Last night I finished the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who in 2004 collaborated with the Dutch artist Theo van Gogh to create a ten minute film called "Submission." van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist because of the offensive content of the film, and Ali has spent every day since under heavy guard. This drew me to the book because this story intrigued me when it hit the news several years ago and I was interested in hearing the personal memoir of the woman behind a piece of art that lead to murder and uproar.
Regarding the film itself, Ali says "[the film] was about defiance--about Muslim women who shift from total submission to God to a dialogue with their deity. They pray, but instead of casting down their eyes, these women look up, at Allah, with the words of the Quran tattooed on their skin. They tell him honestly that if submission to Him brings them so much misery, and He remains silent, they may stop submitting." Her motivation for creating this piece was the fact that so many of the fundamentalist discussions amongst Muslims include video and audio tapes and photographs, and she wished to add to the images in that discussion, with a dissonant voice. In my opinion, the most inflammatory aspect of Ali's and van Gogh's "Submission" was not the theme or the ideological content, but the images themselves. Women in transparent veils were filmed with verses from the Quran written on their bodies. The combination of the feminine, and the nude, and the Holy Quran was what incited the death threats and murder.
Ali states, "People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice."
Ali's memoir is fascinating. It starts when she is very little, and follows the course of her life from Somalia, to Kenya, to Saudi Arabia, to Ethiopia (all before she was fourteen!), and back to Somalia. When she was 22 her father arranged a marriage for her with a Canadian man and she escaped to Holland to avoid a future she did not choose and did not want. She claimed refugee status there and in time became a Dutch citizen, attending university and studying political science, and ultimately, after a long and difficult personal battle, lost her faith in Islam. One of her passions was the living conditions for refugee and immigrant Muslim women in Holland, and that democratic state's complicity in the state of these womens' lives, in the name of tolerance. So, she ran for Parliament and was elected as an MP, and advocated hard for the rights of Muslim women in Holland.
She says, "The will of the soul cannot be coerced."
Her viewpoint on Islam is, "The kind of thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia, and among the Muslim Brotherhood in Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves a feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honour and shame. It rests on self-deception, hypocrisy, and double standards...Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret away this reality: hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved...When people say that the values of Islam are compassion, tolerance and freedom, I look at reality, at real cultures and governments, and I see that it simply isn't so. People in the West swallow this sort of thing because they have learned not to examine the religions or cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist. It fascinates them that I am not afraid to do so."
It sure fascinates ME!
Her evaluation of 'the West' is this: "Muhammad Bouyeri, Theo's murderer, and others like him don't realize how deeply people in the West are committed to the idea of an open society. Even though the open society is vulnerable, it is also stubborn. It is the place I ran to for safety and freedom. I would like to keep it that way: safe and free."
This book made me want to read the Quran myself, to see if the holy text of Islam is compassionate, tolerant, and free, or not. Ali asserts it is not, but I want to see for myself. So, I will go out and buy a copy, and write a bit about what I learn in order to help me process it. I also want to read a few of the philosophers she mentions in it (I'm not great with names, so I can't remember which ones at present, though I may refer to them in the future), because I find her philosophy so interesting, and sometimes very resonant.
I think what struck me about Ali's memoir is not so much her opinions, because I don't always agree with her, but the strength of her articulation of them. She is so courageous and so passionate and so thoughtful about her opinions of things, and has risked all, and lost much, to express them. I'm so constrained when it comes to the expression of my opinions, and I risk nothing, and lose nothing, and express little. Ali's example made me want to do better, rise above fear, and express.
Those who know me best know my opinions on things, mostly, though if I perceive an area of conflict in our opinions or beliefs or philosophies, I will consciously avoid all discussions regarding these topics. Ostensibly this is because I don't want to offend anyone, but in reality it is because I am afraid of loss. I have no faith that anyone who disagrees with me will continue to have a relationship with me if they find out that we disagree. Friends especially, but family, too. My cousin Sara often says, "You're stuck with your family," and "We'll always have each other because we're family," but I don't believe it. I think my father's 16 year long estrangement from his sister, who lives in the same town as him and with whom we were close when I was young, has affected me deeply. Not that this event created this fear of conflict in my relationships, but simply that it put 'family' out of the box of 'safe and always safe' and into the box of 'possibly fracturable.' I had several experiences in high school (when we are oh, so impressionable but oh, so sure we're not) with friends who rejected me because of my self expressions, and perhaps those experiences and a deep desire not to make others feel rejected or misunderstood in any way created this fear.
There are few people with whom I am so comfortably unafraid of rejection that I will spontaneously volunteer my views with. I am not afraid to voice my opinions or beliefs with people who ASK, because someone who asks is listening and genuinely wants to know, and it is implied in the asking that the relationship is safe from my answer. If I perceive that someone who has asked is not genuinely listening, I will not share, but that is a rare occurrence. I have one friend who feels it is an imposition to ask of people their opinions, thus our conversations are frequently heavily contributed by him and lightly by me, though I know better and should contribute freely.
If Ayaan Hirsi Ali is brave enough to risk estrangement from all family, all Muslim friends, fellow Dutch citizens and members of Parliament, and even the threat of death by fundamentalists to voice what she is passionate about, why am I such a coward? What have I got to lose? I am so afraid to let people truly, truly know me--is it fear of rejection, or a suspicion that I just might be unlovable? Or both?
Who knew a memoir could throw open the door to so much in me?
So, here is a new and scary place for me: expression. I think, no I will, try to express myself more, with less fear and more self acceptance, and more faith in the people in my life to accept me even with my opinions on the table between us. Those who know me best know I have a lot in me to express. I think we all do, and with a little grace and acceptance and humility, we might dive through conflict more easily, into deeper and more genuine relationships.