Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Simon and Schuster, RRP$27, £12.99
Towards the end of this memoir-cum-polemic, Ayaan Hirsi Ali lists some of those renegade Muslims who are or have been under threat of death, and who have required police protection from the menaces of murderous extremists. Apart from Salman Rushdie, they include Talima Nasreen, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan and Ibn Warraq. The first three are women: all are menaced because, in differing ways, they have criticised Islam.
Most famed, and most at risk, of this elite group is Hirsi Ali herself. She is so because she has been the most powerfully and consistently confrontational; because of her invariable straightforward and uncompromising seriousness on every public occasion; and because, in a controlled and even courteous fashion, she most clearly articulates anger against the oppressiveness that often accompanies Islamic practice.
Her hatred of Islamist tyranny imbues Nomad with its narrative drive; it is its organising theme, its polemical intent. When recounting her many tortured phone calls with her mother after she (Hirsi Ali) had gone abroad, she imagines saying to her: “Allah is full of misogyny. He is arbitrary and incoherent. Faith in him demands that I relinquish my responsibility, become the member of a herd. He denies me pleasure, the adventure of learning, friendships.” Unable to hurt her more than she already has, she says none of this, but instead murmurs vague reassurances – for which she now reproaches herself.
Her life and work since arriving in Holland in 1991 has made her loathed by orthodox Muslims, and a target of violent extremists. She has met, too, sharp criticism from liberals for what is seen as a fundamentalism of her own: a refusal to consider the religion she excoriates as anything other than in stark opposition to the practices of enlightenment societies such as those in the west. Most prominent in this has been Ian Buruma, the Dutch-born, US-based writer (in his 2006 book Murder in Amsterdam and elsewhere).
An admirer of Buruma’s writing, I am on Hirsi Ali’s side in this. Radical Islamism is a large and, in many parts of the world, growing threat. Here is a woman threatened with murder, who was forcibly and painfully circumcised as a girl, taught to submit to male authority in almost any form, and ordered to wed an unknown man. Having escaped from that, and from her family, to Holland, and having grasped the extent to which she had had her individuality abused, she is doing nothing wrong in warning, in the strongest way, of the treatment accorded to her, and that is still accorded, often in much more brutal forms, to legions of other women.
Her earlier memoir, Infidel, was more of a conventional biography: Nomad circles round and round the incidents, people and themes of her life, both with her family and after her escape to the Netherlands, then to the US, where she lives now. She writes movingly about her father, and her possible reconciliation at his deathbed (he was too ill to speak, but squeezed her hand with what strength he had left); and about her mother, irreconcilable as her child became an apostate, enlightenment warrior, feminist; and of her brother and sister, who she believes, in differing ways, had their lives ruined and cannot recover. From these personalities, and from the milestones in her life, she constructs an argument that includes the contention that “the dysfunctional Muslim family constitutes a real threat to the very fabric of western life”. Her explicit and insistent belief – that Islamic societies enforce the closing of the Muslim mind to the detriment of living standards, personal development and peace – is her driving force.
How to open that mind? One of Hirsi Ali’s bugbears is the practice of multiculturalism, whose exaggerated respect for the customs of all immigrant ethnic groups leads to a perpetuation of repressive, even at times murderous, practices; and to a self-censorship by much of the host community of any criticism that might be construed as racist. In the area in which her passion is most engaged – the treatment of women – she urges western feminists to make her cause theirs, eschewing the extremes of cultural relativism that, she reports, led the scholar and polemicist Germaine Greer to liken forced clitoral circumcision to wearing high heels.
Confrontational, stinging, unsparing: Hirsi Ali has positioned herself at a pole that courts odium and danger. But those who see her as, herself, a danger – to good community relations or to mutual understanding between cultures – mistake trenchant criticism for insult. The greater insult to Muslims is to treat them as incapable of rational, robust engagement.
The writer is an FT columnist