My commentary on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel was written over time. I jotted down my thoughts as I read the book, stopping to write every so often. You may be wondering why I didn’t just finish the book and write some sort of composite review, but I find some value in recording my impressions when they are fresh…like an evolving relationship with a supposedly evolving character. This is especially true of an autobiography, where the writer is at least attempting to explain events as they occurred without the character knowing where his or her life was headed. Unlike fiction, the writer doesn’t have an overall “plan”, however vague, for the character.
March 4, 2008:
Currently on page 134 of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 350 page autobiography Infidel. The book is not just about her past, but about how her past apparently justifies her personal and global judgments on religion and Islam specifically. Aside from the female genital circumcision part of her story, which was strangely brief, her story isn’t terribly different from what even most American Muslim women can speak to. That is, most of us who have grappled meaningfully with our faith have dealt with the fundo phase, where black-and-white Islam seems to be both a comfort and an assault on our notions of self-dignity and worth. We all struggle to define gender equality within a framework that doesn’t seem to really allow it.
But somehow, some or, I hope, most of us, don’t end up where she did – frustrated with Islam, unable to reconcile it with her deep seated notions of equality, sexuality, and individuality. That raises a question, though: why her? Why not us? What was different?
I think a part of it may be that she didn’t have the sort of mentors and companions, vicarious or real, who helped her with her spiritual negotiation. Her father was often missing, and her mother was staunchly anti-discussion and free thought. She was bent on having her daughters conform to her version of Islam and culture and to essentially live out what she had been forced to endure. Hirsi Ali’s siblings were not too helpful either, each living their own paths, her sister fiercely defiant and her brother finding his own winding way to authority, control, and honor. Her friends and acquaintances, teachers like Sister Aziza, and even those who attended the evening debates on Islam-related matters – none of them seemed to align with her. Her deepest love, Abshir, was perhaps the closest she got to finding a spiritual soulmate, but his parallel confusion made him obviously hypocritical. She spurned him because he created divisions where she sought unity.
Maybe there’s a character still waiting in the curtains, somewhere in the latter half of her book, who brought meaning to her religious quest. But I doubt it. If she ended up where she did, then her religious experiences were on a constant downward spiral, not leading her somewhere that made sense. Her past wasn’t making her present and future anymore whole. Being lost rather than grounded in time and life’s progression, in the ways I suggest in Spirals, seemed to be the cause of her religous infidelity.
But again – why? Why didn’t she find a mentor? Why does God give some of us that companion, and some of us not, even if the lack of such guidance can lead to our losing faith?
March 14, 2008:
So now I’m on page 270 of Infidel. As I near the end of the book, I am seeing more and more of what I had picked up on earlier in the book – that many, if not all, of her conclusions about Islam are simplistic and logically fallible. She states her conclusions point-blank, and doesn’t even acknowledge the existence or possibility of counterarguments. I’m at the point in the book right after she learned of the 9/11 attacks and is reevaluating her views on Islam. Her colleague states that this attack is due more to socioeconomic, political and cultural matters than it is to religious belief. She denies his position vehemently, using as proof that because, for example, the hijackers weren’t Palestinian, there is no way this can be related to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Or that because they themselves are not poor and oppressed, it has nothing to do with social and political oppression. For someone who fancies herself deeply connected to rationalism and Western Enlightenment, she doesn’t exhibit much in the way of either logical consistency or sociological sensitivity. Just because the hijackers claim to be committing crimes in order to attain religious reward doesn’t preclude the fact that (1) the hijackers’ version of religion is taught and encouraged by social circumstances and that this version may be entirely distinct and even antithetical to the religion itself; and (2) that the hijackers don’t have to be poor, or Palestinian for that matter, to feel tied enough to those causes that they feel the need to act for them.
Although the attacks cannot be justified, some holistic explanation is in order, something that pinpoints a problem that needs to be intelligently addressed. Racist, simplistic conclusions that are not related to the core issue are not going to help. That the Dutch commentators point to Islam’s history of peace and intellectual fervor doesn’t make them somehow out of touch with reality, as Hirsi Ali states. Instead, these commentators are looking for reasons why a culture that bred tolerance and rationalism can suddenly be used to justify totally barbaric acts against humanity. Particular religious interpretations feeding off of peripheral issues are the problem, not the core itself – otherwise the entire history of Islam would be about violence and hatred.
To the extent that she uses her own experiences of poverty and oppression as a way of reaching conclusions about Islam, she seems oblivious to other causes of socioeconomic depravity. She also doesn’t realize that the Islamic Empire itself was vastly more wealthy and sophisticated than the Western world. By viewing all of Islam through the lens of the current global situation and, even more narrowly, her particular experience of Islam is to discount a million factors and influences, ranging from the political to the social and to the psychological results of such influences.
From the moment she steps into Europe, she remains completely enamored. She acknowledges in passing that Holland does have some problems, but overall, it seems to her that the Dutch are living an almost idyllic life. It’s unfortunate that in all of Holland she didn’t find a compassionate, rational Muslim to connect with (or at least she conveniently excludes such characters from her book) but that such Muslims exist is, I’m sure, something she learned of from her colleagues or readings. But she ignores the possibility of such a thing – a modernized, intellectually-aware Muslim, and chooses instead to conflate all things bad and poor with Islam and Muslims, as if one cannot be extricated from the other. That her initial childish impressions of Europe and modernization were not at some point tempered by intellectual subtlety is not merely unfortunate, but evidence of a conscious disregard for anything that would shake her predetermined notions of Islam and Muslims.
March 22, 2008
I finally finished the book a few days ago. Throughout my reading, I periodically abandoned the book but whenever I finally made it back, I found it hard to put down. The drama, deceit, and sensationalism kept me hooked, I guess. These 80 pages to the end of the book, however, were quite painful, and mostly I plugged through it because I just wanted to be done with it.
First, the parts of her story that I can understand: I can understand her frustration with lack of cultural integration. The Dutch government, in wanting to give immigrants their space, decided against forced assimilation. Hirsi Ali is right in demanding that the government not use its anti-integration policy as a way of turning a blind eye to existing human rights violations.
A bit trickier: I also understand her insistence on pointing to the religious bases of some of these human rights violations. But, I think this approach is about cultural sensitivity rather than about attacking religion. When it comes to religiously-motivated crimes, it is not enough to blame culture alone, when such demarcation between culture and religion fails to get to the crux of the matter as the perpetrators themselves understand it. That is, if a father feels it is his religious duty to kill his daughter for her illicit love affair, then in counteracting that problem, the government must deal with the role of religion in that man’s worldview. Again, dealing with religion is about understanding it enough to come up with a solution more attuned to the problem. In the case of religion, it may be about counteracting a particular interpretation with another one. In no case is it about attacking all forms of the religion itself.
Now, the parts I don’t understand and which, essentially, belie understanding: I don’t understand how someone purportedly tied to the values of liberalism, such as respecting diversity, can continue to attack a major world religion in the crudest of ways, and then wonder why the reaction is so virulent. Of course, actions such as the murder of Theo Van Gogh are not justifiable, but to describe the incident as “I don’t understand how someone can be so angry at a mere film” (as Hirsi Ali states in her book) is ridiculously blind to the fact that Submission was not a mere film. It was a film that insulted its Muslim viewers in the deepest core of their being. She ends her book by noting that some people have told her that her criticisms of Islam are too aggressive, but goes on to say that the pain oppressed women suffer is far worse. But do all Muslims have to be constantly insulted in order for women oppressed in the name of Islam to find relief? According to her atheist dogmatism, religion is the bane of all existence. And so despite billions of people’s intimate, meaningful connections to their faith tradition, it is perfectly okay to insult them.
Though her atheism makes it legitimate, in her eyes, for her to insult religion and religious folk, she does take some pains throughout the book to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. She notes, for example, that “unlike” Judaism and Christianity, Islam requires that its followers’ relationship with God be entirely about submission. I am not sure where and when she educated herself about Judaism and Christianity, but she seems to have completely overlooked each of these religion’s fundamentalist strains.
For Hirsi Ali, “submission” requires blind following, with no space for questioning or interpretation. In fact, earlier on in the book, when her father tells her about his relatively modern views of Islam, she blows him off by stating that his views are mere interpretations and that real Islam is about literal interpretation. She echoes this thought toward the end of her book when she claims that Saudi Arabia practices the “purest” form of Islam.
In all of this talk of purity and what Islam really is, it never occurs to her that she has basically internalized a particular rhetoric about “pureness” and the essential superiority of literal readings of Scripture. She decides somewhere along the line that this particular rhetoric is the truest expression of Islam. Unlike millions of Muslims who undergo spiritual evolution in the course of their lives as they attempt to better understand their religion, Hirsi Ali somehow knows, for certain, what Islam is. She never doubts it or checks it against the practice and belief of the full diversity of Muslims across the world. Again, I find her naïveté unsettling – and her rise to a position of political prominence even more disturbing.
Asma Uddin is a freelance writer and editor, and is an attorney at the national law firm, Morgan Lewis & Bockius. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.