Enemy of the faith

<strong>The Caged Virgin</strong>

Ayaan Hirsi Ali <em>Free Press, 208pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 074329

It's obviously what I've been waiting for all my life: a secular crusader - armed with Enlightenment philosophy, the stamp of the liberal establishment and the promise of sexual freedom - swooping into my harem and liberating me from my "ignorant", "uncritical", "dishonest" and "oppressed" Muslim existence. At least that is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks I've been waiting for. Her latest book, The Caged Virgin, is a collection of essays intended to unveil the sexual terrorism she says is inherent in Islam. In reality, it is a smash-and-grab aggregation of inconsistencies, platitudes and poor scholarship.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Somalia in 1969, but grew up in Kenya. As a young adult she moved to Germany, and later to the Netherlands, allegedly to escape a forced marriage. She learned Dutch and gained a university degree in political science. She soon became a prominent and controversial politician, a brown face made welcome by her shrill denunciations of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and Europe's "backward Muslims". Last year, Time magazine hailed her as one of the world's "100 most influential people". The Economist described her as a "cultural ideologue of the new right".

However, the publication of The Caged Virgin couldn't have come at a worse time for Hirsi Ali, a woman who has built her career on portraying herself as a victim. In May, a Dutch television documentary alleged that her story didn't add up. The programme's makers (who travelled to Kenya to speak to her family and those who knew her as a child) claimed that Hirsi Ali had lied to enter the Netherlands and had fabricated her traumatic past. The political friends who had made her the darling of the Dutch right speedily retreated from her side. As the author and academic Jytte Klausen, who knows Hirsi Ali, recently claimed: "She wasn't forced into a marriage. She had an amicable relationship with her husband, as well as with the rest of her family. It was not true that she had to hide from her family for years."

Now that doubt has been cast on the personal history Hirsi Ali relies on to give her arguments authority, her new book reads more like a whimper than a bang. Practically all of her conclusions are based on her own "tortured" experiences and observations of Islam. Besides the superficial references to Koranic verses and the occasional Prophetic saying, she provides little evidence to back up her claims that the Muslim woman is a caged virgin - sexualised, segregated, denied human rights - and that Islamic theology is responsible for this. Hirsi Ali is not breaking new ground. Others, such as the controversial Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, have been here before, except their work is meatier, making reference to classical texts and engaging in important historical debates. The Caged Virgin is the cheap tabloid version: accessible, flimsy and forgettable.

The sad thing is that many of the concerns that Hirsi Ali raises - forced marriage, genital muti lation, sexual violence, lack of education, economic underachievement and the obsession with static gender roles - are genuine challenges facing Muslim (and many other) women. She makes some thoughtful points, yet they are lost among the inaccuracies, exaggerations and omissions. To demonstrate Islam's obsession with female sexuality, for example, she quotes the Koranic verse calling on women to behave modestly, but conveniently omits the first part, which demands the same of men.

The picture Hirsi Ali paints of Gestapo-like Muslim homes is laughable. She writes that "lies are constantly being told about the most intimate matters . . . Children learn from their mothers that it pays to lie. Mistrust is everywhere and lies rule." Perhaps she wrote this so that she would have a defence when the facts about her own life were questioned.

Reading Hirsi Ali, you would think that she and a handful of other enlightened women, such as her good friend Irshad Manji, are the only ones who have figured all this out. Apparently, most Muslim women are condition from birth not to think. This misrepresentation does a tragic disservice to the women Hirsi Ali seeks to liberate. It is strange how many times she writes "we Muslims" in her book. From someone who claims not to be a "Muslim", such appeals to sisterly solidarity are disingenuous. It is a not-so-clever attempt to lend authenticity to her argument: clearly, if a Muslim criticises her own religion, then that religion must be bad. But Muslims are not homogeneous - they do not all think, act and believe in the same way. Islam manifests itself through a vast array of experiences. As a British Muslim, for instance, I am as western as I am anything else.

Hirsi Ali has fallen into the trap of identity politics. Being a Muslim is a religious moniker; Muslims are not a tribe or a race. You don't have to be Muslim to criticise Islam or its followers, but at least be honest about it.

Long before Hirsi Ali arrived in Europe, Muslim women were fighting against ignorance, religious prejudice and cultural misunderstanding. They are still pushing the boundaries, playing an increasingly important public role and advocating real long-term change - slowly but surely. For groups such as London's An-Nisa Society, which pioneered programmes in sexual health, domestic violence and mental health two decades ago, Islam is a potent and powerful ally. Many Muslim women want to maintain a strong, spiritual connection with their faith, a choice Hirsi Ali seeks to deny them. These brave women sadly do not have the luxuries of monetary resources, bodyguards, spin-doctors and PR agencies that she takes for granted.

Hirsi Ali recently said that her audience consists mainly of Muslims. Nonsense. Her hatred of Islam and her patronising attitude towards Muslim women who disagree with her make her ideas palatable only to the "white liberals" whose prejudices she reinforces. In fact, anyone who works with Muslim communities, respecting their faith but seeking positive change, is accused of forging a "satanic pact . . . [making] their living by representing Muslim interests, extending aid to them, and co-operating with them in their development".

For Hirsi Ali, the answer is clear: Islam is at fault and needs to be discarded. But her experiences are not mine, nor those of the many Muslim women I work with every day. We are to believe, it seems, that the obsession with female virginity is at the heart of every Muslim malaise. Such pseudo-sociological nonsense wouldn't pass muster in an A-level exam.

Hirsi Ali also suffers from historical amnesia. She is so caught up in her undergraduate political science training that she can't see beyond Kant, Spinoza and Voltaire. "Reading works by western thinkers," she says, "is regarded as dis respectful to the Prophet and Allah's message." Who says this? Nor does she add that the catalyst for the Enlightenment lay in the knowledge-transfer from Muslim civilisation to Europe through Andalusia. The notions of female personhood, independence of wealth and right to education are as old as Islam itself. The biographies of scholars and saints during the classical age include thousands of female ulema (religious scholars), with many leading universities being established by wealthy women of means.

The Prophet Muhammad's first love was a woman 15 years older than himself. Khadija was not only a widow (a non-virgin, I'll have you know), she was an honest and trusted businesswoman who proposed marriage to the young Muh ammad. They lived together for 27 years, until she died.

Fast-forward to today, where I am surrounded by loving Muslim families that defy Hirsi Ali's statements. Even Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based cleric whom she condemns, is married to a sprightly senior al-Jazeera journalist. I recently met her at a conference in Istanbul. She defied every stereotype, sitting at the head table with her husband and other leading scholars.

Muslims, frankly, pay too much attention to Hirsi Ali. She isn't interested in a genuine engagement with Muslim women. She is content to be an outsider posing as a co-religionist. This may win her favour elsewhere, but not in the communities she seeks to reform.

Incidentally, she has just had her Gloria Gay nor moment. The Dutch political establishment now wants her forgiveness and has put pressure on the immigration minister to reverse her decision to take away Hirsi Ali's citizenship. But Hirsi Ali has found new chums at the American Enterprise Institute, the neo-con high temple in Washington, DC. The trouble is that it is Hirsi Ali herself who is caged - by her lack of scholarship and her myopic sense of identity and history. These credentials may carry weight with the neo-cons she will now advise. They ought not to with the rest of us.

Fareena Alam is editor of the Muslim magazine Q-News

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, War - Who can stop it now?