Few non-fiction writers have caught the public’s attention in the past few years like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia, educated but coming of age in a family with a strange mix of love and abuse, living in four countries mostly without a present father, an unwanted arranged marriage at 22 years, and a run for freedom to Holland, this is Ali’s background.
Then add a remarkable story of fortitude, resilience, and drive for independence that leads Ali from scared immigrant to Member of the Dutch Parliament to death threats by Islamists for producing a controversial film questioning the Koran. Ali is a rather amazing individual who by any reasonable guess should be a victim of her upbringing and circumstances. But she’s overcome them all to become an internationally recognized women’s rights advocate, writer, and speaker.
This book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, is a collection of essays, Ali’s first book. Since this book was published in 2002, she’s written two more books, both international bestsellers: Infidel and Nomad.
Since I read her later books before reading this one, it was easy to catch the differences in the writing and the yet-maturing nature of Ali’s thinking and social analysis, all of which are so evident in the later books. Don’t get me wrong. In this book Ali offers an hard-hitting evaluation of what she believes are the backward values embraced by so many followers of Islam.
She points to mental stagnation, repressive regimes, rejection of reason, and a collective mentality that suppresses individualism, sacrificing all to absolute obedience and a drive for “honor” and avoidance of “shame” at all costs. Ali believes Islam offers no credible political model, that Islamic societies are characterized by the lowest economic growth of any in the world, and that such societies are fueled by aggression, distrust, and fatalism.
Islamic culture is, Ali contends, obsessed with virginity, therefore turning girls and women into chattel of the men of the family and clan. This twisted view of sexual morality makes women invisible, figuratively and literally. They are persons for whom both external and internal freedom are inhibited. They are in the virgin’s cage, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Ali argues for an Islamic Enlightenment, an openness to self-reflection and criticism, a willingness to consider new ideas, attitudes, and behaviors. Islam, she believes, is static, and it's not being held hostage by terrorism but by itself.
These are powerful insights and allegations, ones that have earned Ali the continuing condemnation of Islamic leaders and even, incredibly, the criticism or disdain of some in the Western Left. The Left doesn’t like Ali’s comments not because they don’t see that female genital mutilation, for example, is a serious issue, but because the Left has bought into the Kool-aid of multiculturalism, i.e., cultural relativism, i.e. moral relativism. In its zeal for tolerance and freedom from judgment the Left has steered itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac in which it cannot offer credible critique of anything because anything goes.
This is perhaps Ali’s greatest contribution thus far. Not simply an able defense of women’s rights, though her words carry passion and power on this important issue. Not simply questioning Islam, though she is noteworthy for her combination of personal experience, hurt, and educated social sophistication, all of which she turns on a religion too long without evaluation.
No, perhap’s Ali’s greatest contribution thus far is simply to call boldly and articulately for freedom of inquiry based upon intellectual honesty. She wants to know the truth and to work with the truth. She wants others to get their heads out of their self-delusional sand and see for themselves. Just answer the question, she says: What set of values best advances individual life, liberty, and wellbeing? What moral framework actually works for the good of one and all? What set of values is better?
While this book, collected essays as it is, seems a bit choppy at times and doesn't give us the mature thinker we later read, it is nevertheless worth reading. I highly recommend this book.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012