Saturday, January 05, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Further thoughts

One of the most interesting features of Ali's thinking is her view of Islam as failed social utopia. She says: I'm from a clan in Somalia; long ago we accepted Islam and following the divine will as the path to an ideal society, and we have failed. This approach marks an arresting starting point and allows her to connect the civil war anarchy she escaped with the "theologico-political problem" of early modern Europe (à la Spinoza, Hobbes, etc.), as well as the great failed secular utopias of our own time. Of course, she is a political scientist by academic training - the University of Leiden in Holland, to be exact. Her drive to understand why the modern West has succeeded and the floundering of the tribal-theocratic world she came from is why she decided on graduate school in the first place. It was academic, but not just academic.

There is a line of thinking - exemplified by Pryce-Jones' The Closed Circle - that postulates the problem of the Islamic world, not as religion, but as a failed overcoming-of-tribalism. There is a serious case to be made for this view. The tribal world is not a "civil society" - there is no voluntary, peaceful cooperation, the kind required for progress. Instead, everything cancels everything else out - the closed circle. The relation of Islam to political power is different from Christianity or Judaism: there is neither a separate state with a monopoly on power, nor a voluntary self-organized community. Religion, politics, family or clan - all are mixed together in primitive society. This gives exceptional urgency to the problem of succession to Muhammad (khalifa). Without a single, agreed-upon successor, there is no legitimacy. Yet such a figure is a necessity in classical Islamic political thought for truly legitimate political authority. In reality, there is a void, filled by plausible or implausible claimants.

A completely different example of the impact of tribal custom is the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation.* Mentioned nowhere in the Qu'ran, female genital mutilation, where it is practiced (in some Muslim countries - not all - as well as some non-Muslim ones), is intended as a kind of female-chastity protector and female-sexual-pleasure-destroyer. It's rationalized as a way to keep girls and young women "pure." This sort of tribal-custom-rationalized-by-Islam is at work in the purist Wahhabi or Salafi Islam of Saudi Arabia and the tribal code (Pashtunwali) of the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan.** One of the basic dilemmas posed by Muslim immigration to Europe is the assertion of tribal custom in Europe's cities, in a way not compatible with the rule of law or state sovereignty. In some ways, "Talibanism" is an assertion of extreme tribal reaction against urban, middle-class life. This cycle has a long history in Islam, discussed in the classical sources such as ibn Khaldun's Muqadimah. Such ways of thinking have almost been lost to us here in the West, and so we often have a hard time recognizing them for what they really are when we encounter them elsewhere.

These are among the many not-just-academic questions that arise from Ali's Infidel and The Caged Virgin, as well as the other recent additions to the bookshelf on Islam by Muslim women. Ali's autobiography blends the personal and political in a powerful way that illuminates both, leaving the chatterboxes of post-modern academia far behind in the dust.
* Sometimes mislabeled "female circumcision." The actual male equivalent, were it practiced, would be something like cutting off a quarter or more of the male sexual organ - depending on size, of course :)

** The link between the two is the 19th-century Deobandi school of Islam on the Indian subcontinent. Both the Salafi and the Deobandi schools were early reactions to the incipient clash of Islam and modernity, one in the context of the Ottoman empire, the other in the context of a polyreligious India under the British Raj.

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