The Good Faith of an Infidel
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali women’s rights activist and former Dutch parliamentarian, is author of “Infidel” and “Nomad.” NPQ editor Nathan Gardels interviewed her when “Nomad” was published. Below is his review of that book, followed by an interview with Hirsi Ali.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Nomad, will be the most powerful book you will have read in a long time. Hirsi Ali writes with the clear eye for detail and the narrative flair of a novelist. She invites the reader to witness the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam—and Islam within the West—firsthand, not as an abstraction in Sam Huntington’s Harvard seminar room or in the august pages of Foreign Affairs, but as it has played out in the very intimate interstices of her personal life.
Hirsi Ali is more than a nomad. She is a time traveler between the universes of tradition and modernity, seeping over into each other’s territory. In this book she takes us along on an emotionally tumultuous journey, from the moment doubt morphed into her defection from the “childlike” womb of Islam to her nagging guilt as an undutiful daughter; from her giddy intoxication with newfound liberty to the fear for her safety and the loneliness of her freedom. “The world outside the clan is rough, and you are alone in it,” her grandmother had warned her.
Rarely does the telling of a very personal story also tell one of the key stories of our time. But Hirsi Ali accomplishes this in Nomad.
We witness a wrenching deathbed reunion with her once proud Somali warlord father, in exile and on welfare in the largely Muslim ghetto of East London. They had not spoken in years since, as Hirsi Ali puts it, “Living as a Western woman meant I had shed my honor.” Yet, even as he beseeched Allah with his last breaths to return his wayward daughter to the fold of family and faith, his lingering anger and deep disappointment yielded to love. “He ultimately allowed his feelings of fatherly love to transcend his adherence to the demands of an unforgiving God,” she writes.
Not so for the customs of the clan and the tenets of the faith. Hirsi Ali could not attend the funeral because “women are not allowed to be present at the graveside during a Muslim burial ceremony.” But it was only when she stepped out of the hospital onto the East London streets that her personal grief over her father’s loss once again met the reality of what she had chosen to leave behind. This passage illustrates Hirsi Ali’s gift for turning quotidian observation into poignant insight:
“Seated outside a halal fast-food shop was a small woman in a long black robe with a black embroidered beak of cloth tied over her nose and mouth, in the style of Algerian women. Two small children were crying in the buggy beside her, and she was trying to jiggle and comfort them while she lifted her cloth beak to try to eat her pastry modestly underneath it. Her older toddler was wearing a veil too. It was not a face veil, but it covered her hair and shoulders; it was white and lacy and elasticized so it fit snuggly over her head. The child couldn’t have been older than three.
“Two shop fronts further down was a huge mosque, the biggest mosque in London, my escorts told me. A small crowd of men stood outside, all wearing loose clothing, long beards and white skull caps. All these people had left their countries of origin only to band together here, unwilling or unable to let go, where they enforce their culture more strongly than even in Nairobi. Here was the mosque, like a symbolic magnetic north, the force that moved their women to cover themselves so ferociously, the better to separate themselves from the dreadful influence of the culture and values of the country where they had chosen to live.
“It was just a glimpse, and yet I felt an instant sense of panic and suffocation. I was right back in the heart of it all: inside the world of veils and blinkers, the world where women must hide their hair and their bodies, must cower to eat in public and must follow a few steps behind their men on the street. A web of values—of honor and shame and religion—still entangled me together with all these women at the bus stop and almost every other woman along Whitechapel Road that morning. We were all very far from where we had been born, but only I had left behind that culture. They had brought their web of values with them, halfway across the world.”
Further on her journey, we listen in on her halting, guilt-laden phone calls with her mother, one of her father’s several wives, living alone and virtually abandoned, though among her Duhulbahante ancestral tribe in a gritty hovel in the remote reaches of what was once Somali territory. From her memories, Hirsi Ali envisions it as “a little hamlet of cinderblock buildings, unpaved roads, thorn bushes and endless dust.”
In one of the more interesting passages of the chapter “My Mother,” Hirsi Ali lifts the veil on a taboo subject: the emotional damage to women and children as a result of the practice of polygamy.
“Even though she was my father’s second wife, from the day she learned that my father had married a third woman and had another child, Sahra, my mother became erratic, sometimes exploding with grief and pain and violence. She had fainting episodes and skin diseases, symptoms caused by suppressed jealousy. From being a strong, accomplished woman she became a wreck, and we, her children, bore the brunt of her misery.”
Though tenderly attached to her grandmother, who lovingly helped raise her and her sister, Hirsi Ali sees in her grandmother the fatal flaw that traps the tribal communities of Muslim Africa. Since Hirsi Ali has tasted what Octavio Paz called the “republic of the future” in America, it especially drives her crazy to see her grandmother focusing all her energies and emotions on the past, always looking back to what she knows instead of looking forward to what might be.
At the end of the book, we read Hirsi Ali’s letter to her “unborn daughter,” a moving prayer for a future bond of love to replace the broken tether to her past that is at the same time a profoundly humanist manifesto. Remembering her father as she imagines her child, Hirsi Ali writes, “I could never re-adopt his belief in Allah, in prophets, in holy books, angels and the hereafter. But our unconditional love for one another, the love between a parent and a child, was so much more powerful than that belief. And the proof was the way we clutched each other’s hands at the end. That earthly love is my faith. It is the love I shall always give you.”
Through these insights of Hirsi Ali into the formative crucible of family, clan and faith—and their relentless drilling down on duty, honor and shame—we learn more about why young men, especially those living or raised in the West, become susceptible to the jihadist siren than from all the weighty tomes of intelligence analysis. “With a collective feeling of being persecuted, many Muslim families living in the West insulate themselves into ghettos of their own making,” she writes. “Unhappy, disoriented youths in dysfunctional immigrant families make perfect recruits to [the jihadist] cause.”
The answer for Hirsi Ali is precisely not the well-meaning “multiculturalism” that leaves each to his or her own, as has been the case in Holland where she was a member of parliament and defender of immigrant women’s rights. The answer is the opposite: integration of Muslim immigrants as individual citizens into Western society. Frustrating that process, Hirsi Ali warns, will lead to peril for the West, given the scale of Muslim immigration and the high birth rate of Muslims in the West.
Unlike her nemesis Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic scholar who wants the West to accommodate Islam as a community of faith and practice, Hirsi Ali insists that Islam, especially in the clannish permutations of its immigrants, must instead let go of the individual. (On this score, a new book by Paul Berman, The Flight of the Intellectuals, is a very fitting complement to Nomad.)
Some quibbles. I do get the sense once in a while in the second half of Nomad, which discusses her arrival in America, that Hirsi Ali is a little starry eyed about the West. Yes, Christianity at its best is about love; and no, it is not an all-encompassing theocratic order. But in its fundamentalist reaches the literalism and dogma of evangelicals generate plenty of intolerance, hypocrisy and familial dysfunction. And let’s don’t forget about the sex scandals in the Catholic Church.
Also, no doubt, in contrast to her experience of misogyny and polygamy Western men look pretty good. But to suggest they are nearly always upright and faithful to their wives and family is to ignore the reality of so many ugly divorces, forlorn children raised by the media, battered spouses and deadbeat dads. Certainly, the West has its fair share of desperate housewives.
Many Muslim readers will have bigger squabbles. How much does Hirsi Ali’s experience, in which faith and clan are fused, tell us about, say, modern Turkey or Iran? Others, like Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Shiiite theorist and first president of revolutionary Iran, will argue that the concept of “Tawhid”—that the whole of existence is one—understands that freedom, not submission and domination, is the path to the divine. Yet, admittedly, he lives in exile outside Paris like Trotsky in Mexico City while “actually existing Islam” is run by the Revolutonary Guard back in Tehran.
Above all, like Hirsi Ali’s first account of her defection from Islam, Infidel, the power of this book is that it was written in “good faith” as Nicola Chiarmonte meant it: As a witness to her moment, Hirsi Ali calls it as she sees it. She has arrived at her beliefs not by retreating into orthodoxy out of fear of uncertainty or through the nihilism of indifference, but because experience has led her to them. If she wants to live in this world as a free woman, here she must stand.
NPQ | In your new memoir, Nomad, you offer a very personal profile from your own life of the formative crucible of family, clan and the Islamic faith. You even argue that the “dysfunctional” aspect of this crucible makes young Muslim men, particularly those within immigrant communities in the West, “susceptible” to the jihadist siren.
To what extent can you generalize from your own experience? To the extent you can, how does the lure of jihadism feed on that dysfunction?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali | Every experience, of course, and every family, are different. But what I noticed in Europe when visiting the communities of the Muslim families trying to assimilate was a weak identity among the kids, the same thing I witnessed within my own extended family. Whether immigrants in modern Europe, or clans faced with the challenges of modernization in their homeland, the issues are the same.
This weak identity I saw in immigrant families is caused by an uncertainty in young people, particularly boys, about where exactly they belong—here, where they have immigrated, or there, where they came from? If they are back home, are they in a tribe going nowhere as the world moves on?
I remember well the kids from Morocco, who went swaggering about Amsterdam emphasizing their “otherness” as a way of compensating for not being accepted. But when they would go back to Morocco, they were not accepted by Moroccans, either. So there, too, they were also emphasizing how different they were.
So, these kids hang out, feel warm and secure together. They have an acute sense they don’t belong anywhere else except with themselves. Back before jihadism was a threat, the ambitious boys among them would disappear into drug cartels or petty crime rings. The less ambitious would turn to some form of welfare. In Africa, it was clan or tribe welfare. In Europe, it was government welfare.
But now, the jihadists have become important recruiters of these boys with weak identities. They seek to bring them into the fold and offer them strong identities as Muslims fighting against the siege of their culture.
All this became particularly apparent to me when I observed the contrast of how much attention Western parents pay to their children and their future opportunities. They read all those parenting books, arrange play dates, take them to and from school.
That is not the kind of attention these immigrant children get from either of their parents. Most of the parents are just thrown together by family or clan arrangement. “It’s time to marry,” the parents say, so let’s find someone so you can have children. In the hopes of keeping the boys out of trouble, the parents try to get them to marry so they will settle down, thinking responsibility will make them better people. My Western friends who are couples seem to talk endlessly about planning the right time for the woman to become pregnant, and how many children it is wise to have. Among Muslim families there is no planning. It just happens.
So that just seeds the cycle. I don’t agree with those who think Muslims have some kind of plan to take over Europe on purpose by growing so fast demographically in this way. There is no plan. But it is happening spontaneously.
NPQ |Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic scholar and proponent of European Islam, argues that the way to strengthen weak identities among Muslim youth is to strengthen their sense of pride and belonging as Muslims in the European context, with Europe adapting to Muslims as a community of faith and practice. You want the individual to integrate not as a Muslim but as a citizen.
Is that the main difference?
Hirsi Ali | Yes. My difference with Tariq Ramadan is that he has an Islamist agenda. He sees this weak identity as an opportunity to increase his following for the Islamists. I sincerely want these immigrants to be part of Europe. I don’t see that as an opportunity for another cause. I want them to realize how this weak identity comes about so that instead of becoming Islamists they become European. And that means that the parenting and raising of children has to happen in a European way, a way that creates strong individuals.
Psychologists should take a closer look at this process of identity formation, particularly in Muslim immigrant families where parenting skills are weak. There they will find children who are neglected, particularly boys, and a lot of violence in the family.
Of course, one has seen this same dysfunction of weak identity formation in poor minorities in the West, such as inner city blacks or Hispanics. And there was a lot of drinking, domestic violence and abandonment in Irish immigrant families in the US decades ago.
But, again, the difference is that these kids are not exposed to this worldwide movement of jihadism that lures them with the promise of being someone important in a world where no one pays them much attention. Also, the blacks, Hispanics or Irish didn’t have parents who encouraged grandiose notions that “you are going to be a hero by being a martyr,” or “you are going to become one of the Prophet’s disciples.”
In Holland there was some understanding of this. There were programs to help parents improve their skills—especially mothers. But they were very fragmented and badly organized. And they were led by 25-year-olds, who themselves had no children.
NPQ |In other words, you want to disband this crucible of familiy clan and faith that, in your view creates weak identities?
Hirsi Ali | That’s right. In my book, there is a scene in Mecca when my father didn’t show up as he was supposed to. So my mother told my brother, “I want you to look after the two girls while I have to do something else.” What she was asking of my brother, who was 9, was to tell an 8-year-old and a 7-year-old what to do in her absence. He had absolutely no idea what to do. So he did what our mother did, he hit us when we played.
I have seen that scene over and over again in my life. The mother and kids are practically helpless. The father is away. That is where these intervention groups, including some Christian ones, come into the immigrant families and show the mother how she is organizing her life in a way that is chaotic and leaves the family powerless over their fate.
There has to be some form of care in which boys can learn to be responsible and learn the skills they need to make it as a strong and productive individuals. But mostly they are not getting that from their parents.
If we were talking about ten or twenty families, it wouldn’t be an issue. But we are talking about numerous families that produce dysfunctional children. And that’s when the jihadists step in to coach them.
NPQ |Your experience has been in Africa and the Arab Middle East, where tribe or clan is fused with faith. What about other Muslim societies where that is not generally true, such as Indonesia or modern Turkey or even Iran?
Hirsi Ali | When I read books like Sadandand Dhume’s My Friend the Fanatic about his travels around Indonesia, I see the same thing. When Dhume’s friend takes him around to meet the “brotherhood” or al-Qaida types he notes that the Western form of parenting is limited to the elites.
The masses are struggling with how to put food on the table. They do things in the traditional way, but surrounded by the trappings of modernity. Just like the Muslim immigrants in Europe or Muslims in Pakistan and the Arab countries, these people are targeted by the organizers of jihad. They entice them to want to belong to the brotherhood of Muslims, to “the great ummah,” as the home of their identity, since the fruits of modernity enjoyed by the elites are beyond their reach.
So, here we see the same phenomenon as Muslim immigrants in Europe, only the scale is much larger.
Modernity in Pakistan has been completely hollowed from the inside by the Islamist movements. Indonesia is not that bad. But it is a lot less promising than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Then academics were writing that Indonesia would soon be like Singapore or South Korea. But it is not. And Islam is a factor.
It would be very instructive to compare Indonesia with Japan and South Korea, which have found a way to reconcile their strong identities with modernity without becoming Western. They have found a way to give their children a strong identity that makes them productive citizens within their own societies.