Friday, January 04, 2008

Meet the thinkers: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I just finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography, Infidel. You can read here about her opinions and thoughts on politics, the West, and Islam. But in this book, she wisely chose to tell her story personally. Abstractions often wash over and through our minds - easy come, easy go - but facts and events like those of Ali's life will not wash over and through anything - they will stick in readers' minds for a long time. Infidel is a powerful book and must reading for anyone in the West who wants to understand the unfolding confrontation of Islam and modernity, and avoid diversionary rationalizing. Women, particularly young women, should especially read it. Muslims should read it as well, for a whole set of different, if overlapping, reasons.

Ali's books (Infidel, as well as the earlier The Caged Virgin) and film Submission Part I (the later parts remain unmade after her partner Theo Van Gogh's murder) don't force her own answers on her viewers and readers. But they do push unavoidable questions to the fore and provoke everyone to consider their own answers. Her attitude is a refreshing and positive contrast to the proselytizers of the "new" atheism popular of late.

Her encounters with Christianity and its concept of a covenantal or "partnership" relation between man and the divine forced her to see something contrasting about Islam, a word that means "submission" in Arabic. (Muslim means "one who submits.") Lurking around here is an old argument about whether a "social contract" style of civil government is even possible in the Muslim world. The "social contract" of Western governments has its ultimate roots in the the biblical notion of covenant. It's different from autocratic government (rooted in conquest and overlordship) or the clan-aristocratic political culture of the ancient and medieval worlds. Theocentric in its original form, the humanized covenant becomes a contract among people, reflected in constitutions and consensual and representative forms of government.

What is a consistent approach to this war for the world, this contest between Islam and modernity?* This is not a conflict we can decide; Muslims have to. But we can consistently follow the rule that sticking to our rights is the best policy: defend ourselves and maintain the firm view that peaceful interaction between Muslims and the outside world is possible - if Muslims are willing to treat non-Muslims and "deviant," liberal, and secularized Muslims as equals. That's a big "if." The decision is theirs to accept or reject, not ours. But our response to the Muslim decision, either way, should be unapologetic.

Ali's larger and unmistakable point is that the West must abandon the claptrap of multiculturalism and its attendant subcults of victimhood and noble savagery. Ayaan, daughter of Hirsi, great-granddaughter of Ali, has been there and done that, and it's no fun. People are equal; cultures are not.

POSTSCRIPT: Read Ali's brief self-explanation here at Cato (PDF), and listen to a 2007 NPR interview with her here.
* And, by the way, these days, the world's only real war on women. Read Anne Applebaum's review of Infidel at the Amazon page.

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