Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's _Infidel_

In this essay, I will briefly summarize the general contents of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2007 book Infidel and then offer some of my reactions to the book.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “My Childhood”, describes Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life in a variety of countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia. She talks about her frequently absent yet loving father, her embittered but protective mother, her often annoying brother, and her free-spirited yet troubled sister. She describes the clan system of Somalia in great detail, and the cultural mores and expectations of Muslims generally and Somalians particularly.

She goes on to describe her life of constant moving and varied cultural environments. Through these many moves she picked up a variety of languages. She describes the horrifying details of the circumcision of all of the children at a very young age. A man cut off her and her sister’s clitori with a scissors when they were five and four years old. Ayaan’s recovery was agonizing, and her sister’s recovery was unspeakably painful. Ayaan believes that the experience did permanent damage to her sister’s view of the world. Her sister, Haweya, will die after a miscarriage many years later after having gone insane.

The second part is called “My Freedom.” Ayaan escaped an arranged marriage by going to Holland and applying for refugee status. As she studied Enlightenment and Western philosophy and political thought, her mind moved ever further away from Islamic teachings about God, our relationship to God, and the relationship between mosque and state. She eventually became an atheist. She later became a prominent politician in Holland after having earned a degree in political science.

In 2004, she wrote the script for a controversial short movie called “Submission.” The famous Dutch provocateur Theo van Gogh directed the film. Ayaan warned him that such a critical statement of Islam would lead to murder attempts. Van Gogh refused any protection and was murdered in broad daylight by Mohammed Bouyeri in November of 2004. Ayaan went into deep hiding and eventually moved to the United States, where she works for the American Enterprise Institute. She still lives under armed protection to this day.

This book was very long and incredibly deep, so I will here mention just a few of my reactions to this book.

The book gives the reader a deep sense of Somalian culture and its clan-based social system. Ali contrasts the Islam of Somalia with the Islam of Saudi Arabia in helpful and informative ways. She gives the reader an amazing insight into the categories through which these cultures perceive the world. With half her life firmly rooted in Islamic Africa, and the other half firmly rooted in the post-Enlightenment West, Ali is in a unique and powerful position to offer this information in a way that the Westerner can understand.

I was moved to tears by the story of Ali’s sister, Haweya. The account of her circumcision and the tension she felt between her obligations as a Muslim woman and her all-too-human failings cannot fail to cripple any reader. Look into her eyes in the photo insert after you have read the book. You will be standing on the edge of eternity.

I see in this book the work of someone who may be remembered in history as the most influential and important feminist of the twenty-first century. Although some in the feminist movement have recognized Ali’s revolutionary power, too many Western feminists either ignore her or even cast aspersions upon her. Ali exposes the weaknesses of Western feminism, which has long ignored the plight and suffering of women in much of the Islamic world. If women in the Christian world—especially in the United States—had to endure what the women Ali describes have to endure, the feminist establishment would be filled with the kind of righteous energy that once drew enlightened souls to its causes. Western feminism lost that energy long ago. Ali now carries that energy into the new century.

Even those who may disagree with some of her views can never question her integrity, sincerity, and importance. She is a woman who rose from the most modest of upbringings to become a woman who is willing to risk her life (she will never be able to live without protection) for the sake of the emancipation of women and men from dangerous and outdated ideas about sex, about women, about homosexuals, and about unbelievers. I believe that there is a real possibility that she may help to start a kind of Reformation in the Islamic world, which would ultimately benefit all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The book is rather long and took me a while to finish. Perhaps there were too many details in there for many; I, however, was so invested in every detail that the length wasn’t a problem. I advise you to spend some time with this woman. Her knowledge is broad and her wisdom is deep. She is a jewel from Somalia for all of us.

And I pray that Haweya has found her peace. The world failed this precious woman.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I remember being in college when Andres Serrano, with partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, created "Piss Christ", which was a picture of Jesus soaking in Serrano's own urine. I remember so many people defending Serrano against the uptight Christians. I even remember them defending the NEA for the partial funding.

More recently, Marilyn Manson burns Bibles on stage during live performances. Oh, that brave Mr. Manson. Burning a Bible. How edgy. How boring.

There was some controversy when Alexis Marquette posed as a gay Krishna on the cover of Genre Magazine back in 2000. I doubt, however, that Arquette concerns himself very frequently with the possibility of being killed by a Hindu.

The television comedy South Park has, as is well known, ridicules a wide variety of religions, including Scientology and Mormonism. They have shown Jesus defecating on an American flag, and have also shown Buddha sniffing a line of cocaine.

I support the absolute right of all of these people to ridicule religion all that they want. I don't think the government should fund any of it, but I do believe in this fundamental principle: The right to ridicule religious beliefs absolutely trumps the so-called "right" not to have one's religious beliefs ridiculed.

"But it's wrong to mock deeply held religious beliefs!"

First, even if one assumed it were wrong, that would not be a sufficient reason for not having a right to do it.

Second, sometimes certain points can only be made through ridicule. Ridicule serves an important function in the free marketplace of ideas. This makes it not only not wrong to mock religious beliefs--it suggests that mocking religious beliefs plays an important role in the human quest for knowledge and may therefore be seen even as morally obligatory in many cases.

Third, that a belief is "deeply held" has no bearing on its worth. I have many deeply held beliefs. Many of them are stupid. Welcome to my world. Welcome to the world of liberty and freedom.

And so now we have the vision of a hunted man who drew an offensive picture of Muhammad.

What he drew is offensive to many. Ok. I am offended every day by something or other. I am infuriated by disrespect of the American flag, for instance. I do not kill those who do it. I do not threaten those who do it. I do not attack those who do it. I criticize them. I dispute with them. I tell them that what they do is wrong. I believe they have a right to do it.

Back to blasphemy:

Someone tried to kill a fellow cartoonist of Lars Vilks, Kurt Westergaard, with an axe.

A cell containing the American Jihad Jane plotted to assassinate Westergaard.

And now Vilks himself has just been physically attacked at a speech he was giving for freedom of speech.

The year is 2010. The place is the West. You may be offended by the delicious liberty that we all enjoy here together, yet the right to ridicule religious beliefs absolutely trumps the so-called "right" not to have one's religious beliefs ridiculed.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Earth, your indifference is staggering, and also humbling. Were we to live in outside in the desert just to be nearer to you, you would send a swarm of pests to consume us. Indeed, our bodies fight off your attacks at every moment and one day must finally succumb. Were we to recycle every item we ever used, you would neither notice nor care. Yet we love to think you care, and that you approve of us.