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The Missionary Position | The Nation

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The Missionary Position

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The Caged Virgin is a collection of seventeen short essays and articles on the question of Islam, translated by Jane Brown. Hirsi Ali discusses the rights of individuals in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities in the West, she disagrees vehemently with the ways sacred texts invade secular space and she criticizes what she sees as the lax policies of Western European states toward their Muslim minorities. "I have taken an enormous risk by answering the call for self-reflection," she declares. "And what do the cultural experts say? 'You should have said it in a different way.' But since Theo van Gogh's death, I have been convinced more than ever that I must say it in my way only and have my criticism." Let us then follow Hirsi Ali's example, and look critically at her words.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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The overarching argument in The Caged Virgin is that there is insufficient freedom for the individual in Islam. This, Hirsi Ali argues, is because one of the fundamental tenets of the religion is the submission of the individual to God, which creates a strict hierarchy of allegiances. At the top of this hierarchy is God, then His Prophet, then the umma, then the clan or tribe and finally the family. The individual, she insists, is simply not valued. Whatever one thinks of this hierarchy, however, it is hardly unique to Islam; one can make the same argument about other monotheistic religions. Furthermore, many Muslim countries are in fact secular or military dictatorships (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt), while others are to one extent or another theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan). Religious hierarchy does not play the same societal role in Turkmenistan as in Saudi Arabia. On top of this, there are political, national and linguistic considerations to take into account, particularly when one is making claims about fifty-seven nations spread out across Asia and Africa. But Hirsi Ali addresses none of these. In her view, they simply do not matter. Rather, she sees Islam itself as the problem and its fundamental tenet of obstructing individual freedom as the very reason the Muslim world is "falling behind" the West.

Beginning at birth, she maintains, the child is taught that his life must be governed by Islam, hatred for the infidel and the preservation of his honor through the control of women's sexuality. It is as if she were suggesting the existence of some sort of "genetic" encoding of Islam in children, which prevents them from thinking for themselves. "[We] Muslims have religion inculcated into us from birth, and that is one of the very reasons for our falling behind the West in technology, finance, health, and culture." "Every Muslim, from the beginnings of Islam to the present day, is raised in the belief that all knowledge can be found in the Koran." "For Muslim children the study of biology and history can be very confusing." Reading these lines, one must ask: What sociological evidence is there for this claim that Islam makes people inherently incapable of independent thought and of studying science? The answer is: None. One is merely given Hirsi Ali's assurances that she knows what is going on behind closed doors, based on her own experiences of growing up in Somalia and of working as an interpreter for Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands.

The notion that there is a breach of individualism that is specific to Islam is raised again in Hirsi Ali's discussion of "sexual morality." In the book's opening piece, "Stand Up for Your Rights!" she writes about the continuing obsession with female virginity, which is widespread throughout the Muslim world and which, it must be acknowledged, causes no shortage of heartache. Girls who lose their virginity before marriage can sometimes face serious consequences in Muslim countries, particularly in rural areas. "I am distressed," she writes, "that the vast majority of Muslim women are still enchained by the doctrine of virginity, which requires that women enter marriage as green as grass: experience of love and sexuality before marriage is an absolute taboo. This taboo does not apply to men." Hirsi Ali is correct to say that the burden of virginity weighs disproportionately on females in Muslim cultures, though she fails to point out that the Koran emphasizes virginity and forbids both genders from having premarital sex. In this respect, the Koran is no different from the Bible. It is therefore a matter of cultural practice that the "doctrine of virginity" is still strong in the Muslim world.

This lumping together of various Islams--the geographical region, the Abrahamic religion, the historical civilization and the many individual cultures--is symptomatic of the entire book, and makes it particularly difficult to engage with Hirsi Ali in a useful way. Her discussion of female genital mutilation (FGM) is a case in point. In at least six of the seventeen essays, she cites the horrendous practice of FGM, which involves excising, in whole or in part, young girls' inner or outer labia, and in severe cases even their clitorises. Hirsi Ali is aware that the practice predates Islam, but, she maintains, "these existing local practices were spread by Islam." According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa by Animists, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as by Ethiopian Jews, sometimes in collusion with individual representatives of the faiths. For instance, the US State Department report on FGM reveals that some Coptic Christian priests "refuse to baptize girls who have not undergone one of the procedures." And yet Hirsi Ali does not blame Animism, Christianity or Judaism for FGM, or accuse these belief systems of spreading it. With Islam, however, such accusations are acceptable.

A few years ago, Hirsi Ali proposed a bill in the Dutch Parliament that would require young girls from immigrant communities to undergo a vaginal exam once a year as a way to insure that the parents do not practice FGM. The suggestion is all the more interesting when one considers that the vast majority of Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands are from Turkey and Morocco, where FGM is unheard of. But there is a personal reason for this passionate stance: When Hirsi Ali was 5 years old, her grandmother had the procedure performed on her, without her father's knowledge or approval. The experience marked Hirsi Ali profoundly, and the fervor and determination she brings to the fight against this horrifying practice are utterly laudable. By making inaccurate statements like the one quoted above, however, she muddies the issues and alienates the very people who would have the religious standing in the community to make this practice disappear.

On more than a few occasions, Hirsi Ali makes baffling, blanket statements about women in Muslim countries. "[If] defloration occurs outside wedlock, [the girl] has dishonored her family to the tenth degree of kinship." Why not eleven? Or twelve? Where did the number ten come from? We are never told, and no source is adduced to support this claim. Not content with making inaccurate and sweeping claims about various cultures, Hirsi Ali also ventures into the field of literary criticism: "Alongside [religious textbooks] there are novels by Muslims about love, politics, and crime, in which the role of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are studiously avoided, although the moral undercurrent is that one should observe religious precepts, otherwise things end very badly." It might come as news to Arab, African and Asian novelists of the Muslim persuasion that their fiction is merely an excuse to proselytize. Is the reader seriously expected to believe that the work of Orhan Pamuk promotes the observance of religion? Or that the texts of Assia Djebbar, Tahar Djaout, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdellatif Laabi, Gamal Al-Ghitani, Nawal Al-Saadawi, Ahdaf Soueif, Alifa Rifaat, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ghassan Kanafani, Nuruddin Farah, Tayeb Salih, Kateb Yacine, Mahmoud Darwish, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Tariq Ali advocate religious morality?

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