Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Some Observations on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Infidel"

Several days ago I resumed reading my copy of "Infidel", autographed by the lovely Ms. Ali herself, after I had finished "Fiasco", Thomas Ricks' chronicle of how we got saddled with the mess in Mesopotamia.

So far I have gotten up to page 149, just shy of the halfway point.

It is a good read and I expect to finish it by next week. A couple of things thus far struck me in particular and I thought it worth commenting on.

During her family's stay in Nairobi, Kenya, Ayaan writes about a female Islamic school teacher she had when she was sixteen named Aziza. Sister Aziza was garbed in a black hijab, which covered her entire body except for her face. She was a true believer and made quite an impression on Ayaan, who at this point in her life was trying to embrace the Islamic faith.

"Sister Aziza believed in Hell," writes Ayaan on page 81, but "she didn't emphasize fear, as all the other preachers did. She told us it was our choice. We could choose to submit to God's pureness and light and earn a place in Heaven, or we could take the low road."

Ayaan wanted to be like Sister Aziza and describes how she felt inspired to be a more pious Muslim. "I began to pray five times a day, fighting to collect my thoughts through the whole long process. I wanted to understand better how to live the life that Allah, who was infinitely just, wanted for me." On a personal note, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I are very close in age, only about five months apart, at about the same time as her I was as a teenager trying to be a true believing Catholic and was going through my own struggle between the demands of my faith and what at the time I considered to be sinful thoughts.

Ayaan even went so far as to have Sister Aziza's tailor make a cloak for her. While we are used to looking at Islamic dress as being oppressive for women, a pious Muslim woman can have a radically different opinion. On page 85, Ayaan describes her new robe as having "a thrill to it, a sensuous feeling. It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected, but potentially lethal, femininity. I was unique: very few people walked about like that those days in Nairobi. Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim. All those other girls with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites. I was a star of God. When I spread out my hands I felt like I could fly."

Ms. Ali also confirms an observation that has been made elsewhere, that religious fervor spreads in conditions where the state fails to deliver basic social services to its people. She writes on page 87 how the state "in Kenya was crumbling from within, buckling under the larceny and nepotism of the men in control... The mayor, who was supposed to look after the streets of Nairobi, was barely literate. The government was only there to take your money; its services were minimal... The same thing was also happening in Somalia... It was happening, in fact, almost everywhere in Africa and throughout the Islamic world. The more corrupt and unreliable the apparatus of government-the more it persecuted its people-the more those people headed back into their tribe, traditions, their church or mosque, and hunkered down, like among like."

A parallel development has been noted here in the United States, with the Religious Right, via the Republican Party, offering services through faith based initiatives. Michelle Goldberg, in her must-read book "Kingdom Coming", writes that "the diversion of billions of taxpayer dollars from secular social service organizations to... sectarian religious outfits has been one of the most underreported stories of the Bush presidency." As a consequence, "while religious initiatives are being fattened with federal funding, secular social services are being starved."

I am all for religious organizations playing a role in the provision of charitable services in our country, but they should could complement secular government social services, not supplant them.


Rose said...

Thanks. I want to read her book. And I will eventually; I'm just trying to get through a few other atheist and/or political books, in addition to the O'Reilly book my dad wants me read and the book club book at work...

Thanks for the observations, now I'm more excited to get a hold of a copy!

Tommykey said...

Hi there!

Your dad wants you to read Bill O'Reilly's book? You have my sympathies!