08 December 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Orhan Pamuk in Conversation

In The New York Times yesterday there was an Op-Ed piece by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born, Dutch-exiled, now resident of the U.S. who generates disagreement and controversy nearly everywhere she goes. (For instance, see the ways she is assessed by different writers in the pages of The Nation [e.g., 1 2 3]). Hirsi Ali's essay is "Islam's Silent Moderates" and, in it, she challenges those moderates to speak out on a set of recent condemnable events. She identifies Islam as an intrinsically violent, intolerant, and sexist faith as the basic cause of those events. And the thrust of her argment is that there is no such thing as "moderate" Islam.

I see at least three problems with her analysis, The first is that - as I've noted here before - "Islam" is not nearly as extremist as she makes out. Facts often embarrass ideologies. The second is that Islam hardly is unique among world religions in being a source of violence and sexism (think, e.g., Catholicism). Nor - as I also have pointed out here before - does it stand out for being interventionist in the public realm. The third is that moderate Muslims whom she seeks to hoist up the mast of hypocrisy may see other - more complicated, additional or alternative - causes for the sorts of events that Hirsi Ali condemns. (For the record, I think each of the events she lists is outrageous and condemnable.*) So it may be that Hirsi Ali's polemic simply misses the mark. In fact, I think it does. In part, I think her essay is errant because it is animated by what she herself describes as her "classical liberal" senisibitites. As a political position such libertariainsm is quite flat-footed in the face of real world politics. (It is interesting that Hirsi Ali has found herself comfortable in the embrace of various right-wing insitituons in both of her adopted homelands - the Netherlands and the U.S..)

So, consider an interesting counterexample. In The Guardian today is a review of a new collection of essays, Other Colors, by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk, of course, can claim many of same political bon fides as Hirsi Ali, having been subjected to death threats for expressing his political views. So we can place that trump card aside. His views about politics, however, seem considerably more subtle than Hirsi Ali's. He is concerned, as a writer and intellectual, with matters of free expression. And so, here too, he cedes nothing to Hirsi Ali and her "classical liberal" views. But he also offers a considerably more complex view of the causal forces at work in politics both within the Islamic world and between "East" and "West."

The collection contains one essay, "The Anger of the Damned," the Pamuk wrote in the aftermath of 9/11, different versions of which appeared in The Guardian and The New York Review of Books. In the essay Pamuk explores the conditions that make fundamentalism appealing, that make it the sort of tool that political actors throughout the Islamic world (though not only there) can use to whip up hysteria and frenzy. In the process he tacitly suggests that those like Hirsi Ali who condmen particular events (and, he might well think that condemnation warrented) miss the underlying more systemic causes of events and patterns.
* By the way, it is interesting to note that when asked at his press conference last Tuesday if he had spoken out to the Suadis regarding one of the condemnable events Ayaan Hirsi Ali mentioned, W waffled in the most embarrassing way. So, I wonder if Hirsi Ali is pushing Bush to speak up? His word might well carry some weight with the Saudis, no?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smug, Lefty, bigotted Wanker.

You deserve nothing more than that.

Fortunately, the excellent Hirsi Ali and what she represents is not effected in the slightest by your smug Lefty denunciations that, perversely, collude with a theological extreme Right.

08 December, 2007 17:07  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon, Thanks so much for that typically articulate and insightful comment. I am glad to see that your totala inability to actually present an argument rather than simply spew remains unchanged.

08 December, 2007 20:18  
Anonymous speedplane said...

Hi Jim,
I'll concede that a more subtle view of the realities of the Muslim world may be more appropriate for public discourse. However it is less effective.

Islamic countries around world consistently oppress women whether it be overt examples like those which prompted the Hirsi Ali essay, or more subtle (but still not so subtle) discriminatory practices common in property hearings, women's right to drive, and a women's right to divorce.

Hirsi's argument is that Islam is the source of these problems, and you argument is that it is really government and society. However the difference doesn't really matter.

Powerful religious institutions have a duty to step up and defend basic violations of human rights even when they are committed by their own people. There are millions of Jews who protest the wall being put up around the west bank. Similarly millions of Christians are outraged at fundamentalists shooting abortion doctors.

Where are the outraged Muslim Organizations? Or better yet... the outraged Muslim people? Even if Muslims in Saudi Arabia cannot organize a protest, Muslims can do it here.

The exact source of the problem is less important than the Muslim worlds response to the problem. Their silence quietly supports these practices and regimes.

09 December, 2007 16:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comment. However, I disagree totally. Getting basic causes right is crucially important if you are looking for an actual, effective remedy for a problem. An analogy: in the Balkans when Clinton was president he subscribed to the "primordial hattreds" view peddled by Robert Kaplan (a notorious neocon who wrote the truly inane Balkan Ghosts); that view claimed that residents of Bosnia had been at each others' throats since "time immemorial" (e.g. the battle of Kosovo in the 13th C or some such). The inference Clinton drew was that therefore there was nothing that could be done; the Serbs and Croats and Bosnians were just going to keep hating and slaughtering one another. Kaplan's research was so shoddy that it does not stand up to serious scrutiney. The actual source of the disagreement was the breakdown of an effective state in post-89 Yugoslavia. (See e.g., Susan Woodwad Balkan Tragedy) That meant that pressuring leaders to rebuild a plausible institutional structure might've been better than sitting on our hands. (No guarantee, mind you, just a possibility but way more plausible than doing nothng.)

In the current instance, if it is not "Islam" as an immovable iceberg that is responsible for the events at issue, then there might be actual diplomatic (read political) steps that could be taken to effectively address some of the condemnable events that Hirsi Ali rightly calls attention to. We might actualaly push the Suadis to speak out; we might support "moderate"voices by protecting them instead of setting them up as targets by our military adventures, etc. Her remedy (hectoring condemnation of Islam) is wrong and likely to be counterproductive because her causal analysis is wrong.

09 December, 2007 17:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps people share the view of the Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, that the Koran should be banned (Wilders likened it to Mein Kampf etc) - he wants to make a film about this - which coming from a country where Theo Van Gogh (Hirsi's old friend) was so brutally murdered for making a film critical of Islam, seems to be something of a martyrdom complex. But freedom of speech and all that...

12 December, 2007 05:43  

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