Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It's not hard to figure out why some Muslims have troubles with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What is hard to figure out why so may liberal intellectuals are falling over themselves in the rush to dismiss her. The latest to the party is Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker.

Hirsi Ali is a difficult figure to dismiss because she brings boatloads of personal experience with  the subject she writes about. In the normal course of events, this would buy her nothing but credibility with liberal intellectuals. She is the sort of authentic voice that liberal intellectuals are always telling us we need to be listening to. Why does she have to be rushed off stage as quickly possibly then?

I think we can see the explanation is Mishra's essay. Notice, for example, how he criticizes Voltaire below. He does this because Hirsi Ali cites Voltaire in support of her position.
In another respect, however, the invocation of Voltaire is more apt than Hirsi Ali seems to realize. Voltaire despised the faith and identity of Europe’s religious minority: the Jews, who, he declared, “are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts,” who had “surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism,” and who “deserve to be punished.” Voltaire’s denunciations remind us that the Enlightenment was a much more complex and multifaceted phenomenon than the dawn of reason and freedom that Hirsi Ali evokes.
 There is something right here. Voltaire and the Enlightenment did show a deeply disturbing intolerance for devout Jews. Mishra might have noted, however, that the intolerance was far less marked towards Jews who had abandoned Judaism. He says above that Voltaire's attitudes "remind us that the Enlightenment was a much more complex and multifaceted phenomenon" than we might realize. He has this exactly backwards. What Voltaire's attitude toward devout Jews showed was a narrow single-mindedness on his part. Voltaire had a vision of how human beings ought to be and hated everything that opposed his ideal of enlightened humanity. People who hewed to ways of life he didn't like didn't have the right to exist.

It's an attitude that recurs again and again in Enlightenment and modernist attitudes. Both GB Shaw and HG Wells advocated genocide for the Slavs. For many intellectuals peoples that clung to their traditional ways of life were a barrier on the road to enlightenment and if they weren't going to get with the program they had to be eliminated.

The post-romantic attitude is a little more nuanced but leads to the same conclusion. Now the devout minorities are tolerated and even loved, provided they stay "over there" somewhere. "Over there" can be quite close. They can live in the city and even have a chair at the university provided they recognize that there are clear lines of demarcation between them and the rest of the culture.

It's a little like ballroom dancing. When modern liberal intellectuals take up Ballroom dancing we accept that a certain style of dress goes with it and that we talk of men leading and women following on the dance floor but the second we leave the class all this stuff gets left behind "where it belongs".
With this more romantic attitude towards devout minorities also comes a tendency to infantilize them. Mishra explains, and explains away, the repressive attitudes towards women that Hisri Ali finds in Islam by saying these are a product of a confrontation with the west.
Whitechapel has much in its past—oppression, bigotry, poverty, radicalism—that would have helped Hirsi Ali understand not only the neighborhood’s newest inhabitants but also her own family. But “Nomad” reveals that her life experiences have yet to ripen into a sense of history. The sad truth is that the problems she blames on Islam—fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism—are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity.
It's not that there isn't some truth to this. There is. But the reasonable answer to that is "So what?" Or even "So #%&*ing what?" Likewise every human being feels natural a defensiveness that some times makes us want to irrationally yell at people sometimes but if you see me doing that, you tell me to stop it and you are right.
That is where the west sits with regard to Islam. Many Islamic cultures display attitudes towards woman and Jews that are simply unacceptable. And it is not reasonable to point at the west or the state of Israel as the cause of these attitudes. The west's attitude here should be like a broken record. No matter what explanations are offered, the answer is "Stop it! Stop it right now!


  1. You raise good points about the inconsistencies. I don't know why people can't take the best of the different ideologies or world views and discard the crap. Why do people have to be so totally wedded to the whole ball of wax whichever one we're talking about, and are blind to the bad stuff? And they all do it. I've never hitched my wagon to any star, even when I thought maybe I should. I'm glad I didn't.

  2. I think people need the illusion of certainty, so that's why they buy into ideologies, world views, religions, lock stock and barrel. I guess people don't know how or don't trust thinking for themselves, and living with uncertainty is too much to bear.