Are We Too Tolerant of the Intolerant?

On Reading Infidel – Does Multiculturalism Threaten Us or is it Religion? By Steve Clemens. 12/1/08

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful and disturbing autobiography, Infidel stirred up conflicting emotions for me. For at least a year I refused to read what I perceived to be a screed by a recent convert against her old religious beliefs. Islam as a religion has been roundly bashed in some circles – especially since the events of September 11, 2001 – and such critiques play into the xenophobic stereotypes of “the other” by right-wing forces intent on protecting white privilege, Western cultural imperialism and patriarchal domination.

On the recommendation of a close friend who teaches English as a second (or third) language to immigrant students, I got a copy of the book from the library. Ali writes in a personal and engaging style and captures well her experience growing up in Somalia, fleeing to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, back to Somalia and finally to Kenya. Because her father was involved in trying to replace the corrupt Siad Barre government, he was in jail or exile for most of Ayaan’s childhood. It was when he decided to compel his daughter into a forced marriage that she decided to flee to the Netherlands. She renounces her Islamic faith and becomes a Member of Parliament. After a friend is assassinated and she faces constant threats against her own life, she ends up in the U.S.

While the personal story is compelling, what struck me most about this story is Ali’s observations about the tension between multiculturalism and toleration of Dutch society and the fundamentalist conservatism of many of the immigrants from predominately Muslim countries. She observed that even though she had “escaped” the rigidity of the cultural repression she experienced as a woman in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, she saw it re-imposed within the immigrant communities within Holland. Despite the ethic of tolerance and liberation touted by the Dutch society –clearly evidenced by the lack of restrictions on drug use and prostitution in areas of Amsterdam – within the pockets of immigrants from Morocco, Somalia, and other Muslim-dominated countries, the patterns of patriarchy and strict restrictions on the dress and behavior of women were maintained as if one had never left her homeland. Even stories of “kitchen surgeries” to perform male-mandated female genital mutilation were passed through the immigrant neighborhoods and had the effect of keeping others “in line”.

I don’t doubt the accuracy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s stories; I think she recorded them accurately. But on further reflection, it made me wonder if she hasn’t confused her cultural experiences with the predominate religious ideology that was also present in her upbringing. Female genital mutilation (FMG) is NOT a practice prescribed by Islam but rather a tribal tradition in parts of the world where a fundamentalism interpretation of the need for women’s submission dominates. Even though Indonesia is the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, I don’t hear stories of female genital mutilation occurring there. So the practice might not be endemic to Islam but rather parts of Africa that might also coincide with areas that are predominately Muslim.

However, the practice does coincide with a wider practice of mandating girls and women being covered when in public so as not to show exposed skin or accentuate one’s shape – so as not to “tempt” men. Again, while this is predominately mandated by male religious authorities who justify it on the basis of texts from the Quran (Koran), the enforcement of this practice varies widely among predominately Muslim cultures. Prior to the recent US war on Iraq, only a small minority of Iraqi Muslim women dressed in a full burka or even wore a hijab in public; many wore a modest scarf to cover their hair. I experienced a similar practice in both Jordan and Egypt when visiting in those countries.

But whether primarily cultural or mandated by certain religious interpretations and customs, the impact on women in the multicultural bastion of tolerance felt like an imprisonment to Ali. After all, she had fled to the Netherlands to escape the forced marriage arranged by her father. But within the immigrant neighborhoods where she found herself, the power and domination of the clans within Somali society resurfaced in Holland. The enforcement of cultural traditions and taboos had followed her to the west. When the Dutch, in being eager to embrace multiculturalism, allowed the immigrants to establish their own schools, they also helped perpetuate the continuation of practices that forced women into roles and behaviors that didn’t model the freedom and rights given others within Dutch society. Although Dutch law mandated education, in allowing schools which did not embrace the liberal human rights ideology of the larger society to indoctrinate their children within the patriarchal and misogynistic ideology of their African?/Islamic? traditions, the Dutch were inadvertently subverting their own communal values. As the birthrates of the immigrant population continue to greatly outpace that of the European Dutch, some of the proud Dutch traditions of tolerance might be in jeopardy as more immigrants get the right to vote.

It is important that we don’t confuse certain customs/mandates/traditions - like FMG, restrictions on driving (Saudi Arabia), enforced dress restrictions and other practices which fall predominately on women – as religious dogma when it might be primarily cultural, tribal, or societal. However, when the repressive or restrictive mandates are reinforced by religious dogma that encourage or mandate women to be “submissive” or be relegated to only secondary status, what might start as a cultural practice takes on a much heavier repression when coupled with religious sanction.

It is easy within American society post-9/11 to stereotype and project all kinds of malicious accusations on Islam as a religion or on practices associated with predominately Muslim cultures. But the wider practice within many religious traditions which mirror the above problem was made clearer to me recently with the Pope’s decision to excommunicate Fr. Roy Bourgeois for participating in a ceremony ordaining a woman priest as a Roman Catholic. Father Roy is a friend of mine and this recent decision from the Vatican didn’t really surprise me as the Roman Catholic Church, especially under the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, has been consistently rolling back the openness mandated by the Vatican II Council.

Here in the Twin Cities it has reared its ugly head in Archbishop Neinstedt’s persecution of some of the more progressive Catholic parishes – most notably at St. Stephen’s, Francis Cabrini, and St. Joan of Arc. The Catholic Church has taken on a siege mentality and is looking for scapegoats and villains from amongst its own progressives. Much of this repression comes from the same misogynistic, paternalistic, and patriarchal ideology that leads to similar (if less drastic) results of female genital mutilation. Although couched in “scriptural” justification or “tradition”, the all-male system of domination continues to indoctrinate its young within their parochial schools.

The issue we need to confront is when religion or other cultural institutions deny human rights to any group of individuals on the basis of ideology or “scripture” or other promulgations. Whether it is Bob Jones University in South Carolina refusing to admit black students (until very recently), denying rights afforded to heterosexuals to sexual minorities like the present marriage bans, or refusal to allow and respect female ordination to ministry like the Southern Baptist Convention or Roman Catholic hierarchy – all of which take place in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – groups of people are relegated to second-class citizenship and denied rights assumed by others.

What happens to the American values of human rights and dignity, social and political freedoms won after long struggles for civil rights, women’s rights, abolition of slavery, an end to child labor, … when groups within the society want to re-enslave select groups of “others” and do so with the blessing of the state when they form their own school systems or “opt out” of the public system in order to prevent their integration within the “cultural mainstream” of our society?

I am one who for decades has been arguing for myself and others to flee the “cultural mainstream” of American society when it comes to our cultural (and religious?) values of greed, individualism, militarism, competition, racism, and materialism. I want our nation and society to embrace community, cooperation, nonviolence, and justice. But I do want to keep some of the values our nation at least gives lip service to: liberty and equal justice for all, equal opportunity, protection for minorities, human rights and dignity. Ali’s book, Infidel, has raised a lot of provocative questions for me. While I am disturbed that she is labeled an “apostate” and “infidel” for her own rejection of her religious tradition, I am equally concerned about how my religious tradition has also labeled, marginalized, and oppressed others.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to mention the most extreme violence Ayaan Hirsi Ali faced – and continues to face. When she renounced her faith and went on to criticize what she felt was pedophilia behavior of its religious leader, the Prophet Mohammed (who “married” a 9-year old girl and consummated that marriage when she was 12), she was threatened with death. Ever since, she has had to be surrounded by bodyguards and always on the lookout for those who would kill her for her “blasphemy”. In a similar but less drastic way, when Fr. Roy was excommunicated by the Pope, he received a spiritual “death sentence” of sorts. He is denied access to the sacraments of the Church – a Church that teaches such “apostates” are “going to hell”. One tradition supports “honor killings”; another sanctions treating someone who marries outside the faith as “dead to us”; others use threats of eternal damnation, shunning, or other attempts of psychological punishment. All these religions make claims about “the love of God” but, in practice, often use divine sanction to excuse the practice of domination.

Until all religions denounce and renounce all forms of violence – physical, mental/psychological, and spiritual, religion will continue to be a force for repression and oppression around the world, giving excuse to fundamentalist factions within each group to continue to use the name of God for diabolical purposes. May we all work to make our religious traditions life-affirming and enriching for all, not just those in privilege and power.