Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an impressive person. So much so that I’m not even going to link to any material about her. If you don’t recognise the name, shame on you. If you haven’t read her books, you are a complete idiot. Sorry to do something so unfashionable as to have an opinion but here we are: she’s done extraordinary things with astonishing bravery and while anyone is free to criticise her, I’m not sure why anyone would do so unless they were misguided, deluded or BATSHIT INSANE.
So this is interesting. Emma Brockes doesn’t seem to like Ayaan at all and for no particularly good reason, as far as I can tell.
Look at how she’s introduced:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali enters an apartment in New York followed by a bodyguard. The 40-year-old, who for the past six years has been unable to turn up at a venue without it being checked by security, is a writer, polemicist and critic of Islam. She is also a Somali immigrant, a former Muslim, a survivor of child genital mutilation, an exile many times over, a former Dutch MP, a black woman whose language would not, in places, look amiss in a far-right pamphlet, a remarked-upon beauty and a lady-in-peril, identities that lend her as a figurehead to disparate causes and confuse the people she meets.
There are a couple of worries here. First, the right-wing accusation. There’s nothing actually wrong with having a right-wing orientation, but it’s rather odd to accuse Ayaan of having such a thing. Personally, I don’t care what direction her wings point in: she’s reporting what happened to her and criticises the infrastructure that enabled it and continues to enable it. I can’t work out – and couldn’t care less – whether this is right or left wing. Right wingedness isn’t automatically wrong, even though I personally dress to the left.
Second, her beauty. Ayaan is certainly beautiful. I could look at her all day. You know what though? I’d be as enraged at the way she and others have been treated if she were unattractive to me. Brockes suggests that Ayaan’s beauty is a factor in her being listened to. Perhaps it is. Probably that’s a bad thing. But it’s not Ayaan’s fault for being easy on the eye, it’s everyone else’s fault for acting like that’s an important part of an argument.
Third, and most despicably, the ‘lady-in-peril’ charge. What’s this supposed to mean? She’s in peril because she’s made a stance against a horrific, barbaric institution: one that wants to silence her because it threatens their horribleness and barbarism. Of course this is one of the reasons people listen to her: she has some important things to say because of her experiences. That is entirely the point.
"I'm a serious person," she says, frowning, as the photographer suggests various fashion poses, but she is also quietly, almost coyly glamorous, moving around with fawn-like grace. It's a combination that works particularly well on male polemicists of the muscular left, who can't do enough to defend her: her gentle charm, her small wrists, her big eyes – oh, and her brave commitment to Enlightenment values in the face of all that extremism.
This is a bizarre attack and in the spirit of modern journalism, it’s not even clear what is the target. Ayaan for being appealing and having an important message or the “male polemicists of the muscular left”, which presumably includes me? Look at the INSANITY of Brockes’ claim that my sympathy toward Ayaan might stem from the circumference of her wrists. But worse and more insane than that, look at the claim that it stems from her “brave commitment to Enlightenment values in the face of all that extremism.”
YES. THAT IS WHAT WE ADMIRE. IT’S BY DEFINITION AN ADMIRABLE THING. Are we supposed to dismiss sincerely held views because they are sincerely held? Well, that’s the sort of attitude this kind of journalism seems to want to encourage. Bizarre.
It was after fleeing an arranged marriage and settling as an asylum-seeker in the Netherlands that Hirsi Ali converted from Islam to atheism with the kind of zeal that usually powers journeys going the other way.
And well she might. Whence this idea that embracing atheism with zeal is somehow wrong? Why can’t we be enthusiastic about unbelief, especially if we’ve been badly treated by the artefacts of religion, as Ayaan certainly has? It’s really OK for people to be as enthusiastic about non-belief as anyone is about belief and the only people who claim it isn’t are the unbelievers. Fuck them: they don’t get to tell everyone else what should be important to them and I can and will not buy into this sycophantic rhetoric. Fuck – I say again – them.
She can, she has said, make statements that a white person simply could not: on the "dangers" posed to the West not just by radical but by regular Islam; on the "backward" nature of the religion; on how "terrible" the Koran is; and, in the most startling argument of her new book, Nomad (a follow-up to her best-selling memoir Infidel), how Muslims would do well to learn from Christianity.
The scare quotes are astonishingly, tear-jerkingly, eye-wateringly silly. The dangers are demonstrably real. The backwardness is plain: we’re talking about a culture that flogs or kills women for the ‘crime’ of being raped. I don’t think Ayaan says the Koran is “terrible” but she – rightly – has much to say on the culture of Islam and how terrible that can be. I don’t see why we need to look much further than Ayaan’s experiences to conclude that muslim women might have something legitimate to complain about.
The accusation that most irritates her – that the events of her life have left her "traumatised" and an easy pawn for right-wing politicians – is, as she says, a sexist presumption. And yet the suspicion remains: that those convictions one arrives at – and fights hardest for – via fraught personal experience are emotional, not rational, and as such beyond reach of most useful debate.
This is the very definition of terrible journalism and awful argument. First, if someone really has claimed to be traumatised, then DON’T scare quote it. But has she really claimed to be traumatised? Tut. Second, journalists don’t get to say “defendant says x but let’s completely make up y and talk about it as if it’s true.” Well they do get to do it, of course. I can’t stop them. The only thing that will stop them is conscience, which is plainly and regrettably absent in people like Brockes.
"I'm not being right-wing," she says. "The people who believe themselves to be on the left, and who defend the agents of Islam in the name of tolerance and culture, are being right-wing. Not just right-wing. Extreme right-wing. I don't understand how you can be so upset about the Christian right and just ignore the Islamic right. I'm talking about equality." (She is seeing the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson, whom, she wrote recently in a Dutch magazine, she is "enormously in love with", but won't comment on it today, nor smile at the suggestion that in most people's minds this will instantly reposition her on the political scale.)
She…won’t…smile…at it? What is that supposed to mean? It is absolute nonsense and an ad hom attack. And a non-sequitur. Brockes’ comment in no way addresses Ayaan’s statement. Instead, it relies on the phrase ‘right-wing’ and somehow manages to degenerate further into mealy-mouthedness.
The impetus to write Nomad came in 2008, when she visited her dying father at a hospital in London and saw her family for the first time in years. The reunion was short and inadequate and brought about "the horrible feelings that come with death; lots of things that I regret". Primarily that she hadn't spoken to him sooner but also that in what she saw as his internal fight between Western and Islamic principles – he believed in educating his daughter but forced her into a marriage and disowned her when she ran away – the latter won.
This is a deliberate understatement. Ayaan was forced into marriage. Let’s reflect on this word ‘forced’ for a while. She ‘ran away’ from a society that insisted she be continually raped because her father said so.
Her critique of Islam as a "moral framework not compatible with the modern Westernised way of living" is rooted in a critique of her family, her father's unbending will and particularly her mother, a woman who she says was pulled apart by the contradictions of maintaining her faith in a modern society and an identity crisis from which Hirsi Ali herself suffered. (She speaks six languages – English, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic and Dutch.)
This isn’t true. Her critique is based on the idiocies of that tradition, which happen to be exemplified by her own family. But so what if it were based on her own family? I don’t see how that would invalidate her anecdotes.
The subtitle of Nomad is A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilisations. I ask if she understands why Muslims going about their business are incredibly hurt by these kinds of statements. "But if you compare the reaction of Christians to what is written about Christianity – Richard Dawkins, who's a supporter, says religion is a form of madness – whereby Christians just shrug their shoulders and don't respond. If you compare the way Muslims take offence at perceived insults that are not insults but are just a critical way of looking at their religion, then I start to ask myself, 'Why are Muslims so hypersensitive to criticism and why don't they do anything with it except to respond by denying it or playing the victim?' And I've come to the conclusion it's because of the gradual indoctrination – from parents, teachers – that everything in the Koran is true; Muhammad is infallible, you have to follow his example and defend Islam at all times, at all costs. Instead of going along, as most people are doing now, and saying, 'OK, let's refrain from criticising Islam, let's refrain from calling Islamic terrorism Islamic,' I think we should do the opposite."
So do I. The only reason I can think of to refrain from criticising all religions, especially Islam, is concern for my personal safety. Nobody who knows me could possibly think I’m worried about that. I’m not concerned about shocking people. I’m concerned about being in charge of which ideals I compromise. That’s all and that’s why I’m in this skepticism business.
The 11-minute film Hirsi Ali made with Van Gogh, a broadcaster and provocateur who publicly referred to Muslims as "goat-f---ers", was intended to symbolise what they saw as misogyny within Islam. Three months after the film aired on Dutch TV, Van Gogh was murdered in the street by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan who pinned a note to his chest calling for holy war and naming Hirsi Ali as a target.
The suggestion here is that provocation gets what it deserves. Fair enough; I use words to provoke people, so I expect words in return. Van Gogh likely felt the same; insinuating that a large group of diverse people fuck goats is not particularly cool, but death seems a somewhat harsh sentence, particularly if it comes from random people instead of due process. Let’s try to remember who is in the wrong here.
She reserves her greatest disapproval for intellectuals who, she says, have failed utterly in their responsibility towards non-white women. The decadence of Western feminism is where Hirsi Ali is perhaps strongest. In the book, she attacks Germaine Greer for arguing that female genital mutilation needs to be considered "in context", as part of a "cultural identity" that Western women don't understand.
Quite rightly. There’s no context in which brutalising a women’s genitals could be considered right.
She calls for a new feminism "that is going to focus on issues faced by non-Western women, because they are the biggest issues. To own your own sexuality, as an adult woman; to choose your own lifestyle; to have access to education [when] what we see in the Muslim world is girls being pulled out of school and married off before they've completed their education. These things, I think, are more basic than the stuff that current feminists are concerning themselves with – like shattering the glass ceiling or finding a balance between work and home life. There was a long article in The New York Times that went on and on about who [in a couple] would load and unload the dishwasher. If you have a career and you're so intelligent, you can work that out. You don't have to have a manifesto. There is feminism that has evolved to a kind of luxury."
She’s right. There are all sorts of sexism going on and we need to deal with all of them, but we need to prioritise. The women who are being systematically raped and killed are rather more of a priority than those who aren’t getting paid as much as men. Both important and enraging, but we prioritise.
Ayaan is an amazing person. There’s no doubt of that. But that in itself isn’t a reason to listen to what she says. Fortunately, she’s intelligent, rational, sympathetic and right. These really are reasons to listen to her. Brockes is none of these things and her distortions are pathetic.