Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, 2010
304 pp., 27.00
Benjamin B. DeVan
Among immigrants aspiring to brave futures in the land of the free, few are as controversial or as mobile as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As a child, Hirsi Ali lived in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Kenya. As a young woman, she fled an arranged marriage to a cousin in Canada, seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Eleven years later, she was a Dutch citizen and a Member of Parliament. By 2004, Hirsi Ali feared for her life after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, whose killer stabbed a letter threatening her with death into Van Gogh's chest. Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali were co-creators of the film Submission, Part 1, dramatizing a series of monologues portraying Muslim women who pour out heartfelt pains to God.
Following Van Gogh's death, Hirsi Ali was stripped of her Dutch citizenship, then later received it back. She traveled from safe house to safe house under security surveillance costing annually the equivalent of millions of dollars. Under the watchful supervision of bodyguards she entered America, where at first she felt rootless and lost: "To be a nomad, always wandering, had always sounded romantic. In practice, to be homeless and living out of a suitcase was a little foretaste of hell."
Hirsi Ali's first memoir, Infidel (in Dutch as Mijn Vrijheid, "My Freedom"), written with assistance from an anonymous ghostwriter and published in the United States in 2007, became an international bestseller. A collection of essays, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, was first published in 2006 and reissued in an expanded version in 2008. (This volume includes the script for Submission, Part 1.) And now we have Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations . The new book is in part a sequel to Infidel; both carry endorsements or forwards by New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.
Infidel chronicles Hirsi Ali's journey to atheism. But while Nomad continues to convey some of the disdain for religious faith that animated her first book, it falls short of pervasive disregard for belief in God—not least by extolling curiously construed "moderate Christians" who "do not take every word in the Bible to be the word of God. They don't seek to actively live exactly as Jesus Christ and his disciples did. They are actually critical of the Bible, which they read in their own language and have revised several times. There are parts they deem inspirational and parts they deem no longer relevant."
Nomad updates readers on relationships introduced in Infidel with Hirsi Ali's mostly estranged family members. She depicts her family as destitute, devout, oppressed by the strictures of Islam, and incessantly begging her to return to the faith. Her now deceased father, whom she refers to as "Abeh" (Somali for "papa" or "daddy"), tells her, "You must remember, Ayaan, that our health and our lives are in the hands of Allah. I am on my way to the hereafter. My dear child, what I want you to do is read just one chapter of the Quran. Laa-uqsim Bi-yawmi-il-qiyaama," about resurrection day. Hirsi Ali dedicates Nomad to a "surrogate Abeh—a friend, a mentor, a guide to American Life—with respect and love." Nomad is her paean to America, which she describes as her new home. She also warns Americans about the dangers of radical Islam, dangers she presents as systemic beyond sensational attacks perpetrated by terrorists.
Much ink has been spilled and digitalized denouncing and defending Hirsi Ali, especially her assertions about Islam. That she is a divisive figure is meticulously documented. Debate about her proposals is valuable. But this review is not about her accuracy, tact, or political activism generally. It is rather about her direct challenges to Christians, and about trying to discern another "Abeh" (or "Abba," Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6 ) whispering through the pages of Nomad.
If memory serves correctly, I have heard several interviews in which Hirsi Ali characterized Christianity as like every other religion in peddling magical thinking, miracles, myths such as stories about dying and rising gods, and Freudian wishful thinking of a Big Mama or Big Daddy in the sky. Reading Infidel and the script for Submission, Part 1, one sometimes encounters muted versions of the devilish deity shrieking through the pages of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. But at the same time, one hears holy discontent, authentic cries for justice, and sincere bewilderment at God akin to prayers by biblical sufferers like Naomi, Hannah, the Psalmist, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Job, and Jesus as he hung on the cross.
To the extent Hirsi Ali mourns injustice and works to alleviate suffering, she walks "in the path of the prophets," as eastern Patriarch Timothy I, eager to be conciliatory, once described the Islamic prophet Muhammad to Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi. Correspondingly, wherever she cares for the downtrodden and gives voice to the voiceless, she is "not far from the kingdom of God," as Jesus said of a wise interlocutor in Mark 12:34.
Ultimately in Nomad, instead of aggressively opposing Christianity, Hirsi Ali asks, "Can the various churches of Christianity help stem this rising tide of violent Islam?" She adds, "I hope my friends Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—the esteemed trinity of atheist activists in Britain and the United States—will not be dismayed by the idea of a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians." Astonishingly, she suggests if not implores:
Churches should begin dawa [evangelism, or witnessing in Islam] exactly as Islam does … go into Muslim communities, provide services just as radical Muslims do: build … schools, hospitals, and community centers … don't just leave this in the hands of governments—take an active role …. Teach hygiene, discipline, a work ethic, and also what you believe in.
Hirsi Ali calls on Christians not only to implement social services, because unlike radical Islamists, "moderate churches do not offer spiritual guidance but only practical help. I think they should do both." She advises reaching out to Muslim asylum seekers and immigrants, some of whom will convert to Christianity: "I would be willing to bet that those people, and their children, have been subsequently far less receptive to the hateful message of the jihadi Muslims." Along the same lines, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson once warned that failure to support ministry and evangelism within prisons often meant surrendering prisoners to a realm of persuasion where "jihadists and other radical groups … [are] the only game in town. But most jarring is this:
Christian leaders now wasting precious time and resources on a futile exercise of interfaith dialogue with … self-appointed leaders of Islam should redirect their efforts to converting as many Muslims as possible to Christianity, introducing them to a God who rejects Holy War and who has sent his son to die for all sinners out of love for mankind.
For Christians, Hirsi Ali's exhortation to evangelism cuts to the heart. Yet one need not be a Christian, nor agree with her assessment of "futile" interfaith dialogue, to share her hope that "Converts to Christianity would have recognized the radicals when they arrived and resisted the siren song of jihad."
Although Hirsi Ali recommends Christianity to Muslims, she has not embraced Christianity herself. If intellectual skepticism holds her back, I wonder if she has perused the essays of fellow feminist Dorothy L. Sayers, the popular British playwright and mystery novelist, and one of the first female graduates of Oxford University. In "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," Sayers reiterates an argument by J. R. R. Tolkien and others who were instrumental in wooing her friend, colleague, and former atheist C. S. Lewis back to Christianity.
Sayers argues that while pagan and fictional stories, such as Aeschylus' The Eumenides, contain accounts of reconciling humans and the divine through divine suffering, "in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period of prehistory. The Christian story, on the other hand, starts off briskly in St. Matthew's account with a place and a date." Lewis, for his part, considered redemptive myths from pagan sources as "good dreams" whose noblest elements echo and are fulfilled truly in Jesus. Christianity was, for Lewis, "myth become fact."
Lewis also offers a solid Christian approach to defining and evaluating Miracles, and he turns the argument of "wishful thinking" back on Freud by musing that atheists themselves may be motivated by the wishful thinking that no one holds them ultimately accountable. Maybe the near universal longing for God is not a neurosis after all: "If I find in myself a desire which no other experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."
When I read bestsellers by the New Atheists, I frequently feel a reader's affection mingled with melancholy when they employ their literary talents not to glorify but to obscure or caricature God. So too with Hirsi Ali. My prayer for her is that she will continue to contemplate and reconsider the better God she tentatively commends to others in Nomad—a God who shares her adopted name (Ali means "Exalted" in Arabic), a God who is the true and best Abeh, whose love exceeds the love of all earthly parents (Isaiah 49:15), who yearns to adopt Hirsi Ali as his own daughter; and who invites her prodigal friends Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to return home as sons.
Perhaps this Divine Abeh was alluded to indirectly even by Hirsi Ali's less than perfect biological Abeh. Jesus himself said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live" (John 11:25, NRSV). According to Jesus, those who believe in him will live by embracing the kingdom of justice and mercy that takes root in every heart that bids it welcome. And If Hirsi Ali hasn't already studied the Sovereign of this kingdom through the Gospel of Matthew (for example chapter 8, verse 20), she may be surprised to discover that he too knows what it feels like to live as a nomad.
Benjamin B. DeVan completed his A.A. at Young Harris College, a B.S. at Berry College, his M.A. in Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, and his M.Div. at Duke University before enrolling at Harvard (Th.M., 2010) for further study in world religions, with a thesis on evangelical Christians and Islam.
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