Daily Archives: October 26, 2008

‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

2007, 350p.

I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to read this book.  I’m aware that the author ended up working in US for the American Enterprise Institute, a group whose philosophies I abhor and methods I distrust.  I knew that she was an outspoken critic of multiculturalism and Islam, and I didn’t particularly want to expose myself to all that.

Having finished the book, I still feel much the same way.  I think that she is naive in aligning herself publicly and politically ,on the basis of her one-issue world view, to organisations and people whose agendas are inimical to her own and are happy to use her own stance to further their own broader purposes.

Her campaign against what, no doubt, Peter Costello would characterise as “mushy multiculturalism” feeds right into right-wing extremism and white/European supremist ideologies, but is confounded and complicated by the fact that she herself is a Somali immigrant. But she is not, however, Islamic any more, and in her atheism she is just as strident and divisive as Richard Dawkins.  I’m not sure that her calls for an Islamic enlightenment are going to be heeded within Islam when she has placed herself so prominently and aggressively outside it.

There is also an impatience and ahistoricity in her exhortations for an islamic Enlightenment.  She holds up the Reformation and Enlightenment as her beacons but these were long, drawn-out, contested movements and reactions across centuries.   There’s an impatience and ahistoricity in her beliefs about immigration as well:  the newest immigrants “won’t” assimilate; “they” won’t let go of their customs and be like “us”.  Perhaps this is different from other waves of migration, but that’s a judgement that can’t be made after ten or twenty years: maybe after 100 and maybe not even then.

There are aspects of exceptionalism that run through her whole life story.   She was the daughter of an activist and exile from Siad Barre’s dictatorship, who had himself lived in America and rejected many aspects of Somali upbringing and practices. ( It was her grandmother who organised the genital mutilation of Ayaan and her sister. )  They lived as refugees in  Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya .  She portrays her flight to Germany and Holland as a spur of the moment decision, and can barely believe the ease with which she gains refugee status and housing and income support in Holland. Apparently the policies have changed since, but she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that her experience may have been the exception then, and even more now.

I was interested in the parallels between her increased devoutness as an Islamic adolescent and the experience of evangelical Christian adolescence (and yes, reader, I must confess to personal experience here).  Both have  similar struggles over sin and being worthy; in both there is the hero-worship of particularly devout and charismatic older role-models, and both provide an all-round intellectual and social experience.

The book also gave me a better understanding of clan-based society, and the web of expectation, support and obligations that run like warp-wise against the weft of nationality and party affiliation.

I was looking over some of the other book reviews that I’ve posted here, and I so often come over as conflicted and diffident about the books I read.  Probably it’s a symptom of my indecision about anything really, but sometimes it’s just so damned hard to know what you think.  I don’t know whether perhaps I am slow in coming to a reasoned stance, or whether other people are premature.  I think that’s why I resent Hirsi Ali’s flight to the American Enterprise Institute, whose fellows are so supremely confident of their opinions.  She herself recognises the complexity and contradictions in her position, and I think that she is aware that other people have difficulty with what comes over as her own rigidity and certainty.  I’m not sure that aligning herself with the AEI is going to help, though.

A poignant little postscript to J B Were

The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, from which I’ll be drawing much of my “Entrepreneur Watch” material  is really a fascinating book.  It comes in 2 large volumes and comprises 67 chapters.  It was written by the journalist Edmund Finn some thirty years after the events it describes, drawing on his own experiences and the newspaper reports he wrote at the time,  and the papers and memoirs of Port Phillip citizens still living in the 1880s.  It is witty, racy and, I suspect, rather prone to exaggeration, bluster and mockery.

It’s rather self-referential in places, where Finn discusses the process by which the material was collected and arranged.  As Finn himself tells it, when he was researching the chapter about the Twelve Apostles (which I shall discuss more when I get to Apostle No 1. Rucker), J. B. Were expressed his concern about  digging up the past, reminding Finn that some of the people were still alive and that their children and grandchildren might take action against him. When he enquired what sources Finn was going to draw his material from, he offered to write up his own recollections and construction of the events.  Finn did not, as he suspected Were wished him to, incorporate the material into his own narrative but instead attached it as an appendix.

I’ll let Finn tell the story from here on in:

The next time I saw Mr Were was our last meeting in this world, and it was caused by the receipt of the following communication:-

Wellington, 1st May 1885, Brighton Beach

Dear Mr Finn- I have been under the doctor’s care for the last six months, suffering from an attack of jaundice, and have become very emaciated with wasting and loss of appetite.  I am ordered to Riverina for change of climate, and I leave on Monday morning.  If you can see me this evening, or at any time tomorrow, I am gathering some papers which I desire to hand you, and to have the pleasure of a short conversation with you.  The terminus is within sight,  and a very short distance from my house.  Yours faithfully, J. B. Were.

After reading the foregoing I handed it to a friend sitting by me, remarking that the “terminus” mentioned therein was intended as a way-mark to point to my intended destination; but something seemed to foreshadow it as the terminus of the writer’s long and not unnotable terrestrial career…  In compliance with his desires, I visited Mr Were that afternoon, and noticed such a striking change in his appearance and manner as to leave but little doubt that if not absolutely in sight, the “terminus” was not far off….Shaking hands with Mr Were, we parted with mutual good wishes; but I never saw his face again. (p. 992)

So, poor old J. B.  The terminus was, indeed, within sight and a very short distance from his house.