'The Caged Virgin': A Call for Change in Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Dutch author and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, pictured here talking to reporters in February 2006, scolded European leaders for appeasing radical Muslims rather than demanding greater equality for women. Steffen Kugler/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Steffen Kugler/CORBIS

Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a native of Somalia who emigrated to The Netherlands in the early 1990s, is no stranger to controversy among her fellow Muslims. Living in the West, she felt free to publicly criticize Islam's treatment of women.

But that freedom came at a price. In 2004, a short film Ali scripted called Submission was shown on Dutch television. In the film, naked women veiled with see-through shrouds painted with verses of the Quran kneel in prayer, telling their stories as if they are speaking to Allah.

The film's co-writer and director Theo Van Gogh was later stabbed to death by a Muslim radical. A letter pinned to the body with a dagger threatened Ali's life. Since then, she has been under the constant protection of body guards.

The danger hasn't stopped her from remaining outspoken about her beliefs. Ali calls her new collection of essays, The Caged Virgin, an "Emancipation Proclamation" for women and Islam.

Excerpt: 'The Caged Virgin'

Preface

The attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, prompted the West to launch a massive appeal to Muslims around the world to reflect on their religion and culture. American President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and numerous other leaders in the West asked Muslim organizations in their countries to distance themselves from Islam as preached by these nineteen terrorists. This plea was met with indignation from Muslims who thought it was inappropriate to hold them responsible for the criminal conduct of nineteen young men. Yet the fact that the people who committed the attacks on September 11 were Muslims, and the fact that before this date Muslims in many parts of the world were already harboring feelings of immense resentment toward the United States in particular, have urged me to investigate whether the roots of evil can be traced to the faith I grew up with: was the aggression, the hatred inherent in Islam itself?

My parents brought me up to be a Muslim — a good Muslim. Islam dominated the lives of our family and relations down to the smallest detail. It was our ideology, our political conviction, our moral standard, our law, and our identity. We were first and foremost Muslim and only then Somali. Muslims, as we were taught the meaning of the name, are people who submit themselves to Allah's will, which is found in the Koran and the Hadith, a collection of sayings ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. I was taught that Islam sets us apart from the rest of the world, the world of non-Muslims. We Muslims are chosen by God. They, the others, the kaffirs, the unbelievers, are antisocial, impure, barbaric, not circumcised, immoral, unscrupulous, and above all, obscene; they have no respect for women; their girls and women are whores; many of the men are homosexual; men and women have sex without being married. The unfaithful are cursed, and God will punish them most atrociously in the hereafter.

When my sister and I were small, we would occasionally make remarks about nice people who were not Muslim, but my mother and grandmother would always say, "No, they are not good people. They know about the Koran and the Prophet and Allah, and yet they haven't come to see that the only thing a person can be is Muslim. They are blind. If they were such nice and good people, they would have become Muslims and then Allah would protect them against evil. But it is up to them. If they become Muslims, they will go to paradise."

There are also Christians and Jews who raise their children in the belief that they are God's chosen people, but among Muslims the feeling that God has granted them special salvation goes further.

About twelve years ago, at age twenty-two, I arrived in Western Europe, on the run from an arranged marriage. I soon learned that God and His truth had been humanized here. For Muslims life on earth is merely a transitory stage before the hereafter; but here people are also allowed to invest in their lives as mortals. What is more, hell seems no longer to exist, and God is a god of love rather than a cruel ruler who metes out punishments. I began to take a more critical look at my faith and discovered three important elements of Islam that had not particularly struck me before.

The first of these is that a Muslim's relationship with his God is one of fear. A Muslim's conception of God is absolute. Our God demands total submission. He rewards you if you follow His rules meticulously. He punishes you cruelly if you break His rules, both on earth, with illness and natural disasters, and in the hereafter, with hellfire.

The second element is that Islam knows only one moral source: the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad is infallible. You would almost believe he is himself a god, but the Koran says explicitly that Muhammad is a human being; he is a supreme human being, though, the most perfect human being. We must live our lives according to his example. What is written in the Koran is what God said as it was heard by Muhammad. The thousands of hadiths — accounts of what Muhammad said and did, and the advice he gave, which survives in weighty books — tell us exactly how a Muslim was supposed to live in the seventh century. Devout Muslims consult these works daily to answer questions about life in the twenty-first century.

The third element is that Islam is strongly dominated by a sexual morality derived from tribal Arab values dating from the time the Prophet received his instructions from Allah, a culture in which women were the property of their fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, or guardians. The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen. Her veil functions as a constant reminder to the outside world of this stifling morality that makes Muslim men the owners of women and obliges them to prevent their mothers, sisters, aunts, sisters-in-law, cousins, nieces, and wives from having sexual contact. And we are not just talking about cohabitation. It is an offense if a woman glances in the direction of a man, brushes past his arm, or shakes his hand. A man's reputation and honor depend entirely on the respectable, obedient behavior of the female members of his family.

These three elements explain largely why Muslim nations are lagging behind the West and, more recently, also lagging behind Asia. In order to break through the mental bars of this trinity, behind which the majority of Muslims are restrained, we must begin with a critical self-examination. But any Muslim who asks critical questions about Islam is immediately branded a "deserter." A Muslim who advocates the exploration of sources for morality, in addition to those of the Prophet Muhammad, will be threatened with death, and a woman who withdraws from the virgins' cage is branded a whore.

Through my personal experiences, through reading a great deal and speaking to others, I have come to realize that the existence of Allah, of angels, demons, and a life after death, is at the very least disputable. If Allah exists at all, we must not regard His word as absolute, but challenge it. I once wrote about my doubts regarding my faith in the hope of starting a discussion. I was immediately confronted by zealous Muslims, men and women who wanted to have me excommunicated. They even went so far as to say that I deserved to die because I had dared to call into question the absolute truth of Allah's word. They took me to court to prevent me from criticizing the faith I had been born into, from asking questions about the regulations and gods that Allah's messenger has imposed upon us. An Islamic fundamentalist murdered Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who helped me make Submission: Part I, a film about the relationship between the individual and God, in particular about the individual woman and God. And he threatened to kill me, too, a threat that others have also pledged to fulfill.

Like other thinking people, I like to tap into sources of wisdom, morality, and imagination other than religious texts — other books besides the Koran and accounts of the Prophet — and I would like other Muslims to tap into them, too. Just because Spinoza, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Kant, or Bertrand Russell are not Islamic and have no Islamic counterparts does not mean that Muslims should steer clear of these and other Western philosophers. Yet, at present, reading works by Western thinkers is regarded as disrespectful to the Prophet and Allah's message. This is a serious misconception. Why should it not be permitted to abide by all the good things Muhammad has urged us to do (such as his advice to be charitable toward the poor and orphans), while at the same time adding to our lives and outlook the ideas of other moral philosophers? After all, the fact that the Wright brothers were not Islamic has not stopped Muslims from traveling by air. By adopting the technical inventions of the West without its courage to think independently, we perpetuate the mental stagnation in Islamic culture, passing it on from one generation to the next.

The most important explanation for the mental and material backlog we Muslims find ourselves in should probably be sought in the sexual morality that we are force-fed from birth (see chapter 3, "The Virgins' Cage"). I would like to invite all people like me who had an Islamic upbringing to compare and contrast J. S. Mill's essay "On the Subjection of Women" (1869) with what the Prophet Muhammad has to say on the subject of women. Both were undeniably interested in the role of women, but there is a vast difference between Muhammad and Mill. For instance, Mill considered his beloved wife an intellectual equal; Muhammad was a polygamist and wrote that men have authority over women because God made one superior to the other. Mill, a model of calm reason in the face of contentious issues, argued that if freedom is good for men, it is good for women, a position that today most of the modern world considers unassailable.

Yet any investigation into the Islamic trinity by a Muslim is thought to be an act of complete betrayal of the religion and the Prophet. It is extremely painful for a believer to try to question. And it is extremely painful for a believer to hear that other Muslims are questioning the Islamic trinity. Muslim's strong emotions and condemnations of people who do question the trinity impress outsiders, myself included, especially when they are expressed on a massive scale by entire communities and even nations, as has happened in Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.

Think, for instance, of the murder of Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam, a Western city in a Western democracy, for exercising his free-speech rights to look critically at Islam in Submission: Part I, the film he and I made. While you may have heard of the death threats that have been made also against me for this film, you may not know that when I initially spoke on the immoral practices of the Prophet Muhammad, more than one hundred fifty complaints were made against me to the police and the government. Four ambassadors visited my party leaders — ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia. They carried a letter attached to which was a list of twenty-one countries belonging to the Islamic Conference — including Turkey — that supported the letter. The main complaint in their letter was that I had insulted the Prophet and had deeply hurt the feelings of more than 1 billion Muslims. Death threats followed against me and also against the leader of my party when he refused to take seriously this complaint and evict me from Parliament.

Think also of the reaction to the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria in 2002. Religious extremists protested the holding of the contest and became violently inflamed when a Christian journalist in an independent newspaper suggested, in reply to the scolding question, What would the Prophet Muhammad make of this improper display of women's beauty and bodies?, that the Prophet may have chosen a new wife from the contestants had he been alive today. This was felt to be a grave insult to the Prophet. During the subsequent protests, the office of the newspaper was burned down; two hundred people were killed and at least five hundred were injured.

Think also of the aftermath of Newsweek's story in May 2005, of a 2002 FBI report made available to the journalist, that a soldier had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantánamo Bay, where Afghan and Pakistani soldiers suspected of being Taliban members are being held after capture in Afghanistan. Violent protests erupted in Pakistan and Afghanistan and lasted for several days; at least sixteen people were killed.

Think also of the situation that began in Denmark when the author of a biography of Muhammad wanted a drawing on his book jacket that represented the Prophet. All the artists he approached said, No, we can't do it; we fear Muslim reprisals and would fear for our lives. Hearing of the author's challenge, the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten asked cartoonists to depict the Prophet as a test of whether freedom of expression had been limited in Denmark as a result of Islamic terrorists. Twelve cartoonists agreed, and the newspaper published their images in September 2005. Muslim organizations immediately demanded an apology, which the editor-in-chief refused to make, saying that a democracy makes use of all means of expression, including satire, and the images were not intended to insult the Prophet or Muslims. Nonetheless, 3,000 of the 187,000 Muslims living in Denmark protested the paper, which had to post guards as a result of death threats. Eleven foreign ambassadors visited the paper to complain. Months later, in January 2006, Muslim countries began to boycott Danish products. The Danish economy lost some 90 million euros in about a week; companies were forced to lay off hundreds of employees. In February, newspapers in other European countries published the images in support of Denmark and freedom of the press. Islamic extremists attacked and burned the Danish embassy in Beirut; one person was killed. Other European embassies in Islamic countries were attacked. A Christian priest was killed by a Turkish man screaming "God is great." As protests were fomented around the world, violence increased and the death toll mounted. Some moderate Muslims who called for restraint in Islamic countries were silenced by their governments, even jailed. Yet European governments are seriously considering limiting the freedom of the press to discuss Islam; some newspaper editors were fired for printing the cartoons. The tragedy for many Muslims is that their inability to criticize the dogma of religion in their own countries will be continued in Europe.

I am amazed that Muslims are not more offended by the invocation of Allah and "God is great" for murder than by cartoons. Why do Muslims not fly into flights of rage when people who go to help Iraqis are kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded in the name of Islam? Political cartoons that point up problems with an extremist religion are used to manipulate people into violence instead of reflection and debate. Freedom of expression for Muslims is a one-way street; Muslims can criticize the West, but the West cannot criticize the practices of Islam.

I understand that a Muslim may feel a duty to scold anyone who attempts to call into question the absoluteness of God's word or someone who regards other sources of morality as equal, or superior even, to the Prophet Muhammad's. History shows that for many people to make a mental transition of this magnitude and question their beliefs is always a very slow process, and one that generates resistance and causes bloodshed. In this context I can place the murder of Theo van Gogh, the death threats and legal steps against me, and the intense rejection and condemnation of me as an individual, a heretic, and a blasphemer. Remember that the Protestant Reformation took many years of protest (the source of its name) as well as bloodshed and widespread unrest to establish itself firmly. A quick look at Islamic history shows us that critical voices from within Islam have almost all been either killed or exiled. I find myself in good company: Salman Rushdie, Irshad Manji, Taslima Nasreen, Muhammad Abu Zaid — they all have been threatened by fellow believers and are now being guarded by non-Muslims.

Nonetheless we who were brought up with Islam must summon the courage to break through this wall of emotional resistance or to climb over it, until eventually the number of critics grows large enough to counterbalance the entrenched opposition effectively. In order to achieve this we will need the help of the liberal West, whose interests are greatly served by a reform of Islam. But above all, we Muslims must help each other.

I am feeling optimistic about that reform. I base my optimism on positive signs, like the local elections in Saudi Arabia (although women were excluded from these elections, at least the elections were held); the successful elections in Iraq and Afghanistan (where a secular government has taken over after the Taliban); the demonstrations against the terror of the Islamic Party by journalists and academics in Morocco; and the promising agreements between Sharon and Abbas about the future of Israel and Palestine. Abbas is more reasonable than the late Arafat and seems to act in the interest of the Palestinians, and Israel's giving back the land to the Palestinians for self-rule is good progress, although the election in which Hamas became the ruling party is a setback. Another indication of progress is Pakistan's acceptance of Israeli aid to the victims of the terrible October 8, 2005, earthquake. Of course, I realize that these are quite recent developments.

I am optimistic, and I normally would have looked to the West for help in reforming Islam, from secular liberals, Westerners who are traditionally opposed to the enforcement of religious beliefs and customs. In certain countries, "left-wing," secular liberals have stimulated my critical thinking and that of other Muslims. But these same liberals in Western politics have the strange habit of blaming themselves for the ills of the world, while seeing the rest of the world as victims. To them, victims are to be pitied, and they lump together all pitiable and suppressed people, such as Muslims, and consider them good people who should be cherished and supported so that they can overcome their disadvantages. The adherents to the gospel of multiculturalism refuse to criticize people whom they see as victims. Some Western critics disapprove of United States policies and attitudes but do not criticize the Islamic world, just as, in the first part of the twentieth century, Western socialist apologists did not dare criticize the Soviet labor camps. Along the same lines, some Western intellectuals criticize Israel, but they will not criticize Palestine because Israel belongs to the West, which they consider fair game, but they feel sorry for the Palestinians, and for the Islamic world in general, which is not as powerful as the West. They are critical of the native white majority in Western countries but not of Islamic minorities. Criticism of the Islamic world, of Palestinians, and of Islamic minorities is regarded as Islamophobia and xenophobia.

I cannot emphasize enough how wrongheaded this is. Withholding criticism and ignoring differences are racism in its purest form. Yet these cultural experts fail to notice that, through their anxious avoidance of criticizing non-Western countries, they trap the people who represent these cultures in a state of backwardness. The experts may have the best of intentions, but as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

My own criticism of Islamic religion and culture is felt by some to be "harsh," "offensive," and "hurtful." But the attitude of the cultural experts is, in fact, harsher, and more offensive and hurtful. They feel superior and do not regard Muslims as equal discussion partners, but as the "others" who should be shielded. And they think that criticism of Islam should be avoided because they are afraid that Muslims can only respond to criticism with anger and violence. These cultural experts are badly letting down us Muslims who have obeyed the call to show our sense of public responsibility and are speaking out.

I have taken an enormous risk by answering the call for self-reflection and by joining in the public debate that has been taking place in the West since 9/11. And what do the cultural experts say? "You should have said it in a different way." But since Theo van Gogh's death, I have been convinced more than ever that I must say it in my way only and have my criticism.

Copyright ©2002, 2004 by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Augustus Publishers. English translation copyright ©2006 by Jane Brown

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An Emancipation Proclamation for Women And Islam

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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