Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, quick note to self about reading the reviews of Infidel

This is really a note to myself on something to follow up. I am not especially interested in reviewing Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new memoir, Infidel, which is now somewhere high up on the NYT bestseller list. I am, however, quite interested in reviewing the reviews, which I find quite troubling. (This is just a note to self, so I won't march through them here - they are accumulating on my side table, though.) Many of them are critical of Ali on what amount to the ground that she has not written an academic tome, with all the carefully hedged defenses and qualifying language and attention to scholarly detail that academic books require, or anyway should require.

Infidel is, however, exactly what it is, no more, but certainly no less, a highly personal memoir, a polemic, an incendiary statement of leaving the faith that has, or used to have, or has provided one is not a (ex)Muslim woman doing it, a long and honorable history in literature and politics. The pedantic, carping - see the TLS review, in particular - grounds on which the critical reviews choose to attack her have about as much sense of proportion and groundedness as subjecting, oh, say, The Vagina Monologues to a witheringly critical academic eye. Infidel, like The Vagina Monologues, and a vast amount of the even quasi-academic literature in the journals of gender and feminism, is really a cri-de-coeur, and has to be taken on that basis. The Vagina Monologues get played on pretty much every college campus in America annually, as a solidarity ritual, not about intellect but affect, and it wouldn't occur to me - and I am scarcely a feminist - to think it appropriate to critize it as though published as a Ph.D dissertation from Oxford or Cambridge UP. So on what double standard does Infidel deserve to get beat up that way?

Well, I recently reread the text of J'accuse - truth is, it wouldn't stand up all that well to a withering academic attack even in the context of what was known at the moment it was written, an academic attack that carped and jibbed about the nature of the French state, the military, French society, the social and cultural role of the Jews in France, etc. That The Vagina Monologues are merely fiction, a play? Well, one could point to so many things in the history of feminism of the past forty years instead that aren't presented as fiction, but are instead presented as personal memoir, personal confession, the primacy of personal experience - everything from performance art masquerading as academic classes in women's studies departments around the country to the content of many frankly confessional academic articles - and the academic articles defending the honesty of the confessional rather than analytic genre. For that matter, Infidel, in the history of feminism in the Muslim world, is something akin to burning bras back in the 70s - it's a polemical act, a move in the culture, not something to analyze according to high-brow academic criteria (although, as I recall, there was plenty of that kind of writing at the time, too). Tighten up the straightjacket - the corset? the burqa? - of multiculturalism to muzzle the kind of polemical act that has been considered a time-honored way of cultural and social protest until a (ex)Muslim woman decides to give it a shot. Where is the sisterhood? Dwelling in the small details, the academic failings, the little errors, seemingly in order to avoid having to take a plain stand for what, so long as the targets are Christian or Catholic or Western or patriarchy in the abstract, seemed so obvious. Gone AWOL.

And likewise the small, churlish asides aimed at the American Enterprise Institute by several of these reviewers, snidely noting the obvious - news just in, AEI is conservative! - that has given a home to Ali. A home, that is, after the Dutch chased her out of Holland. The Dutch are impeccably multiculturalist. They are also, these days, strongly anti-immigrant. In Ali, as Mark Steyn has noted, they finally managed to find a Muslim extremist so extreme that they could even rouse themselves get her out of the country. Deport some crazy imam preaching death to the enemies of Islam? Naw - instead they chased out a self declared ex Muslim feminist immigrant. God help us all.

But friends of mine at AEI told me not long before Ali arrived that they had strong qualms about taking on an exile case precisely because she's neither an academic/policy analyst/scholar nor a conservative. AEI did it reluctantly, I know from conversations with AEI people, before she arrived and got onto to the NYT bestseller list, as a matter of conscience - because American universities were not falling all over themselves to provide sanctuary and safe haven to an endangered (ex)Muslim feminist, partly, it would seem, out of security concerns and partly out of a deep desire not to anger Muslim students on American university campuses. The places where a Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have been welcomed with open arms - the women's studies departments of any American university, for example - conspicuously failed to step up to the plate. AEI provided safe haven to a feminist exile driven out of civilized, multiculturalist Western Europe that civilized, multiculturalist American universities did not. AEI, I'm certain, is very happy that this has gone well, but it had reasons to be doubtful before the fact.

(This is something that I'd like to take up perhaps in one of the gender & law journals, as a review of the reviews of Infidel, if it is able to deal with something of a J'accuse. Actually, I think it would make a good short polemic for the New York Times Magazine or maybe the weekend WSJ if it hadn't already done a "weekend interview" with Ali. It would have been perfect, I think, for the LAT Book Review under the great, great Steve Wasserman. The TLS has already done a review of it which, although learned and elegant, still managed to annoy me. The decline of the book reviews in newspapers is dismaying - topic for another day. Anyway, if there are any of editors out there interested in discussing a short review of reviews along these lines, contact me. The reviews are piling up here on my desk.)

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