Friday, July 30, 2010

Two reviews of books written by Muslim women: Infidel; Reading Lolita in Iran

Coexist Bumper Sticker

I saw the above bumber sticker on a car during my recent visit to Philadelphia. I saw many such signs and bumper stickers there. It seems to be a popular slogan with many people today that all we need to do is learn to get along with each other, don't confront people about their different beliefs, just accept them and understand that we each have our "own reality". Then we would have peace and harmony.
While there I also visited a Quaker meeting house (there are alot of Quaker meeting houses in the city of brotherly love.) At this particular Quaker house there was -to me- a type of commune where people would come and attend workshops to learn about different philosophies and how to achieve world peace through mutual understanding and respect. While purusing their bookstore I saw that whole shelves were devoted to books on Islam. My companion asked the proprietor why this was. Her answer: "Well, as Quakers, we are universalists. We want to study all cultures and beliefs so we can understand each other. We want to learn about every belief. That is how we can do away with fears and prejudices. We openly celebrate every religion and its link to God. That's the Quaker way."
I have a few arguements with the above mentioned attitudes and philosophies. First of all, who says our goal here on earth is to live in peace and harmony with one another? According to the Bible,our goal is to have the barrior of sin removed between us and God. That only happens when we accept Jesus Christ's reparation for that sin. Peace and harmony will be ushered in when Jesus returns to earth to claim those that have had that sin barrior removed.
Secondly, it takes profound ignorance to consider all religions and value systems as compatible or even worthy of respect. Injustice and tyranny shouldn't be tolerated. Systems and laws that break the ten commandments shouldn't be celebrated. We shouldn't try to coexist with cruel living practices.
The following books were both written by Muslim women. Anyone reading these accounts will not be able to continue in a complacent attitude toward religions that are counter to the teachings of Christ-if they claim to follow His teachings.

Infidel is a stark account of Ayaan's life growing up in Somali under a mixture of tribal and Islamic customs. She details her mother's first marriage and, even though she lived in luxury and comfort, demanded a divorce because her marriage was arranged. Her mother later met Ayaan's father and, despite knowing that he already had a wife and child, struck up a relationship and eventually married him. He later left her and married another woman. This sets the back drop for Ayaan's childhood with a mother who is bitter, angry, frustrated, and constantly lamenting her misfortune. Ayaan and her sister suffer the brunt of her anger with many brutal beatings and by being treated like servants while her brother is allowed to run wild. All of this is the will of Allah, she is told. Her grandmother, who lives with them, mixes this with many tribal customs and a horrible scene is described where Ayaan and her sister are genitally mutilated at the hands of her grandmother and other relatives. This happens while she is in grade school and her sister only four years of age.
At first Ayaan believes that she must learn to be a good Muslim and study the Koran diligently. (Studying the Koran actually means repeating the verses in Arabic by rote even though she does not know Arabic.) She wears the Burqa because she is taught that if men see any part of female flesh they will lose complete control of themselves. Allah, she is told, is just and merciful. Her own innate sense of justice tells her that Allah could not allow the atrocities that are going on in his name. As she studies the Koran in English, however, she realizes that those that are killing in Allah's name are, in fact, following the Koranic teachings and that women are considered to be worth only half a man.
Between the fear and oppression from trying to follow a religious law she can never live up to and the war between factions in her country, Ayaan eventually escapes to Europe as a refugee. In Holland she receives state welfare and, in fact, is encouraged by the social workers there to stay on welfare as most of the African refugees do. Ayaan, refuses to do this, gets hired as a translator, puts herself through school and university and eventually ends up as a member of the Dutch parliament.
While living in Holland, Ayaan sees order and justice, a dramatic contrast from the chaos and violence of her upbringing. Ayaan analyzes this and concludes that it is the blind following of religion that causes the gross inhumanity and disorder in the world. She remarks that the same happened in Europe under the Christian religion until the age of reason when the atheists “enlightened” the continent. Eventually Ayaan becomes a self-proclaimed atheist, a fact that must have so delighted Christopher Hitchens that he wrote the Introduction to her book.
(I'll interject here that she probably learned that slant of European history while in the secular colleges of Holland but that is not historically accurate. The advent of the printing press which enabled the masses to read the Bible for themselves rather than being misinformed by political leaders who wanted to control the populace through fear is what actually enlightened the masses. In fact, it's not Christians who follow the Bible that use terrorism or violence but those who profess Christ and distort His word.)
Ayaan wrote this book because she became increasingly concerned with the Muslim refugees who were growing in population across Europe. They are basically living off the state and refusing to integrate into European society. Ayaan tells the Dutch people that young girls are being genitally mutilated on the kitchen tables in Dutch neighborhoods and they need to put a stop to it.
In conclusion, Infidel is a book rich in ethnic color and tradition. But it will draw you into a world filled with violence, abuse and oppression made all the more horrific because it is happening right now all over the world and even in our own country where fundamentalist Muslims are living according to Shariah law rather than our own American constitution.
As a side note, I'll add that Ayaan has since immigrated to the United States and from different interviews I've seen and read of her, she seems to be realizing that one can have a Christian nation and live in order and peace as well. I will be interested to see how her beliefs develop and it is my earnest prayer that she comes to know Christ as her savior and then, finally know the ultimate freedom. Freedom from one's own sinful nature.
My review is a bare skeletal outline of Infidel. I have left out all the rich color and detail that Ayaan has so beautifully written into her story. This book is a fast read. I read it in three days. I also think it is a must read because of the growing Islamic threat in our own country.

This is yet another woman's account of living in an Islamic country. Nafisi writes of her life as an English professor in an Iranian university and the transformation that takes place in her country as Ayatollah Khomeini comes into power. Iran, under the Shah, was a highly educated, westernized society. Under Khomeini, it is plunged back into the dark ages as fundamentalist Islam takes over. Women, once dressed in western fashion, are now hidden under chadors. The country becomes a police state with each citizen living in terror, never knowing when their home is going to be invaded by police to investigate the owning of any “reported western parphanelia” such as records, clothes or books. It is the loss of her beloved books that Nafisi finds the most intolerable. She is no longer allowed to teach all the European and American classics that are so dear to her.
She decides to do a brave thing. She holds secret weekly meetings in her apartment with select female students to study authors such as Jane Austin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov.
At first I found this book enjoyable as she describes various Iranian customs and plays hostess to her small reading group, serving Iranian delicacies, pouring coffee over one's ice cream and various other ethnic food. She describes the particular situation and history of each student. We get a glimpse of each girl's life, her family, how each copes with the current events of Iran. At these meetings each student takes a turn expressing their enjoyment over a particular novel.
Then Nafisi becomes tiresome. While I found her description of assaults against women and life under a terrorist state informative, Nafisi's main beef is not that the Islamists are doing anything immoral. She doesn't believe in morals. In fact, her favorite book seems to be Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. (For those of you who don't know the story, Lolita is about a fifteen year old girl who, among other things, is drugged then raped by a fifty year old man.) She just doesn't think anyone should be telling her what to do. While she points fingers at the police who commit atrocities against the Iranian women, trumping up charges against them, throwing them in jail, assaulting them in the name of Allah, she waxes eloquent on the “beautiful writing” of a book that is about statutory rape and where the rapist is depicted as the hero and the victim as the bad guy (or in this instance, bad girl). She asserts that it's not the message but the artististic rendering of the story that matters. In fact, there's a strange feeling of irony as these Iranian girls talk about how much they enjoy the “beauty and poetry” of a book that depicts gross injustices against a girl while they live in constant fear of similar injustices being commited against themselves.
What also makes me impatient with Nafisi is her inability to understand cause and effect. She describes her own education at an American university and how she was a member of some Iranian “anti-American pigs” organization. While these “pigs” were giving her an education, she was participating in countless demonstrations against “Western imperialism”. She can't or refuses to connect the dots between her work in these anti western groups and Khomeini and fundamentalist Islam's rise to power in Iran. Interestingly, she is now a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University.
When I first saw the title of this book I figured it was somebody's story of how Islam is wrong because it doesn't allow Iranian women the freedom to be immoral (why else would somebody read a stupid book like Lolita?) My mother insisted that the book was in fact about the oppression that women living in Iran suffer from. Well, we both were right.
It is interesting to note that there is a video on youtube of Nafisi commenting on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She insists that Ayaan is mistaken when she asserts that Islam is a religion of war and tyranny. She contends that the majority of Muslims do not live as Ayaan describes in her book, Infidel, only extremists. I agree with her but I also have to agree with Ayaan. While most Muslims aren't terrorists, most Muslims aren't following the Koran. As mosque centers increase in number around our country and the world, however, I'm afraid that may change.


ma P said...

wow. You did a great job summing up what the Quakers miss. Sin and it's ramifications.
It's sickening to learn about the immorality and degredation and mutilation of women, going on right now, worldwide. I was glad to read your reviews, and especially the interjections. You are an excellent writer.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks so much for your comments. I am going to follow up with a guest columnist's response to this blog.