Celebrating Dissidence


Dissidents from Islamic communities are all the rage at the moment. Women such as Wafa Sultan and Irshad Manji have received positive attention, but the most celebrated is Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The Somalian-born Hirsi Ali is routinely described as ‘Islam’s Voltaire,’ which seems a little overblown Hirsi Ali’s writing lacks Voltaire’s comedic touch, for a start but there is no doubting her courage. She has not wavered in her denunciation of Islam even after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, her collaborator on the film Submission.

But if Van Gogh’s killer did not succeed in silencing Hirsi Ali, he did succeed in muffling debate. Criticising Hirsi Ali is now seen as giving comfort to those who would like to see her dead. Yet surely having asserted Hirsi Ali’s right to live in safety we shouldn’t then reduce any further discussion to pious pronouncements of support for so-called ‘Enlightenment values.’

In Europe, North America and Australia, Hirsi Ali’s denunciation of Islam was rapturously received. Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian lauded her for giving the Islamic world a much needed dose of ‘girl power’ while, in the Fairfax Press, Paul Sheehan castigated ‘Western feminists’ for failing to stand at her side.

However, much of the attention bestowed upon Hirsi Ali looks more like fetishism than genuine engagement. The fact that she is ‘a beautiful black Muslim’ in Sheehan’s words has often proved more interesting to her admirers than the substance of her ideas.

Hirsi Ali’s physique is irrelevant to her status as an intellectual, but highly relevant to her status as a symbol. Sheehan is not alone in noting her extraordinary physical appeal. She is exotic, and yet beautiful in a style that conforms to Western norms she appears both regal and physically fragile. The problem is that many of her most ardent admirers fail to seriously engage with her ideas.

For example, take Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Hirsi Ali describes the agony of her excision in an impressive matter of fact tone in her book Infidel. She overstates the link between excision and Islam, making claims which are simply untrue such as ‘Imams never discourage the practice.

Women’s groups, including many Muslim women, have worked for years to combat excision, both in Africa and among immigrant communities a fact Hirsi Ali fails to acknowledge. Muslim women have combined campaigns for legal prohibitions with educational programs and the development of alternative, non-invasive rituals. This isn’t good enough for Hirsi Ali. But her proposal for ending FGM would present legal and philosophical challenges not only to Muslims but also to Western societies.

When she was a member of the Dutch Parliament, she argued that all girls from communities where excision is practised should undergo compulsory gynecological examinations. To subject young girls to an intimate physical examination solely on the basis of their parents’ ethnicity and/or religion surely runs against a few of the ‘Enlightenment values’ that Hirsi Ali claims to embody.

Like the majority of Australian Muslims I abhor excision, but I also find it abhorrent to imagine a classroom in which little African girls are led away for intrusive medical examinations while their White classmates get on with their colouring-in. If anyone were to propose conducting gynecological examinations of all White children because some White children are sexually abused, the outcry would be deafening.

The overwhelming majority of Hirsi Ali’s admirers have not endorsed her proposal on ending Female Genital Mutilation but they have remained silent.

Any discussion of Hirsi Ali is either ‘for’ her (and the Enlightenment) or ‘against’ her (and in league with Islamic religious fanatics). Because condemnation of clitoral excision is near universal among Australians, including most Australian Muslims, ‘we’ can all unite behind her. But ‘we’ might find our ideological cohesion disintegrating if ‘we’ were asked to endorse racial (or religious) profiling of girls for genital examinations.

A similar silence greets the conflict between Hirsi Ali’s condemnation of Islamic anti-Semitism and the fact that she made a film in collaboration with Theo Van Gogh who was notorious for puerile anti-Semitic remarks that combined graphic sexual put-downs with references to the Holocaust. Toxic though the anti-Semitism of Hirsi Ali’s Muslim schoolteachers may have been, I doubt that they could have matched Van Gogh for sheer imaginative vitriol.

But perhaps the most interesting silence surrounds the circumstances of Hirsi Ali’s migration to Europe. Hirsi Ali famously fled to the Netherlands en route from Kenya to Canada, where her family was legally settled. She was expected to join the husband who had been chosen for her by her father. Hirsi Ali lied on her visa application, claiming that she was fleeing from war-ravaged Somalia.

Even if gender oppression were accorded the importance it deserves in asylum applications, Hirsi Ali’s case would not have been among the strongest such applications. By her own account, although she was under immense emotional pressure, there was no threat of physical violence. Emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence, too, but this is yet to be recognised by even the most generous of asylum policies.

Personally, I find it entirely forgivable for someone fleeing the suffocation of a stagnant life marked by serious family conflict to lie on their immigration application; although I find it less forgivable for such a person to later join an anti-immigrant political Party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), that is determined to slam the door on other such waifs.

However, many of Hirsi Ali’s Australian fans are not noted for their generous attitude to asylum seekers, particularly those who are thought to have lied. In praising her, they have either ignored or minimised the circumstances of her migration. So we are left to guess what their attitude to ‘bogus asylum seekers’ as Hirsi Ali herself has described herself to author Ian Buruma really is.

Is it okay to lie on your asylum application if you are fleeing an arranged marriage a position which I personally endorse? Should ‘bogus asylum seekers’ be granted amnesty after a certain length of time, or is it only OK to have been a bogus asylum seeker if you are also prepared to adopt a certain form of politics which is hostile to other immigrants?

What about the implications for gender-based asylum applications? Janet Albrechtsen, who has greeted Hirsi Ali’s ‘girl power’ with such enthusiasm, was less enthused about another Muslim woman seeking asylum from gender oppression. When Naima Khawar fled domestic violence in Pakistan and sought refuge in Australia on the grounds that the Pakistani State did not afford her protection, Albrechtsen, on 12 June 2002, in an article called ‘ Emotionalism triumphs over the law,’ ridiculed the High Court decision that allowed her to stay.

In Albrechtsen’s opinion, Pakistan’s willingness to leave women at the mercy of violent husbands and fathers does not justify ‘a free and easy approach to refugee law.’ Just as well for Hirsi Ali that Janet wasn’t the one assessing her asylum claim.

In an odd way, many of Hirsi Ali’s admirers both sanctify her and sell her short. Hirsi Ali clearly does not wish to be reduced to a symbol known more for her beautiful, mutilated body than for her ideas. She does not simply reject Islam, she proposes social policy and poses questions that ought to be as complex for her admirers as for those who want her dead.

I may not agree with Hirsi Ali, but at least I take her seriously and I don’t think many of her so-called admirers do.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.