Review: Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2010)
Amusing and polemical and a bit goofily subtitled 'a personal journey through the clash of civilisations', Hirsi Ali's second autobiographical justification for her personal views on Islam and modernity is a gripping read. Many will flinch at how she seems to chime in neatly with the chorus coming from the conservative Right, but there's no denying the book's power to entertain.
Hirsi Ali's short digression on the importance of the family in the United States, for example, seems ad hoc and opportunistic, as though by affirming the role of this institution she's pandering to a core readership among her target audience. The key event, for Hirsi Ali, is the Enlightenment, after all, and it's not at all clear how the family unit owes its inception to this historical moment. For Western-educated liberals, in fact, the family often stands for regression and delay.
But Hirsi Ali's viewpoint is of especial interest because, as an outsider, she comes to the debate between Left and Right with fresh eyes.
Those eyes have seen a lot. At the outset, Hirsi Ali uses anecdotes from her past to paint a picture of dysfunction in Islamic societies. The men are trained, as her brother is, to be strong and overbearing. Her brother's ego is puffed up with overblown notions of conquest and success. The girls, on the other hand, are taught to just do exactly what they're told. The honour of the tribe demands total submission by girls to the wills of their male relatives, just as Islam demands total submission of all its followers to the precepts set down in the Holy Book, The Koran.
Her brother does well in school. He's a brilliant scholar, in fact. But then he starts to play hookey, go AWOL, and miss classes. The poor man ends up with a mental illness - a situation the society is depressingly unable to cope with.
Hirsi Ali also tells us about how poorly refugees cope once they land in the West. They have no concept of how to manage personal finances, for example. This section contains a lot to laugh at, but beneath the humour lies a substrate of deprivation that is so ingrained it predates history.
Women from nomad tribes simply cannot function in the West because they do not know, says Hirsi Ali, how to manage such simple things as a bank account. Girls need to be made financially literate if they are to live in the West, where personal independence is a keystone of the social contract. There are many examples like this in the book, and they are recounted with candour and honesty. They make it very good reading indeed.
But later on, once the ground has been prepared, Hirsi Ali makes a more problematic case for change. She wants a more engaged Christian Church. Muslims displaced to the West need a spiritual foundation to their lives, she says. Why not help them by introducing Christianity to them as an alternative mode of looking at the world?
Anything but Islam, says atheist Hirsi Ali. Anything but a religion that requires you to submit completely to God's will. Christianity, she says, can empower where Islam only represses.
The Western tradition of knowledge and science that has delivered such massive dividends, says Hirsi Ali, is founded on the ability of both men and women to question holy truths. Science emerged from a matrix of ideas and notions about truth. Islam is essentially inimical to such a world-view, and its followers once displaced to the West are prone to turn inwards and even rebel in shocking ways if given the chance.
Wahhabi doctrine is spread efficiently throughout these communities, says Hirsi Ali, and its proselytisers are liberally funded by Saudi petrodollars. To counter this push a new approach is necessary, she says. It is not enough to ascribe the fundamentalist view of things to a mere cultural tenet. It must be answered with force if it is not to take over in the West as it has in the Islamic world.
Hirsi Ali is a compelling polemicist and this book contains much to think about, especially in terms of how the human rights of immigrants should be understood. Governments are advised to read this book in formulating policy because it is a rare, coherent and convincing account of the way that Muslims retain ways of thinking that potentially corrode the social contract in their new communities. Hirsi Ali questions whether the West is able to counter these ideas and says that, especially for women, tribal attitudes to modernity will often lead to injustices and these are often punishable by law.
Western law, she says, has to catch up with this development if it is to adequately serve all members of society equally, as our cultural heritage demands.