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Hirsi Ali a football in 'domestic culture wars'?

By Julie Szego - posted Thursday, 21 June 2007

Mark Bahnisch, in his critique of my Age piece on Muslim dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali, gives a potted lecture on the fundamentals of liberal democracy.

He claims my “uncritical” defence of Hirsi Ali, and dismay at her alienation from the political left, reveals a misunderstanding about the concept of separation between church/mosque and state. “Put simply, liberal secularism is not equivalent to fervent atheism,” he writes, “and nor should it be”.

No, it shouldn't. Contrary to Bahnisch's assertions, I don't need tutoring on the ABC's of secular constitutional democracy and how it's “not supposed to imply a crusade against religion.” And neither does Hirsi Ali, in fact.


While certainly fervent in her atheism, she's not out to convert. She wants to see Islam's God tamed by reason and banished to the private sphere, that's all. She wants a Muslim Voltaire, a Muslim Madonna singing Like A Prayer and a Muslim take on Mohammed in the spirit of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Nothing unreasonable about any of this, I'm sure you'd agree.

My point about hypocrisy merely alludes to the fact that a great many on the intellectual left, for want of a better term, share Hirsi Ali's disdain for religion, but still find her views unsettling.

Why the unease from Western secularists when Hirsi Ali assaults, with every justification given her circumstances, an Islam in deep crisis? Or is this a none-too-subtle racism that allows white-skinned people the privilege to celebrate the triumph of reason over superstition, but cautions the brown-skinned person, impatient for the same privilege, to tread softly-softly lest they cause offence?

We have Timothy Garton Ash calling Hirsi Ali a “slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist,” and Ian Buruma accusing her of bullying a European minority under siege - responses that by their nature cast Hirsi Ali, her life under constant threat, to the political fringe, while sentimentalising “faithful” Muslims, and their increasingly radicalised leaders, as arbiters of legitimacy and authenticity.

This kind of thinking is morally and intellectually flawed; “reactionary” is the word US writer Paul Berman uses. But precisely where did my piece, in discussing these developments, suggest one must agree with Hirsi Ali's every utterance and suggestion? She's not, after all, God.

And where did I accuse the “secular left” of “defending” the practice of female genital mutilation on cultural grounds? The controversy revolves around the left's reluctance to “loudly denounce” the practice, as Kim Jameson puts it (in the left leaning blog Larvatus Prodeo). Female circumcision was once a frontline battle for Western feminists; now Western feminists “register their concern” (Bahnisch's words) by supporting African women fighting to overturn the practice “in their own cultural milieu.”


Now these African women are clearly a vital part of the battle, and support them we must. But you can support those working for change from within while at the same time “loudly denouncing” entrenched misogyny wherever it appears.

And why does casting a critical light on comments like Kim's and, yes, reporting Tim Blair's characteristically vitriolic but nevertheless apt response, amount to “demonising” her? That's a hell of a claim. But Bahnisch would have you believe I'm the one averse to reason and sensible debate.

Actually I wonder whether Bahnisch, clearly wounded by the unflattering passing reference to his site (what quaint reverence for the power of old media!) even read my piece in its entirety.

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About the Author

Julie Szego is a staff writer for The Age in Melbourne.

Related Links
Ayaan Hirsi Ali - Abandoned by the Left by Andrew West - New Matilda
Hirsi Ali: an apostle of liberal democracy and of secularism? by Mark Bahnisch - On Line Opinion
Shunning our conscience by Julie Szego - The Age

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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