The Limits of Toleration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel,


Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today

[Introduction: This is a commentary I wrote in September 2008.  At that time Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book was on the best-seller list, and her general profile has risen even further since 2008.  Today, she lives in the United States and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.   Although less well-known, Irshad Manji’s profile has also risen since 2008.  She too recently migrated to the United States, from her native Canada.  She is presently director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, which aims to “challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.”  She is a frequent “talking head” on a diverse range of TV news programs.  I have edited the original commentary only minimally, adding notably the reference in the final paragraph to the “Arab spring”]

“I believe that Islam is no different from the world’s other major religions; that it has a strong humanistic component; and that many, hopefully most, of its adherents are altogether capable of living harmoniously with persons of other faiths.”  Thomas H. Peebles, 9/12/06 (email correspondence to friends)

Was I hopelessly naïve when I wrote the above, or just ignorant?  In my defense, I did not have the benefit of having read “Infidel,” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nor had I read Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble with Islam Today” — two books about contemporary Islam, written by brilliant young Muslim women.  Ali’s is a poignant, riveting personal memoir, whereas Manji offers an analytical prescription for changing Islam, well captured in her subtitle, “A Muslim’s Call for Reform of Her Faith.”  Ali’s book was difficult to put down, and left me inspired yet emotionally drained at the end.  Initially, Manji’s book rubbed me the wrong way.  She seemed too glib and perhaps a little too full of herself.  But by the end, I developed a respect for her too.  In her breezy, informal style, Manji conveys a wealth of knowledge and insight about Islam and the Islamic world.  Among her contributions, she shows that the Muslim Holy Book does not support the anti-Semitism that seems endemic in many parts of the Muslim world (p.21, 39).  But Ali’s book is more complex, unsettling, and challenging – a spellbinding story that contains powerful messages about freedom and its limits, democracy, and human rights.

I was reading both books with the hope of validating the views which I went out on a limb to express in 2006, quoted above; or, to quote from the “discussion questions” for book clubs inserted at the end of Ali’s book, using both to help me reexamine whether Islam is “compatible with Western values and culture” (book club questions are a feature I had never seen before, then found again at the end of Manji’s book).  Manji’s answer to the book club question is a definite “maybe.”  Throughout, she leaves no doubt that a more open, less dogmatic Islam, although difficult, is attainable.

Much of Ali’s book, by contrast, lays out the case that Islam is altogether incompatible with Western values.  Muslim culture, based on the Koran, is “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war,” she writes (p.272).  I had the sense she was killing me not so softly when she belittled those Westerners who argue that Islam is a peaceful and humane religion.  Looking at “reality, at real cultures and governments,” Ali sees that “it simply isn’t so” (p.349).  Westerners swallow these arguments, she says, “because they have learned not to examine the religions and cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist.”  Ouch!  That hurt.

But, surprisingly, a close reading of Ali’s book reveals that for her, too, Islam is at least potentially compatible with Western values: Ali proffers a highly tentative maybe, rather than Manji’s definite maybe.  The key for both is that the Muslim world needs to undergo its own version of the Enlightenment, similar to that of Western Europe and North America in the 18th century, when the notion of a secular state that promotes equality and encourages tolerance began to take hold.  Manji’s book throughout is a plea for what she calls a “reformation” in Islam (p.30).

Ali too uses the word “reformation,” which she describes as moving “from the world of faith to the world of reason” (p.347).  “In the past fifty years,” she observes, the Muslim world has been “catapulted into modernity.”  Muslims “don’t have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way they think about equality and individual rights” (p.350).  Just as the West freed itself from the “grip of violent organized religion,” Ali assumes that the “same process could occur among the millions of Muslims,” infusing traditions that are “rigid and inhumane with the values of progress and modernity” (p.272-73).  Surely, she says, now it is “Islam’s turn to be tested” (p.282).

Still, overall, Manji’s vision is far more optimistic, in large measure because she was brought up in a Muslim family in dour but diverse British Columbia, Canada, where the more stifling aspects of Muslim culture are counterbalanced by the province’s general openness.  Growing up amidst war, dictatorship and rigid patriarchy in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya afforded Ali no such advantage.  Ali’s description of her youth in these countries is chilling in many respects, never more so than her description of the genital mutilation she was forced to undergo as a girl.  But this is simply the most graphic example of a suffocating Muslim culture that subjugates women and leaves little room for free inquiry for either sex.  And it is striking that Ali dwells far more on the intellectual rather than economic impoverishment she encountered as she moved between four different countries as a girl.

Similarly, when Ali moved to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, she was captivated far more by the country’s spirit of openness and free inquiry than by its material prosperity (and we can argue well into the night on whether there is a connection between the two: do you need one to have the other? if so, which is the chicken, which is the egg?).  In the portion of her book on the Netherlands, where she transforms from outsider to insider, Ali found a “post-religious,” highly secular society, where people “openly disbelieved every aspect of religion” and “God was mocked everywhere” (p.239).  She also found Holland to be a “post-patriotic” society, “uncomfortable with the symbols of Dutchness,” where being Dutch seemed to mean “absolutely nothing“ and nationalism was seen as “almost the same thing as racism” (p.257).  Nobody, she emphasized, “seemed proud of being Dutch” (p.257).

Despite its openness – or maybe because of its openness – Ali perceives clear limitations to Holland’s ability to absorb and integrate outsiders.  When massive immigration to the Netherlands began in the 1980s, there was a “sense among the Dutch that society should behave with decency and understanding toward these people and accept their differences and beliefs” (p.246).  But the result was that “immigrants lived apart, socialized apart.  They went to separate schools – special Muslim schools or ordinary schools in the inner city, which other families fled” (p.246).  While the Dutch contributed generously to international aid organizations, they were “also ignoring the silent suffering of Muslim women and children in their own background” (p.246).

For Ali, the Dutch form of toleration – that paradigm Western value – subverts individual freedom when applied to Muslim women.  To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964convention line, Ali contends that toleration of a system that systematically subjugates women and deprives them of their rights is no virtue.  Indeed, the chapters in her book on the Netherlands might have been titled “The Limits of Tolerance.”  Manji reaches a similar conclusion.  She says that as Westerners “bow down before multiculturalism, we often act as if anything goes.”  The “ultimate paradox,” she says, is that in order to defend Western tolerance and diversity, “we’ll need to be less tolerant” (p.199).  This is also Ali’s “ultimate paradox”: Western tolerance should not extend to systemic human rights abuses practiced in minority cultures.  Thus stated, the principle seems self-evident, but Ali’s example of the Dutch Ministry of Justice’s refusal to record honor killings of women because it would “stigmatize one group in society” (p.295-96) shows how well meaning, tolerant officials can have difficulty applying it.

In this vein, in his introduction to Ali’s book, the late Christopher Hitchins contends “without equivocation” that:

[i]f Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, it is they who must expect to do the adapting.  We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy or racial discrimination or child marriage.  That is the price of ‘inclusion,’ and a very reasonable one (p.xviii-xix; emphasis in original).

Does anyone disagree?

Even with these reservations and insights into the limits of toleration, perhaps the most striking aspect of Ali’s book is her affirmation of the superiority of Western values over those of the societies she grew up in.  Having made her journey from the “world of faith” to the “world of reason,” she has particular credibility when she says she knows that:

one of those worlds is simply better than the other.  Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values . . .Life is better in Europe [and I hope she would include North America] than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized, and protected by the state (p.346).

Manji, who grew up in a Western culture and could take its individual liberty and spirit of inquiry for granted, is just as emphatic.  She opens her book by paying homage to the freedoms afforded her in the West: “to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged and rethink” (p.19).  Unlike Ali, she never had to choose between Islam and the West.  As she puts it, “the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively.” Manji not only reaffirms the superiority of Western values but also sees Western Muslims as “poised to demonstrate the possibilities of reforming Islam” (p.186); or, as she puts it at the beginning of her book, having the capacity to restore Islam’s “better angels” (p.4).  Muslims in the West have the “luxury of exercising civil liberties, especially free expression to change tribal tendencies,” Manji asserts.  “Are we leveraging that freedom? Are enough non-Muslims challenging us to do so?” (p.186).

But only a miniscule portion of the world’s Muslim population lives in Europe and North America.  Most still live in predominantly Muslim countries and unless these countries undergo sweeping transformation, reform of Islam is unlikely to be widespread.  And here Manji’s analysis conveys a better sense of the diversity and dynamism within the Islamic world.   Somalia and Saudi Arabia are not the only models.  Manji cites  Turkey, flawed in many ways but nonetheless the Muslim world’s most mature and secular democracy (p.156).  Today, she would be likely to cite the democratic sentiments so widely manifested in the “Arab Spring” — although she would probably want to add a word about how the Arab Spring also demonstrates the difficulty of utilizing those sentiments to build sustainable democratic institutions.  Indeed that very difficulty demonstrates that there is still today, as in 2008, a long way to go before a Muslim Enlightenment takes hold in the Islamic world.  But if counterparts as articulate and clear-eyed as Ali and Manji can be empowered in that part of the world, it would be imprudent to discount this possibility as hopelessly naïve.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 7, 2012


Filed under Gender Issues, Politics, Religion

10 responses to “The Limits of Toleration

  1. traphael

    Very interesting discussion and well-done comparison. As you point out, I do not think one can overstate the influence of the different cultural experiences of the authors on the perspectives they bring their observations.

    I’m wondering if you would consider reading a new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”, by Ross Douthat and writing first, a stand-alone review of it, followed by a comparative analysis of it and the two books reviewed above. I would also be interested in a comparison of the larger issue of how religion is exploited as a righteous weapon to assert what are, in their essence, political agendas and control (e.g. subjugation of women), while ignoring the laudable social obligations to fellow human beings enshrined in their respective holy books.

    The use of religion as a political weapon cloaked in righteousness appears to be a practice that is not unique to one religion or one era. Ted R

    • Ted, I may be misreading you, but when you refer above to the possibility that “…religion is exploited as a righteous weapon to assert…political agendas and control (e.g. subjugation of women)…” you seem to be suggesting that religion in these instances is a strategy devised by Islamic elites to keep women from power. I don’t think it works quite that way. The lesser place of women in Islamic society is not a result of political tactics to keep women from their natural rights. Yes, there is that effect, especially to Western eyes. Rather, womens’ secondary place is taken for granted as an immutable part of the package God gave the world. For me, this makes Ali’s ability to reject and separate herself from religion all the more courageous, all the more heroic.

  2. Ted, Thanks for the kinds words. I read a review of Douthat’s book a couple of weeks ago and upon initial read of the review, it didn’t really grab me as something I wanted to read. But let me give it more thought. Tom

  3. Religion dwells in the higher, more obscure zones of the individual. That’s why it harbors enormous potentiality for politics – they are natural bedfellows.
    But the mixture can be explosive for the same reason. So that dealing with religion is a delicate business whose conduct demands extreme care.

  4. Bill Kirkpatrick

    I just read your latest post and found it engaging, insightful, and extremely well written. There is much to talk about in your post, but let me mention one that quickly came to mind. I have long thought that religions undergo a kind of life cycle spanning roughly two millennia (See Yeats’ “The Second Coming” for a poetic expression of this idea). Christianity is now reaching the end of its cycle and losing vitality (Europe is the best place to see that, but it is true here too) while it becomes more open, tolerant, and reasonable. Of course Christianity also went through the dark ages and middle ages when dogmatism, racism, intolerance, and fanaticism held sway. I often wondered if Islam is now at that same stage in about the same time of its life cycle (1000-1500 years after its founding).

    Bill Kirkpatrick

    • Tom Thompson

      You take an impressively long view Bill. Personally, I find it tempting to believe that religions have their own life cycles because that means they will die. Certainly as a religion becomes more open and tolerant and reasonable, its true believers begin to twitch and moan. However, notions like a messianic first or second coming are exceedingly clever constructs for keeping adherents from falling away, and for attracting new ones. Who wants to risk the certiainty of heavenly reward? The relative dissipation of American and European Christianity seems to be offset by the rise of the African and Latin American varieties. So I guess I’m not ready to agree to the life cycle idea.

      What any of this means about the developmental state of Islam I can’t say. I don’t know much about Islam, though I am under the impression that its history is not so dark as it may seem today. Its role in preserving the literature and artifacts of antiquity and it’s role in advancing science and mathmatics come to mind.

      –Tom Thompson

  5. Tom Peebles

    Chanh, Ted, Tom and Bill,

    Thanks to all of you for your comments. Chanh writes:

    Religion dwells in the higher, more obscure zones of the individual. That’s why it harbors enormous potentiality for politics – they are natural bedfellows. But the mixture can be explosive for the same reason. So that dealing with religion is a delicate business whose conduct demands extreme care.

    I found this nicely stated. But if religion and politics are “natural bedfellows,” does that make the famous wall of separation between church and state like a vigilant father making sure his teen age daughter stays on the right side of the wall and away from an “explosive mixture”?

    Ted and Tom present a cart-and-horse, chicken-and-egg question: is the subjugation of women in Islam a sort of strategic pretext for men to keep their power (“preserve male hegemony,” to use academic jargon). Or is this subjugation simply embedded into the natural order of things for Muslims, the way they have always seen the world, from which all else follows naturally. My view tends toward the latter, but I make no pretense to having any real expertise on the subject.

    Bill raises an interesting idea. I’m not particularly good at seeing the “long arc of history,” but will say it’s hard for me to see Islam fading into the sunset in our lifetimes, or any time soon.

    Let’s not forget, as we talk about the long arc of history, that some 7 or 8 centuries ago – not all that long ago if we’re talking long term – Islam was clearly ahead of Christianity in most of the critical objective standards by which one judges a civilization (basically, its contribution to our civilization today). That the Islamic world lost this upper hand to the Christian world over the past 600-700 years factors into the psyche of Muslims today and the way they view the West, in my view. Why they lost this upper hand is set out inicely n a very short book, Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Islam, which I read shortly after 9/11 and recommend highly. As best as I can recall, Armstrong attributes the triumph of the Christian world over the Islamic world to the rise of secularism in the West – kings keeping the Pope and the church out of their affairs – which Islam never developed; and the rise of early capitalism – Islam did not have the will or the tools to compete with the merchants and manufacturers from Christendom.

  6. Tom’s rhetorical question about the mixture of politics and religion is worthy of the witty debater and the caring father of teenaged daughters. You are right, Tom, there is no way you can stay away from the mixture even when it’s explosive since it wouldn’t stay away from you. Patient care and due process of law are the only weapons you’re left with. What else?

  7. Pingback: Catapulting Islam Into the 21st Century | tomsbooks

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