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The Road to Enlightenment

ISSUE:  Summer 2010

Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, $27

The cover of the book, 'Nomad,' which features a photograph of the author.

“Yes, it is true that what you say is in the Quran, but I disagree with it. Yes, you ask me to follow the example of the Prophet, but I believe that parts of his example are no longer valid.” That, rather than submission (the literal translation of “Islam”) is the defiant response Ayaan Hirsi Ali urges Muslims to adopt when faced with their religion’s discriminatory, misogynistic, and even murderous exhortations. Not for Hirsi Ali the elaborate apologetics that aim to obscure, water down, or simply ignore those passages in the Quran and Hadith that promote bigotry and violence. This forthright and brave approach—Hirsi Ali has received death threats and lives with bodyguards—distinguishes Nomad from a slew of books pretending that controversial aspects of Islam stem exclusively from misinterpretation.

Somali-born Hirsi Ali, a former member of parliament in the Netherlands, was raised Muslim but is now an atheist. Her first book, The Caged Virgin, was a collection of essays, and her second, Infidel, a memoir. Nomad, though largely a memoir, combines elements of both earlier books. The author recounts episodes from her life in several countries—including the US, her new home—but also contemplates troubling Islamic teachings, analyzes the danger inherent in the uncritical attitude of most Muslims to the Quran, and proposes ways to better integrate Muslims into Western societies. This intellectual aspect of the book proves more substantive than the personal reminiscences, even those—such as reconciliation with her dying father—that are undeniably poignant.

Nevertheless, in confronting Islam’s position on women and tackling Muslim immigrants’ difficulties with finances, the author sometimes stumbles. For example, she seems unaware that the Quran allows a measure of financial independence for women. There are also contradictions; Hirsi Ali is pro-choice on the issue of abortion, but laments that some Muslim women choose to abort a fetus rather than give birth to a daughter. This lack of consistency, together with an apparent nonchalance about abortion when practiced by Western women, is disconcerting.

Hirsi Ali believes that a tolerant Islam is necessarily based on sophistry, given all the violent passages in the Quran and Hadith. But she encourages believers in a Christianity based on love and compassion to convert Muslims for no reason other than the desirability of love and compassion. She does not establish whether such a humane interpretation of Christianity is doctrinally tenable, even though this is the very standard by which she decides that a tolerant Islam is dishonest.

Finally, Hirsi Ali sometimes conflates Islam and Somali culture, and generalizes about Muslims, both tendencies having manifested themselves in The Caged Virgin and Infidel. Such sloppiness creates an opening through which apologists for Islam can reiterate the simplistic claim that the religion is fair and just, but sometimes corrupted by culture.

These deficiencies detract from, but do not derail, Hirsi Ali’s criticisms of Islam. They do not seriously impinge on her welcome reproof of multiculturalism and that variant of Western feminism that overlooks the subjugation of Muslim women. Moreover, Nomad furthers Hirsi Ali’s contention that the Islamic world needs an Enlightenment. And the author is modest enough to point to an endeavor undertaken by others as perhaps the most likely catalyst. That would be the work of scholars detailing the historical origins and evolution of the Quran, a project that may create the all-important “possibility of legitimate, individual, critical review of Islamic dogma” on the part of Muslims themselves.


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