Few have experienced a more precipitous learning curve than Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Somalia’s most famous (or notorious depending on your perspective) emigrant has completed a second autobiography, Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash Of Civilizations (2010) at the relatively young age of forty. If her life continues to be as eventful as it has been until now – and her round-the-clock security regime does its job properly – we may see many more memoirs penned by the brave and articulate Hirsi Ali.
During her childhood Hirsi Ali found herself living not only in Somalia but also Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, mostly because her father was a leading political opponent of Somalia’s then dictator, President Barre. The tribal world depicted by Hirsi Ali is tough and brutal. Nomad begins with the difficult lives endured by her closest relations, including her mother, father, brother and half sister, but unlike her previous memoir we now follow them to the present. Though cut off from her family and the “web of values” that inform them, Hirsi Ali makes genuine attempts to re-establish familial connections. Sadly, the barriers – cultural, religious and geographic – prove insurmountable. Her description of the secret (and heart wrenching) reunion with her dying father in 2008 says it all.
At the age of twenty-four Hirsi Ali rejected an arranged marriage to a relative organized by her father and escaped to a new life in the Netherlands. There is no doubting she fell in love with the West from the start – here was a world “of independence and free ideas”. Her rapid-fire mastery of Dutch and election to the Dutch parliament demonstrated what she could do with her freedom, but the murder of Theo Van Gogh with whom she made the film Submission, has meant 24-7 security ever since. The irony is not lost on her: “I am supposed to be a great icon of women’s freedom, but because of death threats against me I have to live in a way that is, in a sense, unfree.”
An attack of a different kind followed in 2006. The then Dutch Minister for Immigration and Integration, Rita Verdonk, betrayed her youthful parliamentary colleague for reasons of no more import than narrow political ambition. Hirsi Ali not only survived this tawdry affair – which included being ejected from her condominium – but flourished. Only someone blessed with an indomitable spirit could have managed it. Forever the nomad, she headed to the United States.
It is a particular delight to follow her personal discovery of an America that has so much more substance than the two-dimensional world depicted on television screens. “Certainly much nonsense passes for culture in the United States…But that is scarcely representative of the vast wealth of extraordinary art, literature, and music produced by Americans in the almost two and a half centuries of the country’s existence.” Hirsi Ali’s depiction of America is not all sanguine. There are still the haves and the have-nots, and the economic challenge for most immigrants remains as problematic as ever because “alluring opportunities come packaged with residential grime, gangs, and organized crime.”
She is nevertheless passionate about her new homeland and angry that cultural self-loathing is no less endemic in American institutions of learning than in Europe. Juxtaposed with hostility towards their own heritage is an uncritical reverence by Western academics for non-Western cultures. One example of the phenomena cited in Nomad is Germaine Greer’s view that “genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context” and that any attempt to stop it by a Westerner is “an attack on cultural identity”. Hirsi Ali is incredulous that the author of such classics of feminism as The Female Eunuch should espouse such an opinion.
Germaine Greer has clearly detached herself from the Enlightenment Project and its insistence that freedom and self-determination – no less than the laws of science – are universal or they are nothing. For Hirsi Ali, the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason represents what is best about the West. With Nomad she now joins a small but growing number of high-profile atheists, including the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who acknowledge that Christianity is not antipathetic to the Enlightenment Project. Hirsi Ali praises Pope Benedict’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, in which he emphasised the centrality of reason in Christianity. At the same time she is dismissive of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks about the admissibility of Sharia Law in Britain. Combative and fearless, Hirsi Ali’s work points in the direction of a potent, new fusion of libertarianism and traditionalism.
The consequences of cultural relativism are dire. Everybody is affected because if being or becoming (say) an American is based on a learned conceptual understanding rather than ethnicity or tribal loyalty then a core set of American values needs to be articulated by institutions of learning (and elsewhere) in order to underpin that conceptual understanding. Argues Hirsi Ali: “That for me is America: a large family where anyone can belong, so long as you accept those values. The big question, of course, is: What exactly are those values, and what if you do not accept them, or even take them seriously?”
Nomad unapologetically makes the case for assimilation. By doing so, its author can now add post-modernists and relativists to those who oppose her. For many on the Left the term “assimilation” is toxic, a throwback to a reactionary time in the West when intolerance and narrow-mindedness ruled the day. Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, views the ideology of radical multiculturalism – a form of relativism – as not only patronising but dangerous. It allows those who live in the West but nevertheless despise it, Radical Islamists included, to go unchallenged as they exploit our liberality in order to undermine our liberty.
Moreover, relativism not only damages the social fabric of a country like America. The very people it is supposed to help are the ones who are most harmed – immigrants. After all, if you are a newcomer to America then assimilation or integration is what propels you and your family away from the grime and the gangs and towards success. Here, as in so much of Nomad, Hirsi Ali is not only the messenger but also the message.
[First published in Quadrant magazine, September, 2010]