12 november 2005


Ayaan Hirsi Ali  



Dit is de Nedernieuws van 12 november 2005. Ik pak het deze keer weer eens een beetje anders aan, en maak het mijzelf een beetje makkelijk. Het geval wil dat ik ook correspondeer met anderen met een redelijke intelligentie, die mij wel eens dingen vragen over "de Nederlandse samenleving", die hen soms nogal verbaast, zoals bijvoorbeeld inzake Theo van Gogh en Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Hier volgt dus een Engels verhandelingetje n.a.v. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, geschreven voor een Amerikaanse, die wel redelijk ge´nformeerd en in het geheel niet dom is, maar ook niet veel weet van Holland.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Here is a little more on Ayaan. It comes from two sources. The first is an open letter that was published Nov 2, 2005 by her. This was the first anniversary and commemoration of the murder of Theo van Gogh, and although Ayaan did not speak in public, she wrote this letter and had it published, in a paper I don't normally read, called "de Volkskrant" ("the people's paper"). The second is from a review of a book I read yesterday, by two Dutch investigative journalists, in the paper I read normally, "het Handelsblad" ("the business paper"). The reviewed book has just been published, and is called in translation

"In the name of god. The year of Theo van Gogh".

The review is by an emeritus professor of sociology.  

1. The open letter of Ayaan is a curious production for quite a few reasons, two of which are that she uses it to quote quite a lot of the words of Theo's murderer, who is indeed a religious fanatic, and that she mostly addresses Theo's "very dear parents", but by way of a letter that is speaking directly to Theo, as if he can read and approve it all from his heavenly cloud. I could quote a lot from it, but I here quote only this more measured bit - and the "you" and "your" addresses the dead Theo:

"There is left only an extra-ordinarily tiny minority in pŘblic opinion that dares to speak out about the tension between your conviction - namely free speech - and the faith of your murderer, namely the koran and the way of acting of the prophet. There is, but you knew that already, a surfeit of evidence that the islam is essentially incompatible with the western value of freedom and certainly with freedom of speech."

But that is not so, or not quite so: What she confuses here, and in the whole open letter, are the beliefs of the murderer of Theo van Gogh, and the beliefs of "the" islam, as if the convictions of all believers in "the" islam can be identified with or reduced to the beliefs of the murderer of Theo van Gogh. This is no better, logically speaking, than the pretensions of Osama to speak in the name of "the" islam - and there is no "the" islam, there is only a collection of faiths and practices more or less loosely based on the koran, just as there is no "the" christian faith, but only a collection of faiths and practices more or less loosely based on the bible.

Next, there is no "surfeit of evidence that the islam is essentially incompatible with the western value of freedom". No doubt certain interpretations of it may be incompatible with "the western value of freedom" (which also is not a very clear concept, since there are several distinct kinds of freedom) but the same is true with interpretations of the christian faith, and yet the western value of freedom arose in the context of religious faith, largely, it would seem, through the insight that you can't have much of a human(e) society if you use religion to try to kill or persecute your religious opponents, and that it is quite feasible to live peacefully together and yet disagree about many things, and that indeed peaceful cooperation is in the interest of all, except perhaps a few fanatics, extremists or disturbed persons.

And no doubt any religion is difficult to combine with secular freedoms. But "the islam" undoubtedly, like christianity, is a house with many mansions, and a creed with many interpretations and versions, and if you want to help people to see through it or get rid of it, it doesn't help to represent it as if it coincides with the beliefs and interpretations of its most extremist proponents, as if all islamists must be extremists, and as if any believer in "the" islam thereby cannot believe in or practice freedom or freedom of speech.

Indeed, such a position makes the relative freedoms of the Dutch Republic of the 17th Century - for which see e.g. Schama's "The Embarrassment of Riches", at least if you are capable of either reading or skipping occasional rather purple historian's prose - completely incomprehensible, for the Dutch Calvinists then were certainly not more enlightened or liberal than most of the European islamists now, and yet they allowed a great manner of relative freedoms, for various reasons, many of which had to do with realism and shrewd self-interest, and indeed also with the fact that - then as now - most Dutchmen were not willing to murder their religious or political opponents, at least if they lived in the Dutch society, and most knew and understood that almost all had considerable personal interest in keeping the peace and preserving toleration.

2. The review is titled "In a dark mirror", and compares Ayaan with Mohammed B., Theo's murderer, and makes both appear as extremists, if from opposite camps and convictions. I learned from the review that Ms. Ali is 36 now, and only converted from islamism to atheism age 32, after 9/11 and after reading the booklet "Atheist manifesto" and after getting the personal help of its writer. Here are translations of the penultimate paragraphs of the review, that follow after the statement that the motives of the murderer remain mostly incomprehensible:

"Hirsi Ali by contrast is an open book. It has been described hundreds of times, especially in the literature of ex-communists: The great impotence to leave behind oneself the 'wrong' past, and the anger that years of self-deception have generated. The God that failed shows itself to be a revengeful god that cannot be thought away.

The book by Jutta Chorus and Ahmet Olgun gives in simple words the story of a tragedy such as Holland has known seldomly. The most painful are the completely incompatible positions both parties have chosen. Mohammed B. is the only Dutchman and possibly the only European muslim who has committed a ritual murder in the name of his god that did not happen in anger but was coolly planned and carefully executed. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the only Dutch (ex-)muslima who keeps frontally attacking the islam without cease and who moreover sought the company of prominent Dutchmen who are, for different reasons, enemies of the islam."

I am not claiming this is the definite analysis, but it is along my own lines: Ms. Ali seems to be an extremist, who is generalizing her own fall from her faith, at age 32, in such terms that all must be with her or against her - like Bush Jr., incidentally. And she seems indeed quite a bit like an ex-catholic who looks upon all catholics as henchmen of the catholic inquisition, and indeed the faith she left and lost also had pronounced totalitarian dimensions, as do catholicism and communism, which may explain at least some about her present cast of mind.

Now I never fell from a religious faith, though it amazes me that an intelligent person, who lives in modern Europe, and finished a university, albeit in "political sciences", can have no or few problems with a faith like the islam until age 32. But I do know that if you want to help others who have been raised in a faith to see through its shortcomings, you will not be succesful if you choose an extremist position. Here is a final bit from Ayaan's open letter - and "your" is again Theo's, while "his" refers to Theo's murderer:

"To bridge the opposion between your conviction that free speech is the highest good and his conviction that the holy command of Allah and his prophet comes first.
Civilization against barbarism.
Modernity against premodernity.
Citizens against tribalism.
Critical thinking against absolutism.
Progress against stagnation.
Equivalence against dominance.
A free individual against the tyranny of the collective."

Two difficulties I have with this are, first, that it suggests that believers in "the" islam are and cannot be anything but barbarians, pre-moderns, tribalists and absolutists and must be stagnating, undemocratic collectivists, and, second, that it is totally irrealistic about the intellectual and moral gifts of most human beings - as if the stark and only choice is between enlightened geniuses and saints or deluded idiots and despots. Or in more ordinary terms: Between Us ultra-good guys and gals and Them true eternal baddies.

Of course I think it is good if one succeeds in giving up religion - but then I am a philosopher; I had an academic education; I know quite a lot of science; and I have been raised without any religious faith. So for me there are no emotional or social pressures towards religion, and lots of scientific, philosophical and logical arguments against, and it is quite natural, self-evident and normal for me to be an atheist, and to look upon all religions as misguided systems of wishful thinking, that mostly arose in the dark ages, when there was hardly any scientific knowledge - for which reason, incidentally, all almighty, infinitely benevolent and omniscient gods of all faiths apparently forgot to put even the slightest bit of real science in all their holy books, such as could have enabled human beings to avoid, prevent or cure e.g. pellagra, scurvy, cancer, polio, lepra etc. and such as would have saved and helped millions of people from awfully painful early deaths.

In any case: For most who were raised from childhood in some religion giving it up will be difficult even if they are well-educated and intelligent; most are neither very intelligent nor very learned, and you can't blame them for either, since such things are mostly not in one's own power; there always are many social and family pressures when one was born in a religious family; it is obvious that the emotional strength and advantage of any religion or political creed is that it mostly proceeds by wishful thinking, and thus will satisfy emotionally, if only imaginatively and fictionally; and it is also obvious that the emotional weakness and disadvantage of real science - the instrument of human emancipation, through understanding natural reality and using this understanding to further human interests - is that it proceeds by evidence and rational argument, and therefore may not at all satisfy one's emotions for a long time, even if what one gets is the truth, e.g. to the effect that more evidence is needed for the problem one investigates; and my personal belief, finally, is that somebody with Ayaan's mindset does not have the sort of approach that will help many to get rid of religion, whereas it is perfectly fit for producing social tension, and for inflaming extremists, and for generating fanatics.

And anyway it is irrealistic to expect that most people, such as they are, with such  intellectual gifts and knowledge as they have, on average, are well-equipped to give up religion. And the problem is not first and foremost about the intellectual (non-)provability of god, or about oppositions such as barbarism versus civilization. What it is first and foremost about is that one must convince most of the religious believers of any faith, and also most of the political believers of any ideology, that it is possible to have a society in which there are many different faiths and ideologies, of which the different proponents decided, in the interest of all and of a peaceful society, not to fight out their religious differences physically, and instead only to disagree by verbal argument. In such a society there may be many freedoms, simply because almost everyone agrees that differences of religion or philosophy are not worth killing for, which indeed is a fundamentally civilized idea.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's approach is not fit for this, and seems to derive mostly from her own recent conversion experience from islam to atheism, and from her far less than perfect understanding of Dutch society, and of the historical foundations of civilized society in Holland: The freedom, civilization and modernity she praises is and was the product of many succesful attempts to ease and not to sharpen religious tensions. And it was mostly designed and maintained by religious people. That is not an argument for religion, but it is an argument for moderation and civilization, for the civilized freedoms of Dutch society are mostly freedoms of moderation.

Neither Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nor Theo van Gogh nor Mohammed B. are or were moderate persons, nor do or did they propose moderate solutions or approaches. And it is rather disquieting, and not good for Dutch social peace, that so much of the discussion about the integration of the muslims into Dutch society, at least in the media, has been in fact to a considerable extent in the hands of quite immoderate persons.

P.S. Voor Nederlands-lezenden, zie ook een mail aan juffrouw Umar.

Maarten Maartensz


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