For the very few of us who have chosen atheism over Islam, the world is a dangerous place. Radical clerics call for our death and encourage our murder. It is the time of our Inquisition, and the urgent issue is how to extinguish these threats so that we, and others, may safely believe what we wish. This is the thrust of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, "Nomad."
Such a title is fitting. Not only was Hirsi Ali raised in the nomadic tribal culture of Somalia, but she has also spent her life moving from country to country. Her pivotal 2007 memoir, "Infidel," in which she depicted the horrors of growing up in a rigidly Muslim African family and recounted the joys of her transformation to a woman of independence in Holland, was a significant contribution to feminism. "Nomad," with its cumbersome subtitle - "From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations" - sadly does not live up to the standard of its forebear.
The skillful memoirist of "Infidel" makes herself scarce in "Nomad." Yes, there are poignant personal tales of family and inspiring stories of Muslim immigrants grappling with the concepts of citizenship, individualism and money. There are two tender letters, one to her dead grandmother and the other to her unborn child. Little more is needed for readers to grasp the nature of her message: that radical Islam is inherently misogynistic, violent and rigid; that its debilitating code of honor and shame can be mitigated only by the humanist values that grew out of Europe's Age of Enlightenment. We get it. She did it. And she shows us how.
But now that Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where her job is "a cross between academic work and activism" - areas of focus that can turn a writer's creativity to ice - she feels duty-bound to offer and promote, in detail, wide-reaching solutions to the growing problem of radical Islam. And so, the essential narrative is interrupted by pages of political philosophy and policy, all intended to wean Muslims off the prayer rug.
Many of Hirsi Ali's critics claim that it is her rage that propels her to speak out so harshly against Islam. If one reads carefully, it is not anger that propels her, it is frustration. She is not the first ex-Muslim to find the cultural relativism of Westerners distasteful, ignorant and patronizing. To stand silent as social workers or academics honor hijab or excision or Shariah law as "cultural traditions that must be respected" is insufferable.
Hirsi Ali's sense of urgency about the spread of radical Islam is, indeed, valid. One need only acknowledge the swell of veiled women strolling down Main Street and the surge of young Muslim men vacationing in Waziristan. And most of Hirsi Ali's remedies for quashing Islamic radicalism in America are sound. A call to enforce secular education, to monitor violence against women and girls, to inspire a new feminism, and to curtail the huge Saudi investment in Islamic institutions - one hopes such suggestions will be heeded.
Sometimes, Hirsi Ali's voice softens, and she seems able to see the possibility of a moderate kind of Islam, perhaps a mutation that looks like secular Judaism or quiet agnosticism, but she quickly returns to a campaign of eradication by any means. Finally, she veers off the track of reason by advocating the revitalization of Christian conversion as a solution. This is not only strange but goes against all that Hirsi Ali has come to believe in. It's the kind of idea one has in the middle of the night that seems genius, but in the light of morning is too embarrassing to tell anyone about.
She calls on the Catholic Church to use "the resources, the authority, and the motivation to convert Muslim immigrants to a more modern way of life," and on Protestants to "redirect their efforts to converting as many Muslims as possible to Christianity, introducing them to a God who rejects Holy War and who has sent his son to die for all sinners out of love for mankind." This is not a novel solution; it is an ancient one that has failed, time and again, to produce peace.
The truth is, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is confused. She is a nomad who never stays in one place long enough to understand it fully. This is obvious when she makes statements such as "Only in New York does it seem acceptable to remain single on a long-term basis." But it is precisely this characteristic of naivete and confusion that makes her observations as an outsider a gift to a society that sometimes can't see its forest for the trees.
To be sure, many Americans are ignorant of the horrors of Islamic radicalism, and we need women like Hirsi Ali to inform us. The number of Muslim women willing to risk their lives by speaking out about their lives is almost zero. Hirsi Ali's life is at risk every day. A less courageous person would have had plastic surgery and moved to the boondocks.
But for her to take the professorial attitude that we are not wise enough to manage the looming threat will only provoke anger and limit the reach of her message. America has been a haven for religious fundamentalists since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock. Our fragile freedom to safely say and think and live what we believe is in large part due to awareness and vigilance. We are a work in progress, and there are no pat solutions.
A rare and wonderful scene in "Nomad" is Hirsi Ali's recollection of a trip to Nevada, where she tries to fathom the "tiny gestures" of blackjack players and visits a ghost town that "contained relatively more luxury that my mother's house did." Hirsi Ali suffers - and in turn we suffer - from her lack of exposure to America's unique heterogeneity. Her patrons have been kind to her and she is loath to disappoint them. Who can blame her? "It is the feeling that a nomad is always grasping for: that elusive sense of family." In America, however, the definition and composition of family are amorphous.
Hirsi Ali was raised in a world of absolutes, and has yet to realize that the very enlightenment and modernity she idealizes in the West are defined, at their best, by a lack of absolutes. The more she comes to accept the stand-alone value of her nomadic observations and experiences, the more we can learn from her.
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