December 12, 2010 at 3:40 am 3 comments

nomad by ayaan hirsi Ali

The book demands that readers question their views on cultural relativism, religious freedom, and the universality, or otherwise, of womens rights. Bookgroupers disagreed strenuously on whether the book went over the line, from defending women’s rights into racism, religious intolerance and cultural stereotyping.

It was a very spirited debate with some bookgroupers apalled by the book and others very positive.

The book interweaves the life story of the author and her family with her reflections on that story. Her reflections are focussed the implications of migration of people from tribal Muslim cultures like her own, both for the countries they arrive in, and for the cultures they leave behind.

Bookgroupers agreed that her personal story is interesting. She was raised in a somali family in Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Kenya. Her grandmother was a traditional desert nomad, her father a Somali politician of sorts. As a teenager she was circumcised and then exported to Canada, to an arranged marriage with a relative she had never met. She ran away en route and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she went on to learn the language, go to university, get an arts degree, and become an MP, author and film maker after working as a translator for the dutch Somali community.

Bookgroupers agreed this was a good story and with some of her conclusions, such as that genital mutilation should not be tolerated.

However some bookgroupers felt there was no value in her defence of muslim women because in the process she lumped all muslims together, saying they all have the same attitudes and practices as those that she had experienced in her own childhood.

Those on the other side, like myself, felt she contextualised her comments adequately, because it was clear she was talking about practices and cultures like those she grew up with, not all muslims.

We had a mini dual of quotes. On one side was the following two quotes

“textbooks gloss over the fundamentally unjust rules of islam and present it as a peaceful religion. institutions of reason must cast off these self imposed blinkers and reinvest in the ability to think critically, no matter how impolite some people may find the results.”

my view does not defame Muslims who do not have this belief and do not themselves oppress women

on the other side it is definitely true that she refers repeatedly to the ‘closed islamic mind’ which on face value does seem offensive.

The other issue of debate between bookgroupers was how she seems to be sympathetic towards christianity. Once again the debate was about whether she was making sweeping anti-islam and pro-christianty statements, or whether these statements were appropriately conditioned and contextualised.

i thought they were – as while she called for an ‘islamic enlightenment’ she pointed out that christianity had gone through the enlightenment over a period of centuries, prior to which it used to have the same problems. She also acknowledged that some current christians are fundamentalist.

However, what annoyed other bookgroupers was that she not only said moderate liberal christians are ok, but went on to propose that liberal churches, and she includes parts of the catholic church in that group, should provide services to, and seek to convert, islamic immigrants. you can see how some people might want to call that cultural imperialism rather than religious competition, as she calls it.

In conclusion, bookgroupers appreciated the feisty debate and we had heaps food and booze which helped to digest the argument, and ensured an air of xmas festivity.

Bookgroup blog readers titilated by these ideas and wanting to follow up any of these trails of thought should read on for more ideas, links and resources.

This podcast is an interview with a woman concerned about the same issues as hersi ali but going about it in a different way

Ida Lichter talks about Muslim women who are fighting back against discrimination and persecution. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and all around the world, women are demanding reforms. Some reject Islam as patriarchal, others believe it’s completely compatible with equality.

this podcast is about how the law in australia and deals with forced marriage. it reinforces a number of things said in the book and in a piece on other blog

Finally, something to contemplate from left field is that all these discussions of these issues use a rights based approach. that is, they talk about the’right’ to freedom of religion, or ‘cultural rights’, on one hand versus women’s ‘rights’ on the other. there is an alternative mainstream paradigm called utilitarianism. for example, peter singer, one of the most famous philosophers and vegetarians in world, argues for vegetarianism on the basis of utilitarianism not on basis of animal rights.

it would be interesting to look at the issue of cultural oppression of women from that basis, ie do these practices, on balance, for society as a whole promote ‘the general happiness’, as john stuart-mill would have put it.

the reason utilitarianism might be useful is the following proposition which seems to flow logically from a rights based approach.

On a right based approach you end up with the conclusion that practices are ok if they don’t harm people or if the people harmed consent to being harmed. This argument is detailed here. In relation to the part about consent there are clear questions about whether women consent to these practices. In relation to harm it’s clear there is harm to women in the case of violence, but it’s possibly arguable in the case of dress. Another interesting argument tribal men might put forward is that socalled bad behaviour by their women harms the men, through the honour concept. They might argue they have been harmed without their consent and the perpetrator should be punished.


Entry filed under: african, biography, non-fiction, politics, religion.


3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sara  |  December 12, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Great run down of the night. Thanks Dave for a great dinner and wine with friends and foes !!!!!!!!! See ya next month.

  • 2. Karl Schurr  |  January 10, 2011 at 5:04 am

    I agree. An impassioned but civilised debate accompanied by excellent food and drink.

  • […] Ayaan Hersi Ali has made very similar arguments in relation to some islamic cultures, and i have raised the issue in previous posts on secularism and the enlightenment.   LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


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