AYAAN HIRSI ALI: INGENUE OR PROVOCATEUR?
One Woman's Journey from Warlord Somalia to Neocon Washington
by Chesley Hicks, WW4 REPORT
The Caged Virgin
An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press/Simon & Schuster 2006 (translated), originally published in Netherlands 2004
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press/Simon & Schuster 2007
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is, among many things, a Somali-born feminist and former Dutch parliamentarian. Her name gained worldwide attention in 2004 after Theo Van Gogh, the grandnephew of the famous Dutch painter, was murdered for his work with Ali on their short film Submission, an artistic statement on the status of women in Islam.
Ali's first book, The Caged Virgin, was originally published in 2004 in Holland, where she'd become a well-known, outspoken critic of Islamic oppression of women. A collection of essays, the book lays the bones of Ali's beliefs and offers some insight to the personal history that thrust her to international prominence.
Her essential contentions in Virgin are first, that Islamic doctrine mandates female subservience, oppression, and abuse; second, that the degradation of women underlies the greater ills and unrest that plague Muslim countries; and third, that it is incumbent upon both Muslims and Westerners to openly critique and take action against violence and oppression committed in the name of religion.
Central to her argument is what she recognizes as Western liberal apologism in the face of Islamic violence against women. In the book's prologue she writes: "In certain countries, 'left wing,' secular liberals have stimulated my critical thinking and that of other Muslims, but these same liberals in Western politics have the strange habit of blaming themselves for the ills of the world, while seeing the rest of the world as victims."
This contention puts her at variance with many, including leftists with whom she otherwise shares values. Later in the book, she also writes, "Everything you do here in the free west is your choice. For heaven's sake, grow up! Take responsibility for yourself."
Such proclamations—obviously ripe for right-wing picking yet coming from an avowed humanitarian, feminist pluralist—have positioned Ali as a boundary-challenging lightning rod of a public figure. At the book's beginning, she writes: "I have taken enormous risk by answering the call for self reflection and by joining the public debate that has been taking place in the West since 9-11. And what do the cultural experts say? 'You should say it in a different way.' But since Theo van Gogh's death, I have been convinced more than ever that I must say it my way only and have my criticism."
Reading this for the first time alongside some of her more scathing indictments of Islam, one could wonder if Ali is as much interested in positing herself as a cult of personality as she is in promoting her cause.
That she feels deep and genuine angst over the plight of Muslim women is never in question. But the polemical approach she takes in The Caged Virgin can at times strike the reader as blunt and lacking strategy. People listen to Ali because she is intelligent, extraordinarily accomplished, mediagenic, and knows Islam from the inside. She was raised in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia and witnessed firsthand the complicated, mutually exploitative interplay between religion, culture, and corrupt regimes in those countries. In particular, she argues that the Muslim "obsession with virginity" insidiously undermines and corrupts all of Islamic culture. She was forced to undergo excision (clitoridectomy, or female circumcision) at age five. She arrived in Holland at age 23 because she was making a clandestine escape from an arranged marriage. She knows conflict and developing-world travails better than most Westerners.
Ali compares Muslim women's internalizing of their subjugation to Stockholm syndrome. She inventories Islam's unrelenting doctrinaire proscriptions, and describes the reactionary mechanics instilled in its believers. So it seems she might take a more nuanced approach in making an appeal to its would-be dissidents. Instead, Virgin serves incendiary statements aplenty: "Many Muslims lack the necessary willingness and courage to address this crucial issue," for example, or: "September 11, mark my words, was the beginning of the end of Islam as we know it."
She has little patience for any abiding of oppression in the name of tolerance. "The worst thing is that this worry about discrimination pushes Muslim women ever further down into the pit," she writes. "Whom do you help by saying nothing? It's selfish not to want to appear racist."
Later chapters in the book sketch Ali's conflicted relationship with her family and how her charismatic but generally absent father—Hirsi Magan Isse, a scholar and leader of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF)—might have informed her own sense of singular heroism. In one chapter a nearly child-like Ali explains that she does not see herself as a saint: "I've been naughty," she—a real-life, international agent provocateur—writes without irony. "I teased other girls, rung people's bells and run away." She proceeds to describe how she feels responsible for stigmatizing the Koran teacher who beat her nearly to death as a child. This simplicity might be due in part to Virgin's translation, or a hasty effort to get it published in order to illuminate Ali's views in the wake of her fast ascent to fame. Though it seems to point to something more profound, it is never clear. The personal anecdotes are intriguing but beg for more detail. Similarly, the book feels at times redundant and meandering, and leaves one wondering where her editors went.
In these ways, Virgin can leave readers scratching their heads. Though bold and explicit in places, the book leaves too much up to readers' conjecture. Most readers, based on their own prejudices, likely either want her to be right or want her to be wrong. Response to the book, it seems, lies along those lines. An internet search reveals as much.
But one need read no further than Ali's next book for the full insight required to understand all this and more.
In lucid, fine detail Infidel makes fluid sense of Virgin's stark outlines. A chronological memoir that traces Ali's life from rural Somalia and urban Mogadishu to Nairobi, Mecca, The Hague, New York, Washington DC and many places in between, Infidel lends texture, depth and sense to Virgin's angles. It also reveals the author's deeply compassionate, devoted, sound and powerful mind.
While double the length of Virgin, Infidel is a far more coherent, fleet read. And though more subtle, it is ultimately more rousing in its cause-appeal and firming in its conviction. It also tells an enthralling tale.
At the end of chapter four in Infidel, Ali writes, "That is how, by the time I turned ten, I had lived through three different political systems, all of them failures."
"The police state in Mogadishu," she continues, "rationed people into hunger and bombed them into obedience. Islamic law in Saudi Arabia treated half its citizens like animals, with no rights or recourse, disposing of women without regard. And the old Somali rule of the clan, which saved you when you needed refuge, so easily broke down into suspicion, conspiracy, and revenge."
In describing her childhood growing up in east Africa and the Middle East in the '70s and '80s, Ali shows herself always trying to make sense of the turmoil around her. In so doing, she sheds light from below on the reality of life during wartime and under oppressive regimes. And beyond that, what she often reveals is a girl. A girl who is in most ways like any other girl, yet growing up amid deep violence and chaos. The disarray she describes in the culture and politics of her environment likewise tore her family apart, from both the outside and the inside. The external forces-the wars, famine, and repressive culture-she recognizes as inextricably linked with the internal forces of guilt, resentment, deceit, and unreason. And all of that she sees as both caused by and reinforced by blind submission to clan identity and Islam.
As Ali chronicles her interior quest to reconcile her own will and intelligence with the forces around her, she also tells some rich stories about the life, culture and era in which she was raised.
In chapter eight, she describes the events in her life after the fall of Said Barre's regime and the outbreak of total civil war in Somalia. Her rendering of the weeks she spent trying to rescue relatives from a Somali refugee camp along the Kenyan border bring to life the reality of a such camps in a way few documentaries or news stories ever could.
Unlike Virgin, Infidel delivers Ali's revelations gradually, via intimate, sometimes painful detail. Neither sordid nor sensational, she tells her tale through the wide eyes of lively girl often literally beaten into submission. As she ages and alternately internalizes and fights the tyranny around her, two consistent threads emerge: love for her family and an indomitable drive toward justice. And in her world, most of the injustice she sees is justified by verses in the Koran.
When she finally escapes the world of her past and makes her way to Holland, she finds her past is already there. Holland in the early '90s proves a fertile zeitgeist: a microcosm of highly developed liberal democracy and social welfare experiencing a significant immigration wave, much of it Muslim.
Poignantly, even though she'd witnessed more brutality and life-altering change than most adults of any age, Ali was still, in many ways, a girl when she reached the West at age 23. Some of her new-arrival descriptions are amusing. Upon her first night in a hotel, she writes, "I examined the duvet, vowing to tell Haweya [her younger sister] about this amazing invention... The room was small, but somehow cleverly planned to fit: the closets fit into the wall, the TV inside the cabinet. How cool I thought." Within the context of Infidel, these ultra-earnest ingénue statements make more sense than they do in Virgin.
In the months and years after she reaches the West, her line of observation and reasoning quickly become vast and sophisticated. She undergoes a self-motivated crash course in philosophy and politics, enrolls in school, and applies her learning to everything she sees around her. She learns Dutch atop all the other languages she knows from having moved around Africa, and so becomes a sought-after interpreter. This brings her into constant contact with the conflicting realities growing within Holland: that of the educated, liberal-minded, secular West and the impoverished, immigrant, religion-bound culture of her past.
The rest has become history. Ali ended up in the Dutch parliament; Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work with her; she was ushered into hiding; she lost and regained her Dutch citizenship; and she finally joined the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.
Forever grateful to the institutions that she sees as having freed her from submission, Ali quickly comes to the conclusion that Western democracy is a system that works better than any other. She is not a blind proponent of all things Western. She names its faults in sober and unromantic terms. But unlike many native-born heirs to democracy, she sees it as something not to be taken for granted, and has made it her life's work to defend it. In so doing, she tests it to feel its outermost limits. She pushes its boundaries and revels in its contours. Democracy, she believes, though it must be protected, is also tough. She does not like party politics—it limits thought and reminds her too much of Somali clan identity. Thus she has made some scandalizing jumps between left and right parties in pursuit of her own agenda: namely to advance the rights and protection of Muslim women. During her time in parliament, she called herself a "single issue" candidate. It is the continuation of a singular compulsion to justice that began in her youth in Africa. She crosses boundaries, not to make headlines but to get close to truth. It's hard to imagine that, in the 21st century, one could move from the Iron Age to the Internet Age, but Ayaan Hirsi Ali went from one to the other within thirty years. This brings an invaluably broad yet balanced perspective to her work.
Ali expresses an unflagging appreciation for the principled minds in Holland who encouraged her to pursue her arguments even when they disagreed with her. She doggedly upholds their model, and abides by the fruition of rigorous debate. Further engagement with varied opposition, one suspects, will nurture her inquiry. So we will watch with eager curiosity what emerges from Ayaan Hirsi Ali from within the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
From our weblog:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali faces death threats—in Pennsylvania
WW4 REPORT, May 15, 2007
Dutch legislator to step down following Islamist threats
WW4 REPORT, May 18, 2006
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution