Thursday, January 22, 2015


Recently, I have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Nomad, the follow-up to her ground-breaking and controversial best-seller Infidel, and her equally controversial film documentary Submission (which resulted in the death of director Theo van Gogh at the hands of a Muslim fanatic in 2004).
Although nearly five years old now, the book seems particularly relevant today, regaled as we currently are by constant news reports of Islamic State, Boko Haram, Charlie Hebdo, etc. Hirsi Ali's major concern, though, is not so much genocide and internationally newsworthy events, but the behind-the-scenes day-to-day insults of the Islamic treatment of women.
Told very much from a first person point of view, Hirsi Ali recounts her own peregrinations and constantly changing circumstances, as she moves - sometimes forced, sometimes willingly, sometimes apparently wilfully - from her native Somalia, through Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Netherlands, and finally the United States. It also looks at the effects of Islam largely through the lens of her own widely-scattered family.
You certainly have to admire the woman's guts and the hard choices she has made (and continues to make), and the sacrifices she has borne for her convictions. Since her own public and high-profile disavowal of Islam after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and her controversial stint as a Dutch Member of Parliament, vocally agitating for the rights of Muslim women in Europe, Hirsi Ali has lived in constant fear of violent reprisal, and travels everywhere under the protection of armed security, as she lectures on atheism, women's rights, and the iniquities and inequalities of Islam.
In my opinion, while undeniably "worthy", the book suffers, if anything, from an excess of earnestness. I don't necessarily expect ribaldry or slapstick, but I think a certain lightness of tone from time to time might relieve the rather oppressive and unmitigated grimness of the text without excessively softening the message and its impact.
Quite honestly, it's difficult to positively like a book about such unsympathetic characters (Ali's family). They are, almost to a person, such a bunch of unpleasant, borderline mentally unbalanced, self-indulgent, prejudiced, and generally messed-up individuals, that you just feel like slapping them (as does Ms. Hirsi Ali herself with great frequency). The book confirmed in spades my already poor impression of Somali religious, tribal and social culture, and, given the abysmal (or often completely lacking) parenting approach Hirsi Ali describes as the norm there, it is perhaps no great surprise that so many Somalis abroad "go bad" and end up pursuing a path of drugs, gangs and violence.
That said, I found her rose-tinted analysis of the United States to be somewhat trite and overgeneralized.
All in all, despite my respect for Hirsi Ali's atheism and for her principled stand against a bullying religion, I found the book a distinctly unsatisfying and depressing read.
There were, however, some interesting and provocative ideas in the chapter on possible solutions and remedies to the "problem" of Islam, towards the end of the book. For example, Hirsi Ali suggests that an important, even a necessary, step towards reducing the influence and power of Islam today is the work of (mainly non-Islamic) historians and textual analysts in definitively establishing that the Qu'ran was actually written over a period of decades, or even centuries, by a committee of clerics (in much the same way as the Judeo-Christian Bible), and so cannot actually be the literal word of Allah dictated to Mohammed, as most Muslims implicitly believe.
She also strikes out strongly against the well-meaning but misguided multiculturalism and moral relativism of liberal Western societies, which she sees as wishy-washy appeasement, leading them to effectively condone some of the worst elements of Islamic culture (including honour killings, female circumcision, the absolute subjugation of women, the intolerance of other religions and ways of life, etc) along with the preservation of arts and crafts and a few quaint customs. Hirsi Ali argues that Western culture is hands-down and unequivocally BETTER than Islamic culture, and that we should make no apology for this.
She also - interesting for a strident atheist - calls on Christian apologists to present a more forceful alternative to Islam in an attempt to stem the rising tide of Muslim converts, especially in Western countries, almost recommending a new wave of Christian missionaries. She does this largely on the grounds that, if some people do feel the need for a religion, better it be the relatively accommodating and benign one of Christianity than the harsh and violent one of Islam.

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