BOOK REVIEW: The Caged VirginI once asked a conservative law lecturer why he had a problem with the dominant left-wing critical legal studies agenda of his colleagues. “There's nothing wrong with criticising the law,” he responded, “but it's futile when you haven't even learned what the law is.”
One would expect Ayaan Hirsi Ali's criticisms of Islam to be based on knowledge and experience. She was, after all, born into a conservative Muslim environment, reared “to be a Muslim, a good Muslim” with family life dominated by Islam “down to the smallest detail”. Further, her book, subtitled A Muslim Woman's Cry for Reason, would also be expected to contain elements of Islam that Muslims immediately recognise.
Ali and I were born in the same year, and we grew up in middle-class, culturally Muslim families. Yet I found her descriptions of a typical Islamic upbringing almost completely unfamiliar. Perhaps this was due to my north Indian upbringing. Variations between Muslim cultures are significant, as I discovered when reading The Glory Garage, an account of growing up Lebanese Muslim in Australia by journalists Nadia Jamal and Taghred Chandab.
But Ali's Islam allows for no cultural distinctions and she insists her experiences are universal to all Muslims, whether residing in Sydney or Mogadishu. The failure to recognise cultural variety within Islam is one of many serious deficiencies in The Caged Virgin.
The book is a collection of Ali's speeches and articles originally published in The Netherlands in 2004 as De Maagdenkooi. Its difficult themes reflect her troubled upbringing as the daughter of a political dissident frequently on the move.
She was born in Mogadishu in 1969 and her father, Hirsi Magaan Isse, was a fervent critic of Somali strongman Siyad Barre. When Ali was five, her grandmother performed genital mutilation on her, apparently without Ali's father's knowledge. (This tribal practice among sub-Saharan Africans of all faiths is acknowledged by Ali to predate Islam.) Ali's past is subject to some controversy. She alleges her family went into exile in Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia and Kenya. She says she was married at 22 against her will to a distant relative in Canada. En route, she escaped to The Netherlands, where she was granted asylum, studied political science and immersed herself in public life.
Her nomadic existence may explain her nomadic politics. Within 12 months or so she had moved from membership of a social democratic think-tank to becoming a conservative MP. She says her shift was triggered by the Dutch Left's political correctness providing her with little room to question Islam's treatment of women.
Two events brought Ali to prominence. In 2004, Theo van Gogh, the director of her short film Submission, was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch Moroccan. The killer left a note on van Gogh's body stating that Ali was next. She immediately went into hiding.
Then, in May this year, Dutch investigative journalists uncovered evidence that Ali had manufactured key facts used in her asylum application. Parliamentary colleagues abandoned her and she resigned in disgrace after being offered a work lifeline by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Ali's characterisations of Islam have made her a darling of various anti-Islam apparatchiks and conservative commentators. Notwithstanding this, her book does raise important issues about despicable cultural practices (including female genital mutilation) of some Muslim migrants. Sadly, Muslim scepticism of Ali's claims will be reinforced by her near-chronic inability to provide meaningful references for her most important claims.
Her book begins with a description of her paradigm: a set of monolithic principles she simplistically describes as an Islamic trinity, a set of “mental bars ... behind which the majority of Muslims are restrained”.
The first of these is that a Muslim's relationship with God is based on fear. In this respect, her lack of exposure to key sections of Islamic theology becomes glaringly obvious. Even Western readers are familiar with the works of orthodox Sufi jurists (such as Rumi), who emphasised God's love and mercy and are widely read across the Islamic world.
Ali provides only limited Koranic references for her paradigm and her references to Muslim scholarship are limited to name-dropping. She ignores the influential role of Sufism in Sunni and Shia Islam. And while she makes reference to Somali, Turkish and Arab cultures (of which she claims first-hand knowledge), she makes no reference to religious cultures of a former Dutch colony that is now the largest Muslim country.
Hundreds of Indonesians study in Dutch universities. Indonesian and other sources of classical Islam are freely available in universities such as Leiden, also home to the respected International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World. The Netherlands has no shortage of scholarly material on Islamic cultures and theology, almost none of which is reflected in this book.
Ali now resides in the US. Given her expressed views on abortion, one wonders how long she will last in a conservative environment where even anti neo-cons such as Pat Buchanan regard abortion as a defining issue. Perhaps her next book will be entitled The Caged Republican.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and columnist for AltMuslim.com. First published in The Weekend Australian on 7-8 October 2006.