A Nomad's Journey
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born feminist, continues to invoke the ire of Muslims worldwide with her scathing depiction of the Islamic faith and culture writ large, not just its terrorist minorities. Nomad builds on Ali's New York Times bestseller, Infidel (Free Press 2007), which one reviewer aptly dubbed a "powerful feminist critique of Islam informed by a genuine understanding of the religion."
By now, Ali's story is well-known. She escaped an arranged marriage with a Somali man in Canada and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she went on to become a member of parliament. After 9/11, she renounced Islam, prompting Islamists worldwide to declare her an apostate. She continues to receive death threats to this day.
In Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, Ali does not placate the angry Islamists who wish her harm. Rather, she expounds on the problems she perceives within the Islamic faith by drawing from the memories she recounts about her dysfunctional Somali-Muslim family: an estranged father, a shariah-compliant half-sister, a physically and mentally abused brother, an embittered mother, and a truly sad cast of other characters. Throughout her walk down memory lane, Ali insists that the bulk of their woes stemmed from a backward religion and culture that shackled them, giving them no room to flourish.
Foremost on Ali's mind is the treatment of women. At one point, the author recalls thinking that "Allah is full of misogyny." She utterly rejects the Islamic practice of forcing women to cover themselves with a burqa, which she whimsically says look like a "cross between Darth Vader and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." On a more serious note, Ali warns that the practice stems from the belief that women's bodies "are so powerfully toxic that even making eye contact with other people is a sin. The extent of self-loathing that this expresses is impossible to exaggerate."
She rails against the way in which, according to shariah law, men can divorce women by simply pronouncing the talaq, the declaration of "I divorce thee" three times. Women, by contrast, are powerless if they wish to leave their marriage. Indeed, according to the Quran, women are inferior to men and have few rights. In an Islamic court, the value of a woman's testimony is equal to half that of a man's. Ali insists that these inequities cannot be overlooked when addressing the issue of justice in Islam.
Ali's writing is particularly vitriolic when she addresses the Muslim practice of female circumcision, more appropriately called "female genital mutilation." She describes this process in teeth-grindingly blunt language. According to Ali, "Roughly 130 million women around the world have their genitals cut. The operation is inflicted on an estimated six thousand little girls every day."
What Ali does not explicitly note is that this is not a popular practice throughout the entire Muslim world. Rather, it is a practice that runs rampant in Egypt, throughout the Sahel region of Africa, and on Africa's East coast. She also does not take pains to note that other faiths also engage in female genital mutilation. Regardless, Ali is justified in her condemnation of this horrific practice.
Among the more interesting points Ali raises relate to the question of Muslim integration in Western countries. Indeed, as a political refugee in Great Britain, her father enjoyed the benefits of free housing and health care, but at the same time insisted that Muslims should "never be loyal to a secular state." This cannot continue if the West and Islam are to find equilibrium.
Ali makes a biting observation about those who purport to be "liberal" here in America, but "appear to be more uncomfortable with my condemning the ill treatment of women under Islam that most conservatives are. Rather than standing up for Western freedoms and against the totalitarian Islamic belief system, many liberal prefer to shuffle their feet and looked down at their shoes when faced with questions about cultural differences." Ali does not let this stand. And for this, she continues to come under fire. As one critic angrily told her, criticizing Islamic practices is a form of "colonial feminism."
While the specter of Islamist violence is not the primary theme of this book, Ali's warnings are clear. Noting that violence was a constant in the culture under which she was raised, the author notes that "Americans still have a long way to go before they understand the challenge posed to their country by radical Islam."
If there is a criticism one could make about this book, or about Ali's work in general, it is that she sometimes fails to draw distinctions between the minority interpretations of radical Islam and the broader religion of Islam. She also does not always distinguish between Somali culture and that of Islam as a whole. Sometimes they are the same; other times they are not.
Nevertheless, Ali's work is a signal contribution in the battle between democracies and the forces of radical Islam.
Undoubtedly, critics will continue challenge her. Indeed, she recalls that one California college student screamed at her, "Who the hell gives you the right to talk about Islam?"
Another student had the answer: "The First Amendment."
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.