The Bengal Tiger of Europe
New York Sun, February 2007
THERE HAS OF late been a tendency to interpret the opinions of Ayaan Hirsi Ali — known, like the Bengal Tiger, for being fantastic to look at, exotic in a frightening way, and highly endangered — by appealing to what one might call her Torquemada Complex. This was most famously evoked by Timothy Garton Ash, who remarked in the pages of the New York Review of Books that "[h]aving in her youth been tempted by Islamist fundamentalism … Ms. Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist." While this comment is silly — What, after all, does an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" believe? That the oeuvre of Thomas Paine is entirely literal and infallible? — I should in fairness note that the rest of Mr. Garton Ash's essay on Europe and Islam is sensible, thoughtful, and lucid. But somehow his least felicitous remarks came in conjunction with similar observations made by Ian Buruma in "Murder in Amsterdam" (2006) to represent the received European wisdom about Ms. Hirsi Ali. Despite the exemplary sanity of her campaign for the rights of Muslim women, she is frequently said to be not quite right in the head, and despite the obvious intelligence she projects, she is often implied to be somehow, you know, a bit thick.
Ms. Hirsi Ali became an international celebrity following the murder of her collaborator, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, on the streets of Amsterdam. An Islamist assassin stabbed to van Gogh's chest a rambling, incoherent letter declaring, among other things, his desire to see Ms. Hirsi Ali murdered next and in the same way. Ms Hirsi Ali wrote the script for Van Gogh's short film about the suffering of women, "Submission." The rest of Ms. Hirsi Ali's life story is by now well known: Born in Somalia, raised in a traditional and peripatetic Muslim family, genitally mutilated, veiled, routinely beaten and ultimately offered in marriage to a man she did not know and certainly did not love, she escaped from her Islamic fetters en route to her husband's home in Canada while transiting through Europe.
She was in her early 20s and had never before seen the First World. She sought and received asylum in the Netherlands, educated herself, became enamored with the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, and ultimately came to serve as a member of the Dutch Parliament, where she campaigned ceaselessly for the rights of battered, abused, forcibly married, raped, and mutilated Muslim women in the Netherlands — of whom, she proved over the protests of her own political party, there were all too many. Following van Gogh's murder, her Dutch citizenship was stripped — to the eternal shame of the Netherlands — on a legal technicality. She lives now in America, where she has taken a position at the American Enterprise Institute.
Infidel (Free Press, 268 pages, $26), her autobiography, is a thought-provoking document for two reasons. First, it is a poignantly evoked account of an outsider's transformative encounter with civilization, giving the book something of the aspect of The Heart of Darkness in reverse. "Everything was so clean," she writes of her first sight of Frankfurt. "The landscape looked like geometry class, or physics … [T]he bus came at precisely the time it was supposed to, 2:37, to the minute … this eerie punctuality seemed positively uncanny. How on earth could anyone predict a bus would arrive at exactly 2:37? Did they also control the rules of time?" Ms. Hirsi Ali describes venturing outside, for the first time in her adult life, with her head uncovered. "I was sweating. This was really haram." But to her astonishment, "The gardeners kept trimming the hedges. Nobody went into a fit." Allah, to her amazement, did not strike her with a thunderbolt. No man was tempted into a frenzy of desire, an orgy of rape and degeneracy. From there, her journey to disbelief in God unfolded with something like inevitability.
The curious thing, however, is not that Ms. Hirsi Ali came to reject Islam and embrace modernity, but that she seems to be one of so few immigrants to Europe to do so. One would think hers would be the universal reaction of any woman upon discovering that the planets will not fall from the heavens should she cease to live her life according to the dictates of a religious text that, as Ms. Hirsi Ali describes it, "froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century," rendering them not just servants of Allah, "but slaves." And this is the second fascination of this book: Why is Ms. Hirsi Ali's voice such a lonely one? It is not a question she asks — or answers — directly, but I suspect a clue is in there, most prominently expressed in her discussion of her psychological state upon her liberation from Islam: "I began going to museums. I needed to see ruins and mummies and old dead people, to look at the reality of the bones and to absorb the realization that, when I die, I will become just a bunch of bones."
Her criticism of Islam — Islam not as it might be, if reformed, but as it is now interpreted in most of the world and by the majority of its practitioners — is trenchant, truthful, and necessary. But her metaphysical vision of the alternative to Islam is hardly seductive. Many people, I suspect, would prefer to live in chains than to believe that nothing awaits them after death but mummification and the solemn examination of their remains by newly converted atheists. This, I suppose, is the reason Ms. Hirsi Ali is a rarity. And this is why the West's only hope is not the dismantling of Islam, but its reformation, a reformation that will perhaps be analogous in its contours to the Christian Reformation. Ms. Hirsi Ali seems to hold out little hope for that reformation — Islam, for her, is rotten root and branch — and I am not sure that she is wrong.
But nor am I sure that she is right. She is of course correct to point out that the Koran is riddled with repulsive, warlike and misogynistic injunctions; that in most parts of the Islamic world the Koran is interpreted all too literally, and that those who propose to usher Islam into modernity are few. But as many of her critics have pointed out, those wishing to find cruelty and barbarism in the Old and New Testaments, too, are spoiled for choice, and when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the wall of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he too was very much in the minority. I have with my own eyes seen the elusive moderate Muslim — I live in Istanbul, after all, where my kindly neighbors go to the mosque and then return home to watch game shows on television, as opposed to honor-killing their daughters.
The chances are small, I fear, that Ms. Hirsi Ali will persuade one billion Muslims to accept that their future is not Paradise, but a reduction to a bag of bones. What she is saying about God may be true — I for one do not know — but I do know that very few people want it to be true. And thus do I fall, reluctantly, into the camp of people who admire Ms. Hirsi Ali's bravery, but doubt that her words will do much to temper the Muslim world's terror and loathing of the West. This does not make her a fundamentalist of any dye, and it certainly does not make her simplistic. Nor does it render her animadversions pointless: She has opened the eyes of many Europeans to the problems posed by Islam. But it does make her an unlikely — nay, an impossible — candidate for the leadership of any kind of real movement to encourage Islam into modernity and welcome it into the bosom of civilization.