Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Barbarians are at the gate

I recently read Infidel by Aayan Hirsi Ali. This remarkable book has been widely read and reviewed. I will not try here to provide another critical review. Rather I would like to attempt some general appreciative observations.

The book operates on the reader's consciousness at a number of different levels - probably not all intended by the author and probably varying a lot with the background of each reader.

At its most simple level, it is a compelling autobiographical story. Ali is not a sophisticated writer – but she has a clarity of expression that reflects her clarity of thought. Her descriptions are graphic without being flowery or intrusive. One gets a good sense of the streets and houses of Mogadishu or Nairobi and the claustrophobia of Saudi Arabia. Some of her obviously traumatic experiences seem understated. But this is perhaps not surprising in an autobiography – at the time they occurred she was perhaps not completely aware of the trauma or of its significance. Also, Ali gives the impression that her overriding purpose is to provide a case-study of a general condition, that of girls growing up and of women living under the yoke of traditional Islam. For this a certain studied detachment was probably necessary. Her story is the story of the passage from infancy to adulthood and beyond and it is a common story. Ali was resourceful and fortunate enough to escape, at great cost, the oppressive world into which she was born, but the vast majority of Moslem women are not so fortunate. Ali's story is the story of untold millions, without the happy ending, without redemption.

So, first and foremost, it is her personal story – and the reader is spared few details. It is a courageous tale, told with grace and dignity. One senses a little egocentrism, probably necessary to achieve what she has achieved in such a short time, facing such overwhelming odds. This needs to be emphasized. Aayan Hirsi Ali's achievements are astounding. Coming from a small village in Somalia, through many trials and traumas, she obtained a graduate degree at a university in Holland and became a member of parliament, while still in her twenties. And now, in her thirties, she is an articulate spokesman for oppressed women around the world (as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC). Her books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into many languages. She is an inspiration to many and an example of what can be achieved.

At another level this book is an expansive window into the worlds (plural) of Islam. For those of us hailing from South Africa (many years ago), it may come as a surprise to discover the nature and extent of African Muslim culture in Central Africa (not confined to North Africa). Speaking for myself, I admit that, prior to reading this book, Somalia was a place without content for me, a wilderness - scene of "Black Hawk Down" – location of a humiliating experience for America, a failed state, not worth bothering about. So it was revealing to learn a little about the history of Somalia, a region with an ancient and rich tribal culture, swallowed many centuries ago by the insatiable appetite of the expanding Islamic empire, into the modern colonial period to become a colony of Italy and Britain, and then in the post-colonial period a brutal communist dictatorship (sponsored by the Soviet Union). Colonialism left a power vacuum in its wake that was filled by the hopes and dreams of socialism. While the colonial governments seriously compromised tribal institutions, the communist regime forcefully tried to suppress them completely and the result was a complete breakdown of law and order, a horrible civil-war in which hundreds of thousands were killed, wounded and displaced. This is a tragic story of ethnic cleansing and genocide that occurred before these words acquired the widespread familiarity they now have and it deserves to be more widely known. Ali, brings us into this world of inter-tribal destruction and brutality. We are introduced to people who have names, families, loved ones, personal histories; people who have had their lives destroyed, who have been brought low-down to pitiful animalistic conditions, human skeletons without hope, grasping at survival – a picture familiar to us Jews. It is a picture of the collapse of civilization without recovery.

I was fascinated to learn about the nature of Somali Islam, which has its own idiosyncratic characteristics, quite distinct from the Arabic and other versions, and is intimately intertwined with tribal distinctions and traditions. Lineage is key in determining status and young children are indoctrinated in the details of their family tree up to many generations past – so that at a moment's notice they can recite it. And tribal identity is key as well, its importance can hardly be overstated. Reading this book one learns that "racism" is not necessarily about race – these tribal distinctions, as we have learned from Rwanda, can have life and death consequences. Witness Sudan as you read this. They are all Moslems, these Somalis, yet everything hangs on clan-membership. It is the extended family writ large. And, like all strong families, it can be an immensely caring and efficient social institution. There is a far-reaching Somali diaspora. The clan to which Ali belonged has vast international network connections – providing sustenance and resources to any member who shows up. It is powered by an unswerving commitment to the tenets of hospitality and charity to clansmen found in the teachings and traditions of Islam.

Ali spent time growing up in different worlds, in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia – the first of which was her introduction to a non-Muslim society. This provided her, and the reader, with a new perspective. While Kenya was by no means a prosperous society, it was more prosperous than Somalia and palpably freer, especially for women – tribalism still played a very important role, but Islam was absent from the mix with notably liberating results.

Back in Somalia and in Kenya she encounters the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that ultimately spawned Al Qaida and other radical Islamist organizations. Radical Islam filled the moral vacuum left by the collapse of society in post colonial, post communist Africa. Radical Islam, like all fundamentalist creeds (meaning that its moral claims are based on revelation of the word of God), has a moral clarity about it. It has a clear structure and permanence about it that provides security in a terrifying world. The reality that is Al Qaida today began many decades ago – out of the ashes of a collapsed power base in Africa and the Middle East. When seen through the eyes of Aayan Hirsi Ali one gets a sense of the power and intransigence of this multi-faceted movement that transcends regional differences. It is a movement with deep fundamentalist roots that brooks no critical examination of its tenets whatsoever. All criticism is met with various degrees of violence. And the kicker is that, according to Islam, it is a sacred duty to convert non-Muslims to the faith, by force if necessary. Like all fundamentalist systems, Islam claims a monopoly of true belief. And their agenda is clear, announced for all to hear, they are out to get us!

This may be familiar, but it seems not be completely understood by those present-day intellectuals who, in the name of multiculturalism, advocate understanding and dialogue. There is no talking to these people and there is no way to accept their vision of society. For anyone who believes in freedom, in the sacred value of individual autonomy, in individual human rights; pure Islam is simply evil. The most glaring manifestation of this is the brutal repression and dehumanization of women, including the obsession with virginity and the widespread practice of clitoral and labial circumcision in order to ensure it. With Ali we wonder, where are the voices of condemnation? Why are the defenders of women's rights so mute when it comes to the teachings and practices of Islam? And why are thousands of Muslim women being killed in "honor" killings and thousands of young girls being violently circumcised on kitchen tables in Europe today?

This is the final and most general level at which this book operates. It speaks to the question of identity in this post-modern world. When she finally escapes to Holland, Ali is awed by the freedom and civility of European culture, but she ultimately comes to understand its awful, terrifying vulnerability in the face of Islam. She finds herself besieged and physically threatened by her former co-religionists while living in a welcoming society that is ill-equipped to deal with the threat. Coming ultimately and painfully to abandon her belief in Islam, she embraces European social democracy only to abandon it as well to finally arrive at a realization of the value of classical liberalism.

The essence of the asymmetry between Islam and the West (especially Western-Europe) lies in their different approaches to identity. This is well captured in Natan Sharansky's new book (Defending Identity), but Ali has it too. Islam provides its believers with secure identities that tell them how to live their lives and for which they are wiling to kill and to die. There is no similar cause animating the identities of Western Europeans. Pan-European identity does not have much traction by comparison. In fact, the prevailing worldview of Europe today is anti-identity, post-identity – an undifferentiated universalism. There is antagonism and self-consciousness about "being different." They think that by denying "essential" differences they will make them go away. They think that the Muslim immigrants to Europe, if treated with non-judgmental, non-demanding forbearance, will become good Europeans. They don't realize that unless they take a stand, the descendants of today's Europeans will be tomorrow's Muslims.

Ali, and Sharansky, recognize the unique strength of America. All Americans have un-self-conscious hyphenated identities, as in, Jewish-American, Irish-American, Italian-American, etc. To become an American does not entail the giving up of one's ethnic traditions, one's religion, one's customs; as long as they do not deny the freedom of others to maintain theirs. To become American means to become committed to American ideals, to liberty and democracy in the broadest sense - to a respect for the individual regardless of his or her multiple identities. In America we do not regard it as a threat for an American citizen to feel Irish or Jewish and to indentify with Ireland or Israel. In fact, we respect people with loyalty to their heritage and a commitment to preserving it. Freedom means being whoever you want to be as long as you do not deny others the same privilege. And many times Americans have been willing to defend these ideals and to die for them. This respect for individual differences and choices categorically does not imply the need to tolerate or ignore intolerance, as exhibited by Islam's orientation to non-Muslims or to women. Intolerance does not have to be respected or tolerated. The American ethos is well-positioned to respond vigorously to this behavior and to this threat – and indeed it is probably true that, in general, American Muslims are more comfortably assimilated than their counterparts in Europe.

Having said this however, there is nevertheless ample reason for grave concern. America, in many ways, at this juncture in its history seems to be in danger of abandoning these core essentials and of becoming more like a morally-relativistic Europe, unable and unwilling to defend itself against a very real threat to destroy its culture by violence or, perhaps more effectively, by exploiting and abusing the very freedoms that make it great. The lesson of Infidel (and of Sharansky's book and of the work of others like Brigitte Gabriel) is that we ignore these threats and tolerate them at our peril – peril to our bodies and our souls. As someone once said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

This book needs to be read.

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