It is unfortunate that someone with as much academic training as Aayan Hirsi Ali chose to be as single minded as she was when she visited Goucher on April 5th as a part of the President’s Forum. This choice is especially tragic considering the contradictory, volatile and fluid nature of her topic: religion.
As one of her main refrains throughout the evening of intense audience questions, she drew from the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, claiming it said men should beat their wives. While this is clearly a decontextualized oversimplification, the verse she chose -Surah 4, Verse 34 – does list ways in which a husband should deal with a disobedient wife, with, as a last resort, to “lightly” beat her. Her claim is loosely tied to a few words in the Qur’an. She chose to highlight this verse to prove that Islam is oppressive to women. She did this by presenting this verse as the only perspective.
By choosing this verse, she ignores others that contradict her. One of these from the Hadith, the canonized words of the Prophet Muhammad, discusses the way men should interact with women. In book 11, number 2139, it states, “Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them.” While this is the most explicit of her choices, it was not the last.
She chose to speak about female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision. This is a disgusting practice, which often leads to severe medical complications and death for those women subjected to it. It would be a mistake to attribute it to Islam.
While justified in many African adaptations of Islam, the Qur’an makes no mention of the practice and it has been railed against by many Muslim religious leaders outside and inside of Africa. Here, Ms. Ali made a very political move to present female genital mutilation as a problem with Islam without addressing the cultural and geographical specificity of the procedure.
Ms. Ali also spoke about her upbringing in relation to Jews. She discussed how she was trained to believe Jews were analogous to the devil. Ms. Ali did not directly quote the Qur’an, but she claimed this depiction of Jews could be traced back to the Qur’an. While, in a very particular context, she is correct, these particular verses she drew upon called the Medina versus, are linked to a specific event in the history of the Prophet Muhammed. Outside of the Medina verses, which were inspired by a betrayal of the early Muslim Ummah by a singular Jewish community, the Qur’an refers to both Jews and Christians as “people of the book” and worthy of both friendship and protection by Muslims. Again, Ms. Ali has made a political choice to highlight this negative portion of the text while disregarding all alternate perspectives.
Based on her lecture, it is clear that Ms. Ali was making choices to ignore the information that textual analysis, cultural understanding, and historical context present. Islam, like every other religion, is impossibly complex and contradictory, steeped in thousands of years of culture and history. In my opinion it is not only unfair to Islam and those who call themselves Muslims, but irresponsibly self-serving to present Islam as this kind of one-sided one-dimensional caricature.