If I had to pick one person who seems to personify the clash between the contemporary Islamic and Western world views, it would be Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Hirsi Ali is a Dutch Member of Parliament of Somali descent. Brought up in the Islamic faith in a political family, she ran away to avoid an arranged marriage and wound up in Holland. She hasn’t stopped running since. She is now one of the most outspoken and eloquent European critics of Islam, in particular of the subservient role of Muslim women, hence title of this book. Because she was brought up in the religion, her views are respected far more than, say, Europe’s other female hammer of Islam, Oriana Fallaci, who often sounds simply bigoted.
It’s a dangerous business being an outspoken critic of Islam in the 21st century and Theo van Gough, Hirsi Ali’s collaborator in Submission, a movie critical of Islam, wound up murdered. A knife stabbed in his chest pinned a five-page note to his body threatening Hirsi Ali. She now requires heavy round-the-clock security.
Given all this, I figured that The Caged Virgin might have some interesting things to say about the terrible mess we find ourselves in at the outset of the 21st century. It does, but the book is such an confusing mishmash of biography and polemic, speeches, interviews, and case notes that any coherence is lost after the first few pages (which is ironic, since one of Hirsi Ali’s most common criticism of her opponents is their lack of “clear thinking”).
The Caged Virgin is a longish magazine article forcefed by Random House to justify a foie gras price tag. Perhaps Hirsi Ali herself is not really to blame for this disappointing book, but for their eagerness to cash in on the author’s notoriety and complete lack of editorial judgement Random House should hang their heads in shame. I can almost hear Hirsi Ali’s editor begging her to search her desk drawers and briefcase for something, anything to pad the book out. “Case notes from the early 1990s? A six-year-old speech? Great, send them along!”.
By far the best parts of The Caged Virgin are the autobiographical sections. Hirsi Ali describes her relationship with her parents with unflinching honesty and her portrayal of the brew of foresaken love (“I know my father loves me, but I have made a choice that redically opposes everything he stands for”) and political frustration that characterized her family hints at what a good book this could have been. The description of her sister Haweya (“a strong woman who commanded admiration and respect everywhere but home”) and her descent into mental breakdown and eventual death is particularly moving.
If you want to read how such an outspoken critic of Islam arrived at her position, if you wonder what it’s like growing up in a Muslim family in the horn of Africa, The Caged Virgin offers a few tantalizing glimpses. Still, I was left with an overwhelming sense of frustration. Hirsi Ali is right at the centre of the biggest ideological battle of our times, and I thought she would write something much, much better than this. Perhaps she will one day.