Saturday, June 17, 2017


From  the  book  “THE  CAGED  VIRGIN”  by  Ayaan  Hirsi  Ali

The Holiness of Secular Books

Andrew O'Hagan stated in his opening address to the tenth Sydney Writers' Festival:

If we are truly alive, we have a role to play—every one of us—in the realization of peace and tolerance in our time. If we are truly alive, and if we know what the imagination can do, it will not be in us to sit dormant whilst the planet is ruined by unfettered commerce or whilst thousands are killed by the preemptive and ruinous urges of Christian or Islamic fundamentalisms. If we are civilized, we imagine our way past political coercion or selfish pride. We speak truth to power. We question our feelings of superiority, we teach our children the truth of our culture and what it has done and what it has failed to do. And we never forget that we are moral beings and not machines. This is what we do if we are truly alive. This is what we do if we live close to our imaginations. And how do we do that, how do we keep company with our imaginations, what do we do to be so alive? It is easy—we read books.

It seems to me that Andrew's "we" refers to those of us in the West. We come from places scattered all over the globe, but as a group, this collective "we" of the West represents a community that enjoys—for the most part—a fair degree of personal, political, and economic freedom. This "we" has an imagination. This "we" lives with books and writers. For this "we" literature is not lifestyle, it is life.

But there is another "we." This other "we" is also scattered across the globe. My family belongs to that "we." I used to belong to it, too.

This community's imagination is not opened by a multitude of books, but is captured by just one: a best seller among the wealthy and distributed free of charge to the poor. For those who can't read, it's available in audio. It is learned by heart. It has no copyright, and photocopies are welcomed. It is a book that is considered to be above critical review. It is a book that should not be put on the ground, a book that should not be touched by a menstruating woman. It is a book that can inspire one man to put his forehead on the ground in piety and rouse another to war. It is a book that contends that the greatest act of worship to which an individual can aspire is committing suicide as he takes the life of a sinner.

It is not a book by Chaucer, Shakespeare, or J. K. Rowling. It is not a book by Dan Brown. The author has ninety-nine names, but not one of them appears on the cover. This book demands total submission by its readers. It captured the imagination of more than a billion people who believe that is the infallible word of God;

This book is the Koran.

I first encountered it as a young girl. It impressed me even before I could read. To touch the book, I first had to wash my hands, then my face and mouth, then my arms all the way up to the elbows. I had to run some water over my hair and ears and wash my feet. This book was always up high, always beyond a mischievous child's reach.

Everything about it was sacred: the words, the letters, the cover. A piece of paper or a wooden board would itself become sacred as soon as words from the book were copied onto it.

The main message in this sacred book revolves around one day. The day that separates this life from the next.

My father would recite from this book when I was about eight years old and we were living in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. We were in the land of Allah and his prophet. We were living in a land that my mother never wanted to leave.

At the same time every day my father would pull us close and recite:

On the day that separates this life from the next, some faces will be joyful. On that day, those joyful faces will be rewarded in a garden on high; where they shall hear no word of vanity. Therein will be a bubbling spring; therein will be thrones of dignity. Goblets will be placed ready, rich carpets generously spread out and cushions will be set in rows.

My father would bare his beautiful teeth in the sweetest of smiles, his face full of exuberance. Ma would watch with a look of happiness in her eyes—so very rare for her. She would watch as her husband educated her children in piety. We would nod in awe.

Then my father's face would take on an ominous look. His voice would become a low roar, and with a growl, he would continue:

This is the day of Al-Ghashiyah or The Overwhelming Event. When some will be humiliated, laboring hard. Weary, they will enter the fire. They will be given to drink from a boiling hot spring. No food will there be for them, but a bitter Darit which will neither nourish nor satisfy hunger...

My awe turned to fear. I dreaded being burned and having to drink the disgusting Dari from the boiling hot spring. I would be reminded of that day every time I was naughty—which was quite often. My parents' penalties were nothing compared to the punishment I would get from the anonymous writer of the book. Imagine that: being punished by He who raised the sky high; He who fixed the mountains firm; He who spread the earth out wide.

If you did anything against Him and His will, He would make your life on earth a living hell. He would cause you great pain on this earth. On that day, when the sun would rise from the West and all mankind would stand naked before God, I hoped that I would be with my mum, my dad, my brother, and my sister. And also, I hoped that I would be close to Allah and his messenger. So, I learned to recite the ninety-nine names of the author of this Holy Book.

I learned to pray five times a day.
I learned the sequence of rules: the forbidden and the permitted.
I learned to submit and to view those who did not with hostility.
I learned not to question the motives of the author of the Holy Book.
I learned that thoughts and deeds that deviated from the rules of the Book 
would lead to unimaginable punishment.
I learned to repent.
And I promised to be a good girl again.

But over the years, this submissive child grew into a rebellious teenager. My mother was not prepared for this change. She feared that my younger sister, Haweya, and I would stray, come under the influence of sinful people; that we might befriend boys and even touch them. Ma's approach was radical. She bought three padlocks, large ones, with a base in the color of gold, and a steel bolt. I can still remember the click of those awful things. Every evening and weekend, as our peers went out roaming the streets of Nairobi, Haweya and I watched the padlocks, and Ma watched us watching them. We tried to stretch our rare moments of freedom by lingering on the way home from school; or, if Ma was out running errands, and Grandma was left in charge, we even tried jumping over the wall. But every attempt at flight was physically punished.

So we looked for pastimes while we watched the padlocks. We would chat, we would play games, and of course we would annoy Grandma and Ma, too. It was then that we discovered the power of words. Books had the power to make us forget the padlocks.

Haweya and I would sit still for hours. The only noise we made was turning the pages of those books.

In time, Ma became suspicious. You would think she would have enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere that her prison had taken on. Instead, she demanded to know what we were reading. As Ma could not read or write, she would simply judge our books by their covers. Some of the books we read had no covers, for they had been in too many teenage hands, but those with covers generally showed a man bending over a woman, with his mouth on hers and their bodies entwined. We deliberately tore these covers off, and if questioned, would claim that they were required school reading.

But Ma was not easily fooled, and she soon developed a talent for judging books not just by their cover, but also by their size and appearance.

Science books tended to be heavy and filled with diagrams. Math books were filled with charts and numbers (Ma could tell the difference between letters and numbers). History and geography books were full of maps and colorful illustrations. None of these books looked like the small ones with the torn-off covers.

Ma then decided that all compact books were dangerous and would corrupt us. She called them book-haram, or the forbidden books. Unfortunately, it wasn't just the silly romance novels that were small; all forms of literature fell into this category.

So now, schoolwork aside, books were off-limits. The only book that had a proper place in our house was the Holy Book.

Haweya and I were so bored. Our teenage hormones and the appeal of the book-harams impelled us to overcome our fear of violating the sanctity of the Holy Book. We devised a brilliant plan. After smuggling book-haratns into the house, we would tear out pages and sandwich them between the pages of the Holy Book. Within these sacred covers, foreign writers would transport our imaginations to faraway lands. We would chase spies into Russia, help solve mysteries with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. We would read about wars between the North and South in America. Within these sacred covers, we discovered a life beyond our padlocked prison. Not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, we would begin by chanting loudly from the Holy Book like this:

Ya ayyuhal-muddathir...

Then, as we had expected, Grandma would curtly suggest that we recite quietly. And so we did.

Every now and then, one of us would burst out laughing at a funny scene and Ma or Grandma would ask sternly: What has the world come to? Does Allah make you giggle?

In hindsight, I think there was always an infidel in me. The more important point is that this ruse wasn't just an escape from my mother's world; it was an introduction to the endless possibilities life had to offer.

These stories made me worldly in a way that the Holy Book never did. I learned, for instance, to empathize with the characters as they suffered, yearned for love, endured oppression, or celebrated freedom. I was introduced to the gray areas of life, the nuances of virtues and vices; and the specificity of their contexts. The characters spoke to me in a way that the Book that I was violating did not.

But I could not escape the black-and-white terror of the Holy Book and its author. Besides Ma and her padlocks, everything and everyone around me seemed to be pointing to the Book and the Day of the Overwhelming Event.

At school, Sister Aziza, my new Islamic Religious Education teacher, was clad beguilingly head to toe in black. Only her face was bare. She told us about the author of the Holy Book: what pleased him and what displeased him. And what he would do to those who strayed from the straight path.

At the mosque, Boqol Sawm {an imam whose name means he who fasts for a hundred days) repeated at the top of his voice that the sinner would burn if he did not repent.

And I was sinning. I was sinning big-time.

Every time I put sheets of hook-harams in the Holy Book, I was offending. Every time I allowed myself to be tempted by Satan to erotic thoughts, I was offending. Whenever I fell for American comedies and movies, I was offending. In this my internal struggle, fear began gaining the upper hand. So I found myself repenting, I found myself avoiding the distracting books. And I returned to the Holy Book with fervor.

Ma was willing to remove the padlocks as long as I didn't roam the streets and did not befriend boys. I went to Boqol Sawm's lectures and dressed like Sister Aziza. When the author of The Satanic Verses was condemned by Ayatollah Khomeini, I joined in the unison of voices that called for his death. A part of me was tempted to read his book. There was a certain appeal to discovering for myself the verses of Satan. But for my own salvation, and to escape impending hellfire, I—like those around me—blindly supported the Ayatollah.

I was doing everything that was expected of me. I lived by the Book, for the Book. The only things that were missing were a husband and children. Soon after my father returned home, a distant cousin was selected to be my husband. This would mean submission not only to Allah, but to him as well.

The hell at the end of life for me seemed abstract, but the hell of being forced to submit to this man was immediate, and final.

This would be the hell of never feeling love, the hell of never choosing my mate, the hell of spending my life with a stranger.

A man from whom I would have to ask permission before being allowed to exercise my everyday freedom. A man who could take my body without permission. This stranger had my father on his side. He had the Holy Book on his side.

I—fortunately—had my imagination on my side. I allowed myself to be swept away. I suppressed my fear of the Day of Judgment and the pressure of the Holy Book, and I fled. I fled to Amsterdam and asked for asylum from my family, from my God, and for my life.
And I got it.

I arrived in a new land where there were no clans, no tribes, and not one but several holy books. I avoided contact with people from home, people who reminded me of the Holy Book. I avoided them because of the fear of burning in hell that had been ingrained in me as a child. They carried the same paralyzing fear.

Instead, I spent time with the "we" of the West. I learned their language and I read their books; I read about how religious they had been; how they had evolved toward secularism. How they had pushed God from the public life. I recognized myself in how Maarten 't Hart (the brilliant Dutch novelist and author who also wrote the classic book of atheist thought) had been shaped by stifling rituals and the fear of the hereafter—not with Ma's padlocks but with padlocks on his imagination.

I read Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Descartes; Augustine and Thomas Mann; Machiavelli and Hobbes; Rousseau and Voltaire; Locke, Bentham, and Mill.

One after the other these philosophers expanded my imagination. But they frightened me, too; for each of them made me think of how different they were from the Holy Book.

Discovering Freud put me in contact with an alternative moral system. I had never once imagined that a moral framework could exist that wasn't based on religion. In my world, if you didn't accept God, you couldn't have morality. And yet here was psychology with no religious roots and with a clear explanation of the sexuality that had tortured me so much as an adolescent.

Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Darwin said creation stories were fairy tales; Freud said we had no power over ourselves. Spinoza said there were no miracles, no angels, no need to pray to anything outside ourselves; God is us and Nature. Emile Durkheim said humans fantasized religion to give themselves a sense of security.

To read these books of Western thought was sinning in the eyes of Islam, Even the history of how modern states were formed confronted me with contradictions in my belief in Allah. The Holy Book says there can be no government without God; the Holy Book is Allah's book of laws for the conduct of worldly affairs.

Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas. I repeated to myself that one day, when I was back in a Muslim environment, I would once again fully obey God's laws. Meanwhile, in the West I would be honest. I would try not to harm anyone. I would not adopt the ideas I was reading about, but I would keep on reading.

Then, on a day of overwhelming events, on a bright Tuesday morning in New York and Washington and western Pennsylvania, planes full of people flew into buildings full of people. I could no longer escape the Holy Book. It had caught up with me in the West.

I screwed my eyes shut and thought to myself, in Somali, "Oh Allah, please let it not be Muslims who did this."

I had to make a choice.

War had been declared in the name of Islam, my religion. Where did I stand? I picked up the Holy Book and found bin Laden's words of justification. I didn't want to question God's word, but I needed to ask: did the attacks stem from true belief in true Islam?

The little box at the back of my mind, into which I had stuffed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open, and it refused to close again. I had to make the leap to believing that the Holy Book was relative—not absolute, not the literal syllables pronounced by God, but a historical record, written by men 150 years after the Prophet Muhammed's death.

In other words, it was just another book.

I cannot deny that I have been formed by the Muslim culture in which I was raised. When people ask me now if I am a Muslim, I can only say that I am a Muslim and yet I am not a Muslim.

I am a Muslim because I empathize with the man who removes his daughter from school. He is afraid that she might lose her virginity, afraid that everyone will jeer at him because of it. He is scared that she might never find a husband, afraid that God will punish him for not having made the effort to find a husband before she reaches puberty.

I empathize with this man because he and his fears remind me of my family. In his mind's eye, all he is trying to do is to be a good father and a good Muslim.

I am a Muslim because I identify with the girl at school who does not report her friend's absence from school to the authorities. This girl is torn between loyalty to her friend and loyalty to her family, her clan, and her God. This girl is too young and too weak to alert the teachers and the police. I understand her actions becatfSe I was a witness in Nairobi when so many girls were removed from our school and forced to marry. I felt sorry for them but I told myself at the time that there was nothing I could do for them.

I am a Muslim because I understand why the mother in Palestine ululates when she learns that her son has blown himself up in order to kill jews. Just as I had in Sister Aziza's and Boqol Sawm's preachings, this mother would have learned that a child who dies for the sake of God is rewarded for eternity. That is what she is celebrating: her child's closeness to God. I know that her hatred of the Jews goes beyond the conflict of territory. I had no Jewish neighbors and Israel lay far away, but I used to hate Jews because that is what Ma, Grandma, our neighbors, peers, imams, and preachers taught me to do. Hating the Jews would please Allah.

I understand why so many young men and women leading modern lives are reverting back to lives of submission. They can't ignore the reminders of the Holy Book and its author: audio and video recitations, televised and cybersermons. All these reminders point in one direction: bow to He who raised the sky high; He who fixed the mountains firm; He who spread the earth out. Have you forgotten the day of Al-Ghashiyah. When all mankind stands naked before God. When those who forgot the hereafter will be put in fire and When they will be made to drink Dari from a boiling hot spring.

It is the fear of this day that makes girls in their late teens and twenties throw away their makeup and their perfume and replace their miniskirts, trousers, and trendy bags with headscarves and burkas. It is the fear that has been ingrained in us as kids through the Holy Book and its author with the ninety-nine names, that has us throwing away our records of jazz, pop, and blues, turning away from the pubs arid rushing back to the prayer houses. It is the horror of what Allah will do to us in the hereafter that pushes some of us over the edge. I empathize with the bearded man and the veiled girl because I know what that fear feels like.

I am a Muslim because I understand why so many Muslims are silent when the Holy Book is invoked to behead captured aid workers, journalists, and other Western wanderers. They are silent because silence is less terrifying than an argument with the author of the Holy Book, who has given the command to behead infidels.

I am a Muslim because I feel the deafening collective mania that sends men, women, and children to the streets when the Holy Book is allegedly flushed down a toilet or when cartoons of Muhammad appear in a newspaper. Anyone who violates the sanctity of the book, its author, or his messenger, must be killed, and believers who do not condemn the violators are themselves sinners and Will be denied entry into heaven.

At the same time, I am not a Muslim, because I have lost the fear of the Holy Book. I have lost the terror of being burned alive after I die and being forced to drink the bitter Dari.

My empathy now lies with the girl who cannot finish school, who Will spend the rest of her life locked in with padlocks. Not the gold and steel padlocks of my mother but padlocks on her intellect.

I am not a Muslim, because I lost respect for the book and its author and his messenger. I lost respect for them because of their bloodthirsty demands to kill and hate. I now feel the common humanity with those whom I once shunned: the Jews, Christians, atheists, gays, and sinners of all stripes and colors.

I lost respect not for Muslims, but for what they fear, I am accused of hating Muslims and vilifying their Holy Book and their prophet.

I do not hate Muslims.

But I do detest the submission of free will.

In a democracy, unlike a tribal society or a religious community we do not acquire loyalty through fear and threats of being ostracized. A mature democracy grooms its members to become citizens through education in freedom, in responsibility, in tolerance, and in generosity There are no promises of heaven or hell. In a democracy this life is to be celebrated.

For a democracy to thrive, the freedom of imagination of all of its members is a must. Only the ignorant and the naive cannot see that societies built on tribalism and religious dogma are destined to fail.

I would like to pay tribute to democracies in general and the Sydney Writers' Festival specifically for creating important forums for the free exchange of ideas, concepts, discussion, and debate. Where there is no disagreement there will be no growth.

Did you know that Australian doctors are struggling to treat victims of female genital mutilation? Little girls who tell the doctors that it hurts to urinate; teenagers who tell the doctors that menstruation hurts; and girls of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen who are married and have difficulty giving birth. Yes, you heard me: these are child brides, not in Saudi Arabia but in Australia!

Why, in this wealthy nation, do you allow Saudi Arabia to finance schools here? The kids who attend these so-called Muslim schools are Australian citizens. Should they not be groomed to become Australians with Australian values of life, and freedom, and tolerance? Why abandon them and look the other way as their hearts and minds are filled with the fear of the Day of the Overwhelming Event?

Those who think of a book as holy and of a man as infallible will claim to be offended, shocked, and disturbed when the claim of absolute truth in that book is questioned and the infallibility of its prophet is challenged. But isn't the freedom of expression vital, even if it may offend, shock, or disturb? Isn't freedom of thought and expression the most important pillar of a free society? Those of us who are offended by the teachings of the Koran do not call for it to be banned. Those for whom the Koran is holy should learn to accept that their book is not above criticism.

We Muslims come from collectives. We come from tribes. We missed the Enlightenment. You give us your compassion, your medicine, your money But instead of your wealth, share with us your values. Protect us from the bearded men in long robes from Medina and Mecca. It is up to you to communicate your beliefs louder than those of Islam and of those in the Koran.

Let us use our imagination and compete with the agents of Islam for the hearts and minds of our youth.

Islam is not a race; it is a religion.

No book, not even a holy one, is above review.











No comments:

Post a Comment