Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 'Infidel'

About the author

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between North Africa and France. KA Dilday is currently planning a New York office for openDemocracy.

There is a moment in Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography, Infidel, when she speaks on the phone to an old friend from Somalia, just after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. She has been living in the Netherlands for nearly a decade. Abshir, an imam, is about to have heart surgery in Switzerland. Hirsi Ali suggests that the Qur'an may in fact sanction such attacks; that it encourages Muslims to behave such a way against infidels.

Abshir, who has been attending lectures by the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, in Switzerland, says: "You're right, and I'm just as confused as you. I'm being operated on for my heart, but it is my head that is hurting." Hirsi Ali tells him that she is on the verge of leaving their faith. He's shocked, and tells her that he too is confused but that she shouldn't abandon their God. "We hung up awkwardly", she writes, "I knew I wouldn't be talking to him again."

She was 31 years old and on the brink of leaving Islam and the fanatical practice of it that had been her birthright and one of the most defining elements of her identity. A few years later she would become a member of the Dutch parliament and a fierce critic of Islam, espousing a perspective that is common to many European thinkers; one that refuses to address issues of the domestic Muslim community outside of the context of global politics and Islamic practice. It's a perversion of the old mantra, "think globally, act locally", less violent but strangely akin to that of the European Muslim terrorists who murder their compatriots and insist they are fighting back for the Muslims in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has seen more than most of her colleagues: reading Infidel, I was exhausted by the time she turned 18. She'd been to Somalia to Saudi Arabia to Kenya to Somalia and back to Kenya again, through wars, refugee camps, beatings and genital mutilation in addition to the all-too-routine hazards of life in an underdeveloped country. It struck me even more because I was born the same year as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, not in Somalia but in Boston, Massachusetts. Unlike her, I only moved once in my first 18 years and it was within the same country. But there was one similarity: we moved from Massachusetts, one of the United States's most liberal states, to live in Mississippi, one of the most devout states in the US where Christian religious piety was the norm.

At age 6, I entered an Episcopalian (a fairly liberal Protestant branch of Christianity) school which I attended until I graduated at age 17. I still remember one day when I came home from St Andrew's school and repeated to my mother something Mrs Mitchell, the art teacher had said to me at school: she was speaking about one of the United States "enemies" of the moment, perhaps Russia. "You have to remember", Mrs Mitchell said, "Those people are not Christians, we can't trust them." I can't quite remember what my mother said, but it was akin to: "Where did you hear that? That's bunk." I wasn't a particularly tender and impressionable age, perhaps 12, when this happened, yet I had fallen for my teacher's easy dismissal of the unbelievers.

I was just an ordinary western adolescent, going to school, studying, or more likely, reading whatever book I randomly picked up at the school library. I wasn't quite a Christian - my parents never bothered to have us baptised - but I wasn't living a secular life. My father was a self-proclaimed agnostic who said grace at the table every day, and kneeled to pray at his bedside every night. Despite her disdain for my teacher's bigotry, my mother was a default believer. In retrospect I realise that I was too. I look back and wonder who that naïve, unquestioning girl was. Christianity wasn't particularly oppressive in my world, but it was there, insidiously casting its spell over me. Nearly a quarter-century later, it embarrasses me to think that I had beliefs because I was born into them; it does not jibe well with the thoughtful, aggressively questioning person I believed myself to be now, but who I obviously wasn't always. Why was I a sheep?

When I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, I felt a sense of recognition and realised why she is so unyielding in her quest to attack Islam head on and in her steadfast insistence that there is no place for tolerance of religious fundamentalism within a nation based on enlightenment principles. Even worse than a sheep, she was a lemming - being led to chattel marriage and a likely early death by Islam. If she, a strong-willed intelligent woman took so long to find her way out of what she'd been taught, what hope do weaker people have? But the paternalism that she bestows on her former religious kin in Europe, those she feels may not find their way out unless they have no other choice, doesn't seem the right way either.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (June 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

"Iraqis adrift"
(19 February 2007)

Free and fundamental

Hirsi Ali is a fan of the French ideal, one that claims to create neutral public spaces in schools and state institutions, although the French have never actually practiced it, she told an interviewer, citing their failure to integrate immigrants from Africa. She is right: the French do not practice the ideal, a lapse that has been on display in Paris since a closely observed trial opened on 7 February 2007. In 2006, two French Muslim groups - Paris's grand mosque and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France - were joined by the World Council of Muslims in filing a civil lawsuit against the satirical political weekly, Charlie Hebdo, for violating France's anti-racism/inciting-hatred laws. On 9 February 2006 the paper had reprinted the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed that sparked global protests from Muslims in the middle east, and commissioned more in the same vein from French cartoonists.

The trial, coming as it did in the heat of France's election season, became the cause of the moment for the caviar gauche. Nearly every commentator who spoke or wrote publicly about the trial sided with Charlie Hebdo. "France has a fine old tradition of satire that must be protected", Nicolas Sarkozy, the right's candidate for the presidency wrote in a letter supporting the paper. Francois Hollande, the head of the socialist party - and partner of Sarkozy's main rival, socialist candidate Ségolène Royal - said on Charlie Hebdo's behalf that it wasn't the paper's fault for printing the cartoons, but the terrorists' fault for establishing the link between themselves and religion.

It wasn't the backing for Charlie Hebdo that has disturbed me, but the tone of the debate: "A trial from another age", Le Monde, France's main newspaper screamed in the title of an editorial in defence of Charlie Hebdo. The trial - whose judgment falls due on 15 March - became a matter of defending France against the encroachment of an oppressive radical Islam blowing in from the south and east, and not about the place of Islam as it was actually being practiced in France. Few seemed to see, or perhaps rather were willing to see, how French the Muslim groups' actions were.

There are numerous precedents: recent cases filed by Catholic and Jewish groups against publications, advertisements or people whom they believed had run afoul of the anti-racism/anti-religious-hatred laws that mitigate France's principle of free speech, and have done so since the early part of the 20th century. The Muslim groups' lawsuit fell well within these bounds and in fact, in the way it was constructed, it acknowledged two important principles of a liberal democracy.

First, despite the fact that other papers had published the cartoons - the daily France Soir did so in a special issue on the cartoons a week before Charlie Hebdo, leading to the dismissal of editor Jacques Lefranc - the groups sued Charlie Hebdo alone (on the grounds that the weekly did not have a clear news function). Thus, they acknowledged by implication that that there was a legitimate context in which to publish the cartoons. Second, the lawsuit named only the three of the twelve cartoons that the Muslim groups said equated Muslim with terrorists; thus, they acknowledged that Islam's interdiction against depicting the prophet may upset Muslims, but was not sufficiently offensive to constitute a breach of the law.

Yet because of the global climate, recent terrorist attacks, and the fear of the cultural values of the rising number of Muslims in Europe, Muslims who attempt to practice and defend their faith in accordance with western values are being treated as if they are all closet fundamentalists, that if you give them a veil they'll take a burqa.

Neither all nor nothing

As readers of this column will know, I am not a great believer in policing speech yet I do see some sense of justice in the way these cases accusing people or entities of violating the laws against religious hatred and racism tend to play out in France. Often after being dragged through the courts by religious groups, the person or entity that made the statement manages to get the case overturned in the name of freedom of expression. It's an effective if convoluted way of provoking debate on important topics.

Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim scholar who (as well as lecturing Muslims such as Abshir) makes a living interpreting Islam for Europeans, was against the Muslim groups filing the lawsuit because he speculated that the outcome would be public posturing about free speech and publicity for Charlie Hebdo, neither of which would address what he said was the real issue: that Muslims do not receive equitable treatment with other religious groups in France. Even in advance of the court's decision, he appears to be correct. Ramadan suggested that Muslims in Europe ignore the cartoons which, in fact, most in France did. Representatives of the groups that filed the lawsuit frequently remind the French public that French Muslims did not take to the streets to protest.

But for people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the French warrior-philosophers, it seems that it is only Islam and only Muslims who are dangerously fundamentalist, who oppress their own and who must kept in check. Even at moments like these, such critics can't see a legitimate domestic action by law-abiding Muslims without placing it in a global context. It addition to being unfair, this knee-jerk tendency is simply imprudent and is bound to breed resentment. A rational state must be rational and equitable in its application of the law.

What's true on the general level is revealed also in the particular: Hirsi Ali's phone conversation with Abshir suggests the problem with her all-or-nothing, in-your-face approach. Abshir is an intelligent open-minded Muslim who is trying to find his way: he is precisely the person with whom she should be debating. To simply cut off or crush someone like him, a Muslim who uses rational techniques of question and discussion or the legal structures of the state, is imprudent. If the thoughtful mandarins of western culture don't engage with them as equals than it is the numerous imported storefront imams who will.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I were born the same year and share many of the same traits, yet while she was having her clitoris snipped and her labia sewn shut by a tribal "doctor", I was trying to figure out how to get out of violin lessons. It's easy for me to be tolerant. Nonetheless, while she was memorising the Qur'an, I was memorising Bible verses at camp in Mississippi. I know that Muslim religious fanatics have no particular claim on nasty business: Christian fundamentalists have shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, not to mention others who have gone further and murdered the doctors. But I also know that in the midst of a community of the overly devout, there is room in the liberal democracies of the west for people to leave their faith, just as there must be room for reasonable people to practice Islam without condemnation.