"As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive." Shakespeare, quoted by Timothy Garton Ash in his critique of Hirsi Ali.
We live in a civilisation that doesn't know what Enlightenment means anymore. Enlightenment means, above all, Reason or the faculty to think with clarity and according to certain logical principles which constitute the Ethics of thinking and writing. The ethical principles of Enlightenment extend to humanist values which consider the Human individual as more sacred than religions and dogma. According to these definitions, Hirsi Ali is the contrary of an Enlightened person. Swinging from one extreme to another, from approving the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to becoming the leader of the Islamophobics, is in no way a road to Enlightenment. Our false comprehension of Ali's personal transformation is confounding actually Enlightenment and hostility to a certain religion, Islam, portrayed as the most backward of religions.
True Enlightenment is against religious dogma to the extent this dogma affects our intellectual ability to think with clarity and reason, while what appears to be more important for Hirsi Ali, her followers, admirers, those who hire her, listen to her, call her a courageous person, and even some of her critics, is not the intellectual method of rigourous thinking but the surface, the fact that a charge on religion gives the thinking the mantle of Enlightenment.
There is much talk about Hirsi Ali now. She is launching her book 'Infidel', an 'autobiographical' account, as well as her Muslim bashing career outside Europe, after having fomented hatred and contributed to destabilise centuries old tradition of religious tolerance in Holland.
Lies after lies and intellectual imposture after intellectual imposture, Hirsi Ali is leading us into the dark about Islam, and her own 'Enlightenment' is becoming our Disenlightenment. From one book launch to another and from one interview to another, Ali maintains as autobiographical some core elements from her personal history, and that of the women she pretends to speak for to substantiate her attacks on Muslims and Islam, despite the fact that these elements were proven exaggerated, distorted, and sometimes false.
Many have critiqued Ali, without insisting on the intellectual dishonesty or imposture of her arguments. Among her critics are leading scholars as well as public intellectuals: Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma, Laila Lalami, Maria Golia (read Golia's essay here), and most recently Lorraine Ali. But most Hirsi Ali's indirect and silent critics are those women and men who work tirelessely to combat Female Genital Mutilation in African countries and the scholars who help them in debunking the myth and educating African women about the practice.
I am going to point out the intellectual dishonesty, logical and moral fallacies of Ms Hirsi Ali. I think the first intellectual dishonesty to emerge is in her attempt to espouse an outside critique of Islam. That is. A borrowed critique. She echoes Pryce-Jones and Bernard Lewis . It is not that an external critique is impossible or unacceptable. Although external critiques of non western civilisations have been tainted by false and arrogant assumptions about other cultures by the western coloniser, they tend to tell us more about the critic than about those who are criticised. Pulling together personal experience of Islam, an internal particular view of Islam, as Hirsi Ali does, and external colonialist critique, serves two purposes. The first purpose is psychological, it is to hide behind other people, not to reveal the essence of private experience. There is a tendency here to blurr the lines of the identity of the person who formulates the critique. A tendency to hide behind a formal critique disconnected logically from personal experience and not revealing any knowledge about the set of beliefs of the person who articulates the critique. Indeed, in doing so, Hirsi Ali asserts her identity as citizen of the West and supresses beliefs related to this former identity. This is the psychological fallacy of Hirsi Ali's postion and we will see later in the article how she reacts to any attempt at revealing her inner self through her critique of Islam.
The second purpose is intellectual: Hirsi Ali's experience of Islam, as painful as it is, cannot become pertinent in a theoretical framework unless Ali is able to stretch this experience within a valid generalisation. As the need to borrow the theoretical critique of Islam from the outside is obvious in Ali's writings and public declarations, we are forced to conclude that her private experience of Islam is not valid enough for theoretical generalisation serving to indict the religion. Lets call this fallacy 'the theoretical fallacy' or the attempt to make a theoretical link between generalisations and a particular observation which is disconnected from these generalisations. Anybody who has done Epistemology One in college or university should understand this. Yet, our intellectuals, both admirers and critics of Ms Ali, didn't seem to notice this fallacy.
The other way with which one can interpret Hirsi Ali's attempt at uniting an inside personal experience with an outside theoretical critique of Islam is opportunism. That is. An attempt to publicise her story within an already established theoretical framework making it more meaningful and giving it more impact than it deserves on the theoretical level. With both ways, theoretical fallacy or opportunism, Hirsi Ali does not come out as an honest intellectual with a sharp and clear mind.
One might object that Hirsi Ali has more than her own story. She has worked with Muslim immigrant women in Holland and must have drawn some conclusions from her social work with these women. Yet, by all accounts, not only Ali dismissed the plight of these women to liberation within their own faith and religion but she is not popular among Muslim women whom she pretends to speak for.''Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women.'' Writes Lorraine Ali.
Ian Buruma mentions a televised meeting she had with women in a Dutch shelter for abused housewives and battered daughters, several of whom objected strongly to the film Submission. "You're just insulting us," one cried. "My faith is what strengthened me." According to Buruma, she dismissed their objections with a lofty wave of her hand.''
Not only Hirsi Ali wants us to believe that her personal story and her work with immigrant Muslim women in Europe is the basis for her fallacious generalisation but she wants us to think that her tragic personal story has nothing to do with a potential harm to her psyche which might have fueled her hatred of Islam. In doing this, Hirsi Ali is trying to elevate her personal story to the level of a detached scientific observation.
''By age 14, Somalia-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali had survived genital mutilation at the hands of her grandmother, a fractured skull from her Qur'an teacher and brutal beatings from her devout Muslim mother. By comparison, her father was kind. The Somali rebel, who had largely abandoned his family to plan coups and marry three more women, only meddled when it came to arranging his 23-year-old daughter's marriage. When Ayaan refused, he disowned her.''
However, her attempt to persuade us that she draws on her personal story as a scientist draws on a particular detached observation is very fragile because she appears to be in a state of denial about herself and dismisses the real problem, the psychological trauma certain practices produce on women, in favour of a 'theoretically valid' political charge on Islam. This is related to what I called before 'the psychological fallacy' . I find this shocking because not only she dismisses her own trauma and suffering but that of other women. There is a moral fallacy at work here. It is of course in her own right to consider her painful experience the way she does but she seems to be willing to attribute this reaction to other women in Africa and the pure evocation of the word 'trauma' puts her on the defensive at the risk of building profound contradictions in her narrative.
1-'People can see that there is not much trauma in my story.'
2-"Why are journalists obsessed with personal history?" she asks... "From my background, being an individual is not something you take for granted. Here it is all you, me, I. There it is we, we, we. I come from a world where the word 'trauma' doesn't exist, because we are too poor. I didn't have an easy life compared to the average European. But compared to the average African, it wasn't all that bad. I know that to some people I am traumatised, that there is something wrong with me. But that just allows them not to hear what I say."
Hirsi Ali finds it patronising to Muslims when her critics say that it is unrealistic to expect as she advocates that all Muslims should adopt her stance in order to reform their 'Backward' societies. Yet she patronises at lenght when she states that her fellow women and Africans are incapable of feeling trauma because they are too poor. How can she imagine these people, who are too poor and unable to feel trauma or to think 'I', will be able to revolt against the backwardness of their societies ?
''But as Hirsi Ali writes, they were normal events in her childhood and in the lives of people she knew. Death and illness were commonplace in Africa, and by African standards she lived well. There is nothing melodramatic in Hirsi Ali's prose.''
For to hear what Hirsi Ali has to say about Islam, one has to paradoxically discard her Trauma story, the particular stories of million of women, the suffering of million of women, the work of NGOs to end the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa. To discard the trauma of million of women is to forget the reality of FGM on the ground, that FGM is mostly a tradition perpetuated by women, that it is not particular to a religion -Egypt's copts have adopted this practice - but to some cultures. To discard the Trauma of FGM is to focalise on its horror seen from the outside than from the inside, thus producing the effect of striking the imagination and channeling the moral outrage from one of compassion to one of hatred.
Here we can find the second intellectual fallacy of Hirsi Ali's thinking; after having connected disconnected particular stories of muslim women to a borrowed general theoretical framework on Islam, and after having denied the trauma story in order to elevate these particular stories to the level of detached scientific observations, she had to admit in face of mounting criticism that FGM is not only the work of Islam. Indeed, ''Muslim clerics fought the practice as early as the 1820s*, as Sudanese anthropologist Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf writes. However, against all odds, Ali kept transforming and changing the nature of FGM in her speeches and writings, exploiting its many facets to continue her charge on Islam. This will become particularly easy for her after 9/11 when Ali started to widen the scope of FGM to include it in wider issues on women and Islam like virginity, submission and other gender relations.
After 9/11, riding on the hatred and fear of Islam, Hirsi Ali wanted us to believe that there is more horror to Islam and that FGM is only one of the evil facets of this religion. She continued to keep FGM in her arsenal in order to build a more horrible vision of Islam:
''The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attacks, and it refused to close again. I found myself thinking that the Koran is not a holy document. It is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.''
This is how the project for Submission with Theo Van Gogh was born and the assassination that followed and the rise of Hirsi Ali to the status of the 'Black Voltaire', and the social unrest she provoked in Holland and her subsequent disgrace, as well as her present hiring officially as Muslim basher by the neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institue (AEI).
While I was writing this essay, I wondered if Hirsi Ali will be able to regenerate or mutate into something else if the world would radically change in the near future and if her Muslim bashing career would be of no use. Certainly, I said to myself, but in the process she will loose some of her credibility and become just a public buffoon. Because the only thing that is giving her credibility now is our willingness to let our imagination be stricken by something we fear and don't know about; Islam.
I disagree for example with Garton Ash when he writes:
''Having read many interviews with her, and spent an evening in London talking to her both onstage and off, I have enormous respect for her courage, her sincerity, and her clarity. This does not mean one must agree with all her views.'' Most of all, Hirsi Ali lacks courage, sincerity clarity and intellectual honesty.
Going from one extreme to another, Muslim extremist in kenya, xenophobe fanatic in Holland stirring silent anti-immigrant sentiment in the dutch population, and official Muslim Basher in the US, Ali positions herself along the majority line, radicalises our fears and aspirations while securing herself a membership for a very high position in the dominant and most successful clan.
''Usually people make excuses for their culture and family etcetera. I could tell the story that we in the Third World have things that the West could learn from, which is obviously true, but that isn't what I wanted to show. My argument is that western liberal culture is superior to Islamic tribal group culture.''
Because in going from one extreme to another and from one identity to another, Ali is fleeing herself while being totally unable to really free herself, continually looking for a clan in which she can indict her former self, away from her inner self and contradictions, with the help, well, of the clan and its idelogy... Ali is not genuine in the sense that she is unable to confront herself and think for herself. During her journey, there will be no looking back for Hirsi Ali, no introspection, and no Enlightenment. There will be only a Fuite en Avant, more extremisms, more exagerations, more lies, and well, more intellectual impostures and dishonesty. All these things we will have to read in our newspapers and swallow in a non critical way in the name of a fake enlightenment whose only justification is Muslim bashing but accomodates itself well with Torture, Extraordinary renditions, Illegal Wars, Opression, and Crimes against Humanity. Because our society doesn't know what true Enlightenment means anymore.
I think also that our present western culture had lost its positive power of imagination and kept only the imagination of fears. There was a time when orientalist thinking yielded more positive images of women from these cultures and their relations to men. Think of Delacroix. Think of Pierre Loti. I visited Istanbul at the end of last summer and, standing on the Pierre Loti hill, the golden horn stretching before me, among many Muslim couples and families, I felt a different culture of relationships between genders around me. It wasn't a wicked one, not more wicked than in any other culture. Few women wore headscarves. I had arrived with my husband there in a small boat in the company of a young couple. The girl was modest and wearing also a headscarf, she was carrying flowers given to her by her fiancé who was sitting next to her holding her hand. There was joy, love and extreme sensuality in the air on that day, or at least this was my feeling. Coming from another culture, I didn't feel threatened by these people. I didn't feel the need to change the women who were sittting with their boyfriends and husbands around me. I didn't feel the men as less respectful or more threatening for these women than the men we know.
Blessed are the pre 9/11 orientalists I thought, they, like Loti, projected some very colorful fantasies on Islam and gender relations in Islam. Present day post 9/11 orientalists and their disciples are missing the point. They have adopted one fantasy, the fantasy that Bin laden and few Muslim radicals have implemented in our imagination. And while Loti, a man who made nostalgia the mark of his writings, must have been wrong about Islam, as much as Bernard Lewis and the neo-cons are today, and as much as Hirsi Ali, who is just imitating them and adopting their narratives adorned by a personal story, helping them perpetuate the fears of Islam, is wrong, Loti can at least claim to be on the good side of fantasy, the side that inspires and opens up imagination instead of abandoning it to fear, irrationality and intolerance...
Read also on ZNet, A genre in the service of Empire, thanks to Homeyra
Against Submission: The latest Buruma Critique of Hirsi Ali
UPDATE: African Aid Group Wins Hilton Prize for Educating African Women Against FGM.
November 2007: Hirsi Ali on Defeating Islam (not only radical Islam she insists)
And thanks to Erdla from the Gorilla's Guides team, below are two links to enrich and engage on a rational debate about Islam:
'Aqoul: Hirsi Ali proves that stupidity is dangerous.
A Financial Times special on Islam in Europe (for those who want to know and not follow their racisdt inclinations)
*''Despite the prevalence of the ritual, historically there has also been strong opposition that can be traced to the precolonial era, when indigenous efforts attempted to extirpate it. The first resolute and strong anti-circumcision movement in precolonial Sudan was religiously galvanized in the name of Islam. Before the annexation of the Sudan by Mohamed Ali, in the Turco-Egyptian Empire in 1821, El Sheikh Hassan wad Hassona, then a powerful religious cleric, initiated a campaign to exonerate Islam and redefine its position, especially in the eyes of people who attributed circumcision to Islamic religious ideology.''