If there were a “Ms. Globalization” title, it might well go to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who wrote the best- selling memoir “Infidel.” She has managed to outrage more people — in some cases to the point that they want to assassinate her — in more languages in more countries on more continents than almost any writer in the world today.
Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir. “Nomad” argues that Islam creates dysfunctional families — like her own — and adds that these distorted families constitute “a real threat to the very fabric of Western life.” Western countries, she says, should be less tolerant of immigrants who try to preserve their lifestyles in their new homelands. It might seem presumptuous to write another memoir so soon, but Hirsi Ali is a remarkable figure who has plenty of memories to record.
She was born in Somalia in 1969. Her family fled to avoid political repression, and she grew up in Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, collecting languages the way some kids collect postage stamps. For a time, she was a fervent Muslim, but when her father ordered her to marry a stranger, she struck out on her own, disgracing the family and shocking herself, and settled in the Netherlands.
Hirsi Ali studied political science — she is clearly intellectually brilliant — and ended up as a member of the Dutch Parliament. If the rapid transformation of a Somali girl into an outspoken black, female, immigrant member of Parliament seems extraordinary, it was just the beginning. Soon her critique of Islam was leading to death threats, her citizenship was threatened by Dutch officials and she moved to a new refuge in the United States. Even now, she needs bodyguards.
That’s partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex. After her father’s death, Hirsi Ali connects by telephone with her aging and long-estranged mother living in a dirt-floor hut in Somalia. Hirsi Ali asks forgiveness, but the conversation goes downhill when her mother pleads with her to return to Islam. Near tears, her mother asks: “Why are you so feeble in faith? . . . You are my child and I can’t bear the thought of you in hell.”
“I am feeble in faith because Allah is full of misogyny,” Hirsi Ali thinks to herself. “I am feeble in faith because faith in Allah has reduced you to a terrified old woman — because I don’t want to be like you.” What she says aloud is: “When I die I will rot.” (For my part, I couldn’t help thinking 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.”)
Since Hirsi Ali denounces Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry, I expected to dislike this book. It did leave me uncomfortable and exasperated in places. But I also enjoyed it. Hirsi Ali comes across as so sympathetic when she shares her grief at her family’s troubles that she is difficult to dislike. Her memoir suggests that she never quite outgrew her rebellious teenager phase, but also that she would be a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.
She is at her best when she is telling her powerful story. And she is at her worst when she is using her experience to excoriate a variegated faith that has more than one billion adherents. Her analysis seems accurate in its descriptions of Somalis, Saudis, Yemenis and Afghans, but not in her discussion, say, of Indonesian Muslims — who are more numerous than those other four nationalities put together.
To those of us who have lived and traveled widely in Africa and Asia, descriptions of Islam often seem true but incomplete. The repression of women, the persecution complexes, the lack of democracy, the volatility, the anti-Semitism, the difficulties modernizing, the disproportionate role in terrorism — those are all real. But if those were the only faces of Islam, it wouldn’t be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world today. There is also the warm hospitality toward guests, including Christians and Jews; charity for the poor; the aesthetic beauty of Koranic Arabic; the sense of democratic unity as rich and poor pray shoulder to shoulder in the mosque. Glib summaries don’t work any better for Islam than they do for Christianity or Judaism.
Where Hirsi Ali is exactly right, I think, is in her focus on education as a remedy. It’s the best way to open minds, promote economic development and suppress violence. In the long run education is a more effective weapon against terrorists than bombs are.
Because she is an immigrant, Hirsi Ali emphasizes the difficulties that immigrants, particularly Muslims, have in adjusting to life in Western societies. In the course of telling her own story, she identifies three central problems. First is Islam’s treatment of women. “The will of little girls is stifled by Islam. . . . They are reared to become submissive robots who serve in the house as cleaners and cooks.”
Second is the lack of experience that many Muslim immigrants have had with money and credit. Hirsi Ali recounts how, after her arrival in the Netherlands, she received an apartment through the government with the option of a loan of up to $4,000 to furnish it and pay utilities. A Dutch friend offered to take her to a discount furniture store, but Hirsi Ali had dreamed of something upscale. So she and her Somali roommate, Yasmin, went to a high-end store and bought wall-to-wall carpeting and wallpaper — and that used up almost the entire loan.
“The money was worth nothing here. Was the whole loan about just a carpet? We quickly decided it was God’s will. There was no need to quarrel: Allah had willed it thus.” Soon Hirsi Ali was thousands of dollars in debt, and she argues that many foreigners have similar troubles with Western credit and finance.
The third problem is a propensity to violence in the family, as well as in religious vocabulary and tradition. “I don’t want to create the impression that all people from Muslim countries or tribal societies are aggressive,” she writes — and then she proceeds to do just that. She declares: “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. Muslim children all over the world are taught the way I was: taught with violence, taught to perpetuate violence, taught to wish for violence against the infidel, the Jew, the American Satan.”
This is the kind of exaggeration that undermines the book. If the points about women and money are largely true, the point about violence seems to me vastly overstated. Yes, corporal punishment is common in madrassas, as it was in the rural Oregon schools where I grew up, and as it continues to be in Texas. Beatings may be regrettable, but they don’t typically turn children into terrorists.
During a recent trip to Sudan, I was speaking to a Muslim Arab in Khartoum. When I said I was from the United States, he looked quite shocked and said worriedly: “Oh! It is very violent there.” I’ve had similar experiences in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with people in those countries expressing concern about my safety in violent New York. They generalize too much from American movies.
It’s true that public discussion in some Muslim countries has taken on a strident tone, full of over-the-top exaggerations about the West. Educated Muslims should speak out more against such rhetoric.
In the same way, here in the West, we should try to have a conversation about Islam and its genuine problems — while speaking out against over-the-top exaggerations about the East. This memoir, while engaging and insightful in many places, exemplifies precisely the kind of rhetoric that is overheated and overstated.
Nicholas D. Kristof is an Op-Ed columnist at The Times and the author, with Sheryl WuDunn, of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”