Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has a bad habit of inappropriate flippancy, and it's on display in his review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new memoir "Nomad," introduced with the headline "The Gadfly," that efficiently captures Kristof's condescending tone.
Hirsi Ali is a feminist intellectual born Muslim in Somalia, raised in Saudi Arabia, escaped an arranged marriage, fled to the Netherlands and began speaking out against Islam's treatment of women. She now lives in the United States and is a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which is perhaps why her story does not delight liberals like it should on the surface.
As historian Andrew Roberts wrote in an attack at The Daily Beast, Kristof sounded condescending. Hirsi Ali's brave fight for women's rights against fundamentalist religious bigotry certainly sounds like something to be admired without reservation by any sincere liberal. Yet liberals often seem too afraid of sounding like anti-Islamic conservatives to applaud Hirsi Ali without criticism. Kristof makes it sound as if Hirsi Ali shared the blame for the threats on her life because "she has managed to outrage more people...," as if her goal is to provoke anger, not to expand freedom for women under Islam.
If there were a "Ms. Globalization" title, it might well go to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who wrote the best-selling memoir "Infidel." She has managed to outrage more people - in some cases to the point that they want to assassinate her - in more languages in more countries on more continents than almost any writer in the world today.
Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir. "Nomad" argues that Islam creates dysfunctional families - like her own - and adds that these distorted families constitute "a real threat to the very fabric of Western life." Western countries, she says, should be less tolerant of immigrants who try to preserve their lifestyles in their new homelands. It might seem presumptuous to write another memoir so soon, but Hirsi Ali is a remarkable figure who has plenty of memories to record.
If two memoirs weren't "presumptuous" for Barack Obama, why would it be for Hirsi Ali, who has suffered far more in her life without becoming a liberal icon like Obama has?
Kristof eventually admitted to enjoying the book and admiring Hirsi Ali, but not before clearing his throat several times with anguished liberal caveats about her "ferocity" in her denouncing Islam (as if she doesn't have a right to feel that way).
That's partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex. After her father's death, Hirsi Ali connects by telephone with her aging and long-estranged mother living in a dirt-floor hut in Somalia. Hirsi Ali asks forgiveness, but the conversation goes downhill when her mother pleads with her to return to Islam. Near tears, her mother asks: "Why are you so feeble in faith? . . . You are my child and I can't bear the thought of you in hell."
Since Hirsi Ali denounces Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry, I expected to dislike this book. It did leave me uncomfortable and exasperated in places. But I also enjoyed it. Hirsi Ali comes across as so sympathetic when she shares her grief at her family's troubles that she is difficult to dislike. Her memoir suggests that she never quite outgrew her rebellious teenager phase, but also that she would be a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.
Historian Andrew Roberts at The Daily Beast found Kristof terribly condescending, and was critical of Kristof describing Ali as a "provocateur."
The word "provocative" is often a term of approbation; here it is clearly intended pejoratively. The only people who could possibly be "provoked" by Nomad are Islamic fundamentalists who abuse women and beat children; much of the book is a passionate denunciation of the way violence is routinely used against children in the Muslim world.
Russell Shorto's Sunday New York Times Magazine profile of Job Cohen, the leftist mayor of Amsterdam, also mentioned Hirsi Ali, and used the same tone suggesting she had gone too far:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali - from her position at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative U.S. policy center at which she became a fellow after she fled the Netherlands - criticizes Cohen's approach using the same dire language about Islam that put her at the center of the Dutch political and social debate.
The Times has a history of criticism. Reviewer and author Ian Buruma's March 4, 2007 review of her first memoir "Infidel" was mostly supportive of Hirsi Ali, but ended with criticism of her "absolutist view."
Hirsi Ali is quite right that this force must be resisted. Enlightened reform of religious practices that clash with liberal democratic freedoms is necessary. But much though I respect her courage, I'm not convinced that Ayaan Hirsi Ali's absolutist view of a perfectly enlightened West at war with the demonic world of Islam offers the best perspective from which to get this done.
And the Times own book reviewer, William Grimes, included this stunning criticism of Hirsi Ali in his review of a related book by Buruma, "Murder in Amsterdam The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance."
Enlightenment absolutists like Ms. Hirsi Ali and Mr. van Gogh turned apoplectic at any efforts to appease or accommodate Muslims on, say, gay rights or women's rights, and they were not alone in their fears.
A Times book critic criticizing someone for being too tolerant of gays and women, and for not taking the radical Muslim view into consideration? Can you imagine a liberal chiding other liberals for failing to "appease or accommodate Christians" on "gay rights or women's rights"?
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