Review: Golia on Hirsi Ali and Afzal-Khan

My friend Maria Golia, author of the most excellent Cairo: City of Sand, has written a review essay on two recent books that deal, broadly speaking, with women and Islam. One is Ayaan Hirsi Ali's popular and controversial The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam and the other is Shattering The Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out, a compilation of writings by Muslim-American women edited by Fawzia Afzal-Khan. The review recently appeared in the august Times Literary Supplement, but is not available online. As always, click on the covers or links above to buy them on Amazon.com and we get a little baksheesh.

In 1992, the Somali-born author of The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, arrived in Holland as a refugee. She was granted citizenship in 1997, and six years later elected to parliament, where she focused on immigration policy. Hirsi Ali collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, writing the screenplay for Submission 1, a film about women suffering from a repressive Islam. When Van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim in 2004, Hirsi Ali's life was threatened and her celebrity enhanced. In 2005, TIME magazine named her one of the 'world's 100 most influential people'.

A photograph in the New York Review of Books (October 5, 2006) shows the attractive Hirsi Ali at a TIME-sponsored party chortling with fellow influential person, Condoleezza Rice. In the accompanying review, Timothy Garton Ash notes his 'enormous respect for her courage, sincerity and clarity.' The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think-tank close to the Bush Administration, apparently feels the same way. They made Hirsi Ali a fellow following her abrupt withdrawal from Dutch politics. Hirsi Ali's resignation was owed in part to the controversy surrounding her falsification of personal data when requesting asylum, but also her opposition to Dutch tolerance and multiculturalism on the ground that it perpetuates 'backwardness', especially in Muslim immigrants.

'[Muslim immigrants] only rarely take advantage of the opportunities offered in education and employment' she writes in The Caged Virgin, and a restrictive Islam is what is holding them back. 'By our Western standards, Mohammed is a perverse man. A tyrant. If you don't do as he says, you will end up in hell. That reminds me of those megalomaniac rulers, Bin Laden, Khomeni, Saddam…..You are shocked to hear me say these things…you forget where I am from. I used to be a Muslim; I know what I'm talking about."

This credential may have impressed the AEI, but it falls somewhat short when attempting to prosecute a religion and the multifarious peoples that profess it. It's not that Hirsi Ali says outright that all Muslims are fundamentalists; she just attributes fundamentalist beliefs and practices to all Muslims.


Hirsi Ali is tired of hearing 'ad nauseum' that 'a single Islam does not exist', implying she knows it is the dominant faith in 40 countries, and that Arabs constitute a quarter of all Muslims. Yet she finds it appropriate to make statements such as these: 'In a community of over 1.2 billion faithful, knowledge, progress and prosperity are not primary aspirations'. 'The cultural expressions of the majority of Muslims are still at the premodern stage of development'. 'Human curiosity in Muslims has been curtailed'.

Although it is admittedly hard to footnote sprawling generalizations, Hirsi Ali cites her references infrequently. A favored source, however, is David Pryce-Jones, senior editor of the National Review, an influential publication in US neocon circles. Hirsi Ali echoes Pryce-Jones and the like-minded Bernard Lewis in her discussion of 'the mental world of Islam', a dark planet governed by 'tribal values' essentially at odds with the enlightened West's.

In Hirsi Ali's mental world, the link between Islam and violence is clear, and she assumes perhaps all too correctly, that it is clear to the reader as well. 'Muslims were involved in two thirds of the 32 armed conflicts in the year 2000', she offers as proof, without further substantiation. Presumably the Muslims were either fighting themselves or some unsuspecting adversary.

Ironically, being a 'fierce believer' in the rights of the individual, as she repeatedly describes herself, doesn’t prevent Hirsi Ali from painting all Muslims with the same bloody brush. She may abhor the lack of individual freedoms in many Muslim -majority countries, but the distinctions and interplay between religious and political control systems, as well as the repercussions of Western interventionism, do not interest her. Indeed, Hirsi Ali's politics are unencumbered by nuance.

Predictably, her meatiest bone of contention is Islam's treatment of women, particularly the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Since she seems well versed in the topic, it is disingenuous not to have mentioned that FGM is neither pervasive in Muslim societies, nor practiced exclusively by Muslims. FGM occurs most widely across a swath of sub-Saharan Africa where it is a social custom long observed by Christians and Muslims alike. It is not practiced¸ for instance, in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or South and South East Asia.

According to Amnesty International, FGM was however used by doctors in England and the United States as recently as the 1950's, as a treatment for hysteria, lesbianism, masturbation and other perceived deviances in girls and women. The notion that sexism, not Islam per se, has made women vulnerable to all manner of abuse, is not entertained.

Likewise, Hirsi Ali erroneously states that 'there is a strict taboo in Muslim families on talking about birth control, abortion and sexual violence.' Islam, like its Judeo-Christian antecedents, bans premarital sex, but not birth control. The Prophet Mohammed advocated coitus interruptus, not the most effective means of family planning, but in keeping with Islam's encouragement of sexual activity as a source of marital pleasure, not solely procreation. Egypt's state-sponsored birth control programs began in the 1960s. In Iran, condoms manufactured in a government-operated facility are distributed through clinics and state-sponsored family planning counseling centers. By contrast, the Vatican, which condemns birth control, recently announced that its ban on condoms may be lifted - for married people whose partner is HIV positive.

Islam, like the Roman Catholic Church, permits abortion only under certain circumstances, but several former-Soviet union countries with Muslim constituencies, as well as Tunisia and Turkey, allow it. As for sexual violence, in Egypt at least, the topic is open for discussion. In presenting sexual violence as a pernicious side-effect of the Islamic faith, Hirsi Ali does not trouble herself with parallels or comparisons. It would have been interesting, for example, to learn if violence towards women in Muslim countries rivals its counterpart in the United States, where one in six women are victims of sexual assault annually, according to America's Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

This is not to say that women do not suffer violence, or are not grievously denied their rights in the name of Islam. Hirsi Ali's affirmation that 'Islam's biggest weakness is it treatment of women' is valid. But that treatment varies dramatically from place to place, family to family, as do the socio-economic and political factors that influence it. Hirsi Ali seems far more interested in indicting Islam than helping damaged women, whose horror stories she conveniently trots out whenever she needs to bludgeon home a broadsided point.

Convinced that Muslims are incapable of the self-critique required to root out gender discrimination and other injustices, Hirsi Ali overlooks longstanding calls for political and social reform, with women today at the forefront of the demand for fresh interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. She is at her most pretentious when appointing herself spokesperson for Muslim women 'unable to speak for themselves', while ignoring the extensive scholarship, field studies and literature authored by them.

Women staff thousands of organizations throughout the Muslim world, dedicated to eradicating FGM and female illiteracy, and to raising women's awareness of health issues alongside that of their religious and legal rights. It is a long and painstaking process to change legislation and deeply entrenched attitudes, as local activists are aware, one that requires an understanding of context and coalition-building, not to mention compassion and subtlety. Hirsi Ali's proposal for eradicating FGM amongst immigrant Muslims consists of penalizing it, and subjecting girls to physical examinations to insure their parent's compliance. Paradoxically, this sort of institutionalized violence occurs in Turkey, where the state reserves the right to examine women to ascertain their virginity.

By disregarding the ongoing struggle for women's rights - both the progress and set-backs - in Muslim-majority countries, Hirsi Ali does those committed to the cause, and consequently those she claims to want to help, a grave injustice. The very title of this book reinforces stereotypes while providing no new information about the evolving status of Muslim women in their own and adopted countries. It overlooks Muslim women's participation in economies, elections and government. Likewise, in discounting the contributions of fruitfully integrated first-generation Muslims and immigrants to their societies, she fuels the isolationism she claims to oppose.

'I do not despise Islam', she says, without offering a shred of evidence to the contrary. While acknowledging that her criticism has been called 'harsh, offensive and harmful', Hirsi Ali is undeterred. She has no patience for maundering liberals who prefer dialogue to diatribe. 'Murderers are being protected,' she shrieks. Although Hirsi Ali states that it was not her intention to provide Islamophobes with ammunition, this is exactly what her one-dimensional portrayal of Islam does.

She would do well to read the second book under review, Shattering the Stereotypes, edited by scholar, professor and playwright Fawzia Afzal Khan, a collection of fiction, nonfiction, religious discourse, poetry and plays, authored by Muslim-American women from different ethnic and professional backgrounds. Their varied perspectives, and experiences in America and elsewhere, provide the sense of the individual so lacking in Hirsi Ali's monotone book. These women, mostly immigrants and first generation citizens, are articulate, questioning, and often humorous, in other words, human and humanizing.

The range of genres assembled in Shattering the Stereotypes serves Afzal-Khan's aim of portraying 'the myriad realities and multiple allegiances' obscured by the label 'Muslim Woman', while amplifying the book's emotional and intellectual impact. The creative writing, exploring the dilemmas of faith and polity, helps personalize the issues, and diffuse the unwonted fear and mistrust arising from misinformation. For anyone genuinely interested in understanding a multiplicitous Islam, here is the mind-broadening equivalent of several books, and an enticement to read still more.

It is noteworthy that Afzal-Khan was excluded from a year-long seminar at her university, entitled 'The Many Faces of the Muslim World', despite being the only Muslim faculty member. America's gathering undertow of anti-Muslim feeling is evident in several of the book's selections. The theme's recurrence suggests the ascendancy of divisive, biased rhetoric in press and media, and the corresponding need for more penetrating analysis. Always engaging, never strident, Shattering the Stereotypes is an inoculation against the banality of generalizations.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.