An Enlightenment Fundamentalist
Like an increasing number of immigrants in the West who refuse to have a “victim” label pinned to their lapels, the Dutch-Somalian actress, author, and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents something of a problem for liberal intellectuals. A short film she cowrote, “Submission,” was shown on Dutch television in August 2004. Its subject was the mistreatment of Muslim women at the hands of Muslim men. Deliberately provocative, the film projected words from the Koran onto exposed female flesh. Just over two months later, the director, Theo van Gogh, was savagely murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist.
Ever since, Ms. Ali, who is a member of the Dutch Parliament and the author of a new book, “The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam” (Free Press, 208 pages, $19.95), has had to live under the protection of armed guards. On Sunday, Ms.Ali was interviewed by the Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch at the New York Public Library as part of PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature.
Paul Holdengraber, the library’s director of public events, got things going with a brief introduction, pausing only to take a mandatory swipe at President Bush, before introducing the president of PEN American Center, Ron Chernow.
Mr. Chernow’s introduction was curiously ungracious. It consisted largely of a warning that the audience might find itself in agreement with only some of what Ms. Ali had to say, or perhaps just a small portion of it, or even none of it. Nevertheless, he assured us, we could all agree that she is a woman of uncommon courage and integrity.
A slender, dark-skinned woman with a pretty face and long-fingered, expressive hands, Ms. Ali, 37, smiled politely as she took this in. She is, after all, a politician, and accustomed to what in a few minutes she would term “the liberal betrayal” – namely, the failure of the West to defend its own Enlightenment values against those who openly seek to undermine or destroy them. On this particular afternoon, it would take an African refugee to remind a New Yorker writer (Mr. Gourevitch), a multi-lingual European intellectual impresario (Mr. Holdengraber), and the president of PEN American Center (Mr. Chernow) that courage and integrity are not necessarily at odds with rational, coherent thought, and might even be an integral part of it. At least Salman Rushdie, seated in the front row in what appeared to be a gesture of moral support for a co-religionist in trouble with Muslim radicals, seemed to understand.
Mr. Gourevitch, the 45-year-old author of a critically acclaimed account of the Rwanda genocide, “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” conducted the interview fluently and without the benefit of notes. His demeanor was cool and mildly skeptical. He didn’t place Ms. Ali in the dock, exactly, but he certainly didn’t put her on a pedestal. There was an unmistakable air of cognitive dissonance in the room – how do we deal with this woman? – given almost palpable expression by occasional loud bursts of electronic static that initially seemed to give the Dutch woman a fright. (She does, after all, suffer from continual death threats.) But she laughed it off.
Ms. Ali defined herself as “a Muslim atheist, the way in Holland we have Catholic or Jewish atheists,” adding that God did not create mankind, mankind created God. (Once a fervent Muslim radical herself, in her early years she not only called for a ban on Mr. Rushdie’s novel,”The Satanic Verses,” but – as Mr. Gourevitch was quick to point out – called for his head, as well. From the stage, she apologized to the author, on both counts.) In short, Ms. Ali is a Muslim apostate and a “convert” to European secular values.
But this, from the “progressive” viewpoint, lands her in troublesome territory. She defended the assassinated gay Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn, who called for an end to Muslim immigration in the Netherlands and stated that Islam is backward.”What he’s saying is not an opinion, it’s a fact, measured by certain standards,” the softspoken Ms.Ali said in her nearly fluent English, tinged with an accent more African than Dutch.
Nonetheless, she said she treasured Muslim culture for its hospitality, its neighborliness, its culture, and its art. She pointed out the good qualities in devoutly Islamist organizations – banks are trustworthy, hospitals humane – but emphasized that the overall totalitarian impulse outweighs them, as was the case with communism. “It’s a genuine attempt at doing things right. It just happens to be wrong,” she said.
Rather than accept that much of what his interlocutor had to say was self-evidently correct and move the discussion on from there, Mr. Gourevitch occasionally seemed determined to portray himself as the kind of blinkered liberal Ms. Ali criticizes. He attempted to equate American varieties of religious fundamentalism – Christians who blame the death of American soldiers in Iraq on the cultural acceptance of homosexuality, for example – with the far more toxic fundamentalism rampant in the Muslim world. He also posited that some of the problems Ms. Ali blames on Islam are due to the kind of provincialism found in all cultures. “Husbands who don’t listen to wives, where would Hollywood comedies be without that?” he asked jokingly. Since he was speaking to a victim of female genital mutilation and the co-writer of “Submission,” the joke fell flat.
Perhaps thinking of the Iraq war, Mr. Gourevitch suggested that a foreign Enlightenment can’t be fast-tracked onto another culture. Ms. Ali replied smoothly that the Arab world has managed to borrow many things from the West, such as cars and clothing styles, so she saw no reason why they couldn’t borrow values as well. She spoke respectfully of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. She particularly commended Mr. Blair for having spoken of a “battle of ideologies” following last summer’s London bombings.
“I gather you’ve been called an Enlightenment fundamentalist and you regard that as a badge of honor. Like, what’s so bad about that?” Mr. Gourevitch said. “But in some ways, I think you’re really saying there is a problem with decadence and hollowness in the West, and that there is a failure to stand up for these ideas of the Enlightenment, to embrace them.”
“My criticism of the West, especially of liberals, is that they do take freedom for granted,” Ms. Ali responded. She noted that Western Europeans born after World War II are unused to conflict. “They have lost the instinct to recognize that there can be such a thing as an enemy or a threat to freedom, and that’s what I’m witnessing in Europe now,” she stated. “[There is] a pacifist ideology that violence should never be used in any circumstances, and so we should talk and talk and talk. Even when your opponent tells you, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, I want to destroy you,’ the reaction is, ‘Please, let’s talk about the fact that you want to destroy me!'”
At this, the audience, which included a female student wearing a Little Green Footballs T-shirt, a reference to the pro-Iraq war Web site, burst into laughter. At the end of the interview, the Dutch politician and author was given rousing applause, and it became clear that whatever cognitive dissonance had been in the room belonged less to those who had paid to listen to her than to those who had invited her to speak.
Mr. Bernhard is a staff writer for LA Weekly and author of “White Muslim,” a study of converts to Islam in the West available from Melville House.