In her latest book “Nomad: From Islam to America,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali — who comes from a part of the world with an alarming poverty rate and meager opportunities for women — takes us on a personal journey through the clash of civilizations, highlighting the striking contradictions between Islam and Western values. Following her bestselling “Infidel,” which chronicled her journey from tribal life to Western society, “Nomad” marks her second memoir describing her rejection of Islam and the cooperative response to the religion that she believes is needed from the West. With the globe’s burgeoning Muslim population, Hirsi Ali has been successful in conveying her view in the antiquity of Islam, and her outspokenness against her former faith has led to countless death threats from around the world.
Hirsi Ali, currently a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, fled an arranged marriage in Somalia and lived under a fatwa even before her friend, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh – who co-wrote a controversial film about a Muslim woman – was murdered in 2004 with a note stuck to his chest saying she was next. Since then, Ali Hirsi has been armed with around-the-clock security, yet she has not kept silent as she has continued to voice her belief about the threat of Islam to the West, with particular attention to women’s rights.
Nomad provides an extreme, passionate, and personal view of Islam, and while I enjoyed the book, I read it with the knowledge that it is far from objective, with facts that could be skewed and taken out of context as she often blurs the line between religion and culture.
Ali Hirsi’s memoir provides insight into the immigrant experience, recounting the clash of ideals. On one side, she describes a life celebrated with individual freedom, hard work ethic, and religious tolerance. On the other, she describes a preoccupation with the hereafter, limiting the ability to live in the present. She calls the West’s modern democracy “superior” to Muslim values, which she illustrates as “backwards.” She cleverly intertwines past relationships with individual members of her family – her father, half sister, brother, and cousins, highlighting differences in culture through personal interactions. In that process, she portrays a picture of the internal conflict all immigrants face when they are restrained by the only culture they ever knew.
“The Muslim mind needs to be opened,” she writes. “Above all, the uncritical Muslim attitude toward the Quran urgently needs to change, for it is a direct threat to world peace.” Male superiority is Quranically prescribed, she says, asserting that “the subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West. It is a subjection committed by the closest kin in the most intimate place, the home, and it is sanctioned by the greatest figure in the imagination of Muslims: Allah himself.”
Hirsi Ali’s book may also provide a glimpse into the misperception of Islam by foreign policymakers. The threat of terrorism has scared Americans into focusing their fear on jihadists, while ignoring the power of Islam as a political ideology, that often mixes with Western values similar to water and oil. That fear contributes to hostility in the clash of ideals that could be potentially dangerous, an argument propelled by political scientist Samuel Huntington. In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Hirsi Ali eloquently explains Huntington’s argument of the “clash of civilizations,” with the balance of power among these civilizations shifting. While the West is declining in relative power, Islam is gaining momentum demographically, and Asian countries – particularly China – is on an economic upswing. Therefore, Hirsi Ali says, the West must reaffirm their shared civilization to guard itself against challenges from non-Western civilizations. “Our civilization is not indestructible: It needs to be actively defended,” she says.
As the countries of the emerging economies become increasingly powerful, with women playing a greater role in the social and political arenas, Arab Muslim countries still linger far behind, unwilling to use the rich resources of 50% of its population due to religious codes of conduct, Hirsi Ali says. The result: A weak economy, with a country unwilling to use its resources to its benefit.
That clash of ideals can be seen not just politically, but economically and socially, Hirsi Ali explains. In a chapter titled “Money and Responsibility,” she explains her bewilderment with receiving her first bank loan to furnish her new apartment in Holland. Without furniture, she used the entirety of the loan to pay for carpeting and wallpaper.
“Practically everyone I knew had built up overwhelming debts,” she writes. “They applied for credit cards, magical pieces of plastic that meant you could just sign a tiny piece of paper and walk out of any shop with whatever you wanted…They had no idea, in other words, of the obligations of a citizen, let alone the complexities of the welfare state.”
Critics of Hirsi Ali argue that she is careless and irresponsible in voicing her contempt for such a widespread, powerful, and socially ingrained set of beliefs. Her admirers, however, give her credit for conveying a message from those who would otherwise not be heard. Whether or not you agree with Hisri Ali’s antagonizing, provocative messages denouncing Islam, potentially fueling religious bigotry, her story is indeed thought-provoking and, in my view, refreshingly challenging. It provides an important, firsthand perspective to better understand our world.