Taking Islam to task

Current Affairs: Why are liberal Westerners afraid to criticise the abuses of Islam? Why do Muslim women maintain their own …

Current Affairs: Why are liberal Westerners afraid to criticise the abuses of Islam? Why do Muslim women maintain their own oppression? Is hatred and aggression inherent in the Islamic faith? Why do Muslims move to the West, while at the same time condemning it?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali asks many of the uncomfortable questions of our time. Born in Somalia and raised as a Muslim, Hirsi Ali went to the Netherlands to escape a forced marriage. She denounced Islam after 9/11 and since then her outspoken opinions on Muslims have made her a target for death threats. Formerly a member of the Dutch parliament, Hirsi Ali wrote a highly controversial film about Islam in which extracts of the Koran were written across the bodies of five women. As a result, the film's director, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered in 2004.

The main argument in this collection of essays is that Islam is a serious obstacle to social progress in the Muslim world. Islam must go through some form of enlightenment, Hirsi Ali argues, so that issues such as the treatment of women can be addressed and changes made. Only when the Muslim world has its own Monty Python, with Muhammad as the lead in a Muslim version of The Life of Brian, will Muslims - both orthodox and fundamentalist - have taken a "step forward".

By falling into the "clash of cultures" trap, Hirsi Ali refers to both the "West" and the "Muslim world" in dangerously generalised terms. By frequently describing the "West" as freedom-loving and the "Muslim world" as oppressive and backward, Hirsi Ali runs the risk of over-simplifying one of the most serious issues of the day. Dubbed "a Muslim woman's cry for reason", The Caged Virgin repeatedly puts all Muslim women under the same heading without placing them in their cultural context. She fails to acknowledge that a Muslim woman living in Saudi Arabia, for example, is very different to a Muslim woman in India, which is more openly multidenominational, or to a Muslim woman living as part of a minority in London.


Defying her mother's wishes by going to school, running away from her family and having a boyfriend, Hirsi Ali's personal experience as a Muslim woman is unique. And it is when she draws on the specifics of her own experience that her argument is strongest. Describing her work as an interpreter in the Netherlands, she gives an insight into the tragic reality of domestic violence, female genital mutilation and the consequences of sexual taboo amongst Somali refugee women. The fixation with virginity before marriage and the lack of sexual education has robbed Muslim women of their human rights, forcing them to live as "caged virgins", she writes.

To tackle these issues, Hirsi Ali offers a series of recommendations such as compulsory screening in the Netherlands for women who risk being subjected to genital mutilation; establishing a national policy to deal with honour killings; a joint European approach to tackle the trafficking of prostitutes; and cultural campaigns on sexual education. Among all of this comes a somewhat misplaced, if sadly comical, chapter offering "Ten tips for Muslim women who want to leave" (leave a letter for your family; get a part-time job; don't draw attention to yourself; make new friends).

Hirsi Ali also takes issue with non-Muslims and the attitude of "present-day cultural relativists, who flinch from criticising Muhammad for fear of offending Muslims". By pitying Muslims, and primarily focusing on the US and British assault on Muslim countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, the "West" betrays the tiny minority of Muslims who are struggling to question their faith. As a result, the "core of the debate" behind the rise of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is made taboo, she argues. One side fears the rise of Islamaphobia, while on the other Hirsi Ali risks assassination for daring to question Islam. Somewhere between the two, perhaps, we can find a less polarised course.

While Hirsi Ali never holds back in her criticism of Islam, she has valid and important recommendations about improving the plight of abused Muslim women. Tackling one of the most sensitive issues of our time with provocative and passionate arguments, The Caged Virgin is, above all else, a brave book.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist Current Affairs

The Caged Virgin By Ayaan Hirsi Ali The Free Press, 187pp. £12.99

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist