[amazon-product]1439157316[/amazon-product]In the middle of a mostly sympathetic review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad, Nicholas Kristof wondered parenthetically if the author’s family is dysfunctional “simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: ‘I love you.'” The remark comes across as gloopy, but the fact remains that the “Personal Journey” Hirsi Ali describes is also a tale of profound personal failure. For Hirsi Ali, cosmopolitan free-thinker and proud atheist, her inability to break through to her conservative Muslim relatives is an indictment of their tragic limitations, their subjection to an “inferior” belief system and way of life. She never considers that her own modes of thought and speech are as inflexible, her impulses as cruel and violent, as the ones she relentlessly denounces – that, in short, the Islamist monster she hates is alive and well in her, functioning as her alter ego.
The full sub-title of Nomad is “From Islam to America – A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.” The offer would appear to be of a transit from one idea to another, there being no geographical location directly corresponding to “Islam,” but nothing in the book approaches a rigorous or systematic historical, philosophical, or even sociological comparison of concepts. Instead, we receive a mixture of travelogue, case study, personal confession, and social-political program, with no clear and consistent distinctions. Sometimes, “Islam” is merely the short form of “radical Islam” or a change of pace from “Islamism.” Sometimes, we seem to be carefully considering “traditional Islam” or “tribal culture,” or the customs and attitudes supposedly prevalent in some, many, or most Muslim communities in the world today. More often, we’re in the world of stereotype and generalization: “all Muslims are…” or “Islam is…” – as in the assertion that “Islam… is incompatible with liberty” or as in an indictment like the following:
Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence.
Yet just a few paragraphs on, there she is again insisting that she wants merely the right to criticize “aspects of Islam.”
Perhaps without such volatility and excess the story would merely be “From Somalia to the U.S.” by someone you’ve never heard of, but Hirsi Ali is by now well enough known and far enough along as an author to seek a broader, intellectually coherent, historically informed perspective. Instead, her approach remains narrow and combative, as typified by her quip to a Canadian interviewer: “I want to see the other face of Islam, but first I’d have to dig through all the bodies” – as if the effort she disdains, to look for that “other face,” doesn’t become more, not less urgent in the context of violence; and as if someone arguing the other side couldn’t figuratively pile their own rotting exhibits against her argument.
For the most part Nomad is just Ayaan Hirsi Ali against an horrific, all-consuming entity conjured out of the void to attack her family and commit headline-grabbing acts of terror – Islam as golem, yet at the same time a pathetic conceptual orphan vulnerable to whatever convenient rhetorical abuse. But the exigencies of this war against the anti-Ayaan do allow for certain compromises:
I myself have become an atheist, but I have encountered many Muslims who say they need a spiritual anchor in their lives. I have had the pleasure of meeting Christians whose concept of God is a far cry from Allah. Theirs is a reformed and partly secularized Christianity that could be a very useful ally in the battle against Islamic fanaticism.
In the chapter on “Seeking God but Finding Allah” – not exactly the language of Muslim outreach – Hirsi Ali explains that only “mainstream, moderate” denominations are to be encouraged in this project. “Freak-show churches” of the sort she’s seen on American TV “are not the kind of allies [she] would wish to have.” Churches that “appease Islam” are also, in her view, more a “liability” for the West. As for how the Islamic fundamentalists whom she despises would react to the presence of soft missionaries in their “blighted neighborhoods” pleasantly seeking defections from the Umma to Christendom – on this topic the author is silent.
Or consider the conversation that Hirsi Ali offers as a model for “Opening the Muslim Mind,” in which two teenage friends, non-Muslim “Jane” and faithful Muslim “Amina,” discuss the role of religion in the Mumbai hotel attacks of 2008. Jane takes simple Amina’s repeated, increasingly anguished pleas to talk about something else as cues for intensified cross-examination, leading to a climactic confrontation:
AMINA: (close to tears) I don’t know. I want to do what is right. Allah tells me what is right. I just want to be a good Muslim, I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want people to be killed, I just want to be a good Muslim.
JANE: Are you sure you want to be a good Muslim? Here! (She takes the Quran out of her bag and puts it on Amina’s lap.) Have you read the Quran? Do you know what it says? Look on this page: It says “Kill the infidels.” Look, here it promises eternal punishment for all unbelievers, here, I marked it for you. And here it says, “Beat the disobedient wife.” Here, turn this page, look, it says “Flog the adulterer.” Are you sure that you want to do what Allah wants you to do? Are you sure?
AMINA: (now in tears, desperately crying) I really don’t want to talk about this.
To prospective critics of this approach, Hirsi Ali explains that “this is exactly how minds are opened: through honest, frank dialogue” – as though there could be such a thing as “dialogue” between an unsuspecting girl and an atheist prepped for ambush, between “I don’t want to talk about this” and “here, I marked it for you.” The only choice that Jane/Ayaan presents to the Aminas of the world is that of complete disavowal of their own identity.
“Perhaps,” says the author of Amina, “she will begin thinking, questioning her unspoken assumptions.” Perhaps. If so, it wouldn’t be by following Jane’s example, or Hirsi Ali’s. Does Hirsi Ali simply not realize how condescending she is? Is she so committed to her sense of superiority that she sees no alternative to condescension? Does she merely lack empathy? Or does she fully intend offense – because being dismissed as an Islamophobe is somehow useful to her political or professional project, or because at any rate she feels she has a right to return injury for injury? Her performance, as a writer and as a public intellectual, leaves me with no confidence that she knows the answers – that her views and in a sense her personality have cohered on this level. To me it’s telling that the book ends with a promise of “Earthly love” for someone who does not exist, Hirsi Ali’s “unborn daughter,” clearly a figure for Hirsi Ali herself – that is, for the not yet realized Ayaan Hirsi Ali.