This may be the start of a real debate and argument. We viewed two videos by Ayaan Hirsi Ali who is a Somali woman now living in the U.S.. Ayaan was raised as a Muslim, but has become an atheist and fierce critic of her former faith. I will provide some biographical details about her, but to get the full story you may need to read “Infidel” which is an autobiography of her life up until she emigrated from Holland to the U.S. For the truly serious, you can also check out her second book “Nomad: From Islam to America – A personal journey through the clash of civilizations”. For the present post, I will provide the very basic information and the links to the videos we viewed. If you weren’t able to be at the meeting, I would recommend watching the videos before you plunge into the discussion.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia to a Muslim family. Her father was active in Somali politics and as that country descended into chaos, her father sent all of his family to live elsewhere. They initially settled in Saudi Arabia where Ayaan first experienced the strict version of her Islamic faith. Her grandmother and other female relatives had been Muslims, but practiced a diluted version that included some of the primal religious elements particular to Somalia. Ayaan was enrolled in Qu’ranic school and was required to begin following the more demanding teachings of Islam. As she notes in Infidel, she tried her best.
Her family later moved to Kenya and also to Ethiopia as they sought to support themselves in the absence of her father. In Kenya she experienced some reduction in the restrictions she had faced earlier in her life, but remained under the general expectation that she abide by the rules of the Qu’ran and her family often were disappointed in her failure to submit to the demands of Islam. As she got older, her urge to rebel against these restraints continued and grew, creating more intense conflicts with her family.
Eventually, Ayaan’s father arranged for her to be married to a Canadian man who was a Muslim. She was sent to Germany as the first leg of her journey to take up a life with this Canadian who she had met only once for only a couple of hours. While in Germany she gained her first exposure to western culture and found it in sharp contrast to what she had experienced previously in her life.Her fear of being locked into a marriage she did not want and her discovery of the “freedom” to be had in the western world, led her to flee her family’s control and seek refuge in Holland. She succeeded in gaining refuge status by misrepresenting her situation, something that would later cause problems, but gained the opportunity to work, extend her education and enjoy having full control over her own life.
As she moved into the non-Muslim world, she continued to interact with the other Muslim immigrants to Holland and discovered that the restrictions she had escaped were still present in the culture brought to Holland and other european countries by her fellow Muslims. She began her exodus from the faith and also became an increasingly vocal advocate for the rights of Muslim women now living in the west. She continues in that role now.
The first video is a short (10 minute) documentary that Ayaan made with Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam. The video uses the voice and image of a single woman to describe the situations of a few Muslim women that Ayaan met in her work as an interpreter and “social worker” in the Netherlands prior to running for political office and gaining a seat parliament. The presentation focuses on the requirement that Muslim women submit to the rules of the Qu’ran and, in particular, to the domination of the men in their lives. Ayaan found that much of the abuse of Muslim women that was occurring in Holland was out of sight from the government, the public, the press, everyone. She sought political office to address these problems, but speaking out like this proved disastrous. Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim man in broad daylight on the streets of Amsterdam. Ayaan had to flee from death threats and spent months in hiding in various locations around europe as well as the U.S.
The second video is a presentation by Ayaan at a conference in Toronto (2010) in which she provides a full description of the nature of the Islamic faith in which she was raised. She compares the “world view” of Islam with that of the western world including the more liberal versions of Christianity. Her description of the differences is striking and disturbing. Based on her instruction in Islam, she now views it as a religion focused on the “life” after death. Life before death is merely a test to see if you are worthy of “heaven”. You task before death is to submit (the literal meaning of islam) to the will of Allah and follow the strict rules of the Qu’ran and the Hadiith. In the west she finds a world view that includes “heaven”, but the focus is on life in the here and now. Learning to live a happy and successful life that includes the pursuit of education, entertainment, love and friendship. A philosophy of life instead of death. Ayaan argues that to fully understand this difference requires more than a superficial knowledge of Islam and an avoidance of being too accommodating. The Qu’ran is the source of Muslim law and those who follow it strictly have obligations that don’t fit well with modern, liberal democracies. Watch the video to get the details.
As you will find, it is possible to consider Ayaan to be “islamaphobic”. She considers Islam to represent a danger to the west because of the fundamental nature of the beliefs which she feels underlie the faith based on what she, herself, was taught and what she experienced in her life including restrictions on her education, her freedom to think, abuse from her teachers (including a skull fracture inflicted by a Qu’ran teacher when she questioned him), and the persistence of abuse against women among Muslim immigrants in Holland. By viewing Ayaan as islamaphobic, I think there is a danger in misunderstanding her experience in both her own life and in the lives of the women with whom she worked. I’m reminded of the old psychiatrists joke that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”. Islamic radicals have been out to get Ayaan for more than 7 years now and she is still in need of security. Her “islamaphobia” has its relevance.
I hope the discussion of her views and the challenge they present to us can be continued through the comments on this blog. Perhaps at the Thursday night meetings as well. Let the argument begin.