Friday, July 27, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: contre la soumission

no shrinking Somalian

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book The Caged Virgin presents a major challenge to those who unthinkingly advocate multiculturalism, because she throws down the gauntlet to Moslem leaders and those who support them, with reference in particular to the treatment of women in Islamic societies, and the continuation of that treatment by Moslem migrants and refugees in western countries. Certainly it has shaken me from my dogmatic slumber with regard to the multicultural push.
Hirsi Ali has had a polarising effect, and she has made many enemies in the west, as any net check will soon show. It's easy to see also why she has won many hearts. She's Somalian, black, Moslem-born, but she writes like a Westerner, she's an individualist and a feminist, uncompromisingly opposed to Islamic and Arabic patriarchy. Further, she has without doubt suffered at the hands of the fundamentally religious. Her critics, many of them on the left, describe her as naive, and a divisive figure. Presumably the accusation of naivete comes from her apparent desire to dismantle Islam as a patriarchal religion tomorrow if not yesterday. Many on the left take the view that you must engage with moderate Islamic leaders and emphasise the more positive and egalitarian aspects of the Qu'ran, to effect gradual change. Hirsi Ali's confrontational style, they argue, simply creates equal and opposite reactions, especially among women, her target audience.

It's a conundrum. I've been reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon, a book which despite the [naively?] hopeful title, is rather less confrontational than recent books by Hitchins and Dawkins. It tries to engage with believers, trying to get them to look at their belief systems as natural phenomena. This makes it a little awkward - you feel he's forcing himself to be a bit more low-brow than he's comfortable being, to get the anti-intellectuals in [fortunately, though he often forgets this aim and becomes interesting]. Hirsi Ali doesn't bother with this sort of thing, hers is a 'here I stand' sort of position, not unlike Bertrand Russell in Why I am not a Christian.

Russell, writing in the twenties, was courageous in taking his stand, and I admire him for it, but Hirsi Ali's courage, or recklessness if you like, is of another order altogether. While Russell pointed out that Jesus wasn't his idea of a gentleman, because he threatened hellfire upon those who wouldn't listen to him, Hirsi Ali accuses the prophet Mohammed of child abuse, and claims that adherence to the Qu'ran has preserved a large percentage of Moslems in a state of seventh century ignorance. Considering what we know of Moslem responses to even the mildest criticisms of the prophet and their religion, to call these claims hanging offences would be an understatement. Hirsi Ali herself reminds us of the flare-up in 2002 when the Miss World pageant was held in Nigeria. Religious extremists protested the event, and turned violent when a newspaper suggested that Mohammed himself might've chosen a bride from among the contestants. Some two hundred people died in the subsequent mindless riots.

However, as an avowed secularist who has little time for such boorish, murderous antics, I'm more interested in non-Moslem, Western responses to Hirsi Ali's message.

She's something of a maverick, and I don't think she courts controversy for her own sake but out of an urgent need to speak out. This need and the controversy generated by it actually brought down the Dutch government, of which she had been a member, in 2006. These days, Hirsi Ali has sought and found support on the conservative side of politics, out of pragmatism it seems. Her reasoning might seem positively perverse to some: in a speech to the Dutch press before leaving for the US to work for a right-wing think-tank, she said
"...with like-minded people one cannot discuss. With like-minded people one can only participate in a church service, and, as is widely known, I do not like church services."
With these and other pronouncements, Hirsi Ali has defied left/right categorisation. The party she belonged to in the Netherlands, the Liberal Party (WD), is described as conservative on economics, foreign policy and immigration, but liberal on such issues as homosexuality, abortion and drug use. Often categorised as anti-multiculturalism, she lobbied for the banning of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party, a right-wing party opposed to non-Christian immigration. However, she was also concerned to restrict Moslem immigration, fearing that a larger, stronger Moslem population might fight to introduce Sharia law in the Netherlands.

Hirsi Ali has anticipated critiques from the left and is well able to defend her position, which isn't a political position in the usual sense. Her activism comes from a few basic principles: a passion for individual freedom [with particular reference to women]; a profound suspicion of faith-based belief systems; a conviction that the Western values forged out of the Enlightenment are the best values available to us, and that they are in fact, or should be, universal. This puts her at odds with those on the left who are uncomfortable with what they see as Western triumphalism, and feel that Islam, and Arab culture generally, are more deserving of respect than Hirsi Ali is willing to admit. And even where they are willing to concede the inferiority of this religion and culture, they feel that Hirsi Ali's approach, however courageous, is self-defeating on pragmatic grounds.

However, I have much sympathy for Hirsi Ali's call for a Voltaire of the Moslem world, an Enlightenment, however unlikely this is to occur in the foreseeable future. Those who think that an engagement with 'moderate' Moslems will lead to change are either forgetting or unaware of Western history. Europe's great advances through the Renaissance and especially the Enlightenment didn't come through engagement with more liberal versions of Christianity, and the separation of Church and State certainly wasn't something the Church ever acquiesced in - far from it, they fought it tooth and nail. They're still fighting it, in fact. No, Western advancement came through our forebears shrugging off the shackles of religious dogma and finding new ways of looking at the natural word - or recovering old ways, from before Christianity cast its pall. Recovering a freedom to play with ideas without fear of punishment, ideas that became so fruitful, so productive and life-enhancing and stimulating that they couldn't be suppressed or contained any more. I want that freedom for everyone, and for that reason I find a parade of breast-thumping ShiĆ­tes every bit as depressing as a procession of cross-bearing pilgrims. The opposite of freedom is submission, and god really isn't much good.

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