ISLAM IN A BIGGER PICTURE: A letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

October 4th, 2014  |  Published in Power & Politics

Dear Ayaan Hirsi Ali,

AyaanWith all the recent hype – about terrorism and counter-terrorism, and trading freedom for safety, and whether burqas should be allowed in Parliament House – I’ve been distracted from writing to you about your books, The Infidel and Nomad. Of course, they’re relevant, given they’re about your views on Islam and its treatment of women – neither free nor safe in your experience.

Your passion and courageous advocacy for women are clear, and your hatred of female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and so-called honor killings is compelling. No woman should be subjected to such brutality.

But…Islam has more than one version

A friend recommended your books on the basis, I think, that they would give me insight into Islam, and they have certainly given me insight into your Islam. But, as I understand it, Islam cannot (and should not) be totalised. There is more than one version.

This is pretty much what I heard Professor Tim Lindsey, Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society, say in an interview recently, and his views are also reflected in an article from around the same time in the New York Times (click here).

Professor Lindsey made the point that Islam is not a monolithic belief system and interpretation of the Quran varies across time and place. The interpretation that allows polygamy, for example, is marginal in Indonesia, and Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world.

Diversity within Islam is also clear from articles about the moderate majority compared with extremist groups such as ISIS. Iyad Ameen Madani, for example, Secretary General for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, representing 1.4 billion Muslims in 57 countries has stated that the actions of Islamic State “have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence.” Qanta Ahmed concludes that “Islamism – the radical imposter form of my religion – has declared war on Islam.”

Indeed, moderate Muslims must get weary of having to distance themselves from extremists – again, and again, and again – and this comes through in articles by Tim Soutphommasane, Waleed Aly, Ali Mamouri, Sarah Malik, and Reem Sweid, to name but a few.


Diversity is par for the course in major religions

In other words, Ayaan, to get back to you and your books, THE Islam has no more substance than THE Christianity or THE Judaism. These religions also have their diversity, their extremes, and their particular issues that create division.

If, for example, you asked Christians about contraception, abortion, women priests, or gay marriage you would get a range of views – for and against. So, variation among Muslims is pretty much par for the course.

Ayaan infidel2Your particular views, in other words, while totally plausible as an account of your experience, are not totally generalisable. Not all Muslims are the same, any more than people from any other religion or culture (click here).

I understand you are now an atheist, Ayaan, but even ex-Muslim atheists vary in their views (click here) and I gather some have taken issue with your “blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam” (click here).

As an aside, you probably know that India is a pretty bad place for women, and India is mainly Hindu. Making dowry has traditionally reduced women to the value of the goods they take with them into their (usually arranged) marriages. Fortunately, there are now pockets of India where men, and women, resist making dowry (click here). So, progress is happening for some women in India, and Islam is not static either.Ayaan Nomad

So, Ayaan, while I totally support your opposition to female genital mutilation, for example, I can also see that the brutalisation and subordination of women takes many forms across time, place, culture, and religion. Getting rid of the forms that occur in some manifestations of Islam will not get rid of brutalisation and subordination per se.

Abuse happens…in hierarchical patriarchal structures

Did you know that in Australia, where I live, there has been a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, particularly within the Catholic Church, but also other institutions such as state-funded orphanages?

And, of course, boys as well as girls have been abused in these institutions, children being vulnerable regardless of gender.

PellThe response from the institutions has been less than impressive, particularly from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (click here).

The thing is, Ayaan, abuse – of women and children and other less powerful groups – is everywhere, and anywhere. It happens in Islam, and Christianity, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and state-funded institutions, and families, and schools, and organisations and workplaces.

And the shared characteristic of these institutions is that they are all hierarchies with patriarchal connections. They form pyramids, and those at upper levels exercise power over those below them.

Power-over is inherent to hierarchies, and where there is power-over, there is potential for its abuse. It’s not exactly cause and effect, because it is possible for power-over to be used benignly (parenting can fall into that category, for example, or teaching). But power-over carries a sense of entitlement to being obeyed – by force, if hierarchnecessary. And so we get abuse.

Ayaan, I’m hoping you might consider the abuses against women that you are most concerned about within this bigger picture. It’s not so much about Islam, or even the specific form the abuse takes. It’s about hierarchies, power-over, the ever-present potential for abuse, and failure to make power accountable.

As Ross Douthat writes: “Don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.”

Abuse happens when people can get away with it. They can get away with it when they have more power than those they abuse and there is a general disinclination and/or impotence to make the abusers accountable. These circumstances are endemic to hierarchies.

We are unlikely to get rid of hierarchies any time soon – more’s the pity. Short of that, we need to be vigilant about monitoring power. This is a huge project, although fledgling programs are starting to appear in some areas (click here).

I’ve gone on a bit, Ayaan, but will finish now by saying I admire your work, and would just like to see you putting it into the bigger picture. As I see it, every issue of social justice is part of THE issue of social equity, and I believe we would all do better to join the dots and work together.

Best Themis blessings…Joan Beckwith

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3 comments on “ISLAM IN A BIGGER PICTURE: A letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali”

  1. Here’s a link to an interesting, although long, account by Anne Roiphe of the intersection, for her, of being a Jew and a feminist:

  2. Lorraine harrison says:

    Hi Joan,
    I found your comments helpful and I too agree that the big picture is always one to try to not forget in our thinking and sharing. Although I acknowledge that I have on many occasions, usually due to passion and often anger, stayed with the small picture.

    • Micro-macro, personal-political, and everything in between are really all valid perspectives, aren’t they, Lorraine? The challenge is probably in trying to hold them in some kind of moving frame where we can shift in and out of particular perspectives without totally losing the one(s) in the background. In terms of the books, for example, I wouldn’t dispute Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s account of her personal experience, but it would have been more powerful, I think, if she had contextualised her story within the diversity of Islam, at least, even if she didn’t make the further leaps I have to other religions, cultures and hierarchical patriarchal structures of power more generally.
      Thanks for your comments, Joan Beckwith.

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