(Published in the Business Standard, March 27, 2007)
“How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice?”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali knows the answer to her own rhetorical question. In Infidel, she sets down the story of her remarkable life, making no apologies. Her father was a noted warlord, member of a clan of Somali desert nomads. Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived for much of her life under the codes that governed “proper behaviour”—she suffered female genital circumcision (more accurately called female genital mutilation) as a young girl, and was brought up in a culture she describes as “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.”
She escaped from her family en route to a forced marriage that had been planned for her in Canada, and made up a story convincing enough to gain asylum in Holland. The headscarf came off; she found salvation through education, became a Dutch member of Parliament, and in 2004, helped Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh make a film about Muslim women.
Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist, and as the spotlight focused on Hirsi Ali, questions were raised about her “refugee” status. She is now in America, and Infidel is one of the most widely discussed biographies of recent times. Hirsi Ali believes that her faith must be rescued, that Islam is in need of a radical transformation. And she believes in a higher cause than even faith, as she said in a trenchant essay just after the controversy over cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, “I am here to defend the right to offend.”
The figure that has emerged most strongly in contemporary fiction about Islam is the figure of the terrorist, usually male, often apparently cosmopolitan, drawn to a warped version of the true faith by circumstances. This is the figure you see in John Updike’s Terrorist, in Kiran Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier, in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Of the three, Hamid offers the best imagined and most sensitive portrait. He tackles similar questions to the ones Hanif Kureishi raised a generation ago in My Son the Fanatic: how can someone brought up in an age of reason betray himself?
This is an important subject, but the figure of the young Islamic man turned terrorist is also becoming a 21st century cliché. Ayaan Hirsi Ali belongs to a small group of writers who use fiction or non-fiction to move into different, if equally crucial, areas of debate.
A few years ago, some of us began reading an independent website called Muslim Wake-up because it included the voices of some of the most original writers of our time. There was Mohja Kahf, writing a Scheherazade-cycle of stories about Sex and the Umma. Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores introduced the then-fictional genre of Muslim punk rock—the book went cult, and inspired actual Muslim punk rockers subsequently.
And there was Asra Q Nomani, a journalist interested in exploring faith from the inside. In Standing Alone in Mecca, Nomani shares with Hirsi Ali the belief that Islam must be transformed from the inside, but she has a more nuanced, and scholarly, understanding of her faith. Nomani was in Pakistan with her friend Danny Pearl days before he was kidnapped and killed; she and Marianne Pearl went through their pregnancies together, Nomani in the early stages, Marianne in her final months.
Nomani made the pilgrimage to Mecca as a believer who was also an unwed mother. She found Saudi Arabia rigid, but also willing to accord women respect as pilgrims on the Hajj. It was in apparently free America that her battle against conservative Islam actually began, when she questioned why women in mosques were not allowed equal space in their institutions of faith.
“The Muslim world was galvanized to protect the rights of women to wear scarves on their heads,” she writes, “but I was left standing alone in my mosque in Morgantown… Men could feel noble, protecting our right to wear a cloth over our hair, but they went silent when it came time to protect our right to speak.”
She faced down imams who declared that “America must submit to Islam, not Islam submit to America,” death threats, the disapproval of the community and a virtual inquisition by the chiefly male elders of her own mosque in Morgantown. Nomani has won some early battles, but like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Muhammad Knight and Mohja Kahf, she is still in the thick of the war for what all of them see as the true soul of their religion. Her book ends with the last word of Islamic prayer: “Ameen (please accept).”
The two most common contemporary stereotypes of Islam are the apostate and the terrorist. In their own ways, these writers ask us to please accept that so much more lies in between.