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The Missionary Position | The Nation

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The Missionary Position

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Along the same lines, Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought: "Very few Muslims are actually capable of looking at their faith critically. Critical minds like those of Afshin Ellian in the Netherlands and Salman Rushdie in England are exceptions." The work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Adonis, Amina Wadud, Nawal Saadawi, Mohja Kahf, Asra Nomani and the thousands of other scholars working in both Muslim countries and the West easily contradicts the notion. In any case, why the comparison with Rushdie? Have fatwas become the yardstick by which we measure criticism? If so, this suggests that the people who offend Islamists are the only ones worth listening to, which is ridiculous. The most shocking statement, however, comes from the essay "The Need for Self-Reflection Within Islam," in which Hirsi Ali writes: "After the events of 9/11, people who deny this characterization of the stagnant state of Islam were challenged by critical outsiders to name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none." That a person who has apparently never heard of the algebra of Al-Khawarizmi, the medical prowess of Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd, or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Umm Kulthum is considered an authority on Islam is proof, if ever one was needed, of the utter lack of intelligent discourse about the civilization and the cultures broadly defined by that word.

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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And how does the American press reward such stunningly ignorant scholarship? Time magazine picked Hirsi Ali as one of 100 "most influential people" of 2005, people with "the clout and power to change our world." At the other end of the spectrum, the answer is even more spectacularly stupid: Islamic radicals have called for Hirsi Ali's death repeatedly since 2002. Whatever the merits of Hirsi Ali's arguments, one thing is clear: By making threats against her person, right-wing Muslims appear to agree with Western conservatives that Islam as a whole (religion, region, culture) is weak, unable to defend itself by intellectual reasoning. It is also quite ironic that these radical Muslims are guilty of violating the first right their faith grants them: The right to choose their beliefs. "Let there be no compulsion in religion," the Koran insists. And for good reason, too, because without the right to choose (new) beliefs, there would have been no Islam in the first place.

The argument that pervades The Caged Virgin--that Muslim women need Western advocates--is premised on two assumptions. The first is that Muslim women somehow cannot speak up for themselves--what Edward Said once called "the silence of the native." Hirsi Ali demonstrates this: "The [reason] I am determined to make my voice heard is that Muslim women are scarcely listened to, and they need a woman to speak out on their behalf." If, as the title of this book suggests, the Muslim woman is a virgin in a cage, then by definition she must be freed from the outside. Someone must break the lock so that the poor woman can finally step out and speak for herself. But Muslim women are not, nor have they ever been, silent. For example, a significant portion of hadith, the Prophet's sayings that form the basis of the Sunna, are attributed to his wife Aisha. Here is a sample hadith: "Narrated Aisha: The Prophet said, 'All drinks that produce intoxication are haram.'" But how did Aisha narrate this saying? Was it by sitting at home, in a cage, or by actively engaging with her community and teaching the hadith to the congregation? This tradition of engagement has continued, and Muslim women have made their marks in all fields--whether religion or science or medicine or literature. Over the past century, they have organized in groups dedicated to fight for the advancement of their rights. Even under the inhumane Taliban regime, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan remained active, providing literacy courses and medical services to women and girls. That these women are thought to be invisible is a testament to the patriarchal systems--on either side--that want to protect them. But it cannot be a testament to their silence.

The second premise of the argument is the critic's supposed authority as a "native informant," which alone, and without scholarly training, qualifies her to speak of the entire religion. Indeed, Hirsi Ali tells us,

By our Western standards Muhammad is a perverse man. A tyrant. He is against freedom of expression. If you don't do as he says, you will end up in hell. That reminds me of those megalomaniacal rulers in the Middle East: Bin Laden, Khomeini, and Saddam. Are you surprised to find a Saddam Hussein? Muhammad is his example; Muhammad is an example to all Muslim men. Why do you think so many Islamic men use violence? You are shocked to hear me say these things, but like the majority of the native Dutch population, you overlook something: you forget where I am from. I used to be a Muslim; I know what I am talking about.

In numerous passages of the book, however, Hirsi Ali demonstrates precisely that she doesn't know what she is talking about. Take her statement on abortion: "According to Islam, an extramarital pregnancy brings great shame on the family, but you can still redeem yourself in the eyes of Allah. Abortion, though, the killing of an innocent baby, is a deadly sin, for which there is no forgiveness." But abortion is not universally disallowed in Islam, simply because there is not a uniform position about the issue. In the Hanbali, Shafii and Hanafi schools in Sunni Islam, for instance, abortion before the fetus has developed into a human being (what is called "ensoulment") is, in fact, permissible. Scholars differ on the lengths of time "ensoulment" takes, with definitions as narrow as forty days and as broad as 120 days (i.e., the first trimester). All schools of thought allow abortion if the pregnancy is liable to cause medical harm to the mother.

The question that must be posed, then, is whether the cause of women's emancipation can be advanced when it is argued in such a sloppy and factually inaccurate manner as it is in The Caged Virgin. One might go a step further and ask about the intended audience for such a book. Given the heavy reliance on the twin premises of "the native is silent" and "the native informant knows best," it seems possible that the book is not so much addressed to Muslims--who, in any case, Hirsi Ali believes to be deficient in individual and critical thinking--as to Western advocates for Muslim women.

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