Writing admin on 03 Jan 2011 10:51 pm
An Afghan woman was asked why she felt it necessary to walk five feet behind her husband. Her answer: Land mines.
I came across the above joke on Facebook the other day; I have started with it not simply because there are no jokes in Nomad, the book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali that is under review. (The absence of humour isn’t by itself a sin. There are many humourless works published every year, and no one dies or suffers irreparable mental damage as a result.) I’ve put a joke at the beginning only because it would not appear from Hirsi Ali’s book that Muslims laugh, or sing, or dance, or do any of the million things that ordinary human beings do as a part of life. In her book, the existence of Muslims is marked by blind submission to Allah and the hypocritical oppression of fellow Muslims or, failing that, of all the unbelievers. Nomad is littered with stories like the following: “In February 2009 in Buffalo, New York, a forty-seven-year-old Muslim businessman who had set up a cable TV station to ‘promote more favorable views of Muslims,’ beheaded his wife, who was seeking to divorce him.” Hirsi Ali’s version of the above joke would probably go something like this: An Afghan woman was asked why she had been asked by her husband to now walk five feet in front of him. Her answer: Land mines.
The joke, in a slightly different form, is also recounted in the August 9, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine. The cover of that issue shows a young woman looking at the camera and perhaps the first thing you notice is that she is missing a nose. Even before you’ve read the story, you read the words that appear next to the picture on the cover: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan: Aisha, 18, had her nose and ears cut off last year on orders from the Taliban because she fled abusive in-laws.”
The story inside is horrifying, of course, but it is also plain that it never had value in itself: Aisha’s story exists to drum up support for the war in Afghanistan. The report in TIME mentions that the debate about the war has “intensified” due to the publication of some 90,000 documents on the war by the freedom-of-information activists at WikiLeaks. But a different WikiLeaks document, an internal CIA memo released in March this year, “reveals a secret plan to use the plight of Afghan women and refugees in developing media strategies to ‘leverage French (and other European) guilt’ during an especially bloody summer of military escalation. The confidential document was prepared by the Red Cell, a secretive group that consults the US intelligence community.” I’m quoting here from a report by Yana Kunichoff and Mike Ludwig for the progressive blog, truthout. Kunichoff and Ludwig also write that “the Red Cell memo encouraged creating media opportunities for Afghan women because of their ‘ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory.’”
It would not to be too far-fetched to argue that the CIA might well be learning from the phenomenon that is Ayaan Hirsi Ali: her assault on Islam has been a spectacular success largely because she speaks from the personal experience and everything she says argues for a grander, interventionist role for the West in the Islamic world. In her earlier, bestselling book Infidel, Hirsi Ali had offered a shocking, first-person account of female circumcision, making its author a champion, in some Western circles, of a fight for female liberation. And her considered attack on Islam in a post-9/11 West made her an instant star and a darling of the conservative think-tank establishment.
Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969. In her earlier book, Infidel, she had told the story of her leaving her family after her father had arranged for her to get married to an older relative in Canada, someone who was a stranger to her. When she stopped in Germany, enroute to Canada, she decided not to resume her journey and caught a train to Holland instead. But Hirsi Ali’s project, as proclaimed by the title, was always bigger.
More than her family, she was fleeing her faith. She linked this flight also to a just war for women’s rights, and also a fight to protect the West from the encroachments of Islamic immigrants. In fact, Infidel began with the story of the killing of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had collaborated on Submission, which Hirsi Ali has described as “a movie depicting how Islam crushes women”. The filmmaker’s murderer was a Muslim immigrant who first shot him, and then used one of his two knives to slit his victim’s throat; finally, he used his other knife to nail a five-page letter to the corpse. The letter was addressed to Hirsi Ali.
Theo van Gogh’s murder drew attention to Hirsi Ali in a variety of ways, not least the controversy in the right-wing circles that she inhabited in the Netherlands. Soon enough, her Dutch citizenship was nulled because of what was perceived to an act of perjury. Hirsi Ali then arrived in the US, and her new book is about the sins of Islam and, in addition, the ways in which an openly political, humanitarian role can be scripted for the West in places like Hirsi Ali’s birthplace. The narrative device followed in Nomad is that of telling the stories of the members of the writer’s extended family, including letters to a dead grandmother and another to an unborn daughter.
In her new book, Nomad, Hirsi Ali gives us the same story of her exile from home and the banishment again with her departure from the Netherlands. She had been happy in her adopted country, and her ascent had been an immigrant tale of upward mobility: from a student and translator, she had found work in a conservative think-tank and then been elected to Dutch Parliament as a member of the free-market Liberal Party. But this picture changed with the release of Submission. She became a nomad: she left for America. From this new vantage point, Hirsi Ali had decided to write about her family and her past. If Infidel had presented the story of the break with the family, and showed rage on both sides, the newer work is tempered: tempered by the loss of Hirsi Ali’s authoritarian father, and also by the agonized sense of the ways in which the rest of her family is mired in circumstances that will perhaps never improve. Her letters are nearly forgiving and the restraint that marks them has the hallmark of a touching form of condescension.
The writing in Nomad is part-epistolary, part-testimony, and part think-tank position-paper. Hirsi Ali has embraced with fanatical zeal the denunciation of Islam. Her protest against the mistreatment of women is also an appeal: she wants the West to rally around her and rescue Muslim women from the darkness in which they dwell. This plea on behalf of women is often misread as a disruption of the binary opposition between Islam and the West: we are told that Hirsi Ali is promoting a critique of the contradiction inside Islam itself. This is far from truth. The reality is that Hirsi Ali provides the bridge between those who would hate Islam for any reason, and those others who use feminism as a ruse, or an excuse, to allow the West to slip into the role of the savior. Not one commentator waxing eloquent about the suffering of women in Islam makes any mention, for instance, of the ways in which Reagan and his successors propped up the Taliban. It would certainly have brought a smile to Reagan’s face if he were alive and read Hirsi Ali’s suggestion in Nomad that she would like to see Muslims who need a “spiritual anchor in their lives” convert immediately to Christianity.
For these reasons, it is difficult to take Hirsi Ali seriously. (An Indian commentator, writing about Hirsi Ali’s presence at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year, wrote that this represented a change in Indian attitudes. We were now supposedly more open-minded about accepting of critics of Islam. Really? But would this commentator know the difference between an open mind and an empty mind?) But another point also needs to be made. I don’t think Hirsi Ali is popular only because she serves so well the designs of an Islamophobic West. Rather, she is read also for her simplicity and her succcess. My wife’s hairstylist in our small town in upstate New York, a Muslim immigrant woman from Lebanon, has been reading Hirsi Ali in an effort to improve her English. No doubt, Hirsi Ali is a skilled writer. She tells her story in a direct, unadorned prose. Her style is of great assistance to her, not least because she believes in oversimplifying the world. But what she lays down on the page with such terrible earnestness can still be appealing. We are all susceptible at times to arguments that take away the confusing complexities of our world and give us a black and white picture of reality. Hirsi Ali is settled and right at home in Manichean thinking. When reading her, we can make the mistake of going past her false righteousness and admire, instead, the grit and enterprise of the writer. As Hirsi Ali had asked once: “How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice?”