Paula R. SternPaula R. Stern is the Founder and Documentation Manager of WritePoint, a technical writing company.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an elegant and dignified speaker. In the 2012 President’s Conference in Jerusalem, she was invited to speak. As several American Jews, diplomats and scholars, debated the need for Israel to surrender more, Hirsi Ali was handed the microphone and now, more than 16 months later, her words remain imprinted on my brain:
"Even if you give them Jerusalem...even if you give them Jerusalem, there will be no peace."
There is great beauty in simplicity.
A year later, I heard her speak again at the President’s Conference. She systematically described several Arab countries, the roles they play, the politics involved, and admitted that she didn’t like Saudi Arabia. After hearing her speak again, I ordered two of her books - "Infidel" and "Nomad." These contain the story of her life - up to this point, whatever she wants to tell us - but certainly in much more detail than she could provide during her short presentations.
I learned so much about Islam - about that world on the other side of my borders. To be honest, I knew quite a bit already, or suspected it - but she gave depth to my knowledge and then took me way beyond. She gave reasons, deeply rooted in Islam and in the Koran. I had already known the results; she taught me the cause.
And here, I have a confession - I am a mother, a wife, even a grandmother, and though I have joined others in condemning it, I only realized in reading her story that the term “female genital mutilation” sounded so awful that I could condemn it, but I actually didn’t understand what it was…in more detail than I ever could have imagined. I didn’t know…I think I thought I knew, that it was something else. And as horrible as I thought it was, I now know it was beyond all that I imagined. How these men could do this to their daughters; how they could want this in their wives - I honestly and truly don't understand.
That is, perhaps, the curse of Western civilization - we cannot comprehend the barbarity and because we are so naive, because we cannot understand, we tend to minimize the acts, the barbarity that continues to be perpetrated day after day, child after child. We conveniently use the words and condemn the action...but to read pages that describe the act, the pain and suffering of these young girls - then and for years afterwards was a startling revelation, a glimpse into a world that is so far beyond evil.
Can a mother want to do this to her daughter, as Ayaan's mother chose to do to daughters? Can a grandmother stand and watch this barbarity? How? In God's name, how? I have never knowingly caused my daughter's pain. And when they have been in pain, I have felt that pain throughout my body. All that I am, yearns to protect my tiny grandson. How could a human being do these things?
As to Ayaan, her story is amazing...what she survived, what she made of herself is a lesson to all of us - even those of us who, by comparison, have been blessed to live with relatively few hardships. I have never known hunger; I have never been beaten. Medical care has always been available, education, food, and love.
There were several things that got to me in her story on so many levels - as a woman, as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a mother.
One of the first things that struck me, even as I found myself deeply involved with her personal story, were the few references to Jews. I didn't know whether I should laugh or cry when I read, "In Saudi Arabia, everything bad was the fault of the Jews. When the air conditioner broke or suddenly the tap sopped running, the Saudi women next door used to say the Jews did it...I had never met a Jew. (Neither had these Saudis.)"
What I got from this was something I had already known - they really really hate us. They don't know us, but they hate us.
Another thing that bothered me was her journey away from Islam. She describes a religion that demands absolute obedience; a religion that has no mechanism for change over time; and a religion that focuses on punishment and the Hereafter - all you do in this life is preparation for the Hereafter and there are seemingly thousands of things for which you are regularly threatened to be condemned to hell. It seems almost as if it is impossible to get to this heaven, given the number of restrictions - in action and in thought - that are applied to Muslims.
Ayaan's brilliant reasoning takes all of this into consideration and reaches a conclusion - there is no hell; there is no hereafter. The Koran was written by man, not be God, and from there - she decides there is no God. I'm simplifying it. For her, it was a journey of thousands of miles and many years. She embraced Islam, searching and searching to justify her beliefs. She found contradictions and still pushed on.
It is written in the Koran that you may beat your wife and Ayaan properly asks, what kind of God would allow that? It is written that you can cheat and lie to an infidel and what kind of God would allow that?
And while I agree with her, it is also the point where I lose my way in following her. I won't argue whether Allah is God and God is Allah, but I will say that the God she describes is not my God. I do believe in God - but not this Allah that she describes.
My God has told us to choose life, not death. My God does not allow a man to beat his wife and the value of a life - Jew or not, is important. You cannot cheat or beat a slave. These are the laws given to my people, by our God, a God we refer to as merciful and just. I don't want to get into a legal comparison of Jewish law versus Islamic law - I am an expert on neither.
But I do believe in the hereafter - so different from what Ayaan was taught. We are taught that God waits to the last minute of your life to forgive any transgressions; the Islam she learned involved having two "angels" over her shoulders, each writing down the good and bad you do - and the list of bad could be as simple as being alone with a man, seeing a movie, etc. If you wear trousers, if you show any skin except for your face and hands, certainly not your neck, you are sinful and evil.
I don't blame Ayaan for walking away from a culture in which a man can take several wives and beat them as he wishes; a culture in which a man can marry off his daughter to a someone she has never met; a culture in which a woman cannot move freely unless she is escorted by a man. I can only hope that had God put me in the same culture, I would have found the courage, as she did, to escape. And she didn't just escape, she took with her a responsibility to try to help others.
I think it took tremendous courage to walk away, to flee and save herself and thousands of other Muslim women by the work she did in Holland and now does in the United States.
I just wish somehow that along her journey, she could have found a way to keep God. It seems to me that Ayaan's logical conclusion should have been that if Islam is as flawed as she believes it to be, she should understand that their version and vision of God is flawed too. I do not believe in the God she worshiped as a child and a young woman. Flawed, vindictive, vengeful, and promoting inequality - no, these are not traits of the God that I have known.
This Allah she was raised to worship demanded absolute obedience - compare that to the story of Abraham arguing with God to save the few righteous of Sodom. We have been in a dialog with God for thousands of years - and He listens to us. It is a relationship of love, of gratitude.
In Israel, we have seen too many miracles to do anything but believe in God. Every time a missile hits, it is a miracle because moments before a car passed by, a person left the room, a class was in the library. We have seen it all and we recognize the source. I'm sure we have atheists in Israel, but even among secular Jews here, God is pretty much accepted.
The radio broadcaster will bless the memory of someone who has died; will say, "thank God," when no one is hurt. God escorts us through our lives here and encourages us to be better, kinder, and more charitable. We are not measured by how many infidels we kill, how many women we force into modesty. This concept of honor killing finds no home in our religion or with our God.
We have seen the horrors of what man can do to man (and to woman) but to blame God for the actions of man seems unfair. There is evil in this world - we all know that. We are given the choice - to choose good and God or to choose evil and work against God.
What I can say is that there is tremendous comfort in believing that there is a God looking out for you, guiding you, protecting you. And I wish Ayaan could have this comfort. God has a plan - perhaps the greatest evil comes when man attempts to control or redirect that plan; when man attempts to become master of that plan.
I would say an infidel is a man who beats his wife, mutilates his daughter, encourages his sons to commit suicide
Perhaps the irony is that the religion of Islam's greatest flaw is not that it targets infidels, but that it fails to understand what an infidel is. I would say an infidel is a man who beats his wife, mutilates his daughter, encourages his sons to commit suicide. An infidel is one who is so busy defining God for others, he forgets to understand it is not for us to define God at all.
In carefully defining every aspect of how you live, Islam has succeeded in defining nothing. What the Muslim man fails to realize is that when he blows up a building, murders and terrorizes - and it is he who will go to hell, not the poor woman who was seen talking to a man, not the family sitting in the pizza store in Jerusalem. There are infidels in the world - but these are the people who forsake the love of God, for a culture of death and misery.
I wish I could tell Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she is where she is in life, by her own intelligence, her own strength, and by the grace of God - if not Allah.