One of my favorite subjects to read about is Muslim women, specifically Muslim women who live in predominantly Muslim countries (and, if at all possible, these books should be written by actual Muslim women). The trend started several years ago when I first read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This memoir recounts Azar Nafisi’s time in Iran before and after the 1979 Iranian/Islamic Revolution and focuses on her literary life, specifically when she ran a secret Western-themed book club with some female students. It is a beautiful and moving read and was the first book that showed me how different Muslim and Middle Eastern can be and helped me understand that Muslims and Middle Eastern people are people with their own lives, opinions, and perspectives.
Ever since then, I’ve had a little antenna ping every time I see a potential book. It’s led me to Khaled Hosseini, Malala Yousafzai, Marjane Satrapi, G. Willow Wilson, and books like The Taliban Cricket Club, and The Kabul Beauty School among other books and authors. Mostly, I enjoy the books, even when they can be hyperbolic, sexist, or just plain terrifying. It’s interesting to see and learn about a new perspective and pierce holes in the common American rhetoric that all Muslims are evil and that all Muslim women are oppressed, and it’s helpful to remember that Muslims and Middle Easterners are people – no matter what the news would have me believe.
That’s why I picked up The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I had hoped for an insider’s opinion on the veil and what Westerns think of as the “cult of virginity” in Islam. Would the author blatantly denounce conservative Muslim regimes like the one in Iran in the early 1980s that forced women to wear the veil or would she have a more moderate perspective like Malala Yousafzai, who sees evil in being forced to wear the veil but sees good in choosing to wear it?
What I didn’t know is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a liar and an Islamphobe. Ms. Ali claims to be a Muslim with actual experience living in a Muslim country (either Somalia, Kenya, or Saudi Arabia, depending on the story she’s telling), but she provides no concrete examples of what it’s like to be a Muslim or what Muslims believe. She paints with an extremely broad brush, lumping together 1.2 billion adherents of the faith that span dozens of countries. Muslims in the US are the same as those in the Netherlands as those in France as those in Saudi Arabia as those in Iran as those in Somalia etc., etc., etc. regardless of the time period. Muslims are uneducated and brutish. Muslims are all extremists. Islam itself fosters extremism (and no other outside circumstances like political maneuvering, extreme poverty, and Western colonialism play a role), and any Muslim can become a potential terrorist. Meanwhile, the West (once again, not sure which country) is the bastion of civilization and sophistication, responsible for every major advancement in history and without any extremism, conservatism, or violence whatsoever (except what Muslims bring, of course).
Given that she’s simply writing a series of essays about how horrible an entire religion is (well, its followers anyway; she gives very few examples from the Qu’ran), it’s no surprise that her writing is rambling and unfocused, jumping from topic to topic and declaring things true without any real evidence. So she’s not even capable of answering her own thesis: “Was the aggression [of 9/11], the hatred inherent in Islam itself?” (pg ix)
If you read and like this book, it’s pretty much because you harbor the same assumption that Islam is inherently evil. There’s really nothing else to like about it.
Now, I would love to denounce all religions as superstitious nonsense that we’d be better off without. As the brutal tactics of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Christian fundamentalists show, religious fanatics can cause a great deal of damage. Sometimes, the damage is relatively small like convincing teens that they’re sinful for showing any skin or denying a marriage license. Other times, it’s beheadings on international news, bombing churches and killing children, kidnapping kids and brainwashing them to follow your cause, or raping girls under the guise of God’s law. But it’s also true that religion can give people peace, comfort, and stability and that, for most of the people that follow a religious doctrine, that’s what they use it for. It helps them get through cancer diagnoses, a police officer killing their child, surviving an abusive marriage, fighting against depression, or finding a greater purpose for themselves. So even though I want to denounce religion, I can’t – it’s capable of so much good.
And that’s why this book is horrible. It and its author Ms. Ali don’t understand that a religion isn’t inherently good or evil. Religions are far too complex for that. What is good or evil is the actions of its followers. So, yes, let’s denounce Muslims who shoot up newspaper offices. Let’s denounce Christians who go into churches and kill Bible study groups. Let’s denounce Hindus who go from house to house setting fire to Muslim residences and businesses. Let’s denounce those who use their religion as a weapon to harm others. But as we denounce these evil-intentioned individuals, let’s remember that they are not every single member of that religion and that the majority are not responsible for the few. And then let’s find ways to humanize the majority, to learn more about them. I recommend reading a book written by an actual adherent of that faith or member of that community. It’s always helped me.