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The New Yorker sneers at a freedom fighter

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Posted on June 15 2010 1:07 pm
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The New Yorker carried last week an attack on freedom fighter Ayaan Hirsi Ali that borders on the obscene in its extenuation of evil and denigration of those fighting against it. “Islamismism: How should Western intellectuals respond to Muslim scholars?,” by Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker, June 7 (thanks to Jules):

Was the prophet Muhammad a pervert and a tyrant? Does Islam promote terrorism and enslave women? Does Islam oblige its followers to wage jihad on Westerners whose roots lie in the secular Enlightenment? Should Muslims consider converting to Christianity? For the Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes!” Hirsi Ali, who renounced Islam in her thirties, speaks from experience of bigotry and intolerance among her former co-religionists: she was genitally mutilated as a child in Somalia, briefly radicalized by a preacher of jihad in Kenya, nearly forced into a marriage, threatened with death in the Netherlands by the Muslim assassin of her collaborator, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and is still hounded by murderous fanatics in her new home, America….

There is a great deal wrong with this right at the outset. Pankaj Mishra is suggesting that Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes “Muhammad was a pervert and a tyrant,” and that Islam promotes terrorism and enslaves women, and all the rest of the charges above, because she experienced “bigotry and intolerance among her former co-religionists,” was “genitally mutilated as a child in Somalia,” was “briefly radicalized,” and so on. In other words, if she hadn’t had such terrible personal experiences with Islam, she wouldn’t regard it with such a gimlet eye today.

But actually, the question of whether or not Muhammad was a pervert and a tyrant has nothing whatsoever to do with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s experiences, whatever they may have been. The question of whether Muhammad was this or that can only be answered by consulting the most trustworthy sources about Muhammad — although one will get two different answers depending on whether one is searching for what Muhammad actually said and did, or for what Muslims believe he said and did, as they are not the same thing. Even the question of whether Islam enslaves women cannot be answered by Hirsi Ali’s personal experience, as illuminating as it may be of the condition of women in Islam; it has to be answered by reference to Islamic texts and teachings about women, and by a look at how those texts and teachings are put into practice in various parts of the Islamic world.

By making it all about Hirsi Ali’s negative experiences, Pankaj Mishra abuses her again, by devaluing her judgment and implying that if she had been born into different circumstances, she would think something different about Islam. Of course, in some ways we all would think differently if we were born into different circumstances. But to make one’s judgments entirely the result of one’s experiences, rather than one’s reasoned reflection, is to render them worthless as guides for anyone else. And that, apparently, is exactly what Pankaj Mishra is trying to do to Ayaan Hirsi Ali here.

“Nomad” is unlikely to earn Hirsi Ali many Muslim admirers. Neither will her recent support for the proposed French ban on face veils and the Swiss referendum outlawing minarets. In denouncing Islam unreservedly, she has claimed a precedent in Voltaire–though the eighteenth-century scourge of the Catholic Church might have been perplexed by her proposal that Muslims embrace the “Christianity of love and tolerance.” In another respect, however, the invocation of Voltaire is more apt than Hirsi Ali seems to realize. Voltaire despised the faith and identity of Europe’s religious minority: the Jews, who, he declared, “are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts,” who had “surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism,” and who “deserve to be punished.” Voltaire’s denunciations remind us that the Enlightenment was a much more complex and multifaceted phenomenon than the dawn of reason and freedom that Hirsi Ali evokes. Many followed Voltaire in viewing the Jews as backward, an Oriental abscess in the heart of Europe. Hirsi Ali, recording her horror of ghettoized Muslim life in Whitechapel, seems unaware of the similarly contemptuous accounts of Jewish refugees who made the East End of London their home after fleeing the pogroms.

Or in short, as the new saying goes, “Muslims are the new Jews.” There is just one problem with this ghastly equation, which trivializes the mass-murders of Jews in Europe and defames Hirsi Ali: Jews never carried out terrorist attacks in Europe, and never boasted about how they were one day going to take over (in contrast to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s boast that Muslims would soon conquer Rome and all of Europe — a boast that other Islamic leaders have echoed). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a forgery, and there was no factual basis for all the conspiracy theories about Jews scheming to control the world, any more than there is today.

There is no open-ended, universal imperative in Jewish Scripture calling upon Jews to wage war against non-Jews and subjugate them under their rule (and the verses from Deuteronomy and Joshua that are always invoked to claim that there is such an imperative have never been understood that way by Jewish or Christian exegetes). But there is such an imperative in the Qur’an, and throughout Islamic history the mainstream understanding of that imperative has been that it is something incumbent upon the Islamic community as a whole. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, in his 1994 book The Methodology of Ijtihad, quotes the twelfth century Maliki jurist Ibn Rushd: “Muslim jurists agreed that the purpose of fighting with the People of the Book…is one of two things: it is either their conversion to Islam or the payment of jizyah.” Nyazee concludes: “This leaves no doubt that the primary goal of the Muslim community, in the eyes of its jurists, is to spread the word of Allah through jihad, and the option of poll-tax [jizya] is to be exercised only after subjugation” of non-Muslims.

I suppose Nyazee is an “Islamophobe”?

What’s more, neither Ayaan Hirsi Ali nor anyone else is talking about rounding up Muslims and gassing them to death, or deporting them wholesale, or any such. It is a peculiar leap of logic to say that because one group was falsely accused of supremacist designs and was persecuted as a result, therefore any other group accused of supremacist designs must be falsely accused, with the accusers nursing genocidal aspirations.

The implied slur on Hirsi Ali’s character, and that of all anti-jihadists, is unconscionable — and then Pankaj Mishra compounds it by condescendingly suggesting that he understands her family better than she does, and that jihad terrorism is a consequence of bigotry and poverty. That common assumption brushes aside the many studies that show that jihadis are generally better educated and wealthier than their peers. And it manifests an abysmal ignorance of the “sense of history” Mishra scolds Hirsi Ali for not having: Mishra shows no sign of being aware of the demonstrable fact that today’s jihad terrorists are motivated by the same Islamic teachings that have motivated jihad warriors throughout history, and that are based on statements in the Qur’an and Sunnah about Infidels and the Muslim’s responsibility to fight them, not on the relative poverty or lack thereof of the Islamic world.

Whitechapel has much in its past–oppression, bigotry, poverty, radicalism–that would have helped Hirsi Ali understand not only the neighborhood’s newest inhabitants but also her own family. But “Nomad” reveals that her life experiences have yet to ripen into a sense of history. The sad truth is that the problems she blames on Islam–fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism–are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity.

This amateurish sociology is disproven by even the most casual glance around the globe at wherever non-Muslim “traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity.” One wonders how Pankaj Mishra would explain why Muslim Pakistani immigrants have caused so much trouble in Britain, and Indian Hindu immigrants so little, when their ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are so similar.

Many more young women are killed in India for failing to bring sufficient dowry than perish in “honor killings” across the Muslim world. Such social pathologies no more reveal the barbaric core of Hinduism or Islam than domestic violence in Europe and America defines the moral essence of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

No culture or group has a monopoly on evil. Neither Ayaan Hirsi Ali nor anyone else is saying that only Muslims perform evil acts. I have no idea if Mishra’s assertion about the number of murders of Hindu girls with insufficient dowry is correct, but the problem with honor killing is sanctioned by Islamic law and custom, thus making it very difficult to stamp out in Islamic communities. Hindu dowry-killing is not sanctioned by Hindu teaching. It is against the law in India. In Islam, however, the situation is quite different: Syria recently scrapped a law limiting the length of sentences for honor killings, but “the new law says a man can still benefit from extenuating circumstances in crimes of passion or honour ‘provided he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing.'”

That’s right: two years for murder. And in 2003 the Jordanian Parliament voted down on Islamic grounds a provision designed to stiffen penalties for honor killings. Al-Jazeera reported that “Islamists and conservatives said the laws violated religious traditions and would destroy families and values.”

What’s more, a manual of Islamic law certified as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy by Al-Azhar University, the most respected authority in Sunni Islam, says that “retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right.” However, “not subject to retaliation” is “a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring.” (‘Umdat al-Salik o1.1-2).

In other words, someone who kills his child incurs no legal penalty under Islamic law.

That’s why these honor killings keep happening — because they are broadly tolerated, even encouraged, by Islamic teachings and attitudes. Yet no authorities are calling Islamic leaders to account for this. And Mishra, instead of at least granting Hirsi Ali her due for speaking about this problem, obfuscates the issue with tu quoque arguments about Hindu practices.

Islamic fundamentalist groups have long terrorized many Muslim countries, especially those, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, that were ravaged by blowback from the Cold War and the war on terror. These extremists, who now assault the West as well, have always lacked popular support within their own countries.

I guess that’s why Hamas won the election in Gaza, and why Sharia was enshrined as the highest law of the land in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and why Pakistan has been playing a double game of aiding the Taliban on one hand while pretending to fight it on the other. It is why we see such a broad-based global Islamic movement dedicated to teaching against the jihad doctrine and Islamic supremacism, preventing Muslims from joining jihad groups, and inducing those who are in jihad groups to leave them.

Of course, there is no such global movement. The programs in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere to “de-radicalize” jihadis have been shown to be useless and/or shams again and again, with high levels of recidivism. Mishra, you’ll note, offers no evidence to back up his assertion that jihadis “have always lacked popular support within their own countries,” and there is a reason for that: there is no such evidence.

The anarchic vivacity of contemporary Muslim societies–featuring such figures as Ali Saleem, Pakistan’s cross-dressing television host, and Cairo’s hijab-wearing sex therapist Heba Kotb, whose talk show is beamed across the Arab world–does not quite match Hirsi Ali’s description of an incurably medieval people busy devising ever-harsher laws for themselves while plotting mayhem for the infidels.

This kind of shoddy analysis is sadly widespread. Mishra seems to assume that if one points out that there are jihadis and Islamic supremacists in Islamic countries, then there are only jihadis and Islamic supremacists in those countries. Obviously that is absurd, but the existence of cross-dressing TV hosts and hijab-wearing sex therapists is irrelevant, because it does nothing to militate against the activity of those jihadis. In Russia, the Bolsheviks were never a majority, but they were an organized, energetic, ideologically motivated vanguard. And that’s all they needed to be in order to gain control of the country.

In recent years, Islamist movements, led or assisted by women activists, have helped democratize Indonesia and Turkey; innumerable Muslims, such as Asma Jahangir, in Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi, in Iran, fight to defend the rights of women against both Islamic fundamentalists and secular autocrats.

Yes, and Indonesia and Turkey are both teetering on the edge of deep-sixing democracy and returning to Sharia rule. And while women’s rights activists in Pakistan and Iran are to be applauded, we can’t kid ourselves that they have made much headway against the institutionalized oppression of women, sanctioned by Islam, in either country.

Nor do Hirsi Ali’s simple oppositions–traditional societies versus democracy, Islam versus Western secularism–sum up the experiences of Muslims in Europe, who are the Continent’s most globalized minority, with multilayered identities that are usually influenced less by the Koran or Sharia than by the politics, culture, and economy of various nations and transnational networks.

Here again, a blanket assertion is made without evidence. Among the evidence of what Muslims in Europe really value that Mishra ignores is the fact that Sharia enclaves have already been established all over Europe. In them, Sharia is enforced and the law of the land flouted. These can be found in Malmo in Sweden, the Molenbeek area of Brussels, and elsewhere. Again, all one needs is an organized, energized minority to affect radical change.

Her praise for the United States, her new home, shows a growing familiarity with right-wing touchstones (self-reliance, distrust of government, family values, gun ownership, Christianity)….

Horror of horrors! Of course, all this is semaphoring to New Yorker readers that Hirsi Ali does not merit their enlightened liberal support.

If Hirsi Ali’s rhetoric has earned her critics among Western liberals, she has a fierce defender in Paul Berman, whose new polemic, “The Flight of the Intellectuals” (Melville House; $26), hails her as a “classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual.” He upbraids such writers as the Anglo-Dutch journalist Ian Buruma and the British academic Timothy Garton Ash, who, he says, “sneered at Ayaan Hirsi Ali for having taken up the ideas of Western liberalism.”

Now Berman can add Pankaj Mishra to that list.

Berman also condemns Buruma and Garton Ash for “grovelling” to Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim professor at Oxford University, whose work seeks to integrate observant Muslims into secular Western societies, and whom Berman sees as an apologist for extremism. For Berman, the spectacle of writers attacking Hirsi Ali while embracing Ramadan points to a dangerous “reactionary turn in the intellectual world” of Europe and America….In “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” Berman expands his original indictment, arguing that Ramadan makes the right noises but is actually quite vague about women’s rights, and his reinterpretations of Islamic texts do not sound very liberal or moderate. In Berman’s account, the modern Islamic thinkers whom Ramadan is related to or admires turn out to be promoters of jihadi violence against Israel and the West. Ramadan’s grandfather, for instance, was an early supporter of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, who tried to create an Arab-Nazi alliance. Berman concedes that Ramadan himself doesn’t advocate terrorism or anti-Semitism, but says he is soft on those who do, which makes it more inexplicable that liberal intellectuals should depict Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the “admirer of the West,” as a loose cannon while hailing Ramadan as “a long-awaited Islamic hero–the religious thinker who was going, at last, to adapt Islam to the modern world.” According to Berman, intellectuals like Buruma and Garton Ash have helped Ramadan “become a representative man of our age.”

Note that Mishra offers no refutation of Berman’s assertion that “the modern Islamic thinkers whom Ramadan is related to or admires turn out to be promoters of jihadi violence against Israel and the West.” He just presents it in a context of skepticism. And then oddly, Mishra concedes that Ramadan’s influence in Europe and the Middle East doesn’t rival that of “a figure like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based theologian who justifies suicide attacks on Israel and whose program on Al Jazeera reaches tens of millions of people.” Yet Hirsi Ali is overstating the threat of Islamic supremacism?

Mishra soon after that embarks upon an even more fantastic flight of fancy:

Certainly, this malignity does still fester in the proclamations of Hamas and Hezbollah; and Berman deftly summarizes a revisionist history that emphasizes “centuries of Muslim cruelty toward the Jews,” challenging the conventional view that European-style anti-Semitism was unknown under the Ottoman Empire. But he misses an opportunity to enrich his genealogy of hate by setting it within the modern history of the Middle East and Asia. For instance, he makes a passing reference to Rashid Rida, a prominent Islamist thinker at the turn of the twentieth century and al-Banna’s revered teacher, expressing curiosity about his praise for early Zionist settlers, but doesn’t explore the matter further. Although, ultimately, Rida turned against Zionism as Jewish immigration to Palestine surged in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, he had been an outspoken critic of European anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus trial and made early attempts, including an exchange with Chaim Weizmann, regarding an agreement between “the Arabs and their Hebrew cousins.” Berman rightly points out that the mufti of Jerusalem showed an obscene eagerness to help extend the Final Solution to the Middle East, and hatred of British colonialists and Zionist settlers certainly provoked Naziphilia among many Arabs of the nineteen-thirties and forties. But it is worth noting that, by 1941, when the mufti sidled up to Hitler and, soon afterward, began to air his anti-Semitic rants on the radio, reactionary pan-Islamists like him had to contend with overlapping groups of liberal Westernizers, Marxists, and secular Arab nationalists; far from being representative of the larger Arab world, the mufti was a fast-diminishing figure even in his own small sphere of influence–forced out of Palestine by the British in 1937 and blamed for a series of political debacles there. Berman himself relates that Arabs comprehensively failed to respond to the mufti’s exhortations to kill the Jews.

Could Mishra possibly be serious in writing this? Is he not aware that the Arab states surrounding Israel rejected a UN-mandated “two-state solution” and embarked on a war to annihilate Israel in 1948 — a scant few years after the Mufti had saturated the Arabic-speaking world with Jew-hatred broadcast from Berlin?

This blandly asserted unreality is emblematic of the whole piece. What is ultimately the bitterest irony is that if Pankaj Mishra himself is saved from the violence, degradation and horror of Islamic supremacism, it will be due to the efforts of the very people he sneers at, people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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