Friday, June 11, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: a Work in Progress

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is on a tour for her newest memoir. The full title of her book is provocative: Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.

No, I haven’t read this one. I did buy Infidel back in the glory days of having an actual income. In that book, Ms. Ali came across as a strong, invincible person who was determined to make her way into Western culture, fully acculturated to what she perceived to be its values and its shortcomings.

Infidel showed her to be a work in progress. Some of the gaps in her understanding of the West were plain to see, but the reader could always hold her indoctrination via Dutch higher education ( a degree in Sociology, if I remember correctly) to account for those areas of ignorance. However, one came away with the sense that this was an ambitious, intelligent woman who would strive to fill in the missing pieces.

From what I can gather in reading interviews and looking at interviews with Ms. Ali during her book tour, her time in America has changed her world view in several ways:

  • Gone is the (sometimes) simplistic socialism and in its place is a kind of awkward libertarianism which fits her atheism well.

  • Her atheism, sadly but necessarily assumed as she left Islam behind, has softened. Now she appears to see Christianity as having instrumental value (much in the same way that many Chinese see it).

  • A deeply-held distrust of Americans has evolved into a more ‘nuanced’ view: we’re not all fat, gun-toting bigots as she had believed before arriving here. How sad she must have been at this forced exile into a nation of uncouth barbarians! Her refuge at the American Enterprise Institute is no doubt responsible in part for her change of mind about America.

  • her self-confidence, after years of living within the safety of a security bubble, has allowed a natural wit and sense of humor to emerge. This faculty has been useful for employment against those who denigrate her version of reality. She’s very quick on her feet.

There is a lot of video material available on Ms. Ali. I wanted to use something from her tour of Canada, but couldn’t find any material available for download. However, this partial interview in Denmark will serve to represent what she has to say:

There are a number of newspaper interviews, too. I chose one from the Toronto Globe and Mail. What I snipped is the last section because it demonstrates her softening attitude toward religion.
- - - - - - - - -
Not that she’s a believer, it's just that she sees the value of voluntary belief for people who need that sort of thing. The writer has paid close attention to Ms. Ali’s writing and to the public conflicts her work generates:

“The subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West,” she writes. “It is a subjection committed by the closest kin in the most intimate place, the home, and it is sanctioned by the greatest figure in the imagination of Muslims: Allah himself.”


Nomad is, in part, a brilliant introduction to the dynamics of Muslim families in the West. It explains how girls are cowed and shamed into submission, and how boys grow up confused. They are easy marks for the propaganda of well-funded jihadists, who offer them a meaning, a purpose, and a sense of identity. Ms. Hirsi Ali has met plenty of these young men and women on university campuses. “They start displaying what I think of as al-Qaeda chatter,” she says. “Israel is the small Satan, and America is the big one. They defend sharia law.”

So what can secular society do? “We need to offer an alternative sense of morality,” she says. How about Christianity - a mild, good-natured, evolved version of Christianity, one that welcomes arguments and questions? This strikes me as an odd suggestion, coming as it does from a committed atheist. But Ms. Hirsi Ali does have a point. Young people long for causes bigger than themselves. It’s not enough to counter the certainties of radical Islam with the hedonism of the West and a blithe “whatever.”

Several statements here are worth attention. The first is her opinion that “the subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West”. I’m torn here: I agree with her that Islam’s view of women is barbaric.

But that’s not the fundamental issue. The political structure of Islam is the problem and the treatment of women arises naturally from its utopian, supremacist world view. Where totalitarian ideologies take hold, there is a top-dog mentality which assigns worth to individuals based on a deadly calculus. People are valued for the extent to which they can promote The Cause. Beyond that, they are merely objects to be used and discarded. Thus the treatment of women (and children) in Islam would appear to be merely symptomatic of a systemic toxicity.

Whoever first observed Islam to be “a cancer” got it right on a number of levels. It spreads massively while feeding off its host. Eventually cancer kills what it invades; in the process it perforce must die off, too. Were Islamists ever to manage their takeover of the West, they would then set about killing one another for ever-smaller doctrinal disagreements. This is a feature of Islam, not a bug: it can’t be eliminated. Thus even in victory Islam would die. So much for the Ummah.

At this point, Ms. Ali’s suggestion about Christianity, to wit: “We need to offer an alternative sense of morality,” she says. How about Christianity - a mild, good-natured, evolved version of Christianity, one that welcomes arguments and questions?” shows the limits of her ability to think deeply about the nature of spirituality.

Is this restriction the result of her childhood experience with a religion based on obedience? That could be the case, but her jejune assumption that somehow a mild-mannered belief system would attract anyone shows the limits of her philosophy at the moment. Yes, she means well, but as C. S. Lewis remarked, “we’re all vaccinated with such a mild version of Christianity that we’re immune to the real thing”.

Deep allegiance to a belief system means that it transcends one’s everyday thinking. It means something an individual believes worth dying for; an experience of surrender and catch that remains essentially ineffable. Certainly it does not mean some vague “values” that don’t disturb the neighbors, while suiting the ends of the larger culture. That is precisely what the Chinese government, the princes of the faith of utilitarian ends, believe about the Christian religion. In fact, that’s why they set up a government-sponsored Catholic Church…and why millions of Chinese prefer instead their illegal “house” faith.

If Ms. Ali really thought through to the limits of her ideas, she’d have to admit that her dalliance with a married man, a serial adulterer at that, has societal consequences. Not that she and Niall Ferguson aren’t “free” to do what they want. But you know how Freedom is - wherever you find it you’re sure to see Responsibility is trailing behind, though the latter may be a little worse for the wear. That’s the problem with discussing virtue for others in public: it makes you even more of a target.

The last snip is from Mr. Wrestler at Big Government. He writes a very funny piece about his observations regarding Ms. Ali’s speech to an audience of liberals (ah, the high price authors pay for book tours!). Here is his assessment of the evening:

On May 24th, at Track 16 Gallery in fashionable Bergamont Station in Santa Monica, CA, dozens of marginal works of art were nearly destroyed by the exploding heads of some of SoCal’s finest and most dogmatic liberals, as a roomful of them were injected with some cognitive dissonance when author Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke.


During the interview portion of the evening, I was struck by how quiet the room was. Statements made by Ms. Ali that in most cities in middle America would have received applause were met with a respectful but stony silence. When the floor was opened for questions from the seemingly stunned audience, one after another of Santa Monica’s finest political thinkers rose unsteadily from their chairs to ask a question that might allow them to hold onto their deeply-held and carefully nuanced progressive beliefs in the face of someone who must have seemed to them to be an untouchable figure, a woman born in Somalia who left Islam and became an atheist, as well as an unrelenting critic of the injustice and violence that is routinely taught in the Muslim world.


Well, she was black, so they could not dismiss her as a racist; she had lived in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands and the United States, so they could not call her an ignorant provincial hick; she was an avowed atheist, so they could not call her a Christian bigot on a crusade against peaceful Islam; and she was multi-lingual, articulate, and brilliant, so they couldn’t just call her stupid. All the pejoratives they usually apply to people who disagree with them wouldn’t work, and so they were left to confront her ideas, and those ideas stripped them naked, rent their garments of superiority and condescension into tatters at their feet, and left them angry and confused, whining to each other in the corners of the room, unable to say anything to her face. Their favorite weapons, ad hominem name-calling and sneering condescension, were disarmed.

These qualities are what drive people to read Ms. Ali’s books, to attend her lectures, and to ponder what she has managed to achieve in the face of so many obstacles.

I look forward to her further metamorphoses as she continues to grow in knowledge and wisdom. As we all are, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a work in progress. Whether you agree with her or not, she is a woman of gravitas and an admirable person.


Tim Johnston said...

(I've just started Nomad myself, but don't have much to say about it yet.)

re:"allegiance to a belief system" and Ali's view on religion, Mark Steyn made a similar, but not so well articulated, point today. Secular liberalism (and which is not to say I don't believe in it) is simply not strong enough to fend off the 'strong horse' of Islam in a spiritual vacuum such as exists in Europe.

He (also in America Alone) seems to suggest a resurgence of Christianity would help, and maybe he is right - but you can't make people -who do not believe- believe for the sake of believing. Short of another secular religion like -God forbid - fascism or communism, what future does Europe have in this regard?

I think Steyn is right that Catholicism will serve as an anchor, but that doesn't help the rest of us!

Dymphna said...

I think Steyn is right that Catholicism will serve as an anchor...

I will have to respectfully disagree with you and Mr. Steyn, at least for Americans. The Catholic Church in Africa and China are growing, but here it may well be the link between evangelical Chrisitanity and Judaism that is the strongest and most prominent.

I doubt Mark Steyn spends a whole lot of time looking at relgious periodicals, but he should. It would give him some idea of the range of topics they cover.

By "evangelical" Christianity, I mean those people -- not necessarily of any particular denomination -- they are across the sprectrum from no affiliation to Orthodox Catholicism, whose emphasis is not so much on ritual. Instead they focus on the "kerygma" -- the spoken word as it is preached and read and sung. That's where the flame of Christian belief burns most brightly in this country.

For some examples of this coming together, look at the magazine "First Things". I believe the link is on our side bar. They have been around for a long time and now they're starting to sponsor blogs. Gateway Pundit is there, for one. So is Spengler, now that he's out of the closet.

Things are in far more ferment than most people realize. It's like many other facets of our cultural life here: if the media doesn't cover it, then it doesn't exist, right?

However, this ferment is one reason that the abortion isssue isn't "settled" no matter how much the elites (including judges) think that the argument is done. What they don't realize is that it's simply gone underground.

And if gays wonder why it is so hard to get their issues settled legally, they can look to the feminists' aggressive push on abortion a generation ago. It's made doubtful people leery as they've seen partial birth abotion become 'normal', as they've seen the founders admit they lied about the # of botched abortions, etc.

Having been fooled once, the ethical moderate is not going to engage at the margins anymore. Even while they feel great compassion for gay couples, I don't think they're going to budge.

Burned once, and all that.

Also look at the Acton Institute for a religious point of view on capitalism and global economics. It is a conservative pov, beginning with (of course) Lord Acton, but also including Bastiat and the Cobham group.

las said...

Dymphna, thanks for your timely insights regarding Hirsi Ali. I also believe she is a work in progress. Initially she was so contaminated by the Leiden elites during the formative years of her education that at points in her book "Infidel" I had to question whether she had any awareness of Christianity's influence in Holland much less its position as wellspring of Western Civilization.

Then later she tied her intellectual cart to the atheist horse and garnered accolades from Christopher Hitchens no less.

Although a poised and compelling authority on women's issues in Islam I foresaw that she would consign herself to a sort of lecture circuit purgatory unappreciated, even mocked, by liberals and considered a waif by conservatives.

Hirsi Ali is a self learner and evidently she is beginning to fill in the gaps deliberately left void by her Leiden masters at the academy.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post (and sorry for a totally unwitty comment).

Tim Johnston said...

Evangelicalism may be the strongest religious tradition in America, but in Europe it's still Catholicism. The Roman Church still commands enormous emotional and symbolic power - and I'd argue the Orthodox Churches do too - in a way that European Protestantism doesn't.
My own former denomination, Anglicanism, has almost entirely disappeared (except in Africa and Asia) in a puff of incense, and although Evangelicalism is very powerful it is almost so frowned upon in Europe that it may not win many converts.

Now would be a good time to hear strong voices from the Churches, and in Europe only Rome is doing that. We're talking about a complete spiritual vacuum, and neopagan religions will also grow, and so will fringe forms of Christianity.

Profitsbeard said...

Personally, a healthy instinct for survival as a free being is all I need to oppose the cruel, theocratic tyranny of Imperialistic Islam.

You do not need a "God" to fight another "God".

You only have to recognize that a global gulag run by intolerant, misogynistic, terroristic, retrograde imbeciles is revolting, ridiculous, and an insult to the most basic level of intelligence and human sense of liberty.

Religious rule always goes bad by mixing earthly power with infinite impulses.

History is a record of red in this respect.

Dymphna said...

Tim Johnston--

But lets put that comparison in numbers. How many Europeans, who feel a certain nostalgia for the old church, will even permit the mention of its Christian foundation in the EU Constitution? That move would have caused a storm of dissent here.

My point is that average Europeans have nothing much against religion, they just don't see the point. Back to C.S. Lewis' quote. You see, they *think* they know all about religion and spirituality, but they don't. They have lovely empty cathedrals, though.

And state churches will kill off the spiritual impulse faster than anything. That's why Anglicanism is dying.



When anyone tells me You only have to...and follows it with a prescription that is highly unlikely to work (not to mention being thick with adjectival censure) I realize that my interlocutor didn't hear what I said.

So I'll try again:

Ms. Hirsi Ali recognizes that the kids who are drawn to Islam hunger for an experience of the numinous. She is attempting to find an alternative for them, though I don't think what she envisions addresses the heart of the matter.

You may not have such yearnings yourself, but many people do indeed have them. To dismiss them as irrelevant is to close off the conversation and I don't want to do that.

Basically, I disagree with your proposition that one does not need a god to fight another god. I can't think of a better weapon, but right now the West has such an anemic god that he's no match for Allah.

That's why the loud, hurly burly American version of the Judaeo Christian god is important in this culture war. He's out in the public square despite the attempts to tone him down.

As for the survival instinct, that one has been so perverted and degraded by popular culture that we have a lot of fat, zoned out zombies on our hands. Their upkeep is expensive.