I’ve just completed reading Aayan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel. It’s the latest book in my book club (refer my blog roll) following on from another autobiography from another refugee, Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee. Do is a stand-up comic and television celebrity in Australia, and his brother, Khoa, is a successful filmmaker and former Young Australian of the Year. They are ‘boat people’, who are stigmatised in this country, and Khoa was actually dangled over the side of a boat by pirates when he was only 2 years old. It has to be said that our major political parties show a clear deficit in moral and political courage on the issue of ‘boat people’.
But I’ve detoured before I’ve even got started. We, in the West, live in a bubble, though, occasionally, through television, films and books, like Hirsi Ali’s, we get a glimpse into another world that the rest of us would call hell. And this hell is not transient or momentary for these people, but relentless, unforgiving and even normal for those who grow up in it. Hirsi Ali is one of the few people who has straddled these 2 worlds, and that makes her book all the more compelling. As Aminata Forna wrote in the Evening Standard: “Hirsi Ali has invited [us] to walk a mile in her shoes. Most wouldn’t last a hundred yards.”
There are many issues touched on in her story, none perhaps more pertinent than identity, but I won’t start there. I will start with the apparent historical gap between some Islamic cultures and the modern Western world – a clash of civilisations, if you like. I remember the years between my teens and mid twenties were the most transformational, conflicted and depressing in my life. Like many of my generation, it was a time when I rejected my parents’ and society’s values, not to mention the religion I had grown up with, and sought a world view that I could call my own. To some extent that’s exactly what Hirsi Ali has done, only she had to jump from a culture still imbued with 6th Century social mores into the birth of the second millennium. I can fully understand what drove her, but, looking back on my own coming-of-age experience, I doubt that I could emulate her. What she achieved is a monumental leap compared to my short jump. For me, it was generational; for her, it was trans-cultural and it spanned millennia.
Much of her book deals with the treatment of women in traditional Muslim societies, treated, in her own words, as ‘minors’ not adults. One should not forget that the emancipation of women from vassals to independent, autonomous beings with their own rights has been a very lengthy process in Western society. Most societies have been historically patriarchal in both the East and West. The perception and treatment of women as second-class citizens is not confined to Islamic societies by any means. But it does appear that many Islamic cultures have the most barbaric treatment of women (enshrined in law in many countries) and are the most tardy in giving women the social status they deserve, which is equality to men.
This attitude, supported by quotes from the Qur’an, demonstrates how dangerous and misguided it is to take one’s morals from God. Because a morality supposedly given by God, in scripture, can’t be challenged and takes no account of individual circumstances, evolution of cultural norms, progress in scientific knowledge or empathy for ‘others’. And this last criterion is possibly the most important, because it is the ability to treat people outside one’s religion as ‘others’ that permits bigotry, violence and genocide, all in the name of one’s God. This is so apparent in the violence that swept through Hirsi Ali’s home country, Somalia, and became the second most salient factor, I believe, in the rejection of her own religion.
When I first saw Hirsi Ali interviewed on TV (7.30 Report, ABC Australia) after she left Holland for America, she made the statement that Islam could never coexist in a Western secular society, logically based on her experience in Holland. In an interview I heard on the radio last year (also in Australia, with Margaret Throsby) I felt she had softened her stance and she argued that Muslims could live in a secular society. She was careful to make a distinction between Islam as a religion and Islam as political ideology (refer my post Dec. 2010). My personal experience of Muslims is that they are as varied in their political views as any other group of people. I know of liberal Muslims possibly because I hold liberal views, so that should not be surprising. But it gives me a different view to those who think that all Muslims are fundamental Islamists, or potentially so. One of Hirsi Ali’s messages is that an over-dependence on tolerance in a secular society can cause its own backlash.
I’ve written elsewhere (The problems with fundamentalism, Jan. 2008) that the limits of tolerance is intolerance of others. In other words, I am intolerant of intolerance. When Muslims, or anyone else of political persuasion, start to preach intolerance towards any other group then the opposition towards that intolerance in a healthy secular society can be immense. Australia has experienced that on a national level about a decade ago and it was ugly. Xenophobia is very easily aroused in almost any nation it would appear. People who preach hatred and bigotry, no matter who they are or which group they represent, and no matter how cleverly they disguise their rhetoric, should all be treated the same – they should be refuted and denounced in the loudest voices at the highest levels of authority.
But, as the events in Somalia demonstrate, it’s not just religion that can inflame or justify violence. Clan differences are enough to justify the most heinous crimes. All through her story, Hirsi Ali describes how everyone could find fault with every other group they came in contact with. Muslims and Africans are not alone in this prejudicial bias – I grew up with it in a Western secular society. The more insular a society is, the more bigoted they are. This is why I agree with Hirsi Ali that children should not be segregated in their education. The more children mix with other ethnicities the less insular they become in their attitudes towards other groups.
In a post I wrote on Evil (one of my earliest posts, Oct. 2007) I expounded on the idea that most of the atrocities committed in the last century, and every century beforehand for that matter, were based on some form of tribalism or an ingroup-outgroup mentality. This tribalism could be familial, religious, political, ethnic or national, but it revolves around the idea of identity. We underestimate how powerful this is because it’s almost subconscious.
Hirsi Ali’s book is almost entirely about identity and her struggle to overcome its strangulation on her life. All the role models in her young life, both female and male, were imbued with the importance and necessity of identity with her clan and her religion. In her life, religion and culture were inseparable. Her grandmother made her learn her ancestry off by heart because it might one day save her life, and, in fact, it did when she was only 20 years old and a man held a knife to her throat. By reciting her ancestry back far enough she was able to claim she was his ‘sister’ and he let her go.
People often mistakenly believe that their conscience is God whispering in their mind’s ear, when, in fact, it’s almost entirely socially and culturally formed, especially when we are children. It’s only as adults that we begin to question the norms we are brought up with, and then only when we are exposed to other social norms. A way that societies tend to overcome this ‘questioning’ is to imbue a sense of their cultural ‘superiority’ over everyone else’s. This comes across so strongly in Hirsi Ali’s book, and I recognised it as part of my own upbringing. To me, it’s a sign of immaturity that someone can only justify their own position, morally, intellectually or socially, by ridiculing everyone else’s.
One of the strongest influences on Hirsi Ali and her sister, Haweya, were the Western novels that they were exposed to: not just literary standards but pulp fiction romances. It reinforced my view that storytelling, and art in general, is the best medium to transmit ideas. It was this exposure to novels that led them to believe that there were other cultures and other ways of living, especially for women. Stories are what-ifs – they put us in someone else’s shoes and challenge our view of the world. It’s not surprising that some of the world’s greatest writers have been persecuted for their subversiveness.
But this leads to the almost heretical notion that only a society open to new ideas can progress out of ossification. If there is one singular message from Hirsi Ali’s book it’s that fundamentalism (of any stripe) does not only have to be challenged, but overcome, if societies want to move forward and evolve for the betterment for everyone, and not just for those who want to hold the reigns of power.
The real gulf that Hirsi Ali jumped was not religious but educational. I’ve argued many times that ignorance is the greatest enemy facing the 21st Century. Religious fundamentalism is arguably the greatest obstacle to genuine knowledge and rational thinking in the world today. Somewhat surprisingly, this is just as relevant to America as it is to any Islamic nation. The major difference between Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism is geography, not beliefs.
Hirsi Ali is foremost a feminist. She once argued that Islam and the West can’t coexist, but she has since softened that stance. Perhaps, like me, she has met Muslim feminists who have found a way to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sense of independence and self-belief. Arguably, self-belief is the most important attribute a human being can foster. The corollary to this is that any culture that erodes that self-belief is toxic to itself.
I’ve written elsewhere (care of Don Cupitt, Sep. 09) that the only religion worth having is the one that you have hammered out for yourself. You don’t have to be an atheist to agree with Hirsi Ali’s basic philosophy of female emancipation, but you may have to challenge some aspects of scripture, both Christian and Islamic, if you want to live what you believe, which is what she has done.