But there is a problem with this perspective. Hirsi Ali is, in many ways, immensely admirable. But she can also be reactionary, glib, and sloppy, and judging by Nomad–a painfully disappointing book–these tendencies have gotten worse since she joined AEI. Nomad brims with attacks on unrecognizable straw feminists, bizarre statements about the United States, and, strangest of all, a tendency to romanticize religions outside of Islam. Hirsi Ali remains, she says, an atheist, but she’s developed an odd admiration for the Catholic Church, which, she suggests, should try to civilize Muslims through conversion. There is in Nomad a new concern for private property and a shout-out to gun rights. She ladles praise on her AEI colleague Charles Murray, author, most famously, of The Bell Curve, which purported to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of black people.

Hirsi Ali attacks Islam in the name of liberalism, but she’s more than willing to jettison her liberalism for the sake of her anti-Islamism. Perhaps if she had found a home on the left, Hirsi Ali’s thinking would have developed in a different direction. One could blame liberals or feminists or mainstream intellectuals for letting her down, for driving her into the arms of the neoconservatives. But to do so is to condescend to a woman who has always taken responsibility for forging her own path.

Hirsi Ali is most frequently criticized by liberals for her scathing attacks on Islam, but the problem with her work is not her furious rejection of her former faith. She has earned her right to revile it, even if she does engage in gross generalizations. I think she’s wrong to dismiss the possibility of moderate Islam. There’s not a word in Nomad about the mystical, tolerant Sufi tradition, which has deep roots in countries like Pakistan and makes far more sense as an alternative to religious militancy than Catholicism does. Nevertheless, there’s clearly a lot of truth in her depiction of conservative Islamic society as monstrously repressive. It’s hard to blame her if, as Berman writes, “the Islam she takes most seriously is the Islam that she herself has had to experience.”

As a child, Hirsi Ali underwent infibulation–her external genitalia sliced off, the wound sutured shut. Her mother, her father’s second wife, went nearly mad when he took a third. Mostly abandoned by him, she lived a life of frustration and shame. When Hirsi Ali was a teenager, her Koran teacher, enraged by her insolence, cracked her skull. She had to escape a forced marriage to a man she never met. She’s seen the lives of her sister and her cousins blighted by sexual guilt and denial. A Muslim fanatic slaughtered her friend in the Western city where she thought she’d found refuge. And now she must live a furtive and threatened existence, surrounded at all times by a grim cordon of armed bodyguards.

If a young woman escaped from an extremely reactionary Mormon or evangelical background, and then wrote about it, it is unlikely that critics would lecture her for failing to appreciate the diverse glories of her abandoned religion. But Islam is different; we tread more carefully around it. In some ways, this makes sense. Anti-Muslim bigotry has been used to garner support for unjust wars and harass beleaguered immigrants. But it’s also true that, as Hirsi Ali argues, Westerners, and particularly Western liberals, treat Islam too gingerly, and thus capitulate to its illiberal tendencies.

Last year, for example, when Yale University Press published The Cartoons That Shook the World, a book about the global controversy that arose from Danish newspaper cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, it refused to include reproductions of the cartoons themselves. “[T]he cartoons are deliberately grotesque and insulting, gratuitously so. They were designed to pick a fight. They meant to hurt and provoke,” wrote John Donatich, the press’s director. Furthermore, security experts had determined that there was “an appreciable chance of violence occurring if either the cartoons or other depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were printed” in the book.

It’s shocking that a university press would self-censor to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of religious fundamentalists. Yet this capitulation to fanaticism was mostly met with a public shrug.

Hirsi Ali’s blasphemy deserves defending. She is absolutely right to demand for Muslim women the same rights that Western women take for granted. But reading her, it’s clear that she has maintained one significant habit of mind from her fundamentalist Muslim youth–she sees a world cleanly divided between those inside the house of Islam and those outside. Worse, her prescriptions for dealing with Islam would require the West to abandon crucial civil liberties and commit itself to perpetual war.

In 2007, for example, she told Reason magazine that the West must “defeat” Islam, prompting her interviewer to ask, “We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, ‘defeat Islam?’ ” Her response:

I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Aside from the bloody foreign policy implications of this position, it also shows contempt for fundamental American values of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In Nomad, she criticizes American university curricula for dwelling on past Western misdeeds. “Eastern, Middle Eastern, and African cultures that see compromise and conciliation as manifestations of weakness interpret all this as a sign of their own impending victory: it emboldens them,” she writes. But if these cultures are as inferior as Hirsi Ali argues, why should the United States mimic their chauvinism? Isn’t a capacity for self-criticism part of the Enlightenment culture Hirsi Ali claims to venerate?

Trapped as she is in a security bubble, Hirsi Ali’s experiences in the United States have been understandably limited. Still, there’s no excuse for the ignorance behind some of her comments. “The American family is not as extended as in the clan culture I grew up in and not as tightly nuclear as the Dutch model. Nor is there any of the experimentation I encountered in the Netherlands,” she solemnly informs us. (In a footnote, she explains helpfully that in Holland, there are women who choose to be single mothers, as well as gay and lesbian families.)

Elsewhere, in calling for a new feminism that can take on Islamic abuses, she remarks, “The militant anti-male discourse of some feminist leaders is abhorrent to me.” What feminist leaders is she talking about? The late Andrea Dworkin? Her source on American feminism seems to be her AEI colleague Christina Hoff Sommers, whom she quotes on the “feminism of resentment.” These feminists, Hirsi Ali writes, “see only the iniquity of the white man and reduce such universal concepts as freedom of expression and the right to choose one’s own destiny to mere artifacts of Western culture.”

To be blunt, Hirsi Ali has no idea what she’s talking about. Western feminists have consistently stood up for women’s rights in developing countries–including Muslim countries–inspiring endless polemics by both Christian and Muslim conservatives blasting “feminist colonialism.” Long before September 11, the Feminist Majority Foundation was a lonely American voice against the Taliban’s sexual apartheid, and today, the New York-based feminist group Women for Afghan Women runs domestic violence shelters in Afghanistan. The American feminist movement lobbies, fiercely and consistently, for family planning programs in poor countries, including Muslim countries. American feminists–including Muslim feminists–have set up domestic violence shelters that serve women trapped in violent homes in insular religious communities. American feminists have also played a crucial role in the global campaign against female genital mutilation, both by getting the U.S. government to exert its influence on countries reliant on American aid, and by supporting women working in Africa to end the practice.

A few years ago, I visited Tasaru Ntomonok, which is the kind of place Hirsi Ali would probably love–it’s a Kenyan shelter that houses and educates girls fleeing female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Among its supporters are the high profile feminist Eve Ensler, the feminist NGO Equality Now, and the United Nations Population Fund, a bête noire of many conservatives. There are similar grassroots organizations working toward women’s liberation all over the world. More are needed, obviously, and those that do exist aren’t perfect. But Hirsi Ali slanders American feminists when she says that multiculturalism has blinded them to global misogyny.

American conservatives, meanwhile, have consistently attacked programs that help to liberate women in the developing world. They’ve slashed funding for reproductive health clinics abroad, and have put pressure on foreign governments to maintain restrictive anti-abortion laws. They’ve fought efforts to expand women’s rights in international law, helping to ensure that the United States remains one of the few countries that have refused to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women–putting it in the company of Iran, Sudan, and Somalia. In 2007, the evangelical activist Janice Crouse, a Bush delegate to a 2002 United Nations summit on children, attacked the Convention in explicitly relativist terms: “It is like the old colonialism.…[H]ere you have the UN taking up the same kinds of principles and saying to countries you have to do things my way. You have to do things in the way of Western nations.”

Indeed, when it comes to women’s rights, American conservatives often ally themselves with the very governments Hirsi Ali decries. As Colum Lynch reported in The Washington Post in 2002, “Conservative U.S. Christian organizations have joined forces with Islamic governments to halt the expansion of sexual and political protections and rights for gays, women and children at United Nations conferences.” He quoted a U.S. official saying, “We have tried to point out there are some areas of agreement between [us] and a lot of Islamic countries on these social issues.”

Nowhere in Nomad does Hirsi Ali try to convince her conservative allies to change their thinking on women’s rights. Instead, in the book’s most outrageous section, she urges Catholics and Protestants to try to convert as many Muslims as possible, “introducing them to a God who rejects Holy War and who has sent his son to die for all sinners out of love of mankind.” She notes, with what sounds like approval, that “[t]he Roman Catholic Church has a long history of resisting religious challenges from inside and outside what used to be called Christendom.” Further, she argues that secularists should create a united anti-Islamic front with Christians. “[I]n time of war,” she writes, “internal feuding in the ranks–between atheists and agnostics, Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics–serves only to weaken the West.”

The notion that atheists and agnostics should join forces with the Vatican in a religious war is, well, unhinged. It’s also symptomatic of a deeper flaw in Hirsi Ali’s thinking. She’s right that much of Islam is saturated in misogyny. But she’s hopelessly wrong in asserting that such misogyny is unique to Islam. In India, where sex-selective abortion is rampant, the problem is far worse among Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains than Muslims, and honor killings plague Sikh and Hindu communities in the country’s north. In 2004 in predominantly Christian Uganda, feminists tried to get a law passed banning spousal rape; it failed. A member of the country’s legal affairs committee argued that the bill should address women’s denial of sex, saying, “Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do.” In 2006, Nicaragua passed a law banning all abortion even when a woman’s life is at stake. The Vatican, of course, applauded. Since then, women have hemorrhaged to death from easily treatable conditions in the country’s hospitals.

Hirsi Ali fails to see that patriarchal fundamentalists and reactionaries the world over have far more in common with one another than they do with liberals and secularists in their own societies. She is right that liberals need to stand up against Islamism, but the way to do that is not to throw out their own values and join a new crusade. Berman accuses Hirsi Ali’s critics of masochism, of rejecting her because she takes liberalism too seriously. He cites the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner on “the racism of the anti-racists,” which “instinctively denies to someone from a genuinely oppressed region of the world the right to employ the same tools of Enlightenment analysis that Europeans are welcome to use.” This assumption of bad faith is unfair. There are at least some of us who very much wish we could champion Hirsi Ali, but find it impossible because we take seriously what she says, and not just what she stands for.

Read more about Ayaan Hirsi AliIslam

Michelle Goldberg is the author, most recently, of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World.

Also by this author

Why (Some) Men Still Have It All

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus