Nomad, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. New York: Free Press, 2010. 277 pp. $27 (hardcover).
Ayaan Hirsi Ali gained international recognition in 2004 after she and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh made Submission, a documentary about the brutal oppression of women under Islamic law. In response to the film, a radical Muslim savagely murdered van Gogh on the streets of Holland and posted a note on the filmmaker’s body in which he threatened Hirsi Ali’s life as well. Nevertheless, in 2007 Hirsi Ali wrote Infidel, in which she recounts the horrors of growing up female under the rights-violating Islamic cultures in Somalia and Saudi Arabia; how she fled to and settled in Holland, worked menial jobs, attended university, and collaborated on Submission; and how, in 2003, she ran for and was elected to the Dutch parliament as a candidate with a single issue: to stop the oppression of and violence against Muslim women in Holland.
In Infidel, Hirsi Ali championed the Western secularist ideals that she came to adopt as true and right—free inquiry, the equal rights of the sexes, individualism, and personal liberty. Since then, she has moved to the land that she declares in her follow-up book, Nomad, to be her final home: the United States. In this latest book, Hirsi Ali shares the observations and emotional journey she has made since leaving Europe and arriving in America, even as radical Muslims continue to threaten her life for her uncompromising condemnation of Islam.
In some respects Nomad demonstrates that Hirsi Ali has not only retained the intellectual independence and moral courage at the heart of her prior book, but that she has also strengthened and developed her thinking on the secular values she came to embrace.
For example, in Nomad she elaborates on Enlightenment principles, including free inquiry, individual freedom, and property rights, exercising a thought process that grasps fundamentals:
Every important freedom that Western individuals possess rests on free expression. We observe what is wrong, and we say what is wrong, in order that it may be corrected. This is the message of the Enlightenment, the rational process that developed today’s Western values: Go. Inquire. Ask. Find out. Dare to know. Don’t be afraid of what you’ll find. Knowledge is better than superstition, blind faith, and dogma. (p. 214)
Hirsi Ali proceeds to correctly identify Enlightenment principles as this-worldly and thus incongruent with Islam:
The Enlightenment honors life. It is not about honor after death or honor in the hereafter, as Islam is, but honor in individual life, now. It is about development of the individual will, not the submission of the will. Islam, by contrast, is incompatible with the principles of liberty that are at the heart of the Enlightenment’s legacy. (p. 214)
She powerfully illustrates her development in the contrasts she draws between herself on the one hand, and, on the other, her relatives and other devout Muslims, both of whom cling unquestioningly to their religion and clannish traditions such as “family honor.”
In Nomad, readers learn that she reconciled with her father on his deathbed, but has remained steadfast in her commitment to her new life and ideas despite his efforts to have her return to her Muslim past. And she recognizes that this steadfastness would have been impossible had she not fled to the West, where she learned concepts of individual freedom that intellectually armed her to defy her family:
To resist subjugation and the denial of rights, an expression of resentment and anger are not enough. You must speak the language of the oppressor and have clarity of mind to identify the principles that justify the oppression and to dismantle them intellectually. Slaves must be aware of the fact that they are slaves, and then transcend anger and pain to convince their master of the wrongfulness of their slavery. If you cannot win by might, you may in the long term be able to win through an appeal to reason. (p.162)
By contrast, Hirsi Ali writes, her brother, Mahad, never took a stand against their father, whether in regard to daily prayer, which he never dared avoid when his father was around, or in regard to the arranged marriage of his sister, about which he remained silent.“[W]hen the occasion presented itself, Mahad said absolutely nothing. He wouldn’t even bring up the subject” (p. 60).
Hirsi Ali’s grandmother was perhaps the most steadfast in the family’s dutiful commitment to clan and religious traditions. A letter Hirsi Ali wrote following her grandmother’s death praises the infidel for approaching life on Earth not as a test for the hereafter, but rather as
an end and a joy in itself. All his resources of money, mind, and organization go into making life here, on Earth, comfortable and healthy. He is obsessed with cleanliness, a good diet, and the right amount of rest. He 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. All the seeds of his toil are spent on his own offspring, not those of his brothers or uncles. He shows special love, generosity, and compassion to people he chooses to befriend, on the basis of common interests rather than the dictates of blood relations. (pp. 89–90)
Readers thus find in Nomad that Hirsi Ali has developed the convictions she had shown signs of struggling with, in Infidel, while assimilating in Holland. Consequently, she exhibits greater certainty in her reasons for condemning Islam and letting others know why they should as well.
Importantly, Nomad invokes Hirsi Ali’s special context of having lived on two different Western continents. From this perspective, she fears Americans are making the same grave mistakes as Europeans in downplaying or whitewashing the dangers of Islam. Among her observations: although Americans generally appear more interested in counteracting injustices committed in Islamic nations, they also seem far less aware than Europeans of the Koran-driven oppression in their midst, in particular American Muslim families who punish or murder young women who overstep boundaries of faith and custom.
She writes about when she first learned of the Fort Hood shooting, in which a radical Muslim in the United States military opened fire and murdered thirteen U.S. troops in November 2009, and how this was a sign that “Islamic martyrdom has come to America. Not only that, but it has penetrated the U.S. military itself”(p. 143). She likens the gunman, Nidal Malik Hassan, to the radical Muslim who murdered van Gogh; observes that the American media, like their Dutch counterparts, would not make mention of his religion; and notes that both U.S. intelligence agencies and the military adopted the line that radical Muslims are misguided, rather than faithfully following a religion that openly promotes violence.
And she concludes the chapter “Islam in America” by writing about Americans who cherish “diversity”:
Americans still have a long way to go before they really understand the challenge posed to their country by radical Islam, a religion that rejects not only those core principles of the Enlightenment that so inspired the founding fathers, but also the very notion that the diverse many should become one united people. (p. 145)
In the same chapter, she details the process by which Muslims become radicalized, and encourages others who try to understand this process to recognize that it starts much earlier than they might think:
American agencies and academics and social psychologists make a big mistake when they try to understand a brainwashed mind only from the time it becomes radical. Radical Islam is sold in steps, and this is true in America too. At first it is marked as a program for virtuous behavior, for goodness. Then you are encouraged to seek out other Muslims, to befriend only each other. The whole rancid subject of violent jihad is broached only in the later stages. But the prehistory of radicalism is a soft brainwashing in submission—the real meaning of the word Islam—from birth. (p. 142)
Later, she warns of the destructive effects of multiculturalism, which she perceptively identifies as an ideology that glorifies the group above the individual, and writes that not all cultures or religions are equal. She also ties this to her observation of Muslims in America, particularly those on college campuses mired in multiculturalism who have confronted her and told her during her speeches “that these so-called traumas of mine were aberrant, a ‘cultural thing,’ nothing to do with Islam” (p. 131). (Hirsi Ali aptly responds that if these Muslim women wearing head scarves at American colleges “lived in Saudi Arabia, under Shari’a law,”they “wouldn’t be free to study, to work, to drive, to walk around” [p. 133].)
In these and similar passages, she emphasizes fundamental ideas when comparing Islam to the West. For instance, when her critics ask her if there is anything beautiful in Islam, she cites some nonessential matters such as its appeal to charity before bringing the discussion down to primary issues such as freedom, noting that Islam is built on inequality among the sexes—something that multiculturalists purport to want to obliterate. This fundamental approach enables her to write that “the multiculturalist belief that Somali clan culture should somehow be preserved, even when its products move to Western societies, is a recipe for social failure. Multiculturalism helps immigrants postpone the pain of letting go of the anachronistic and inappropriate” (p. 213).
Further, when others tell her to be careful not to impose Western values on people who don’t want them, she says that what she wants to “impose” is the freedom to choose for oneself and to control one’s own life:
[T]he delight of being able once I came to the West to let my imagination run free, the pleasure of choosing whom I want to associate with, the joy of reading what I want, and the thrill of being in control of my life—in short, my freedom—is something I feel intensely as I manage to extricate myself from all the shackles and obstacles that my bloodline and my religion imposed. (p. 242)
But although Hirsi Ali identifies multiculturalism’s destructive effects, she goes seriously astray in the remedies she proposes to lead Muslims away from Islam, undercutting her best conclusions and revealing that she—like many in the West—still has more to understand about the fundamental issues involved, particularly concerning reason and faith.
In the chapter “Opening the Muslim Mind: An Enlightenment Project,” she promotes Christianity as a means to bring Western ideas to Muslim minds. She asserts that Christian churches in the West—with an emphasis on the Catholic Church—have shown that they can change, that is, become more “tolerant” of divergent beliefs. Here, she even concedes that her tactic is “a little paradoxical” (p. 240) and that the church changed due to the constant challenges of freethinkers, but writes that “Christians in more recent times must be given some credit for heeding at least some of the critiques advanced by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. That very openness to criticism is what makes Christianity different from Islam” (p. 241).
Hirsi Ali contends that Christian churches have the resources, authority, followers, and motivation to convert Muslim immigrants to modern mores, whereas Western secularists and atheists are too “hopelessly fragmented” to deal successfully with radical Islam (p. 243).
Many contemporary Western thinkers have unconsciously imbibed the toxin of appeasement with the ideas of equality and free speech. They give chairs in the most distinguished and best institutions of higher learning to apologists for Islam. There is no unity, no shared view of how to deal with this threat. Indeed, those of us who clearly see the threat are dismissed as alarmists. That is why I think we must also appeal to other, more traditional sources of ideological strength in Western society. And that must include the Christian churches. (p. 243)
But the extent to which Christian churches have changed for the better is the extent to which their dogmas were tempered by Enlightenment philosophy—the very ideals that Hirsi Ali, as a young Muslim, encountered, embraced, and celebrated. For all her intellectual development, she fails to see that for the Muslim world to break its chains of stark and violent irrationality, it, too, must undergo an Enlightenment, one uncorrupted by the anti-reason of both multiculturalist secularists and Christians who preach to turn the other cheek when the enemy strikes—the ethics that lies at the root of the appeasement she correctly criticizes elsewhere.
What leads Hirsi Ali to believe that stemming the tide of Islamization in the West lies in promoting another religion? The clearest answer is found in her appeal to the pope’s lecture, titled “Faith, Reason and the University—Memories and Reflections,” in which he put reason and faith on equal footing. Here is her evaluation of his speech:
In it he proclaimed that any faith in God must also obey reason; God cannot ask you to do something unreasonable, because God created reason. Islam, he pointed out, is not like Catholicism: it is predicated on the idea that God may overturn law and human reason. Allah may demand immoral or unreasonable behavior, for he is all-powerful and demands absolute submission. (p. 244)
This distortion of Christianity allows her to call for converting to that religion as many Muslims as possible, offering them Jesus as the better religious leader and “introducing them to a God who rejects Holy War and who has sent his son to die for all sinners out of a love of mankind” (p. 247).
So, although Hirsi Ali makes clear that she does not support Christian churches that preach creationism and faith healing, presumably because of their blatant irrationality, she nonetheless hails, for instance, the Catholic Church, an institution that seeks to obfuscate the crucial distinction between and the incompatible natures of faith and reason.
“The churches I am referring to are the mainstream, moderate denominations who emphasize personal responsibility and repudiate the notion that faith and reason are in some kind of conflict” (p. 253), she writes. And her only real objection to these “moderate” denominations is that, unlike the Islamists, they offer practical help but are less committed to converting others to their faith. To help ground Muslim immigrants in Western society, she believes, the West needs Christian churches “to get active again in propagating their faith” (p. 250).
But religious institutions that blur the fundamental distinction between reason and faith will fail to change the Muslim faithful in any significant, life-changing respect. In Nomad, Hirsi Ali fails to see that Christianity and Islam are fundamentally alike in that both regard faith as a means to knowledge and thus demand unthinking submission to the dictates of an alleged God.
Somehow, Hirsi Ali also fails to see the clear-cut example that is her own life: She came to accept Western civilization as incomparably superior to Islam, not by converting to a different religion, but by learning about and embracing Enlightenment ideals—including secularism. This is the takeaway message from Nomad—and from Hirsi Ali’s heroic life.