“Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence.”
These words were written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Ali is an ex-Muslim, a Somalian-born intellectual who has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and, lastly, the Netherlands, before emigrating to the United States. Her bellicosity with regard to Islam has made her a marked woman, a status that is less figurative (her sharp rhetoric is a rarity in Western academia) than literal (she employs round-the-clock security as a result of death threats by fundamentalist Muslims).
Unlike most of her scholarly peers on both sides of the Atlantic, Ali has experienced firsthand the consequences of draconian Islamist laws, resulting punishments for non-adherence, and stringent sexual mores. As a woman, she also possesses an acute sense of the added burden imposed on her gender by radical Islam, a condition she unequivocally deems “the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West.” The daughter of verbally and physically abusive parents, sister of a violent brother, victim of genital mutilation, and escapee from an arranged marriage with a man whom she barely knew, Ali is uniquely positioned to editorialize on Islam, both its quotidian and extraordinary features, and the challenges it poses for modernized nations.
Why, then, has her critical reception been so muted? During interviews for positions with American think tanks, Ali’s interlocutors were “effusively polite, but…their support for me and my ideas was tentative;” one interviewer “seemed overly concerned with the possibility that I might offend Arab Muslims.” Prior to this, “when [she] began speaking out in Holland against genital mutilation…[she] was constantly told that immigrants to Europe knew that this practice was against the law in Europe, so it just didn’t happen to children once they got to Holland” (emphasis hers). New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an uncharacteristically fierce tone, wrote of Nomad: “Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir,” and in a later paragraph, he followed this up with the truly appalling observation that “perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: ‘I love you.'” Ultimately, he patronizingly conceded that Ali would make “a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.”
To be sure, Ali is not one to mince words. Nomad is dotted with unflattering portraits of Islam’s lesser-known practices; and her condemnations, stated without qualification, would evoke stammers and blushes among the well-bred liberal intelligentsia in her sphere. (Although she now works at the American Enterprise Institute, Ali expresses a nebulous wish “to alter [the status quo], radically” in an attempt to disabuse her detractors from branding her an American-style conservative.) “Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot?” she asks, in a chapter on American Muslims. “You can if you don’t care very much about being a Muslim.” Elsewhere, she berates the “closet Islamist” scholar Tariq Ramadan for his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, calling it “a badly written piece of proselytism” and claiming that “he doesn’t deserve the title of professor or a university chair from which to propagate his program of medieval brainwashing.”
Ali’s presence, then, in post-9/11 America comes at a uniquely discomfiting moment for political and religious scholars here. It is impossible to dismiss her outrage as right-wing demagoguery aimed at undermining the current political milieu in Washington; and yet, her no-holds-barred rhetoric on the subversive attributes of Muslim indoctrination feels wholly out of place in an arena largely populated by cautious (and occasionally self-loathing) multiculturalists. (For this last group she has no patience: “the culture of the Western Enlightenment is better,” she writes [emphasis hers].) What has emerged from the fallout, then, is a tacit buffer zone wedged by gun-shy scholars — what she terms “the emotional equivalent of patting my hand” — that leaves Ayaan Hirsi Ali out in the cold, defensive and smarting from a mild form of academic blacklisting.
Of course, Ali is not without her admirers. Paul Berman, in his indignant book The Flight of the Intellectuals, laments that “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.” Christopher Hitchens, likewise, has condemned her negative treatment in the Netherlands as “a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction.”
And yet these and other endorsements of Ali serve only to complicate her stature. Anti-Muslim hysteria has swirled relentlessly in recent months. The vitriolic debate over the “Ground Zero mosque” seems to have uncovered nearly a decade’s worth of barely concealed animosity among some conservatives towards adherents of Islam. During this same period, the standard liberal stance has been to dutifully emphasize the sheer minuteness of radicalism within the enormous sphere of global Islam. American attitudes toward Muslims appear to be approaching a watershed moment as both sides have steadily entrenched their positions. Where the left perceives bigotry, the right decries political correctness, which the left maintains is simply the protection of constitutional rights, which the right then argues must be understood in the context of a war on terror. Never have the bookends of the political spectrum been more repulsed by each other.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands somewhere in the rapidly vanishing middle ground. Despite her tumultuous journey out of Islam, she does not exhibit the utter forfeiture of rationality that plagues those with far less cause. Principal among this latter group are the ubiquitous talking heads, but also some pundits from traditionally more respected media outlets. In one particularly disturbing editorial last month, New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz notably declared that “Muslim life is cheap” and added, “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”
In contrast to the tactics employed by the most successful American shock jocks, Ali anchors her anti-Islamic message with the authority befitting one who speaks from experience. This does nothing to placate her leftist critics, who have all but fallen all over themselves acknowledging her personal fortitude while disavowing themselves of her conclusions. Armed with her impeccably authentic travails as an ex-Muslim woman, Ali embodies the ultimate headache for today’s Western liberal narrative, one in which cultural sensitivity is seen as an end unto itself.
However, while her presence causes complications among certain political factions, these unsympathetic commentators are not entirely self-serving either. In decrying Islamic tyranny, for example, Ali fails to acknowledge the relative successes of Turkey (99% Muslim), Indonesia (86% Muslim, and one of the world’s most populous democracies), and even Malaysia (60% Muslim). To lambaste a religion as the cause of many ills (in mostly smaller nations) while ignoring its more positive implementations (often in very large nations) is clearly not an oversight. It is a deliberate omission.
Ali’s shortsightedness compels her to ignore other encouraging signs of progress in the Muslim world as well. In a September 26 New York Times article titled “The Female Factor: A Path to Financial Equality in Malaysia,” Liz Gooch reports that “the number of female faces [in the Islamic finance sector] is multiplying.” One female Malaysian scholar noted that three-quarters of her university students are female. The author notes that “the roll call of female high achievers in this Southeast Asian nation cuts across almost all aspects of the [financial] sector.”
Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Ali’s writing is her naivete in regards to both the West and the history of Christianity — which, despite her atheism, she sees as a force for good in the culture clash with Islam. In her frequent comparisons of the two faiths, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ali has sacrificed nuance for pathos. She continuously emphasizes the compatibility of Christianity with Enlightenment philosophy, and uses this marriage to illuminate the discordant relationship Islam shares with education and the sciences. Throughout her polemic, however, Ali fails to comprehend the parallels between contemporary events and religious history, and thus a possible road to a peaceful Islamic future: the ideological trajectory pioneered by Christianity centuries ago had its origins in an anti-intellectual era that very much resembles that of the Muslim world today. Just as the Christian faith has not always been as accepting as it is today (especially as depicted in Ali’s overly sympathetic portrayal), Islam has not always been, nor need always be, as insular and defensive as it is now.
In fact, Ali appears to observe this when she writes, “Christianity too once made a magical totem of female virginity. Girls were confined, deprived of education, married off as property. And yet Christian societies today are largely free of this habit of mind. Cultures shift, often very rapidly.” And yet somehow she is incapable of imagining the portability of this concept to another monotheistic religion. The result is a particularly deplorable quandary: the West has indeed found an authoritative voice that cuts between the dual extremism of the vitriolic right and the self-flagellating left. In other (perhaps less polarizing) times, this splitting of differences would be called a compromise. Here, it only adds to the confusion.