Saturday, July 21, 2007

What I am reading: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel revealed much about a woman’s early life in repressive Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and (to a less extent) Kenya. It reveals her joys as she discovers the advantages of living in an open, wealthy society, Holland, where she can work, study and enjoy friendships and romance to an extent impossible in her earlier constrained life.

Most of all, this book reveals her sense that the West does not appreciate the threat that the mindless tolerance of intolerance poses. People who have no tolerance for alternative viewpoints, who threaten dissenters with death and who claim cultural freedom (with hypocritical cries of ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’) to express their own bigotry, are unwanted in any society.

AHA’s early life looks nightmarish to an external western observer. Indeed it would like look very attractive to any young woman aware of even limited alternative possibilities. Life is materially poor- without much variety and there is a miserable lack of personal freedom, a lack of non-rote-learning education, a lack of personal honesty coupled with an exceedingly harsh family life and, at the social level, a generally atrocious treatment of women and girls.

The mutilation of AHA’s genitals is that part of her story that has received most publicity but it is only a minor part of the tale related here.

The more general story is one of oppression and denial of her most basic human rights. These societies she describes use the words ‘no’ and ‘sin’ excessively to drive much of life which is consequently a boring, drag. That’s why so many people from these societies want to exit and join the very societies their religious leaders so forcefully condemn. They are suffering human beings who carry repugnant social attitudes as baggage with them.

AHA, during her adolescence, accepted the religious and social repression because she knew no alternative. She suffered from the ‘caged bird syndrome’ – even if the door is open she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) fly. For much of the time she sought to establish Islam as the basis for her life – indeed she became unusually religious. Like many adolescents she sought the internal stability that highly structured religious belief seems to provide fanatics who accept its premises dogmatically. The questions she asked about the consistency of various religious beliefs troubled her, in part, because they were not sensibly responded to. As an adolescent I can remember asking the same types of questions to Christian ministers and experiencing frustration that they were also not answered.

But, to AHA, there are differences between a modern Christian upbringing and a fundamentalist Islamic upbringing because, under the latter, there is no personal dialogue within the religion. With the fundamentalist approach religion is a matter of learning the truth as it is presented by God in an ancient text – no role for individual understanding here. Even understanding is inessential – as evidenced by the Somalian requirement that AHA rote learn large slabs of the Koran in Arabic even though she understood almost none of the language. It is stupid.

AHS’s stories reveal interesting vignettes of fundamentalist societies. Their ignorance of other societies, their bigotry and hatred of new ideas, the use of religion to validate oppressive power structures and, most of all, their ignorance. Some of the insights into the rationale for the repression of women under Islam were almost humorous . I recall the notion that if female sexuality were not repressed society would disintegrate and even the bus service would fail as oversexed bus drivers collided with one another! This bullshit is, on reflection, a great way of rationalising oppression.

When AHA went to live in Saudi Arabia she was addressed as the ‘black slave’ by her devout religious teachers and the worm started to turn. She saw women locked in their homes, beaten by their husbands, trapped into loveless marriages with joyless sex and with men they despised. She saw a religion that paid no respect to other religions while demanding it be respected. It was a religion which blamed the ills of the world, and its own failure to establish prosperous, liberal societies anywhere, on ‘long-nosed’ Jews – they crop up everywhere – even ‘Saddam Hussein’ was a Jew! But despite this transparent nonsense AHA remained a devout Muslim and saw the Saudi’s as distorters of religious truth not as indications of the unsoundness of the underlying religion. Indeed she reluctantly accepted an arranged marriage with a man she thought was a traditionalist moron just to please the father she (to my mind) inexplicably idolised. On the way to join this man in Canada she dumped this dummy and fled to Holland where she lied to get her political asylum. I’ve got to say I was overjoyed with her successful deception.

AHA learnt Dutch and got a political science education in Holland. One of the jobs she took to fund her education was working as a translator for abused female refugees - almost all of whom came from Islamic countries. Her attitudes accordingly hardened. Her path to becoming an atheist outright was based on her rejection of her earlier view that it was particular ignorant people who were distorting Islam – to the contrary she saw the religion itself as condemning women to a subordinate role, preaching violence not peace and trapping societies in poverty and despair. This gave rise to the bashings and the female oppression.

AHA’s life in Holland convinced her there was a better alternative – the Western, liberal values that most of us take for granted, provided a more satisfactory way of living and a better way for her to pursue happiness.

The book closes as AHA’s colleague Theo van Gough (director of Submission) is murdered by a cowardly Islamist who threatened that AHA would be killed next. The response of the western left, even in Holland, was firstly to condemn AHA for criticising Islam for not embracing ‘multiculturalism’. This inappropriate guilt by Westerners resulting in the victim of oppression being attacked not the murderous, intolerant, misogynist thugs who sought to kill her.

This response made me feel slightly ill – I am sure the same would have happened in Australia given the same circumstances.

When left wing bloggers and Muslim fanatics denounce AHA as an extremist with a chip on her shoulder and use ‘cultural relativism’ arguments to support Islamic oppression of half of humanity they are just wrong. Despite horrific treatment at the hands of her immediate family AHA loves her parents and does not hold them responsible for her misfortunes.

AHA rejects Islam and has moved on. She is not a fanatic at all. I think she is an attractive, balanced person – good looking, self-honest, intelligent and self-reliant. When she opted out of Islam she was a young woman seeking to choose the direction of her own life and making informed, if risky, choices.

I strongly liked her – and, oddly, she reminded me of me.


Diamond said...

A very interesting review. I think you would find that intelligent women would agree with your comments.
My bookclub recently read The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Although the fundamentalist practices you decribe (such as genital mutilation) are not apparently used in the Afghan culture described, the society is still very repressive of women.
What we would see as repressive behaviour seems to them to be normal behaviour and it is hard to change that.
When the women are able to become more empowered maybe they will be able to effect changes.
We only have to look back to the 20th Century in Australia to find women working for quite a different level of pay to men performing the same work.
My mother was forced to prove she had contributed income to the family estate so she could be exempted from tax when my father died quite suddenly in 1971.
She was a teacher and found this most offensive.
Much earlier than this she had been forced to leave work by the NSW education department because she got married. She was then employed again when the war broke out and then left again when she expected her first baby. She returned to teaching much later, when her children were older and the laws had changed.
These may seem much more minor incidents than this book describes, but we shouldn't lose sight of the way women have been treated in our own culture.
Women are neither objects nor property. When this is established through the world it will be a better place for all to inhabit.
I am posting under my cat's name, as the automatic heading comes up. Be assured that I am human.
Best wishes,
Lynette Arden

Irfan Yusuf said...

Here's an alternative view ...