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Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad – Excerpts

“Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting: All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not.”

In plain English and with exemplary candor, Ayaan Hirsi Ali compares the virtues of Western civilization with the vices of her original homeland in Somalia, argues that not all cultures or religions are equal, notes the flood of refugees heading west from the Islamic lands, and points to the dangers to their hosts as well as the risks to the migrants themselves. Below are short extracts from her new book Nomad, HarperCollins 2010.

Tribal life and modernity In her Introduction Ayaan writes of the intellectual journey she has made moving from Somalia, to Holland, to the United States.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad CoverIt was a journey from Africa, a place where people are members of a tribe, to Europe and America, where people are citizens… There were many misunderstandings, expectations, and disappointments along the way, and I learned many lessons. I learned that it is one thing to say farewell to tribal life; it is quite another to practice the life of a citizen, which so many members of my family have failed to do. And they are by no means alone.

Today close to a quarter of all people in the world identify themselves as Muslim, and the top ten refugee-producing nations in the world are also Muslim. Most of those displaced peoples are heading toward Europe and the United States.

The scale of migration from Muslim countries is almost certain to increase in the coming years because the birth rate in those countries is so much higher than in the West. The “problem family” — people like my relatives — will become more and more common unless Western democracies understand better how to integrate the newcomers into our societies: how to turn them into citizens. (xvi) [Separate chapters in Nomad treat the lives and fates of Ayaan’s parents and their children. RS]

Most Muslims, like all other immigrants, migrate to the West not to be locked up in a minority, but to search for a better life, one that is safe and predictable and that holds the prospect of a better income and the opportunity of a good quality education for their children. To achieve this, I believe, they must learn to give up some of their habits, dogmas, and practices, and acquire new ones.

There are many good men and women in the West who try to resettle refugees, scold their fellow citizens for not doing more, donate money to philanthropic organizations, and strive to eliminate discrimination. They lobby governments to exempt minorities from the standards of behavior of Western societies; they fight to help minorities preserve their cultures, and thy excuse their religion from critical scrutiny. These people mean well, I have no doubt. But I believe that their well-intentioned activism is now a part of the very problem they seek to solve.

To be blunt, their efforts to assist Muslims and other minorities are futile because, by postponing or at best prolonging the process of their transition to modernity — by creating the illusion that one can hold on to tribal norms and at the same time become a successful citizen — the proponents of multiculturalism lock subsequent generations born in the West into a no-man’s-land of moral values. What comes packaged in a compassionate language of acceptance is really a cruel form of racism. And it is all the more cruel because it is expressed in sugary words of virtue. (xviii)

The veil In London, on Whitechapel Road, Ayaan sees immigrant women “wearing every variety of Muslim covering imaginable”, and reflects on the veil as a mark of status and submission.

The Muslim veil, the different sorts of masks and beaks and burkas, are all gradations of mental slavery. You must ask permission to leave the house, and when you do go out you must always hide yourself behind thick drapery. Ashamed of your body, suppressing your desires — what small space in your life can you call your own?

The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, nonpersons. The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility. A mind can be cramped just as a body may be, and a Muslim veil blinkers both your vision and your destiny. It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of a sex.

As we drove down Whitechapel Road I felt anger that this subjugation is silently tolerated, if not endorsed, not just by the British but by so many Western societies where the equality of the sexes is legally enshrined. (16)

Family conflict and polygamy After many years heroically campaigning for democracy in Somalia, Ayaan’s father slipped back into a mixture of religious dogmatism and opportunism, precipitating Ayaan’s disenchantment with his entire view of the world.

Just as I had lied about my identity when I sought asylum in Holland, my father, too, it seemed, had lied to cheat the asylum system so that he could live in Britain. The tribal hero, the preserver of the culture of Islam and the clan, took handouts from the unbelievers on a false pretext, with a fake passport, though, unlike me, he had nothing but contempt for their values and way of life.

Before he died he had even applied for and received British citizenship, not because he wanted to be a British subject but because of the instrumental benefits of free housing and health care. At the same time he continued to lecture me never to be loyal to a secular state; he repeatedly urged me to return to the true faith.

If I had stayed with him for a week he would have asked me to reunite with the family — his wives, their daughters, some of whom probably think I should be put to death and who certainly consider me a whore.

We who are born into Islam don’t talk much about the pain, the tensions and ambiguities of polygamy. (Polygamy, of course, predates Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad elevated it and sanctioned it into law, just as he did child marriage.) It is in fact very difficult for all the wives and children of one man to pretend to live happily, in union.

Polygamy creates a context of uncertainty, distrust, envy, and jealousy. There are plots. How much is the other wife getting? Who is the favored child? Who will he marry next, and how can we manipulate him most efficiently? Rival wives and their children plot and are often said to cast spells on each other.

If security, safety, and predictability are the recipe for a healthy and happy family, then polygamy is everything a happy family is not. It is about conflict, uncertainty, and the constant struggle for power. (24)

Education and cultural tradition In Holland Ayaan worked with Somali refugees, becoming concerned about the prospects for their children, many of whom consistently failed their tests at school. Somali mothers in Holland, she writes —

Were all focused backward, to a mythical past of life as nomads in the Somali desert. They would tell their little children about Somalia’s heroes, about milking camels, and to hate other clans. They would emotionally blackmail their children not to become “too Dutch,” to speak Somali instead of Dutch and not give up their culture.

These children performed poorly in school. As part of their evaluations they were given puzzles to work out; they were required to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and to behave properly at the dinner table. In Holland these are important indicators that children are well-adjusted.

But all the Somali children I translated for, who in their homes certainly ate on the floor, with their hands, flatly failed these tests. That meant they would not go to a normal school; they would go to a ‘special school’ for ’remedial learning.’ The Dutch government would spend a lot of money on coaching them to catch up…

I was amazed that officials in so many different institutions — social workers, schoolteachers, the police, child protection services, domestic violence agencies — all assumed that there was some deep cultural puzzle that they did not understand. In itself that was not a bad assumption, but then they proceeded to protect these puzzling cultural norms.

This was the advice they received from anthropologists, Arabists, Islamologists, cultural experts, and ethnic organizations, all of whom insisted that these behaviors were something special and unique and worth preserving in these homes. (66)

Islam in America Moving to the United States, Ayaan finds troubling signs of the radicalization of Muslim youth. Again one sees the conflict between citizenship, on the one hand, and a primary loyalty to country of origin, to religion, and to tribe.

Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot? You can if you don’t care very much about being a Muslim. If you squint and look away, you can avoid thinking about the very basic clashes between the submissive, collectivist values of Islam and the individualist, libertarian values of the democratic West.

In a 2007 poll by the Pew Center, 63 percent of U.S. Muslims said they saw no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. But 32 percent conceded that, yes, there is such a conflict, and almost 50 percent of the Muslim American questioned in that poll said they think of themselves as Muslims first, Americans second. Only 28 percent, little more than a quarter, considered themselves Americans first.

Asked whether suicide bombing can be justified as a measure to defend Islam, 26 percent of American Muslims age eighteen to twenty-nine said yes. That is one quarter of the adult American Muslims under the age of thirty, and no matter how you count the number of Muslims in America (estimates vary from 2 million to 8 million), that is a lot of people. (139)

It is important to remember that Muslim schools are different from so-called regular Christian or Jewish schools. By ‘regular’ I mean schools that are Christian or Jewish in identity but have secular curricula.

Muslim schools, by contrast, are more or less like madrassas, which emphasize religion more than any other subject. Students are taught to distance themselves from science and the values of freedom, individual responsibility, and tolerance. The establishment of a Muslim school anywhere in the world, but especially in the West, gives Wahabis and other wealthy Muslim extremists an opportunity to isolate and indoctrinate vulnerable groups of children. (136)

Patriarchy and personal freedom In her chapter on ‘School and Sexuality’ Ayaan discusses the constraints placed upon Muslim women — both within the home and in social life more generally.

Women living under Islamic law cannot travel, work, study, marry, sign most legal documents, or even leave their home without their father’s permission. They may not be permitted to participate in public life, and their freedom to make decisions regarding their private life is severely, often brutally curtailed.

They may not choose with whom they have sex nor, when they are married, when or whether to have sex. They may not choose what to wear, whether to work or to walk down the street.

When well-meaning Westerners, eager to promote respect for minority religions and cultures, ignore practices like forced marriage and confinement in order to ‘stop society from stigmatizing Muslims,’ they deny countless Muslim girls their right to wrest their freedom from their parents’ culture. They fail to live up to the ideals and values of our democratic society, and they harm the very same vulnerable minority whom they seek to protect. (163-164)

Money and personal responsibility Unfamiliarity with modern financial arrangements, saving, and credit, leaves many immigrants of tribal background at risk of exploitation — including exploitation by members of their clan.

In a very slow and painful process I stumbled back and forth discovering the intricacies of financial responsibility. What I did not know, I learned. Based on that  experience, I believe it would be prudent to teach refugees a few basic skills before giving them loans and presenting them with credit cards and furniture catalogs, before they get sucked into a subculture of borrowing and fraud.

In a modern, Western society, citizens’ financial ethics, like their sexual ethics, are based on individual responsibility. Within the tribe, ethics are about obedience top clan values, and because of the ob ligation to assist impecunious family members, those who are irresponsible with their money get away with it.

Loyalty to members of the tribe in faraway countries requires borrowing money to send to them. This makes it hard to see the country of your new citizenship as ‘home’; it has a cost too in terms of your own prosperity. At face value, it may seem very generous to share your money with your extended family, but when this involves taking out loans it has a serious long-term cost.

Skills of earning, budgeting, and saving are indispensable for citizens. But we are not born with them. Muslim girls and women, in particular, are not trained to have such skills. Their ignorance of all things money-related affects them personally, of course, but it also perpetuates the poverty of their families.

These girls become mothers too soon, and as mothers they fail to teach their children what it is to be financially responsible. They fall prey to easy credit and fantasy spending. This breeds dependence on welfare states that are already overstretched. (182)

Group solidarity It is often argued that tribal immigrants need close cohesion for their mental health and self-esteem. On the basis of her own experience Ayaan says this is not true.

The idea that immigrants need to maintain group cohesion promotes the perception of them as victim groups requiring special accommodation, an industry of special facilities and assistance. If people should conform to their ancestral culture, it therefore follows that they should also be helped to maintain it, with their own schools, their own government-subsidized community groups, and even their own system of legal arbitration.

This is the kind of romantic primitivism that the Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall calls ‘designer tribalism.’ Non-Western cultures are automatically assumed to live in harmony with animals and plants according to the deeper dictates of humanity and to practice an elemental spirituality.

Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting: All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. A culture that celebrates femininity and considers women to be the masters of their own lives is better than a culture that mutilates girls’ genitals and confines them behind walls and veils or flogs or stones them for falling in love.

A culture that protects women’s rights by law is better than a culture in which a man can lawfully have four wives at once and women are denied alimony and half their inheritance. A culture that appoints women to its supreme court is better than a culture that declares that the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man.

It is part of Muslim culture to oppress women and part of all tribal cultures to institutionalize patronage, nepotism, and corruption. The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better. (212-213)

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