- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2010

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, $27, 277 pages

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, the daughter of an anti-government politician. When he was imprisoned, the family fled, living mostly in Kenya, where she attended a Muslim school, a secretarial college and, for a time, classes that fostered religious fervor. As a teenager, she wore the hijab, even though it was not customary. Today, she openly denounces Islam, focusing especially on both its systematic mistreatment of women and on the threat it poses to the West.

In “Nomad,” she particularly attacks the cultural relativism of Westerners who claim that cultures are equal; she asserts unequivocally that Western values are superior to Muslim values. In particular, she applauds the Enlightenment belief in individuality that encourages Westerners to pursue personal goals. She thinks that Muslims should recognize that Enlightenment values will improve their lives, and that Westerners can help by discouraging traditional practices that lock them into backward-looking behavior.

Her life story, much of which is interspersed among her anti-Muslim polemic, explains how she developed these opinions. It is an amazing tale. She arrived in Holland in 1992 when she was 23, seeking asylum on the grounds that she was being forced into an arranged marriage. The Dutch government granted her residency and financial subsidies. She learned Dutch, earned a master’s degree at the University of Leiden, and worked as a translator for the government social services.

In this way she heard the stories of countless women afflicted with problems ranging from beatings to AIDS. She also saw and understood the inability of many Muslim immigrants to manage money, often getting into formidable debt because they were unused to handling it, or failing to make headway because their culture demands that they send much of their earnings back to relatives.

In 2003, when she became a member of the Dutch parliament, she fought against social policies that failed to address such problems. Ms. Hirsi Ali also believes that Muslim attitudes toward violence, like those toward sex and money, differ radically from Western attitudes. “Violence … was an integral part of my upbringing,” she writes, noting this as typical of many Islamic families and schools. She also experienced it as an adult in 2004, when she and Theodore van Gogh, who had collaborated on a film about the abuse of Muslim women, were attacked in the street by a Muslim fundamentalist.

Van Gogh was killed, and a note left on his body threatened that she would be next. She relates such aggression to centuries-old pre-Islamic tradition: Physical aggression had survival value in the desert climates where Islam thrived. But nowadays, she sees violence built into Muslim culture as a menace to women, homosexuals, Jews and, of course, infidels, which includes most of the Western world. Comparing Muslim fundamentalists to the Nazis, she warns that Muslims are more formidable because “the Nazis did not have: a world religion that is growing faster than any other religion; a warrior faith that is espoused by over one and a half billion people.”

At around the time she was attacked, Ms. Hirsi Ali was also assailed by controversy over her Dutch citizenship, which was based on a false claim she admitted to having made on her application. Though she retained her citizenship, she resigned her seat in parliament, and accepted an appointment to the American Enterprise Foundation, which meant that once again, she moved to another country: ever a nomad, as the title of her book indicates.

The book’s purpose is not simply to expose the abuses she believes are inherent in her former religion, but to suggest the responses the West ought to make. She thinks feminists should turn their attention to helping their Islamic sisters, and that Christian churches may be able offer an alternative faith to some Muslims. Most of all she believes in education based on rational inquiry.

Writing about Muslim immigrants in the West, she says they should learn that “Where they live geographically, must change where they stand ideologically.” Ms. Hirsi Ali’s book is well-written: clear, full of the illuminating anecdotes and sharp commentary that make for quick reading. But its contentions range so widely that readers need time to evaluate them. The most cursory historical analysis of her remarks on violence will show that Muslim societies have no monopoly on it.

Moreover, reason suggests that current bellicosities around the world cannot be resolved unless both disputing sides make efforts to accommodate the other’s preoccupations. In this context, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s dismissal of cultural relativism may not be wise. Moreover, those who espouse it may justly note that the West has a nasty history of assuming its ways are best with consequences that include slavery, denial of civil liberties and prolonged wars. On the other hand, she is right to note that well-meant rhetorical and financial support for “traditional ways” has not much helped immigrants in Europe, where Holland, Britain, France and Spain have huge, often impoverished, Muslim populations from their former colonies, and Germany has large numbers of Muslim “guest” workers.

Here her suggestion that Muslims be urged to adopt Western habits of mind so they can integrate as fast as possible is useful, especially considering that cultural relativism has not relieved immigrant poverty, protected women from abuse, or helped Muslims born in Europe fully participate in the lives of their countries.

Indeed, many will find parts of “Nomad” inspiring and thoughtful; readers may disagree with Ms. Hirsi Ali’s points, but this should deter no one from reading the book. It is vigorous, illuminating, challenging and thought-provoking, with the potential to help its readers better understand the world we live in.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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