Friday, June 11, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali @ Ottawa Writers Fest

So last night the husband and I trekked out to the (lovely) Mayfair Theatre (I know, hard life, eh?) to see and hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. She was articulate, passionate and certainly controversial; security was tight. I was disappointed to see a mainly white, 50+ audience - my disappointment from a writers fest point of view (as Kris said, "who's going to go to all the literary events from the next generation?"), and from a cultural/religious point of view. Kris is reading Nomad now, and he told me that she talks about being lonely; I can see why. While she certainly has good reason to avoid her own family and many of her former tribe, it must be very lonely sometimes to be her. On the other hand, of course, she is the definition of an internationalist; she warmly greeted the host of the evening, Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, by remarking how lovely it was to be speaking Dutch with someone in Ottawa, to have come upon a "member of her tribe" here.

Ayaan talked mainly about two of the three differences between the West and the Islamic world that she identifies in her book: sexuality, aggression, and wealth/money. She read Chapter 12 of Nomad, which talks mainly about her arrival in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and her struggle to become financially literate. Her adventures in loans and credit were meant to both amusing and thought-provoking, and they were certainly the latter, but I found they made me less amused than anxious on behalf of 1992 Ayaan; she receives a standard loan of 5000 fl., and she and her room-mate spend all but 400 fl. of it on hideous wall-to-wall carpeting. She very eloquently describes the feeling of information overload she and other immigrants feel upon arrival in the West; when speaking to a counsellor, she carefully explains how the phrase "furnish my apartment" actually meant that three huge concepts were being "thrust at me at once."

I did find some of her observations very funny; she was fascinated by wallpaper because it reminded her of covering her textbooks in school back home. She was captivated by words like "brocade" and "upholstery:" "these were words from Jane Austen, and I was living in an Alice in Wonderland world." Eventually, Ayaan's room-mate defaults on some payments for furnishings, runs up a long distance phone bill, and takes off on Ayaan, leaving her deeply in debt; Ayaan speaks highly of the Dutch friends she had who helped her get back on her feet during this time.

She talked about other Somalis, for whom she provided translation services after she had learned Dutch, who had taken out the same 5000 fl. loan as her, and had sent the entire amount back home to Somalia to smuggle their relatives out of Africa. With no concept of money, loans or interest, and no idea of the contributions made by ordinary Dutch in order that asylum-seekers might have these advantages, many of her former countrypeople ran up insurmountable debts, defaulted on loans, fled the country to other parts of Europe, and called it "Allah's will." She underlined how many immigrants she spoke to and grew to know had no idea of the obligations of citizenship or the concept of a welfare state, and how the differences between citizenship and tribal membership caused problems when Africans moved to the West.

Lucy (btw, I love Lucy, but that's another story. Let me just say she made a great host, and I have seen some crap hosts in my day) asked Ayaan after the reading was over was about turning points in Ayaan's life. Ayaan explained that one would be the fact that her father sent her to school, over the objections of her mother, who thought it would make her talk back when she got older. Her father threatened to "curse my mother in the hereafter" if she didn't let him send them to school; this sufficiently frightened her mother that Ayaan and her sister went to (and finished) school. Another turning point Ayaan spoke about was a time when she was in a camp on the Somali - Kenyan border, when she was 21, and she observed the camp shunning a dying woman who had been raped by the Kenyan police. Everyone knew she had been raped, but she was nonetheless left to die in a tent with no water, because the religious beliefs of the people around her dictated that she was "filthy, with no honour." Ayaan thought seriously about Islam at that point, and asked, "where is compassion? Where is mercy? Where is God?" The final turning point she referred to was when she was at Leiden University, and she bagan to approach questions of individuality versus collectivity and religious belief from a critical point of view. She said this gave her a certain distance from which to approach the events of September 11th and thereafter; she was able to "step back" from Islam and "scrutinise it as theory."

Ayaan spoke about her fundamental "problem" with Islam, in the literal meaning of the word, "submission to God." She questioned what type of God would want unconditional surrender, and what type of follower would want this "freedom from responsibility" for their actions. She also identified the "division of the world into believers / non-believers" as something she had a problem with, and the idea (in all religions, she pointed out) that this life is (I would qualify this as sometimes) seen as being merely a prelude to the afterlife. She called this type of belief the idea that "you're just getting marks" for the real life hereafter, a kind of cult of death.

She spared no kind words for self-identified moderate Muslims who champion change within the religion; she dismissed them as women who only "organise" in order to defend the idea of Islam (as a non-violent religion) rather than defend the rights of Muslims. She called them out as being uninterested in human rights; counting off issues such as female genital mutilation and honour killings, Ayaan said "they don't dig too deep into the mud of what it means to live in Islam." She exclaimed, "the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn't for nothing!" and rhymed off the historical events it was a response to: the Holocaust, violence against women and children, and so on. She underlined the importance of taking the Koran in context, as a historical document.

Addressing some of the tension in the room (well, I felt some tension, but it could have been me being nervous with all the police, security, and hyped-up audience members!), Lucy asked Ayaan what she would say about those who say she is just making "white liberals" feel comfortable in their prejudicial beliefs about Muslims, that Ayaan is just "excusing" their behaviour. Ayaan had a rather thought-provoking answer: that, instead of her providing an excuse for prejudicial beliefs, she is in fact saying that we are ignoring what is happening because of religion, and this makes people uncomfortable. She added that it is in fact the "moderates" who say that Islam is not violent who are providing "white liberals" with an excuse to ignore human rights violations.

Lucy asked Ayaan about Theo van Gogh's murder. Ayaan is clearly still quite angry with the Dutch parliament for, in her opinion, not saying clearly enough that the murder was inexcusable, and for going immediately to the Moroccan community in the Netherlands to "accommodate them." Lucy pointed out that sending the murderer to prison sent a clear message that the Dutch did not condone or excuse what happened, but Ayaan kept insisting that the Dutch government had "rewarded" the murderer by not clearly saying he had crossed a line. Her opinion was that the Dutch government failed to convey to the Dutch Muslim minority that this was a horrible act for which there was no "but;" she said many Dutch Muslim groups released statements beginning, "It is terrible that Theo van Gogh was killed, but..." and Ayaan's anger came from the position that there is no "but" in this situation.

There was a great deal of debate during the question period over the niqab. To be honest, I have no desire to go on about this issue here myself (basically, I guess if women "want" to wear it, fine, but it should come off when it's a security issue), but I will summarise what was said. When Ayaan was in the Dutch parliament, she said her caucus was frequently discussing Muslim women's dress. At this time, the Netherlands was installing CCTV cameras in public places; Ayaan's argument was that while every woman had the right to choose her clothing, no one had the right to say, in a world of CCTVs and terrorism, "scrutinise everyone except me."

Someone raised the recent case of a Canadian woman who is asking to wear the niqab in court while testifying in her own rape case. Ayaan maintained that this woman could not be making the request to wear the niqab out of religious motivation; if she was so religious, Ayaan reasoned, she would not recognise or seek justice in an "infidel" court. Ayaan thus interpreted this woman's act as an act of aggression.

All in all, some of Ayaan's views are pretty hard-line, and I think her anger sometimes makes her more inflexible than necessary, but she was an utterly engrossing speaker. I would pay big bucks to see her talk with Irshad Manji, whose writings about reform in Islam she mentioned briefly. I should look today for my notes from Irshad's speech at OLA a few years ago....

The evening was not all heavy: Sean made a good joke about the delicious smell of Mayfair popcorn ("Nothing goes with political debate like popcorn!") and Ayaan hilariously explained how attractive Christianity is by describing Jesus as "cuddly, long hair, nice sandals."

Kris and I came home with much to debate about. As we walked into the apartment, we agreed that, whatever happened tonight, Holland was a pretty amazing place to have given such an individual the opportunity to develop into the woman we heard speak tonight. At the end of the day, it's still really amazing that investing in a girl's education means you may end up with someone like Ayaan. As Kris says, sometimes we hear more negative stories about immigrants in the West; ultimately, Ayaan's story is certainly at times tragic, but her bravery is inspiring.

I was just trolling CBC's Ottawa video feed looking for Lucy's full interview with Ayaan, which is supposed be up today, but it's not up yet, so no link for you.


  1. "Lucy asked Ayaan what she would say about those who say she is just making "white liberals" feel comfortable in their prejudicial beliefs about Muslims, that Ayaan is just "excusing" their behaviour. Ayaan had a rather thought-provoking answer: that, instead of her providing an excuse for prejudicial beliefs, she is in fact saying that we are ignoring what is happening because of religion, and this makes people uncomfortable. She added that it is in fact the "moderates" who say that Islam is not violent who are providing "white liberals" with an excuse to ignore human rights violations." ----"human rights" is a problem across the world regardless of religion---and the U.S. itself does NOT have an unblemished record in this area.---Ayan has a simplistic belief that all the problems in the world are caused by Islam.---this is clearly an intellectually-lazy view of the world--and shows her amatuerish (mis)understanding of social dynamics and Islam itself. Both the West and the East have plenty of room to progress and reform---and clearly reform can only happen when there is a critical view of the problems. But---Western historical trajectory and social development are different than Eastern history/society and each must be looked at individually. Eastern solutions would not work in the West, neither do Western solutions work in the East.....

    However, change is happening in the East---but not because of ignorant Islam-Bashers like Ayan,---but because of intelligent scholars and leaders, both men and women who are working towards solutions.

  2. I didn't get the impression that Ayaan thought ALL the world's problems were caused by Islam. Nor did I think she was talking about all human rights violations around the world, simply those in Muslim countries.

    I agree some change is happening, and I was somewhat disappointed Ayaan did not recognise that.

    I don't think the solutions to social problems need to be the same in the East as in the West, but I do agree with Ayaan that the UN declaration and similar policies need to be a baseline for all cultural groups.

  3. Change is happening in the East, not because of "intelligent scholars and leaders" and other elites, but because of exposure of the masses to modern ideas, technologies, and ways of perceiving life, and each individual's rights and obligations in relation to this changing world. Technological and social change go hand in hand, and it is no surprise that the societies that are most backward are also the ones that are the most religious.

    It is precisely notions of East/West cultural relativism that pander to so-called "white liberals".

  4. agreed re cultural relativism!!!

  5. also re. technological and social change - look at Iran right now.