We knew were in for a lively discussion of controversial issues with our latest pick, and the Brown Baggers group didn’t let us down. This month, we read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali grew up a practicing Muslim. When sent to Canada as a result of her arranged marriage, she managed to successfully apply for refugee status in the Netherlands, eventually becoming a polarizing political figure. Although opinions were mixed regarding Hirsi Ali’s message, most agreed that it was a compelling read, often reading more like a novel.
The title itself was a good launching point for our lunchtime chat. We discussed how Hirsi Ali viewed herself – as a woman, a Muslim, and as a citizen of the world. Her opinions gradually changed as she moved from Africa to Europe and sought higher education.
While some of the horrific events of Hirsi Ali’s childhood were undeniable, some questioned whether she had too much of an agenda to be an objective critic of Islam. Some felt she had a breadth of experience that qualified her to make these judgments, while others perceived deliberate manipulation of the reader. It was also noted that Hirsi Ali currently works for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
While Islam is the major focus of Infidel, our group also discussed fringe extremism of other religions as well. Hirsi Ali seems to argue that there are fundamental problems in the very basis of Islam, whether or not you want to distinguish moderates. We shared the following quote from a New York Times interview with the author:
Q. Have you seen any ideology coming from within Islam that gives young Muslims a sense of purpose without the overlay of militancy?
A. They have no alternative message. There is no active missionary work among the youth telling them, do not become jihadis. They do not use media means as much as the jihadis. They simply — they’re reactive and they don’t seem to be able to compete with the jihadis. And every time there is a debate between a real jihadi and, say, what we have decided to call moderate Muslims, the jihadis win. Because they come with the Koran and quotes from the Koran. The come with quotes from the Hadith and the Sunnah, and the traditions of the prophet. And every assertion they make, whether it is that women should be veiled, or Jews should be killed, or Americans are our enemies, or any of that, they win. Because what they have to say is so consistent with what is written in the Koran and the Hadith. And what the moderates fail to do is to say, listen, that’s all in there, but that wasn’t meant for this context. And we have moved on. We can change the Koran, we can change the Hadith. That’s what’s missing.
Hirsi Ali’s relationship with her father was a major topic in the book. He was well educated and opposed female circumcision, but also had other wives/families and arranged her unwanted marriage. Despite their tumultuous relationship, we agreed that Hirsi Ali viewed her father in a more forgiving light.
Another major talking point was also cultural assimilation – we discussed the tension between the more politically correct tack of preserving culture and helping people assimilate “for their own benefit” even if reluctant to do so. Many members observed that often the second generation of immigrants want to adapt to their new country. However, Hirsi Ali argues that even the children of immigrants, isolated in their cultural enclaves, could become more radical or committed because they have a more tenuous grasp to their cultural ancestry. Looking at the Dutch immigrant experience against what we all have observed in the United States was an intriguing comparison.
Want to know more?
You may also want to read:
Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan by Ann Jones
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui