Hirsi Ali became the object of a fatwa after collaborating with Theo Van Gogh on a short film called Submission which criticizes not only Muslim culture but Islam at its source. Here's a link to the 60 Minutes segment on her. Part of the power of her prose and her rhetoric is its unflinching honesty. Her story is sometimes difficult to read, as she describes her circumcision, having her skull fractured by her Quran teacher or as she relates her forced marriage. I was uncomfortable as I read the description of her film that began a political firestorm in Holland and throughout the Muslim world.
I have made a point of getting to know Muslims and asking questions about their faith. The issues I kept coming back to with my Muslim friends and never received a satisfactory answer for were the same ones she raises in her book; Islam's denial of basic human rights for women and homosexuals and pervasive culture of anti-semitism. People with whom I have shared meals and many hours conversations have stated plainly that homosexuals deserve to be killed, that the Holocaust never happened or insist that honor killings only occur among radical fringes of Muslim society. Men whom I have considered family friends have wives that must leave the room anytime a male enters.
Nontheless I confess I wished for a gentler conclusion while reading the life journey of this majestic and brilliant woman. I had hoped she wouldn't forsake or insult her faith and that she would be able to promote change from within the framework of her religious doctrine. But I came to realize that my need top be open-minded and to accept Islam was patronizing. Why didn't I feel the same discomfort when I read Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God or the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Voltaire or John Locke? In overlooking human rights violations are we somehow holding the Muslim world to lower standards of tolerance and reason?
But how do we reconcile Hirsi Ali's critique of her own culture with Edward Said's ideas? He wrote that "So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." He contended that Europeans, because of their colonial dominance have in essence "written Asia’s past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that takes Europe as the norm, from which the 'exotic', 'inscrutable' Orient deviates. There is the danger that Ayaan Hirsi Ali's insights can be appropriated by the political right in this country to justify the war in Iraq. I know Blicky is already circulating an email that accuses Obama of beating his wife and argues that the only way to affect change in the Arab world is by " continuing to spread democracy" indefinitely in Iraq. Hirsi Ali's present job with the American Enterprise Institute, who were the primary architects of the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named administration's foreign policy raises this as a distinct concern.
With our history of colonial and cultural domination we, as non-Muslims in the US, are simply not in a position to criticize Islam. If, as Ali hopes, Arab society is to undergo its own Enlightenment, the only meaningful influence must come from within Islamic culture. She has a beautiful and inspiring faith of the power of the humanities, truth and democracy to save people and societies. I hope that this new faith she has found done not leave her disillusioned and betrayed in the same way her old one did.