Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book, Nomad, Reviewed
In her new book, Nomad, Hirsi Ali tells of escaping to America and says the Muslim world needs a revolution in how it treats women and modernity. Tunku Varadarajan salutes her necessary and powerful words.
On a recent visit to Washington, I hopped into a cab at Union Station. Those who have used such transport in D.C. will be aware that the chances of landing an African cabbie are 9 in 10, and this African cohort is predominantly Eritrean, Ethiopian, or Somali. My driver on this occasion was Somali, and after a few pleasantries— How long have you lived in America? Do you still have family in Mogadishu? How old are your children?—I asked the man a less banal question: “What do you think of Ayaan Hirsi Ali… you know, the Somali lady?” He swiveled his head to fix me with his gaze, and then turned it back to the road. “Very bad person,” he said, after a strained pause. “We think she is a bitch. We hate her.”
“The Muslim mind needs to be opened. Above all, the uncritical Muslim attitude toward the Quran urgently needs to change, for it is a direct threat to world peace.”
We did not exchange another word for the rest of the brief ride to the Willard Hotel.
I had cause to recall this ugly episode when I read this week—in just one sitting, it is so brilliant— Hirsi Ali’s new book, Nomad: From Islam to America. (It is subtitled, with a very un-PC tip of the hat to Samuel Huntington, “A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.”) If I had my way, and the resources to pull off the idea, I would commission translations of the book into Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Farsi, Turkish, Pashto, Kurdish, Bengali, and Bahasa, and air-drop thousands of copies into the Muslim lands (and arrondissements) where these languages are spoken. And with any luck, these books would find their way into the hands of some of the immiserated women who live there.
Women, as the historian Bernard Lewis once told me (probably echoing a desert proverb), “are half the population, and mothers of the other half.” Educated mothers, he said, make a great difference to a society, and the Muslim world’s great drawback is that its women are benighted. Hirsi Ali’s mother was one such woman. Uneducated—and as unenlightened as it was possible to be, on earth, in the 1970s—she hit Hirsi Ali when she first got her period, a sickening blow that was part of an ongoing pattern of violence and misogyny that holds sway not merely in every Somali family, but, in the author’s contention, in almost every Muslim family in the world.
After all, she writes, male domination and female subjugation are Quranically prescribed, and who is Man to challenge the immutable Word of God—especially when God’s arrangements ensure perpetual male domination? This punitive patriarchy is not confined to Muslims in their own lands; it thrives, she points out, in the West, in the lands to which Muslims immigrate, but whose “degenerate” and “sinful” societies they abhor. In a blistering passage, written with the forthright elegance that characterizes the book, Hirsi Ali asserts that “the subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West. It is a subjection committed by the closest kin in the most intimate place, the home, and it is sanctioned by the greatest figure in the imagination of Muslims: Allah himself.” It is easy to see why Hirsi Ali has bodyguards, and round-the-clock protection. She would be dead if she did not.
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Of Somali birth and upbringing, Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands as a young woman to escape marriage to a much older man, forced upon her by her father; there, she learned Dutch, became Dutch, and was elected to parliament, only to leave for America after her forthright criticism of Islam made her too radioactive for the disappointingly timid Dutch to handle. Much of her story has been narrated in Infidel, her haunting previous memoir, and in her new book, Hirsi Ali widens her personal narrative to tell us of her parents, siblings, and cousins, as well as of the wider Muslim community in the West (of whom she is as unsparingly critical as she is of the scripture and structure of Islam).
Hirsi Ali’s is an electrifying book. An apostate and an atheist, she has rejected Islam as her personal creed, and she calls on Muslims, effectively, to do the same. In a chapter titled “Letter to My Grandmother,” she addresses the deceased mother of her mother in words that would incite riots if uttered in public anywhere in the Muslim world (with the marginally possible exception of Taksim Square, in Istanbul): “Salvation lies in the ways of the infidel, grandmother.” “Grandmother, I have compared the infidels’ morals to those that you taught us, and I must report that they have, in practice, a better outcome for humans than the morals of your forefathers.” “Grandmother, … I will even strive to persuade my fellow nomads to take on the ways of the infidel.”
• Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Why Are American Doctors Mutilating Girls?Hirsi Ali writes beautifully, and with an unerring critical precision. Contrasting the Western nuclear family with the suffocating family structure in Somalia, she says, “The infidel is loyal to his wife and children; he may take care of his parents but has no use for a memory filled with an endless chain of ancestors.” Elsewhere, she writes that “virginity is the obsession, the neurosis of Islam,” and that “the fundamentalists seem haunted by the female body and neurotically debate which fractions of it should be covered, until they declare the whole thing, from head to toe, a gigantic private part.”
The author laments the self-censorship in the West, driven by a well-meaning, but ultimately corrosive and self-defeating politics of multicultural accommodation. There have been numerous honor killings in the United States, in which Muslim fathers or husbands kill daughters or wives who have “sullied” the family name in some way; and yet, Hirsi Ali observes, not once has the achingly non-judgmental American press used the phrase “honor killing” in its reports on the murders. Writing of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Islamist U.S. Army major who gunned down 13 people at Fort Hood last year, she finds it “astonishing” that the media regarded all explanations for the murders plausible “except the one explicitly stated by the killer, namely his religion.” (She will cease to be astonished, I reckon, once she spends a few more years on the East Coast.)
Hirsi Ali ends her book with some muscular suggestions: “The Muslim mind needs to be opened. Above all, the uncritical Muslim attitude toward the Quran urgently needs to change, for it is a direct threat to world peace.” She proposes an “Enlightenment Project,” in which public education and social policy in the West is “geared toward grooming citizens, not preserving the separateness of tribe, the sanctity of faith…” Western feminists, who too often allow the Muslim suppression of women to go unchallenged, must take it upon themselves to embrace the emancipation (from Muslim men) of Muslim women. Finally—and perhaps most pugnaciously—she calls on Christian churches to enter the fray: “I have had the pleasure of meeting Christians whose concept of God is a far cry from Allah. Theirs is a reformed and partly secularized Christianity that could be a very useful ally in the battle against Islamic fanaticism.” The Christianity of “love and tolerance remains one of the West’s most powerful antidotes to the Islam of hate and intolerance.”
These are powerful, polemical words with which it is very hard, in our present circumstances, to disagree. There will be many, however, who will shriek loudly in outrage, and not all of the fulminators will be Muslim. My great fear is that people will react only to fragments of this passionate book without having read the humane whole, and this will lead to distortions and imprecations, maybe even to book-burnings and fatwas. I am mighty glad Ayaan Hirsi Ali has police protection. And I am gladder still that she lives in our midst, in America.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)