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David PinaultOctober 02, 2006

The Caged Virginby Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Free Press. 187p $19.95

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the most controversialand courageousthinker to address the status of Muslims in Western societies today.

Born in Somalia and raised a Muslim, she fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage. As an interpreter for Somali refugees, she gained firsthand experience concerning the situation of immigrant Muslims, especially girls and young women, in the self-ghettoized Islamic communities of the Dutch urban landscape. Her empathy with immigrant Muslim women led her to enter politics and become a member of the Dutch parliament.

Her public renunciation of Islam and frequent essays criticizing the Islamic tradition earned her the enmity of Muslim groups in Europe. This enmity worsened when she collaborated with the filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the movie Submission, which explored the lives of Muslim women and the violence (especially spousal abuse) some of them undergo. The film’s distribution led to van Gogh’s murder in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim and death threats against Hirsi Ali. Bodyguards now accompany her everywhere.

Recently a Dutch immigration minister instituted proceedings to revoke Hirsi Ali’s citizenship on the grounds of irregularities in her original asylum application. This maneuver was bound up with the larger topic of the immigrant presence in the Netherlands, one of the most bitterly contested issues in Dutch politics today. Ultimately the government ruled in her favor. Hirsi Ali announced, however, that as of September she would be residing in the United States, as a scholar at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute.

The publication of The Caged Virgin is serendipitously timed to acquaint American readers with Hirsi Ali’s thought as she settles into her new home. The book is a collection of speeches, interviews and newspaper essays that originally appeared in Dutch periodicals. Also included is the screenplay that Hirsi Ali wrote for the film Submission.

The question that dominates the essays in this book is one that the author has faced personally: How can immigrant Muslims go about integrating themselves into Western societies? Most Dutch Muslims, the author argues, have refused integration, falling back instead on a regressive form of Islam that emphasizes family honor, group solidarity and mistrust of the outside world.

Hirsi Ali points out that within these immigrant communities the persons who are made the primary bearers of the burden of honor are the girls and young women of each family. The result is a relentless policing of sexuality. The slightest hint of a romantic liaison may be dealt with harshly.

From her work with Somali refugees and other immigrant Muslim groups, Ali documents numerous cases of forced marriage, honor killings and female genital mutilation (sometimes euphemistically termed female circumcision). The product of such claustrophobic social constraints is the caged virgin of the book’s title (although the author argues that Islamic society as a whole is also trapped in a self-made cage that prevents constructive engagement with the world at large). The coercive practices described by Ali are all the harder to root out because they are so often justified in the name of Islam.

Making things worse, she says, is that many Westerners tolerate such practices in their midst in the name of multiculturalism. Ali uses the word to describe a laissez-faire cultural relativism that refuses to characterize a given society’s values or behavioral norms as good or bad. As well-intentioned as it is, the author asserts, this benign neglect allows a great deal of cruelty to persist. Outsiders who dare to critique Muslim practices are stigmatized as Islamophobes.

Hirsi Ali offers a bold solution to the situation of immigrant Muslims. She advocates the application of principles from the European Enlightenment, according to which religious dogma is no longer blindly followed, group solidarity yields to individual self-reflection and Koranic revelation is ceaselessly tested against the workings of unfettered human reason. She summarizes her program succinctly: Let us have a Voltaire.

The most provocative suggestion in her book involves Islam’s most revered figure. Muslims in the West, she insists, must question absolutist attitudes toward the Koran and the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad.

Throughout the Islamic world, Sunnis and Shiites alike agree that the Prophet Muhammad was ma’sumsinless, infallible and divinely protected from error. For centuries he has been considered a flawless model for Muslim behavior. Volumes of hadith (describing Muhammad’s sayings and doings), many times longer than the Koran itself, describe every imaginable detail of his sunnah (exemplary lifestyle).

Consider the implications of calling Muhammad an infallible model of conduct. Early Muslim biographical sources and hadith volumes mention his generosity to the poor, his courtesy and his hospitality. But they also describe him as authorizing the following actions: the beheading of Jewish prisoners; the execution of satirists, singers and storytellersboth men and womenwho dared to make fun of him; the mutilation and torture of captive criminals and apostates; and the killing of civilian unbelievers as they lay asleep in their beds.

Pious Muslims prefer, of course, to remember their prophet as a conciliator, peacemaker and community-builder. Muslims I have spoken with have asked me what point is served by bringing up details of Muhammad’s life that might distress believers today. My answer is that we need this knowledge to investigate fully the link between religion and violence. I am speaking here of terrorists who call themselves Muslim.

Dismissing Muslim terrorists as mere deviants from Islam is a dishonest way of dealing with the Islamic tradition. Extremists who identify themselves publicly as Muslim cite the example of their prophet as they undertake their killings.

I am not saying that Islam is to blame in some deterministic way for terrorist brutality. Many factors are involvedpolitical, cultural, economic, historical. But being aware of all the details of Muhammad’s lifethe violent as well as the peacefulhelps one understand how Muslim militants justify their violence in the name of Islam.

Islam, like any religion, is open-ended and susceptible to various interpretations. Like other religionsChristianity comes to mind at onceIslam, too, has its dark side and legacy of blood. Peace and violence: both can be discerned in the Islamic tradition. Which is truer to Islam’s overarching message?

This is where Hirsi Ali’s program of enlightenment and reform comes in. Only a free and unhindered examination of Islam’s prophetic legacy will make possible the adaptation of this faith to the pluralistic realities of the 21st century. Whether this entails a reappraisal of Muhammad’s infallibility will be up to Muslims to decide. Resources, barely tapped yet, exist within this faith in response to the issues raised by Hirsi Ali.

Caged Virgin is sure to stir discussion in the United States. May its author find a home here where she can feel welcome to think and write and challenge us all.

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