Breaking Through the Islamic Curtain

Blurb200An outstanding book by a Somalian who has left Islam for atheism. Her insights into the Muslim world are first rate and we highly recommend getting this book.

Jeff and Maria

Preface to The Caged Virgin  by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

parents brought me up to be a Muslim — a good Muslim. Islam dominated
the lives of our family and relations down to the smallest detail. It
was our ideology, our political conviction, our moral standard, our
law, and our identity. We were first and foremost Muslim and only then
Somali. Muslims, as we were taught the meaning of the name, are people
who submit themselves to Allah's will, which is found in the Koran and
the Hadith, a collection of sayings ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad.

was taught that Islam sets us apart from the rest of the world, the
world of non-Muslims. We Muslims are chosen by God. They, the others,
the kaffirs, the unbelievers, are antisocial, impure, barbaric, not
circumcised, immoral, unscrupulous, and above all, obscene; they have
no respect for women; their girls and women are whores; many of the men
are homosexual; men and women have sex without being married. The
unfaithful are cursed, and God will punish them most atrociously in the

When my sister and I were
small, we would occasionally make remarks about nice people who were
not Muslim, but my mother and grandmother would always say, "No, they
are not good people. They know about the Koran and the Prophet and
Allah, and yet they haven’t come to see that the only thing a person
can be is Muslim. They are blind. If they were such nice and good
people, they would have become Muslims and then Allah would protect
them against evil. But it is up to them. If they become Muslims, they
will go to paradise."

There are also
Christians and Jews who raise their children in the belief that they
are God’s chosen people, but among Muslims the feeling that God has
granted them special salvation goes further.                      

twelve years ago, at age twenty-two, I arrived in Western Europe, on
the run from an arranged marriage. I soon learned that God and His
truth had been humanized here. For Muslims life on earth is merely a
transitory stage before the hereafter; but here people are also allowed
to invest in their lives as mortals. What is more, hell seems no longer
to exist, and God is a god of love rather than a cruel ruler who metes
out punishments. I began to take a more critical look at my faith and
discovered three important elements of Islam that had not particularly
struck me before.                        

The first of these
is that a Muslim’s relationship with his God is one of fear. A Muslim’s
conception of God is absolute. Our God demands total submission. He
rewards you if you follow His rules meticulously. He punishes you
cruelly if you break His rules, both on earth, with illness and natural
disasters, and in the hereafter, with hellfire.                        

second element is that Islam knows only one moral source: the Prophet
Muhammad. Muhammad is infallible. You would almost believe he is
himself a god, but the Koran says explicitly that Muhammad is a human
being; he is a supreme human being, though, the most perfect human
being. We must live our lives according to his example. What is written
in the Koran is what God said as it was heard by Muhammad. The
thousands of hadiths — accounts of what Muhammad said and did, and the
advice he gave, which survives in weighty books — tell us exactly how
a Muslim was supposed to live in the seventh century. Devout Muslims
consult these works daily to answer questions about life in the
twenty-first century.                        

The third
element is that Islam is strongly dominated by a sexual morality
derived from tribal Arab values dating from the time the Prophet
received his instructions from Allah, a culture in which women were the
property of their fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, or
guardians. The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen. Her veil
functions as a constant reminder to the outside world of this stifling
morality that makes Muslim men the owners of women and obliges them to
prevent their mothers, sisters, aunts, sisters-in-law, cousins, nieces,
and wives from having sexual contact. And we are not just talking about
cohabitation. It is an offense if a woman glances in the direction of a
man, brushes past his arm, or shakes his hand. A man’s reputation and
honor depend entirely on the respectable, obedient behavior of the
female members of his family.                        

three elements explain largely why Muslim nations are lagging behind
the West and, more recently, also lagging behind Asia. In order to
break through the mental bars of this trinity, behind which the
majority of Muslims are restrained, we must begin with a critical
self-examination. But any Muslim who asks critical questions about
Islam is immediately branded a "deserter." A Muslim who advocates the
exploration of sources for morality, in addition to those of the
Prophet Muhammad, will be threatened with death, and a woman who
withdraws from the virgins’ cage is branded a whore.                        

my personal experiences, through reading a great deal and speaking to
others, I have come to realize that the existence of Allah, of angels,
demons, and a life after death, is at the very least disputable. If
Allah exists at all, we must not regard His word as absolute, but
challenge it. I once wrote about my doubts regarding my faith in the
hope of starting a discussion. I was immediately confronted by zealous
Muslims, men and women who wanted to have me excommunicated. They even
went so far as to say that I deserved to die because I had dared to
call into question the absolute truth of Allah’s word. They took me to
court to prevent me from criticizing the faith I had been born into,
from asking questions about the regulations and gods that Allah’s
messenger has imposed upon us. An Islamic fundamentalist murdered Theo
van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who helped me make Submission: Part I, a
film about the relationship between the individual and God, in
particular about the individual woman and God. And he threatened to
kill me, too, a threat that others have also pledged to fulfill.                        

other thinking people, I like to tap into sources of wisdom, morality,
and imagination other than religious texts — other books besides the
Koran and accounts of the Prophet — and I would like other Muslims to
tap into them, too. Just because Spinoza, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill,
Kant, or Bertrand Russell are not Islamic and have no Islamic
counterparts does not mean that Muslims should steer clear of these and
other Western philosophers. Yet, at present, reading works by Western
thinkers is regarded as disrespectful to the Prophet and Allah’s
message. This is a serious misconception. Why should it not be
permitted to abide by all the good things Muhammad has urged us to do
(such as his advice to be charitable toward the poor and orphans),
while at the same time adding to our lives and outlook the ideas of
other moral philosophers? After all, the fact that the Wright brothers
were not Islamic has not stopped Muslims from traveling by air. By
adopting the technical inventions of the West without its courage to
think independently, we perpetuate the mental stagnation in Islamic
culture, passing it on from one generation to the next.                        

most important explanation for the mental and material backlog we
Muslims find ourselves in should probably be sought in the sexual
morality that we are force-fed from birth (see chapter 3, "The Virgins’
Cage"). I would like to invite all people like me who had an Islamic
upbringing to compare and contrast J. S. Mill’s essay "On the
Subjection of Women" (1869) with what the Prophet Muhammad has to say
on the subject of women. Both were undeniably interested in the role of
women, but there is a vast difference between Muhammad and Mill. For
instance, Mill considered his beloved wife an intellectual equal;
Muhammad was a polygamist and wrote that men have authority over women
because God made one superior to the other. Mill, a model of calm
reason in the face of contentious issues, argued that if freedom is
good for men, it is good for women, a position that today most of the
modern world considers unassailable.                        

any investigation into the Islamic trinity by a Muslim is thought to be
an act of complete betrayal of the religion and the Prophet. It is
extremely painful for a believer to try to question. And it is
extremely painful for a believer to hear that other Muslims are
questioning the Islamic trinity. Muslim’s strong emotions and
condemnations of people who do question the trinity impress outsiders,
myself included, especially when they are expressed on a massive scale
by entire communities and even nations, as has happened in Egypt, Iran,
and Indonesia.                        

Think, for instance,
of the murder of Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam, a Western
city in a Western democracy, for exercising his free-speech rights to
look critically at Islam in Submission: Part I, the film he and I made.
While you may have heard of the death threats that have been made also
against me for this film, you may not know that when I initially spoke
on the immoral practices of the Prophet Muhammad, more than one hundred
fifty complaints were made against me to the police and the government.
Four ambassadors visited my party leaders — ambassadors from Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia. They carried a letter attached to
which was a list of twenty-one countries belonging to the Islamic
Conference — including Turkey — that supported the letter. The main
complaint in their letter was that I had insulted the Prophet and had
deeply hurt the feelings of more than 1 billion Muslims. Death threats
followed against me and also against the leader of my party when he
refused to take seriously this complaint and evict me from Parliament.                        

also of the reaction to the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria in
2002. Religious extremists protested the holding of the contest and
became violently inflamed when a Christian journalist in an independent
newspaper suggested, in reply to the scolding question, What would the
Prophet Muhammad make of this improper display of women’s beauty and
bodies?, that the Prophet may have chosen a new wife from the
contestants had he been alive today. This was felt to be a grave insult
to the Prophet. During the subsequent protests, the office of the
newspaper was burned down; two hundred people were killed and at least
five hundred were injured.                        

Think also
of the aftermath of Newsweek’s story in May 2005, of a 2002 FBI report
made available to the journalist, that a soldier had flushed a Koran
down a toilet at Guantánamo Bay, where Afghan and Pakistani soldiers
suspected of being Taliban members are being held after capture in
Afghanistan. Violent protests erupted in Pakistan and Afghanistan and
lasted for several days; at least sixteen people were killed.                        

also of the situation that began in Denmark when the author of a
biography of Muhammad wanted a drawing on his book jacket that
represented the Prophet. All the artists he approached said, No, we
can’t do it; we fear Muslim reprisals and would fear for our lives.
Hearing of the author’s challenge, the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten
asked cartoonists to depict the Prophet as a test of whether freedom of
expression had been limited in Denmark as a result of Islamic
terrorists. Twelve cartoonists agreed, and the newspaper published
their images in September 2005. Muslim organizations immediately
demanded an apology, which the editor-in-chief refused to make, saying
that a democracy makes use of all means of expression, including
satire, and the images were not intended to insult the Prophet or
Muslims. Nonetheless, 3,000 of the 187,000 Muslims living in Denmark
protested the paper, which had to post guards as a result of death
threats. Eleven foreign ambassadors visited the paper to complain.
Months later, in January 2006, Muslim countries began to boycott Danish
products. The Danish economy lost some 90 million euros in about a
week; companies were forced to lay off hundreds of employees. In
February, newspapers in other European countries published the images
in support of Denmark and freedom of the press. Islamic extremists
attacked and burned the Danish embassy in Beirut; one person was
killed. Other European embassies in Islamic countries were attacked. A
Christian priest was killed by a Turkish man screaming "God is great."
As protests were fomented around the world, violence increased and the
death toll mounted. Some moderate Muslims who called for restraint in
Islamic countries were silenced by their governments, even jailed. Yet
European governments are seriously considering limiting the freedom of
the press to discuss Islam; some newspaper editors were fired for
printing the cartoons. The tragedy for many Muslims is that their
inability to criticize the dogma of religion in their own countries
will be continued in Europe.                      

I am
amazed that Muslims are not more offended by the invocation of Allah
and "God is great" for murder than by cartoons. Why do Muslims not fly
into flights of rage when people who go to help Iraqis are kidnapped,
tortured, and beheaded in the name of Islam? Political cartoons that
point up problems with an extremist religion are used to manipulate
people into violence instead of reflection and debate. Freedom of
expression for Muslims is a one-way street; Muslims can criticize the
West, but the West cannot criticize the practices of Islam.                        

understand that a Muslim may feel a duty to scold anyone who attempts
to call into question the absoluteness of God’s word or someone who
regards other sources of morality as equal, or superior even, to the
Prophet Muhammad’s. History shows that for many people to make a mental
transition of this magnitude and question their beliefs is always a
very slow process, and one that generates resistance and causes
bloodshed. In this context I can place the murder of Theo van Gogh, the
death threats and legal steps against me, and the intense rejection and
condemnation of me as an individual, a heretic, and a blasphemer.
Remember that the Protestant Reformation took many years of protest
(the source of its name) as well as bloodshed and widespread unrest to
establish itself firmly. A quick look at Islamic history shows us that
critical voices from within Islam have almost all been either killed or
exiled. I find myself in good company: Salman Rushdie, Irshad Manji,
Taslima Nasreen, Muhammad Abu Zaid — they all have been threatened by
fellow believers and are now being guarded by non-Muslims.                        

we who were brought up with Islam must summon the courage to break
through this wall of emotional resistance or to climb over it, until
eventually the number of critics grows large enough to counterbalance
the entrenched opposition effectively. In order to achieve this we will
need the help of the liberal West, whose interests are greatly served
by a reform of Islam. But above all, we Muslims must help each other.                        

am feeling optimistic about that reform. I base my optimism on positive
signs, like the local elections in Saudi Arabia (although women were
excluded from these elections, at least the elections were held); the
successful elections in Iraq and Afghanistan (where a secular
government has taken over after the Taliban); the demonstrations
against the terror of the Islamic Party by journalists and academics in
Morocco; and the promising agreements between Sharon and Abbas about
the future of Israel and Palestine. Abbas is more reasonable than the
late Arafat and seems to act in the interest of the Palestinians, and
Israel’s giving back the land to the Palestinians for self-rule is good
progress, although the election in which Hamas became the ruling party
is a setback. Another indication of progress is Pakistan’s acceptance
of Israeli aid to the victims of the terrible October 8, 2005,
earthquake. Of course, I realize that these are quite recent

I am optimistic, and I
normally would have looked to the West for help in reforming Islam,
from secular liberals, Westerners who are traditionally opposed to the
enforcement of religious beliefs and customs. In certain countries,
"left-wing," secular liberals have stimulated my critical thinking and
that of other Muslims. But these same liberals in Western politics have
the strange habit of blaming themselves for the ills of the world,
while seeing the rest of the world as victims. To them, victims are to
be pitied, and they lump together all pitiable and suppressed people,
such as Muslims, and consider them good people who should be cherished
and supported so that they can overcome their disadvantages. The
adherents to the gospel of multiculturalism refuse to criticize people
whom they see as victims. Some Western critics disapprove of United
States policies and attitudes but do not criticize the Islamic world,
just as, in the first part of the twentieth century, Western socialist
apologists did not dare criticize the Soviet labor camps. Along the
same lines, some Western intellectuals criticize Israel, but they will
not criticize Palestine because Israel belongs to the West, which they
consider fair game, but they feel sorry for the Palestinians, and for
the Islamic world in general, which is not as powerful as the West.
They are critical of the native white majority in Western countries but
not of Islamic minorities. Criticism of the Islamic world, of
Palestinians, and of Islamic minorities is regarded as Islamophobia and

I cannot emphasize enough
how wrongheaded this is. Withholding criticism and ignoring differences
are racism in its purest form. Yet these cultural experts fail to
notice that, through their anxious avoidance of criticizing non-Western
countries, they trap the people who represent these cultures in a state
of backwardness. The experts may have the best of intentions, but as we
all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.                        

own criticism of Islamic religion and culture is felt by some to be
"harsh," "offensive," and "hurtful." But the attitude of the cultural
experts is, in fact, harsher, and more offensive and hurtful. They feel
superior and do not regard Muslims as equal discussion partners, but as
the "others" who should be shielded. And they think that criticism of
Islam should be avoided because they are afraid that Muslims can only
respond to criticism with anger and violence. These cultural experts
are badly letting down us Muslims who have obeyed the call to show our
sense of public responsibility and are speaking out.                        

have taken an enormous risk by answering the call for self-reflection
and by joining in the public debate that has been taking place in the
West since 9/11. And what do the cultural experts say? "You should have
said it in a different way." But since Theo van Gogh’s death, I have
been convinced more than ever that I must say it in my way only and
have my criticism.                        

Copyright ©2002, 2004 by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Augustus Publishers. English translation copyright ©2006 by Jane Brown

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