Monday, June 04, 2007

"It's Just Another Book"

"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.

I am a Muslim because i understand why a woman ululates when her son dies in a suicide bombing. She rejoices for her son's closeness to God."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Not words that you might expect from one of the world's supposedly most anti-Islamic apostate writers.

Last night, i joined 1,200 others at the Sydney Recital Hall to worship at the temple of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She had been invited to close the Sydney Writer's Festival - a brave choice on the part of Artistic Director, Wendy Were.

The audience were hardly your typical neocon warmonger crowd. Women outnumbered men 2:1 and the luvvy quota was high. Ms. Were opened her introductory speech by offering thanks to the local Aboriginal tribe for lending their land to host the Festival. She was cheered to the rafters.

The arrival of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was quite dramatic. Because so much attention is focused on her words and her actions, little time is spent discussing her look. She is, quite simply, beautiful. Very tall, slender and dressed all in black leather save for an African shawl draped across her tiny shoulders, she looked more at home with Naomi Campbell than Naomi Wolf.

However you are quickly reminded that she is no catwalk super-model when she opens her mouth. Rather than a blurred trans-Atlantic drawl, she speaks her English with the soft, almost giggly voice of an African schoolgirl. It is just not what you expect from such a towering political figure. It is a reminder of who she is rather than who people have turned her into.

That she is a polarising figure is indisputable. Blog chatter in advance of her talk had produced some of the most vitriolic dialogue that i have seen since arriving here last year. She is a Muslim apostate, a cheerleader for GWB's War on Terror, scream the Left. Nonsense, retort the Right, she is a victim, an oppressed spokesperson for the downtrodden. Conversations amongst us non-Muslims focused almost entirely on the subject of female genital mutilation, or the sanitised 'FGM'.

I accept the arguments made by some of the more enlightened bloggers at LP and by Kizzie, a Sudanese blogger, that her traumatic experiences have so affected her experiences of Islam that she confuses culture and religion, but i would answer that for her to remain impartial is akin to asking an Auschwitz survivor not to let his experiences of the concentration camps colour his views on Nazi-ism.

However Ayaan ignored us all. FGM warranted barely a mention. Her speech was about a Book.

"a bestseller among the wealthy and distributed free of charge to the poor. 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 inspires one man to put his forehead on the ground in piety, and can rouse another to war. It is a book that contends that the greatest act of worship an individual can aspire to is committing suicide, while taking the life of a sinner.

It's author has 99 names but not one of them appears on the cover. This book demands total submission by its readers. And has captured the imagination of more than a billion people. This book impressed me even before I could read. To touch the book I first had to wash my hands, then my face, mouth, and my arms, all the way up to the elbows, run some water over my hair and ears and wash my feet. Everything about it was sacred."

and one particular aspect of this book,

"The Day of Judgement, the day God will judge us, the day my father warned us would be severe for us if we failed to live by The Book"

Her speech was about her upbringing, her fear and her love of the Book, and of her close bond with her sister. She regaled her audience with charming tales of how they would hide pages of romantic novels in betwen pages of the Koran, anything to wile away the hours of boredom, brought on by their father's refusal to allow them out of the house - a house that was kept locked by "three padlocks". She did not talk about her sister's later suicide. Or of their mutilation at age five.

She talked of how she, like most Western teenagers, rebelled against her parents' wishes and ultimately fled an arranged marriage to a distant cousin,

"The hell at the end of life for me seemed abstract, whereas the hell of being forced to submit to a stranger, 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 man to 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 the Holy Book on his side."

She talked of how she demanded the beheading of Salman Rushdie as a schoolgirl following the publication of the Satanic Verses, of how she learned to despise Israel without knowing a thing about it.

And then she spoke of September 11th, 2001.

"On a bright Tuesday morning in New York and Washington, planes full of people flew into buildings full of people. I prayed this was not the work of Muslims. I picked up the Holy Book and there I found Osama bin Laden's words of justification. Did the attacks stem from true belief in true Islam? I had to make the leap to believing 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 Muhammad's death. In other words, it was just another book."

She dismissed those critics who claim she is anti-Islamic with the words I started this article with. But she also added that she is 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. 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 I once shunned: the Jews, Christians, atheists, gays, sinners of all stripes and colours. I lost respect not for Muslims but for what they fear."

She finished with a plea to Australians not to ignore the Saudi-funded Muslim schools on our doorstep that "preach a closed mind, that preach hatred of the Jew, that preach the terror of the Day, that preach total submission."

This largely female writer/luvvy/theatre crowd cheered her enthusiastically at the end of her speech. Though not all stood for her, all had been touched by her magic.

Note - i made notes in a dimly lit theatre. Hence the quotes may not be entirely verbatim accurate. However, the message is true. I make no apology if i sound a little like a star-struck schoolgirl meeting Justin Timberlake for the first time.