I admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is a truly remarkable woman. Born in Somalia and fluent in six languages, she grew up in a middle-class Somali family. Contrary to her father's wishes, she was circumcised at the age of seven by her paternal grandmother. Her family was forced to flee Somalia after her father led an unsuccessful revolt to depose the country's ruler. She and her family finally settled in Nairobi, Kenya. En route to an arranged marriage in Canada, she sought asylum in the Netherlands. There, she studied political science at the University of Leiden, abandoned her ancestral Islamic faith and became a Member of Parliament (MP) under the banner of the VVD, a Dutch liberal party.
A VERY PERSONAL STORY
This book is primarily an autobiography. Ayaan Hirsi Ali gives a fascinating account of her childhood home and her relatives. Her authoritarian father, Abeh, loved Ayaan and her sister, but was a violent taskmaster to Ayaan's older brother. Ayaan's mother, on the other hand, mollycoddled the brother, valuing him above her other children simply because he was male. Fast forward to Ms. Ali's life in the Netherlands where she finally abandoned her faith. Her apostasy deeply hurt Abeh, but the bonds of parenthood could not separate them. Ms Ali describes a very moving scene: on his death bed in London, he (Abeh) sends for Ms. Ali. At last, they reconcile one week before her father passes away.
In addition to her strained relationship with Abeh, Ms Ali had a very troubled family history. Her brother divorces his wife and becomes 'mad'; her cousin is infected with HIV, yet manages to deny ever having sex; another cousin, trapped in a dreary, poor immigrant neighbourhood in London, has abandoned all hopes of earthly happiness. Luckily for Ms Ali, living in the Netherlands - far from the poisonous influence of her Somali relatives - she flourishes and comes to terms with herself.
SHE IS NO SHRINKING VIOLET
Ms. Ali does not shy away from addressing the failure of many immigrants in the Netherlands to integrate and become productive citizens. While working for the Dutch Social Services, Ayaan Hirsi Ali experienced the failure of the multiculturalist social model: incidences of domestic abuse--especially against women--were much higher among immigrants; school drop-out rates among immigrants were also appallingly high; and young Muslim immigrants seemed to fall prey to a virulent form of Fundamentalist Islam. She challenges the concept of multiculturalism and excoriates its left-wing high priests. Ms. Ali surmises that multiculturalism is an inherently racist concept because it assumes that immigrants' ancestral traditions are inherently inferior in the modern world and, therefore, need to be 'protected' in the West "..like an exotic mask in a smart modern museum".
A FLAWED THESIS
Ms. Ali's main thesis is that there is a dark, unspoken presence in the 'Muslim mind' (whatever such a reductive term means) that prevents Muslim from integrating into mainstream Western society: Islam. All strands of Islam, according to Ms. Ali, are fundamentally opposed to the values of modern post-Enlightenment society (individual responsibility, free thought, critical thinking). Ms. Ali's prescriptions for solving the integration problem, her 'Enlightenment Project' as she calls it is:
1. TEACH MUSLIM KIDS TO THINK CRITICALLY. Because Muslims hold that the Quran is perfect and unchangeable, they do not question it. Children are taught to defer to authority to the detriment of critical thought. Only by teaching Muslim children to question the Koran will the stranglehold of religious authority be relieved.
2. CONVERT MUSLIM IMMIGRANTS TO CHRISTIANITY (GENTLY). Christian churches in Europe should not be afraid to 'contend for the souls' of Muslim immigrants. Churches, according to Ms. Ali, could 'evangelise' among immigrant communities by providing support services and counselling to immigrants. Ms. Ali reports that she had seen this form of benign evangelisation help some of her Somali co-refugees assimilate very well into Dutch society.
The first proposal is hardly controversial. Who opposes critical, independent thought? Why not teach every child to think critically and independently? The second proposal, however, may not sit well with many who take a dim view of the Church. However, her proposal is worth considering. If Church groups have the resources, social capital and heart to help immigrants acculturate to their new societies, why should they not compete to provide spiritual succour to immigrant families? The churches have the resources to compete for immigrant souls, so why leave the field to Islamists?
The trouble with Ms. Ali's thesis is that she blames the multiculturalist stance of Dutch elites for the inability of Muslims to integrate into Dutch society. The truth is more complex and multifactorial: political correctness, lip service to multiculturalism, conflation of immigration with asylum, poor immigration policies, and the secularisation of the power structure of Dutch society have all contributed to the problem. Like other European societies, Dutch society is struggling with issues of identity. Ms. Ali does not discuss these other trends. This is perhaps forgiveable since hers is not a sociology textbook, but an autobiography.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's thought suffers from a more serious handicap: over-generalisation. She extrapolates her Somali Muslim experience to the rest of the Muslim world, leaving no room for nuance. It beggars belief so suppose that the nomadic, animist Islam practised in Somalia is representative of global Islam. How about Islam as practised in poor, but stable countries such as Senegal and Ghana? How about countries with large Muslim populations such as India and Indonesia? Are they fundamentally opposed to modernity? If so, how come these countries have managed to sustain high growth rates in the past decade and are slowly pulling themselves out of poverty? How come many Indonesians successfully integrated into Dutch society? No, Islam in Somalia is not the entire story.
In addition to hasty generalisation, Ayaan Hirsi Ali uses the ugly phrase, 'clash of civilisations'. The phrase, popularised by Professor Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order), assumes that the great civilisations are reducible to essentialist regligious categories (Islam, the Christian West, Hinduism, Chinese civilisation). And that these civilisations are pitched in deep existential conflict against each other. Is this true? It is not clear to me that this is the case. After the World War II, no one could have predicted that European societies, which had been at war with each other for centuries, could live in peace. Yet, today, Europe is prosperous and somewhat united. By using so facile a term as 'clash of civilisations', Ms. Ali exaggerates the failure - petty and grand - of multiculturalism in order to make her case. Yes, integration of muslim immigrants into Dutch society is an important social concern. No, failure to integrate does not a clash of civilisations make.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's grasp of post-Enlightenment thinking and Western history is admirable. In Nomad, she comes to terms with herself, her roots and her place in a world vastly different from that of her birth; Nomad is a coming-of-age story. She is undoubtedly an intelligent and courageous woman - and I deeply respect her for that. However, her worldview - that the West faces an existential threat from Fundamentalist Islam abroad and within the West's borders - does not survive close scrutiny. Even though her gripe with multiculturalism is valid, her spin on its impact in Dutch society is facile and self-serving. Despite my admiration for Ms. Ali, I think Nomad deserves only three stars.