The Sydney Writers’ Festival wound up last night and the closing address was delivered by the author Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Do a web search to learn more about this amazing woman. I was very pleased to see in the Sydney Morning Herald today an edited version of that closing address. I’m taking the unusual step of pasting that edit here, as I think it’s a very powerful speech.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Address
It is a bestseller among the wealthy and distributed free of charge to the poor. It is a book that should not be put on the ground. A book that should not be touched by a menstruating woman. It is a book that inspires one man to put his forehead on the ground in piety, and can rouse another to war. It is a book that contends that the greatest act of worship an individual can aspire to is committing suicide, while taking the life of a sinner.
The author has 99 names but not one of them appears on the cover. This book demands total submission by its readers. And has captured the imagination of more than a billion people. This book impressed me even before I could read. To touch the book I first had to wash my hands, then my face, mouth, and my arms, all the way up to the elbows, run some water over my hair and ears and wash my feet. Everything about it was sacred.
This submissive child grew into a rebellious teenager. My mother feared that my younger sister Haweya and I would stray. She bought three padlocks, large ones, and a steel bolt. Every evening and weekend, as our peers went out roaming the streets, Haweya and I watched the padlocks. So we looked for pastimes. It was then that we discovered the power of words. Books had the power to make us forget the padlocks.
In time, Ma became suspicious. Some of the books had no covers, for they had been in too many hands, but those with covers generally showed a man bending over a woman, with his mouth on hers and their bodies entwined.
We tore these covers off and, if questioned, would claim that these books were required school reading. But Ma developed a talent for judging books not just by their cover, but also by their size and appearance. She decided that all compact books were dangerous and would corrupt us. It wasn’t just the silly romance novels that were small, but all forms of literature fell under this category. The only book that had a proper place in our house was the Holy Book.
I lived by the Book, for the Book. The only thing missing was a husband and children. Soon, a distant cousin was selected to be my husband. This would mean submission not only to Allah, but to my husband-to-be. The hell at the end of life for me seemed abstract, whereas the hell of being forced to submit to a stranger, was immediate, and final.
This would be the hell of never feeling love, the hell of never choosing my mate, the hell of spending my life with a man to whom I would have to ask permission before being allowed to exercise my everyday freedom. A man who could take my body without permission. This stranger had the Holy Book on his side.
I – fortunately – had my imagination on my side. I suppressed my fear of the Day of Judgement and the pressure of the Holy Book, and I fled to Amsterdam and asked for asylum. And I got it. I arrived in a new land where there were no clans, no tribes, not one but several holy books; I read their books, about how religious they had been; how they had evolved towards secularism. How they had pushed God from public life. They expanded my imagination, but they frightened me, too, for each of them made me think of how different they were from the Holy Book.
Discovering Freud put me in contact with an alternative moral system. I had never once imagined that a moral framework could exist that wasn’t based on religion. Almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. To read these books was sinning. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared with reading the history of ideas.
Then, on a bright Tuesday morning in New York and Washington, planes full of people flew into buildings full of people.
I picked up the Holy Book and there I found Osama bin Laden’s words of justification. Did the attacks stem from true belief in true Islam? The little box at the back of mind, where I had stuffed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open, and it refused to close. I had to make the leap to believing the Holy Book was relative – not absolute, not the literal syllables pronounced by God, but a historical record, written by men 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. In other words, it was just another book.
I am a Muslim because I understand why so many Muslims are silent when the Holy Book is invoked to behead captured aid workers, journalists and other Western wanderers. Silence is better than an argument with the author of the Holy Book who has given the command to behead infidels.
Yet I am not a Muslim because I have lost the fear of the Holy Book. I have lost the terror of being burned alive after I die. My empathy now lies with the girl who cannot finish school; who will spend the rest of her life with padlocks, padlocks on her intellect.
I am not a Muslim because I lost respect for the book and its author and his messenger. I lost respect for them because of their bloodthirsty demands to kill and hate. I now feel the common humanity with those I once shunned: the Jews, Christians, atheists, gays, sinners of all stripes and colours. I lost respect not for Muslims but for what they fear.
I am accused of hating Muslims and vilifying their Holy Book and their prophet. I do not hate Muslims. But yes, I detest the submission of free will.