Monday, 4 June 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets her closing address to the Sydney Writers' Festival, edited to fit, in the 'Opinion' page of The Sydney Morning Herald.

She describes her journey from a traditional Muslim household, via the trash fiction she read as a girl, to studying Freud in Amsterdam, as a refugee. As "a rebellious teenager" she and her sister "discovered the power of words". It's a humanist's ideal scenario for the Third World.

Some of the books had no covers, for they had been in too many hands, but those with covers generally showed a man bending over a woman, with his mouth on hers and their bodies entwined.

We tore these covers off and, if questioned, would claim that these books were required school reading.

As soon as it was demanded that she marry a cousin who "had the Holy Book on his side", she left. In Amsterdam "there were no clans, no tribes, not one but several holy books".

I read their books, about how religious they had been; how they had evolved towards secularism. How they had pushed God from public life.

Freud, whose writings offered "an alternative moral system", was a revelation. "I had never once imagined that a moral framework could exist that wasn't based on religion."

It was a sacrilege to read these things, she avers: "Almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. To read these books was sinning."

After 11 September 2001, she realised that bin Laden's "words of justification" were in the Koran.

The little box at the back of mind, where I had stuffed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open, and it refused to close. I had to make the leap to believing the Holy Book was relative - not absolute, not the literal syllables pronounced by God, but a historical record, written by men 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad's death. In other words, it was just another book.

This is a journey that many make in the West.

In my case, growing up in a family where my mother's father had been a Communist, and my father was a man who ridiculed "sky pilots", it was not difficult to deny revealed truth in the gospels. But the school I attended was Anglican, and my grandmother went every Sunday to church.

We also went to summer camps run by the church, where the guardians were religious men.

But we survived. Compared to Hirsi Ali's journey, mine was simple.

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