DESPERATE FOR ENLIGHTMENT.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the voice of reason and confrontation, is part of a growing movement that seeks to shape the future of Islam, and her message needs to be more widely heard, writes Janet Albrechtsen
"A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions and longings ... A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development ... You submit; that is the literal meaning of Islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet on the inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside your mind. - Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel"
HIRSI Ali makes headlines wherever she goes. In Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival, she provided a finale on a brisk Sunday evening unusual at such events where a heady concoctions of anti-Western sentiments tend to prevail. Hirsi Ali encouraged her audience to espouse their Western values louder than those who espouse Islam. There was, she said, "always an infidel in me" as she grew to detest the submission of free will at the heart of Islam. Dressed in a black dress and knee-high boots, Hirsi Ali glided off the stage just as the polite applause grew more rapturous, with the audience standing to mark their appreciation.
Alas, there were no Muslim women in the audience dressed in hijabs or chadors. Hirsi Ali was preaching, if not to the converted then at least to the curious: those who wanted to catch a glimpse of this tall, beautiful, brave woman, who implored her audience not to abandon the child brides who could be found in the suburbs.
The 37-year-old Somali-born former Dutch MP has not always been applauded. Even before she arrived in Australia she was told to stay home. University of Technology Sydney Islamic law lecturer Jamila Hussain said Hirsi Ali's ideas were "narrow and radical" and she did not agree with them. Fair enough. But then Hussain added: "I think she'd be better staying where she came from." You have to admire academe for its censorship chutzpah. More from Nada Roude, of the NSW Islamic Council, who said Hirsi Ali's comments on the prophet Mohammed were a "no-go zone".
It won't faze Hirsi Ali, a woman surrounded by security to protect her from those who would resort to violence to fend off ideas. By blowing the lid on the treatment of some women within Muslim communities, she has nettled an even broader coalition of progressives who embrace cultural rights as a higher paragon than, say, those of women's rights.
In Infidel, she recounts the harrowing experience of genital mutilation, inflicted on her and her friends. And one friend, Sahra, described what it was like when her husband tried to penetrate her after they were married, "pushing his way into her, trying to tear open the scar between her legs, how much it hurt. She said Abdullah (her husband) had wanted to cut her open with a knife because she was sewn so tight ... I suppose he felt pity for that poor 14-year-old child (his wife), because he agreed to take her to the hospital to be cut."
The bind for progressives was obvious. Would they hail Hirsi Ali's expose of the inequality and mistreatment of Muslim women? Or would they defend cultural sensitivities? They opted for the latter, a choice imbued more with anti-Western sentiment than logic given that the past 40 years have been devoted to fighting for the sorts of freedoms - for women, for gays, for non-conformists - that Islamic societies openly spurn. Normally only too eager to denounce the stifling role of Christianity, many Western European secularists found her discussion of Islam a bridge too far. And her embrace of Western culture tended to show up their own loathing towards the West.
And so it falls to brave women such as Hirsi Ali to break the silence. In Infidel she traces how a spark of independence in a young, obedient Muslim girl matured into a determination to escape the shackles of Islam. Deserting an arranged marriage, she arrived in The Netherlands, where she discovered freedom, but it was tainted by what she found: Muslim girls suffering the same injustices meted out in Muslim countries. When she started talking, The Netherlands would never be the same.
Tolerance-laden Dutch society had turned a blind eye to barbarity committed in the name of culture. It became a snapshot of the West's future confronted with Islamic fundamentalism: a confrontation sharpened by the sheer power of demography.
Western feminists have largely ignored Hirsi Ali's call for female emancipation in Muslim communities. In an interview with The Australian yesterday, Hirsi Ali lamented the fact that such women gave up on universal human rights and pursued relativist rights. "Western feminism jumped on the multiculturalism wagon" forgetting that "human beings are equal. Ideas and values are not equal".
Critics who denounce Hirsi Ali as a Western fundamentalist have similarly adopted a moral equivalence that beggars belief. As she says in her book: "I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation." She acknowledges the West is not perfect, "but this culture, the West, the product of the Enlightenment, is the best humanity has ever achieved", she says.
In March, Ali joined a small group of "believers, doubters and unbelievers" in Florida who are calling for an Islamic Enlightenment. Ignored by the Australian media, signatories to what is called the StPetersburg Declaration called for an end to sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule and state-sanctioned religion, the elimination of female circumcision, honour killings and forced marriages, the removal of penalties for blasphemy and apostasy.
In short, they are asking for "an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed without coercion or intimidation", releasing Islam from its captive embrace by "the totalitarian ambitions of power-hungry men". Their aim is for Islam to have a noble future as a personal faith, not a political doctrine.
Achieving that goal will depend on two things. First, whether other Muslims will recognise the need for Islam to be reinterpreted in a way that embraces liberty, rationality and tolerance. Canadian author Irshad Manji, a practising Muslim whose house has bulletproof windows and a locked mailbox to prevent letter bombs, told CNN we must draw a distinction between Muslim moderates and Muslim reformers. "Moderates denounce terror, to be sure, but they say Islam has nothing to do with it," she said. "Reform-minded Muslims, of which I consider myself one, denounce terror and acknowledge that the manipulation of religion does play a role."
The second challenge is for the rest of us. When reform-minded Muslims step up to the plate, they ought to be treated as champions, lauded as heroes. That may encourage more to come forward in a cause that will determine the future course of the West.
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