Islam’s Voltaire: A Life of Aayan Hirsi Ali

One midnight in July 1992, a twenty-two year old Somalian Muslim known as Ayaan Hirsi Magan arrived in Holland fleeing an arranged marriage. Fourteen years later, Hirsi Ali was known as an outspoken Dutch MP and writer with strong views on religion and the role of women under Islamic law. With the director Theo Van Gogh she made a film, Submission, which took the form of a series of dialogues between Allah and female Muslims.

There is the woman who is flogged for committing adultery; another who is given in marriage to a man she loathes; another who is beaten by her husband on a regular basis; and another who is shunned by her father when he learns that his brother raped her. Each abuse is justified by the perpetrators in the name of God, citing the Quran verses now written on the bodies of the women.

In November 2004, Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist. His last words were, ‘Can’t we talk about this?’

Theo Van Gogh never got that chance, but the argument continues. Through her book, her film and her parliamentary work Hirsi Ali aimed to put the oppression of Muslim women on the agenda, and in this she has succeeded. To her detractors she is an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a traitor to her faith who is wheeled out by the neocons to justify attacks on Islamic countries and a racist war on Islam. This is the same treatment given to Maryam Namazie, Azar Nafasi, and just about anyone from the Muslim world who dares speak out against their government.

But the greater part of this book is the story of Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somalia, her escape to Holland, and her gradual awakening. If The Caged Virgin was Hirsi Ali’s manifesto, Infidel is one woman’s personal journey.

Hirsi Ali draws her clan and family in a tender, low-key style that doesn’t at all negate the horrors of her childhood. Unlucky enough to remember her excision, Hirsi Ali describes this process so well that one reads the section at arm’s length: ‘Then came the sewing; the long, blunt needle clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia, my loud and anguished protests, Grandma’s words of comfort and encouragement.’ Gentlemen, please take a moment to reflect that this process is the equivalent of removing the scrotum and shaft of the penis, then sewing it to the empty sac.

She brings them all to life: the political dissident father Abeh, the devout, abused sister Haweya, the first fumbling boyfriends. What’s more compelling, though, is the development of her own independent mind. At first a practising Muslim, Hirsi Ali is inclined to think that the Quran is a text of peace and love, and that the crimes committed in its name are just perversions of the true faith. She becomes interested in the Quran and Islamic scholarship, but the more scripture she reads the more disillusioned she becomes. Having read the Quran, she comes to believe that the abuses committed in its name are not carried out in spite of the original text but because of it. When she stands in front of the mirror and says, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ you feel like cheering and crying; it is a rebirth, a secular revelation.

All religions are based to some extent on the hatred of and the fear of women. But Hirsi Ali shows us how much time and effort and morbid fascination have gone into clerics’ studies of the evils of femininity and sexuality. Debates raged for centuries about the correct mode of female dress. Sheik Taj Din al-Halali, an Islamic scholar based in Australia, recently said that rape is essentially the fault of the woman because

If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?… If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.

Australian Muslims spoke out against this nonsense, but the problem remains. Conversely, other clerics have argued that allowing only a part of the woman’s body to be shown (ankles, lips, eyes) means that the uncovered feature will become magnified by its isolation, causing greater outbreaks of chaotic sexual desire. As a young immigrant in Holland, Hirsi Ali is told by a friend that it’s not a big deal if men see her in revealing clothes. Hirsi Ali exclaims: ‘But they won’t be able to work, and the buses will crash, and there will be a state of total fitna!’

These memories of integrating into Holland are charming and poignant. She writes of being confused at the sun going down at nine o’clock; of negotiating public transport (‘How could anyone predict a bus would arrive at exactly 2:37? Did they also control the rules of time?’) For someone so routinely denounced as an atheist fundamentalist, Hirsi Ali has a great humility about her experiences and beliefs.

Not that you will agree with everything she says. Her critique of immigration is more intelligent than most, but if the policies her Liberal Party advocates had been in place in 1992, we might never have heard of Hirsi Ali. For every Ayaan that makes it, there are thousands of Haweyas that don’t, and you should never kick the ladder away.

But her analysis of the current situation – that religious fundamentalists are motivated by religion, not poverty or alienation; that faith schools act as benign segregation; that politicians do Muslims a disservice by ingratiating themselves with ‘community leaders’ who are about as representative of the world’s Muslims as the BNP are of Christians – is bang on.

I can’t end this review without some harsh words. The Iranian feminist and socialist Maryam Namazie has described the Islamic world as a ‘sexual apartheid’. The comparison is apt in all respects except one: Africans under racial apartheid could count on legions of intelligent Western liberals to fight and demonstrate on their behalf. Muslim women enjoy no such solidarity. Perhaps it’s for the usual ‘anti-imperialist’ reasons, and perhaps it’s something else: I get the impression, while arguing this point with Western leftists, that they quite like the idea of a more spiritual system where women speak only when spoken to, and do as they are told. Faith is the last refuge of the sexual inadequate.

At a debate in Amsterdam, Hirsi Ali said: ‘Look at how many Voltaires the West has. Don’t deny us the right to have a Voltaire, too. Look at our women, and look at our countries. Look at how we are all fleeing and asking for refuge here, and how people are now flying planes into buildings in their madness. Allow us a Voltaire.’ In Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they already have one.

Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Free Press, 2007

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