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Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Nomad

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s convert-like zeal is both disturbing and delusional, writes Hilary McPhee…

Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fourth Estate, $35.00

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has brains and beauty and is a gift to those of us who like our prejudices confirmed. In Australia, where she returns regularly to promote her books, she reinforces our idea of the Muslim world as monolithic, mediaeval and dangerous. Islam is all bad, religion is the problem, Allah is the villain. The West is better in every respect. These days she proclaims the American way with stars in her eyes.

Hirsi Ali’s early life was difficult and spent on the move between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Had she grown up elsewhere – in parts of the Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Teheran perhaps – she might have been able to give us a more complex and sympathetic picture of the Muslim world, but I suspect not. As each of us is shaped by family and culture, it was her dysfunctional family that formed her, and gave her the courage and impetus to escape – a harsh mother she despised, an educated politicized father she idealized until ‘he fell back into a trance of submission to Allah’, a younger sister she had hopes for but who married and retreated from the life being offered in Europe.

Hirsi Ali’s story is extraordinary and her books, mixtures of memoir and analysis wearing their dramatic single-word titles like brand names, are highly popular throughout the West. A Muslim apostate is both consolation and vindication in uncertain times.

Infidel told the story of her family and her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, how she learnt the ropes of the welfare system and the workforce, before gaining a university education. How she became a member of the Dutch Parliament, worked with immigrant women, scripted the film Submission, of Koranic verses projected onto a naked woman’s body, a provocation for which the producer, Theo van Gogh, was murdered and she received death threats. From then on she was provided bodyguards by the Dutch Government until a political furore over her citizenship status caused her to leave Holland for the States. In 2006 she accepted a job with the ultra-conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which had provided much of the rationale for military intervention in Iraq and for rebuilding the image of Israel in the world through a conservative alliance with America. Nomad is dedicated to the Past President, Chris DeMuth, ‘my surrogate abeh’ (father). Hirsi Ali describes this time as her intellectual coming-of-age. With her now private bodyguards, she travels the US and those parts of the world that welcome her message, lecturing on the evils of Islam and explaining her remedies, scornful of more than a billion and a half Muslims. After Allah, Muslim women receive most of the blame – childlike, unable to manage money, trapped in their marriages, pouring their frustration into damaging their daughters.

We are never reminded that more than 50 countries from Indonesia to Iran through Africa and the Middle East have Muslim majorities and vastly different cultures and histories. A perspective on the role played by poverty, illiteracy and rural conservatism is missing. Pre-Islamic cultures don’t rate a mention.

The books aren’t much good. Infidel, ghostwritten in Dutch and published in English translation in 2007, came at the right time and sold hugely. Nomad is a rather awkward retelling of her story through the lens of imagined contact, mainly by telephone, with her sister and her dying father, her hated mother and her dead grandmother. Framed by a chapter called A Letter to My Grandmother and an epilogue called A Letter to My Unborn Daughter, are large chunks of rather out-of-date polemic echoing Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington. The old ‘clash of civilizations’ gets a rerun.

Her targets are predictable. Multiculturalism is dismissed as utopian, producing victims and welfare dependence. Feminists are naive for suggesting that many women in the West are also manipulated, complicit, objectified. Germaine Greer cops it for cultural relativism; Tariq Ramadan for being Tariq Ramadan.

There’s a depressing absence of hope or empathy. Micro-financing which has for years been targeting women and helping them out of poverty doesn’t rate a mention; nor does the improved literacy figures in some Islamic countries; nor the belated but massive investment in education in some rich Arab countries. The growing numbers of modern Muslim women in public life and scholars reinterpreting the Koran and Shar’ia, described recently by Isobel Coleman in Paradise Beneath Her Feet, do not fit her thesis and are ignored.

Hirsi Ali has now joined the ranks of celebrity atheists. Richard Dawkins calls her a major hero of our times; Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens speak of her beauty and tiny wrists. The latter is in a state of adoration: ‘For me the three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali’. I wonder what they make of one of the ‘remedies’ in Nomad that Muslims would be better off being Christian and that the Vatican joins the campaign to save Muslims from themselves.

There is something disturbing and slightly delusional here, the zeal of the convert protecting herself from facing the consequences of her own actions and theories, perhaps. The cult that surrounds Hirsi Ali could engulf her. She’s a one-woman band against her own culture, a hero to herself as well to the men who worship her. I can’t help but fear for her.

http://www.themonthly.com.au/ayaan-hirsi-ali-conversation-sydney-opera-house-2654