(This piece is cross-posted at my blog Method to the Madness)
Pankaj Mishra has a devastating piece on Ayanna Hirsi Ali [Somali-Dutch, now living in the U.S., Islam critic (hater?) extraordinaire] and her newest book “Nomad”. A taste:
“Nomad” is unlikely to earn Hirsi Ali many Muslim admirers. Neither will her recent support for the proposed French ban on face veils and the Swiss referendum outlawing minarets. In denouncing Islam unreservedly, she has claimed a precedent in Voltaire—though the eighteenth-century scourge of the Catholic Church might have been perplexed by her proposal that Muslims embrace the “Christianity of love and tolerance.” In another respect, however, the invocation of Voltaire is more apt than Hirsi Ali seems to realize. Voltaire despised the faith and identity of Europe’s religious minority: the Jews, who, he declared, “are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts,” who had “surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism,” and who “deserve to be punished.” Voltaire’s denunciations remind us that the Enlightenment was a much more complex and multifaceted phenomenon than the dawn of reason and freedom that Hirsi Ali evokes. Many followed Voltaire in viewing the Jews as backward, an Oriental abscess in the heart of Europe. Hirsi Ali, recording her horror of ghettoized Muslim life in Whitechapel, seems unaware of the similarly contemptuous accounts of Jewish refugees who made the East End of London their home after fleeing the pogroms.
Islamic fundamentalist groups have long terrorized many Muslim countries, especially those, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, that were ravaged by blowback from the Cold War and the war on terror. These extremists, who now assault the West as well, have always lacked popular support within their own countries. The anarchic vivacity of contemporary Muslim societies—featuring such figures as Ali Saleem, Pakistan’s cross-dressing television host, and Cairo’s hijab-wearing sex therapist Heba Kotb, whose talk show is beamed across the Arab world—does not quite match Hirsi Ali’s description of an incurably medieval people busy devising ever-harsher laws for themselves while plotting mayhem for the infidels. In recent years, Islamist movements, led or assisted by women activists, have helped democratize Indonesia and Turkey; innumerable Muslims, such as Asma Jahangir, in Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi, in Iran, fight to defend the rights of women against both Islamic fundamentalists and secular autocrats.
I am under no illusions as to the horrors done in the name of Islam on the African continent and elsewhere. I am most certainly not ever going to depict Mohammad, but the most anyone who chooses to will get out of me is an irritated sigh — I cannot fathom raising a hand, much less a gun or a knife, at someone for not adhering to my beliefs. Still, not everyone accepts this.
It’s important to note that Islam is an equalizing religion in many ways. In Nasfat, where many members of my family go in Lagos, everyone wears the same white garments. You probably wouldn’t know who’s rich from who’s not until its time for everyone to go home and you can see who’s driving a jeep and who’s getting on a beat-up Peugeot. People pray on the floor — there are no hierarchies in the mosque. You’re either a mullah/Sheikh who gives the service, or you’re in the populace, sitting down like everyone else. Well, if you’re a woman your ass is seating way in the back. You know, so the preacher doesn’t get distracted by your beauty or anything. Still, equalizing nonetheless.
Religion in general is what people tend to hold on to when stripped of everything. In countries where so many have so little, it takes on immense importance. The reason I am not consumed by religious belief is because I consume so much else, and allowed so much else. I do not have just one place where I go to get a certain level of respect. I have not needed religion to keep me going in times when everything else I had was taken from me. In short, I am not overly religious because I don’t need to be. I don’t need to be because I have so much.
Beneath the oversimplification of complex issues from Israel/Palestine to fundamentalist Islam is the need to paint people/beliefs/entities/nations as good and evil, designations that typically defy nuance and reject the idea that actions carried out by said people can be understood. For something to be understood, after all, it has to have a certain logic to it, and for it to have logic acknowledged is to acknowledge the humanness of (s)he who has carried out the action. This is where I part with people like Ali; Understanding an issue is not the same as providing excuses. I may understand the logic of why a boy stole money — he was hungry and he’d been fired from his job, perhaps, and maybe had a family of 4 to feed and couldn’t go home with nothing — but that does not mean that stealing is right. I may understand the reason for believing in a religion, but may not agree that religion is necessary in my own life. I can understand the grievances that drive someone kill, but that does not mean that I believe that murder is ever justified.
I don’t always succeed in doing this, but I think that the best way to approach sensitive issues is to seek those tangled lines of historical happenings that confound us, because therein, I believe, lies our humanity. In short, if it lacks nuance it’s probably a lie. By refusing to delve deeper than her own experiences and by turning a blind eye to faults of the Western civilization she hurried to embrace, Ali has shown herself time and again as someone who cannot be taken seriously by anyone with an understanding of history. By painting the West as wholly good and the East as needing to be abandoned wholesale in order for one to achieve any measure of freedom, she strips both the West and the East of their humanity.