Infidel?

For anyone who has read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's bombshell of a book "Infidel", the case against Islam, if not against all religion, is clear. The personal testimony of this young Somali-born woman, but who was also raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, seems to indict Islam in general, and its fundamentalist wahabbism in particular spread by Saudi Arabian oil money and the radical politics of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ali accuses Islam of an ingrained misogyny that enslaves women, reducing them to the status of property and tolerating, at least in Africa, the barbaric practice of the "excision" or genital mutilation of young girls.

Ali is almost as critical of the West. Having fled to the Netherlands to escape a marriage "arranged" totally against her will, and where she eventually became a citizen and even a member of the Dutch parliament, she gradually began to see how the excessive toleration by religious liberals and secularists allowed these regressive attitudes to continue, even in the midst of modern society. This came to the point where her friend, Theo van Gogh, who was her collaborator in the production of a made-for-TV film which she titled "Submission", could be shot and stabbed to death in cold blood by a Muslim fanatic on a crowded Amsterdam street and Ali herself had to be spirited away to the USA for her own safety. It is this episode, on top of the horror of 9-11, more than any other in the book, that seems to back up the warning of such radical critics of religion as Sam Harris (The End of Religion: Terrorism, Faith and the End of Reason) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) that atheism is the only answer if we wish reason and tolerance to prevail. Ali herself seems to have come to the same conclusion, at least for now.

However, I think that such a response, while understandable, is perhaps an over-reaction. No doubt, acts of religious zealotry and bigotry, like crime of any sort, need to be contained through the passage of wise laws and their enforcement. But how can thought, including religious thought, be suppressed without killing off the chances society of ever growing more intelligent and responsible? If Islam, or at least a segment of the Muslim world, seems locked into a perpetual state of adolescence where an obsessive-compulsive fixation on sex is provoking repression, we must not jump to the conclusion that all religion, or even Islam as such, is necessarily the cause of this violence. As Ali herself has to admit, the civil society (and here the emphasis should be on civil as in "civilized") that we enjoy in the West is the product of a long cultural evolution that also included not a little religious struggle. And if, as she says, Islam desperately needs a Voltaire, someone who can trenchantly critique and lampoon the follies of religion, she should not forget that it was Voltaire who famously said that "If there were no God we should have to invent him" even if for no other reason than to make people behave themselves.

But I would go further and suggest that the concept of God is more than that of a celestial policeman. Allah, as presented by the radical Islamicists, may appear to be primarily a moral arbiter, the remote, all-transcending divinity who demands submission to his totally arbitrary will. But even within Islam there is another version of Allah, a vision of supreme Beauty and Harmony. This alternative view of God is found among the Muslim Sufis and is, to a large extent, shared in common with mystics of other religions.

So too in the West there are still other versions of God as Ali hints when she speaks approvingly of the philosopher Spinoza. For some, like the scientist Albert Einstein, this God was seen as being more immanent than transcendent and as the source of whatever order and rationality permeates the universe. But even more, it is this God, understood by Augustine and the later philosopher-theologians as "Being-in-Itself", that alone can give the answer to the question that science seems unable to answer or is even afraid to ask: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

R W Kropf 7/9/07 Infidel.doc 07-07-09.html