Monday, August 8, 2011

Mixed Feelings on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Mixed Messages

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has caused a bit of a stir with her recent interview on converting Western Muslims to Christianity. Although what she had to say is nothing new (she outlined these views in her 2010 book Nomad) she has attracted criticism from secularists such as Maryam Namazie, who in a recent blog accuses Ayaan of pandering to neo-conservatives. The interview can be seen below.

I am both sympathetic and critical of both Ayaan and her detractors. I see Christianity as a preferable alternative to Islam, but am equally skeptical about promoting it to the already devout. I also understand the frustration many secularists feel about this message, but I see much of it to be unreasonable and unfair towards Ayaan.

It is very important to understand Ayaan's perspective and what is guiding it. This is a woman who has lived with body guards for years and has received countless death threats. Just recently, she has been forced to cancel her appearance at Melbourne's Think Inc conference. This is obviously very disappointing to all those who will be attending (I myself will be taking the trip from Perth to see it) but the safety of Ayaan and the audience is of course paramount.

This security situation is not the result of Christian thuggery. The man who butchered Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam and pinned a note with a knife to his dead body which threatened the life of Ayaan was not a Christian. It is fanatical Muslims who have taken much of Ayaan's liberty away, not Christians.

She has spoken of an evolved Western Christianity, one which has been tamed by the enlightenment and open inquiry. The average Western Christian does not make death threats or advocate holy war. Putting it simply, if the fanatical Muslims who threaten Ayaan's life were to become like the average Western Christian, she would not have to live with bodyguards.

It is for these reason that I understand and sympathise with Ayaan's view. Not many of us can compare our lives to hers, so perhaps many of her critics should look closely at just what she has been through.

In saying that, I do see her model as too simplistic. Granted, seeing radical Islamists becoming moderate Christians would be pleasing. But is this really what would happen if devout Muslims converted to Christianity? Is this the best course to take?

Many Muslims have expressed to Ayaan that they do not wish to remain Muslims, but also that they cannot imagine their lives without some sort of spiritual anchor. This is where Christianity comes in, as it enables Muslims to hold onto God while embracing a more moderate faith.

I am very skeptical as to just how "moderate" these former Muslims would be. If they cannot embrace secularism and God is something they have a true passion for, then I cannot imagine that their new found Christian beliefs would be considered tame by Western liberal standards. Ayaan speaks of how Christianity has evolved in the West, but this is not necessarily the brand of Christianity they will accept.

When faith and superstition dominate a mindset, much of the taming that secularism has brought is eliminated. When Christianity is taken to countries that have failed to follow or have not yet discovered the virtues of secularism, we find a very primitive interpretation of scripture. Taking the example of Uganda, there is a strong move for homosexuality to be punishable by death, and violence against homosexuals has increased dramatically. This is a direct result of Christian preaching.

Unfortunately, many Western Muslims retain and pass on a superstitious mentality which was implanted by a theocratic State. It is for this reason that I fear many former Muslims would not embrace a moderate Christianity, but more of a literal Christianity like what is currently popular in Uganda.

America's Christianity is also not entirely moderate. We all know about the fanaticism of the Christian Right - gay bashing, intelligent design, censorship etc - and increasing their base, to me, is a frightening thought. I worry that these former Muslims would join their ranks, fuelling the "cultural war" that Pat Buchanan spoke of.

As I discussed in my post on the Norway massacre, a binary religious dynamic in one country is a dangerous thing. The fight against religious tyranny should not be a fight taken up by opposing religious forces, as the opposing sides are then just as bad as each other. When both sides believe that God is on their side and that he is commanding them to action, the results are too often devastating.  This, I fear, may be the sort of dynamic created by converting devout Muslims.

Muslims generally do not take apostasy lightly. In fact, the Hadith sanctions death for the sin. A documentary by Channel 4's Dispatches shows the violence that Muslims often experience for their conversions to Christianity. Such hostility could only make the problem worse.

I simply see the only alternative as promoting secularism. I fear that promoting Christianity will further the religious divide and fuel ethnic tension. Perhaps Ayaan is not seeing the broader picture here, and is perhaps advocating this position as a result of the overwhelming presence of Islamic barbarism in her life.

I also find it disappointing to see Ayaan drifting off message. The recent criticism from secularists seems to be derived from a disappointment in a figure who is such a champion of secular democracy. While she promotes the virtues of the enlightenment and skeptical inquiry, she at the same time promotes Christianity as a moderating force. The message is very mixed and confusing, and may be interpreted by many as lacking conviction. It may give undue credit to Christianity, while also undermining the secular movement.

Many Muslims may be passionate about the need for God in their lives, but this does not mean that only another religion can be offered as an alternative. It would be much better to promote secularism even to those who require spirituality in their lives, as they may in turn become more secularised and moderate. The goal should be to moderate Muslims, rather than try to turn them into moderate Christians.

I still greatly admire Ayaan but I respectfully disagree with her position. Her secular critics should perhaps not be so scathing of her stance, and not lump her in with the neo-conservative hawks. She may be to the right-of-centre on the political spectrum, but she proudly calls herself a classical liberal and has done so for many years. Her stance is not based on parroting the views of the radical right, and if it was, then she surely would not be calling herself an Atheist. Let's just agree to disagree.