Why white people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali
- Published: 29 July 2010
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She’s one of Islam’s harshest critics, and – as her recent talk at the Sydney Opera House showed – even otherwise politically correct western liberals lap up her rhetoric. But author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s own fundamentalism makes her arguments against her former religion less persuasive, writes Katrina Fox.
Muslim schools should be banned in western societies because they are breeding grounds for indoctrinating young people to view the west as the infidel. Islam is imbued with violence. Condemning Islam isn’t bigoted, racist or Islamophobic and anyone who says otherwise is a victim of “ridiculous” political correctness.
These were some of the sentiments espoused by author Ayaan Hirsi Ali at her recent talk at the Sydney Opera House and in her latest book, Nomad, which she was here to promote. Nomad is a follow-up to her bestselling memoir Infidel.
In Infidel Hirsi Ali writes about her childhood in Somalia (where her clitoris and inner labia were cut off), Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya; and her escape to the Netherlands where she applied for political asylum. It’s here that she collaborated on the short film Submission with Theo Van Gogh that exposed the subjugation of Muslim women. Van Gogh was murdered by radical Islamists who issued Hirsi Ali with death threats, forcing her into hiding.
Nomad continues Hirsi Ali’s journey – this time to the US where she takes up a job with conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute – and is relentless in its harsh criticism of the world’s fastest-growing religion.
It’s an understatement to say Hirsi Ali is divisive. For some people she’s a heroine: a brave feminist activist who survived and speaks out against female genital mutilation (FGM) and the sub-ordination of women in Islamic cultures. For others, she’s a narrow-minded bigot scarred by her own experiences who has been seduced by right-wing westerners to become a popular mouthpiece for their racist agendas.
The truth is probably somewhere in between.
When I first read Infidel about a year ago, I fell firmly into the former category. How could you not feel admiration for a woman who rejected a life of “powerlessness and enslavement” and at the age of 23 left her family in search of freedom?
How could you not be inspired by a woman who risked her life to condemn the horrendous abuse of young girls whose clitorises are sliced off and their vaginas sewn shut in the name of cultural practice?
How could you not applaud a woman who collaborated on a film exposing the subjugation of Muslim women? And who still continued to speak out even after Islamic fundamentalists murdered the filmmaker and threatened to kill her?
But on another level, Hirsi Ali’s words confirmed my negative perceptions of Islam, which had been drilled into me from an early age. I was adopted as a baby and brought up in London by a white couple. My birth mother was an Anglo white woman, and my birth father was Persian – and a Muslim. Whenever I did anything wrong as a child, my adoptive mother called me a “filthy little Arab” and told me to “go back where you came from”.
I was 13 in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution happened and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power from the western-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The television news coverage of the events had as a backdrop the voices of my mum and dad swearing at the “bloody mad Arabs”.
Unsurprisingly I internalised my parents’ racism. Throughout my teens and into my 20s whenever anyone asked me about my ethnic heritage, I’d say I was half-Spanish or Italian. When a Middle-Eastern man approached me at a bus stop in Trafalgar Square one evening in the late 1980s and said, “You’re Iranian”, I vehemently denied it.
Over the years I read bestsellers and articles detailing the appalling treatment of women and girls in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The more I read, the less I wanted to be associated with anything to do with ‘Iran’. In essence I was ashamed of and embarrassed by my cultural heritage.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve acknowledged my ethnic background, but even now I still refer to being part Persian rather than Iranian, because I (not necessarily correctly) associate the former with exoticism and glamour and the latter with repression and inequality.
But as a 40-something writer and activist, I know I no longer have the excuse of clinging to one-sided beliefs based on emotional triggers and parental influence. I’ve started to read less sensationalistic and more nuanced books and articles, such as Iranian-Australian Sara Haghdoosti’s thought-provoking piece on the wearing of burquas and her follow-up article refuting arguments in favour of burqua bans; and Isobel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet, which profiles women living in the Muslim world who are making change through education and creating opportunities for girls in their local communities.
Yet I still wanted to go and hear Hirsi Ali speak. Perhaps out of curiosity. Or, if I’m honest, maybe because part of me still wanted my worst fears about Islam confirmed after all – and who better to do it than a former Muslim woman from a tribal clan who’s experienced and observed some of the worst abuses carried out on girls and women?
The audience at the sold-out event at Sydney Opera House was predominantly white (or at least white-skinned), with not a burqua or headscarf in sight – telling in itself. Hirsi Ali was interviewed by the ABC’s Monica Attard. It started out benignly enough, with Hirsi Ali talking about her childhood and decision to seek asylum in the west.
When she moved on to critique Islam’s requirement of unwavering adherence to the will of Allah without questioning or critical thinking, its governing of sexuality by honour and shame, and the abuse of young girls through FGM, I found myself nodding in agreement.
But alarm bells started to go off when, asked by an audience member about the moves to ban the burqua in Europe, she said: “If I were a law maker I would make it my priority to ban Muslim schools rather than the burqua.”
When challenged on how she could justify banning Muslim schools and not other faith-based schools, she replied:
“We know how bad Muslim schools are for assimilating Muslims into society. The point of Christianity is enlightenment. If we apply the argument of cultural legitimacy, it is ok to allow Jewish or Christian schools while banning Muslim schools because Islam is a very different religion. We should ban Muslim schools because they are grooming people to reject the values of the country they are now living in. Muslim kids are isolated in Muslim schools and it’s not fair to isolate them. Also there is a worldwide jihad movement that targets vulnerable kids. Judeo-Christian schools are not targeted this way. A ban on Muslim schools is in the interests of the kids and society.”
Her comments elicited a large round of enthusiastic applause. And if the people sitting at my table were anything to go by, audience members were not uneducated rednecks or right-wing conservatives, but liberal, left-leaning folk who would proudly reel off their support for equality and social justice in most other contexts.
And that’s when my epiphany happened. Where once I would have been clapping vigorously along, pleased to have my long-held assumptions confirmed by ‘someone who knows’ and who ‘you can’t really argue with’, I felt sick.
Now, I’m no fan of religion – of any kind. But Hirsi Ali’s simultaneous condemnation of Islam and obvious admiration of Christianity was disturbing. As with any religion or ideology, it’s how it’s practised that impacts on people’s lives and on society.
Many of Hirsi Ali’s criticisms of Islam could be applied to fundamentalist Christianity: unwavering adherence to the Bible and the control of women’s sexuality. Even FGM has a western parallel in the state-sanctioned, legal, non-consensual mutilation of intersex children’s genitals to force them to conform to a male/female sex binary – something that rarely warrants an outcry in mainstream media or from feminist activists. If Christian fundamentalists such as Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church had their way, our society would look very different in terms of women’s and queer rights, to name just two.
Of course in no way am I saying that we should not pay attention to and speak out against the abuses endured by so many women and girls in the Muslim world. Nor am I saying we should not be critical of radical, fundamentalist Islam – as Mona Siddiqui points out in her review of Nomad in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, there are many Muslims who fear radical Islam. But vilifying an entire religion or people who follow that religion is not the way to create a harmonious society – as history as shown time and again.
The irony is that while Hirsi Ali is (rightly) applauded for her courage in fighting for and finding personal freedom, she now denies others such rights. In unleashing her wrath on Islamic fundamentalism, she has (perhaps unwittingly) become a fundamentalist herself.
It doesn’t help that she has achieved celebrity status, because once a person reaches a certain level of fame for their ideas, they are then invested in sticking with them for their own economic survival. It’s a rare academic, writer or thinker who is willing to take the risk of losing their career and/or income by doing an about-turn.
So, perhaps it’s down to publishers to champion other writers with as much vigour as they do Hirsi Ali; to publish and promote the hell out of the work of Muslim feminists working on the ground in their local communities to educate and effect change; to bring the female activists such as those featured in Coleman’s book to international writers’ festivals and posh venues like the Sydney Opera House.
I’d certainly buy a ticket. What about you?
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia, issued under a Creative Commons Licence.
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