May 27, 2011

From Islam To America: A Personal Journey Through The Clash Of Civilizations

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali | Free Press
Review by Review by Spencer Dew
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 3)


“Free speech is the bedrock of liberty and a free society,” insists Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born former Dutch politician now associated with the American Enterprise Institute; “And yes, it includes the right to blaspheme and to offend.” Ali, for instance, has written previously that the Prophet Muhammad “is a perverse man. A tyrant … against freedom of expression.”

Her three books, drawing on her own experiences in childhood and her journey away from Islam and to atheism, have attacked what she identifies as threats that Islam poses to those societies based on the Enlightenment ideals she admires — rationalism, individuality, freedom of expression. Ali, as the subtitles to this new book make clear, sees Islam as the opposite of America and subscribes to the view that the world is, at present, experiencing a clash of civilizations (or, more specifically, theologies).

With each book, Ali’s vision of Islam has become more monolithic; now, with Nomad, Ali dismisses any notion of “moderate” Islam, arguing that bin Laden and his ilk are correct in their readings of the Quran and hadith, and proposing “a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians.”

The atheist Ali thus calls on “the community of Christian churches” to step up involvement “in the battle against Islamic fanaticism” by offering Muslims a supposedly more attractive religious alternative, while she calls on Muslims to “admit that the Prophet Muhammad’s example is fallible, that not everything in the Quran is perfect or true,” and suggests that they accept “the Christian God,” whom she identifies as “synonymous with love,” a deity that is “merciful, does not seek state power, and sees no competition with science.”

Yet both the “Islam” and the “Christianity” presented in this book are fantasies, distortions — one rendered as a grotesquery, the other idealized.

How did Ali, an atheist by rationalist inclination, come to such a place that she would call for tactical intervention by an idealized version of post-Enlightenment Christianity as a last ditch defense against an Islam that, in her view, can only ever authentically be represented by bin Laden and company? One might suspect that her message has been shaped by her audience. Ali first came to America with harsh words about Islam’s treatment of women, and as she continued to speak on this topic, she presented “Islam” as a monolith, a barbaric sameness all the world over, quick to mutilate genitals and lock women away behind burkas and harem screens.

What she found — to her purported surprise — was that “American liberals appear to be more uncomfortable with my condemning the ill treatment of women under Islam than most conservatives are. Rather than standing up for Western freedoms and against the totalitarian Islamic belief system, many liberals prefer to shuffle their feet and look down at their shoes when faced with questions about cultural differences.”

This “political lesson” was formative for Ali’s later work, allowing her to identify the threat of cultural relativism, prevalent among America’s liberals, which she takes to be an aid to the Islamic oppressors. In her previous book she quotes with disgust a Dutch physician who, while an atheist himself, calls an Islamic patient’s stance that illness comes from God a “nice conviction.” Liberals, in Ali’s view, are unprepared to face the world as it is, clearly divided between right and wrong, Enlightenment-minded secular-and-Christian culture versus the pre-medieval superstition and violence that is her version of Islam.

Such a stance may have led to a sympathetic treatment of other conservative views. In Nomad she describes her admiration for the book The Bell Curve, for instance, but she also adamantly focuses on the family, “the core unit of American society.” According to her analysis, “Americans are constantly asking after one another’s families” and “only in New York does it seem acceptable to remain single on a long-term basis.” New Yorkers, of course, are notoriously liberal; despite the attacks of 9/11, they may fail to understand, as Ali does, that you can only “be a Muslim and an American patriot … if you don’t care very much about being a Muslim.”

Such a terrifying, slanderous claim does not go over well with Muslim Americans, especially college students, yet Ali has even harsher words for them than she has for liberals or New York singles. According to her, American Muslim college students are unquestioning in their faith, incapable of critical thinking, completely “silent” in the wake of “violence … committed in the name of Islam.” These students, like all “Muslims” in Ali’s writing, are part of a united faith — there is no mention in Nomad of, for example, the divide in Islam between Sunni and Shia, which is a frequent issue of discussion with Muslim students I have known. But my experience is, of course, quite different from Ali’s. Just as I have not found Muslim students to be reticent to question their religion or discuss politics, terror, or scripture, neither have I found that young Americans who opt to wear the veil “lack a basic human empathy for other Muslim woman.”

While Ali is absolutely right that “if they lived in Saudi Arabia, under Shari’a law, these college girls in their pretty scarves wouldn’t be free to study, to work, to drive, to walk around,” the veiled women I know consider this a good reason not to move to Saudi Arabia, a good reason to reject the Kingdom’s extremist Wahhabi theology — but certainly not a reason for them to abandon their own deeply held faith, which, if they are Shia, wouldn’t be recognized by most arbiters of Wahhabism as Islamic anyway.

Such human entanglements — the lived reality of religion — are not of interest to Ali. She is a polemicist, and her mission with this book is to stoke the fires of anti-Islamic sentiment, to rally secularists and Christians together under the flag of a new crusade, and to win this clash of theologies for Enlightenment ideals and civilization. Yet while there can be no doubt that the theocratic dreams of, say, those Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia— with their religious police enforcing prayer times and patrolling graveyards for signs of weeping or tomb veneration — would be, indeed, an oppressive nightmare, one wonders what sort of world would emerge from the policy prescriptions of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who calls for the establishment of private Christian schools to combat the presence of Islamic education in America and who warns that no Muslim can truly be loyal to America. Both options seem the products of horrifically simplistic worldviews.