Monday, March 12, 2007

Conservative Infidel--Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel is a fascinating autobiography that touches on many of the issues that I have taken up in defending Darwinian conservatism. (I have not yet read her other book--The Caged Virgin.)

I agree with her attack on the moral relativism of multiculturalism and her moral defense of individual liberty and limited government against the theocratic tyranny of Islamic fundamentalism. Darwinian conservatism would show how her defense of liberty can be justified as conforming to the natural desires of a universal human nature as shaped by evolutionary history.

But I disagree with her claim that fundamentalist Islam is the only true version of Islam. In taking such a position, she actually agrees with the fundamentalist Islamists that their reading of the Quran is the only correct reading, which is a big mistake.

In this post, I continue with some of the points that I made last year in another post on "Do the Bible and the Koran Support Theocracy?".

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia. She was raised as a Muslim, living in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. As a child, her genitals were mutilated by family members practicing "female circumcision" as a way of ensuring female virginity by excising the clitoris and sewing up the vagina. In 1992, she fled to Holland as she ran away from a forced marriage to a cousin who was a Somali Canadian. Working as an interpreter in Holland, she saw that many Muslim women in Holland were being beaten--and some even killed--by their male relatives who believed that Islam dictated the submission of women as part of an Islamic tradition of male domination and honor. She studied political science and then went to work for the Labor Party in Holland. She became famous as a campaigner for the human rights of Muslim women. She switched to the "People's Party for Freedom and Democracy"--VVD for the Dutch: Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie--which is a "conservative liberal" party in the tradition of classical liberalism that favors free markets and individual liberty. She was elected as a Member of the Dutch Parliament. She worked with Theo van Gogh to produce a short film--Submission--that dramatized the oppression of Muslim women as sanctioned by the teachings of the Quran. This brought death threats from anry Islamic fundamentalists. In 2004, van Gogh was brutally murdered on a street in Amsterdam by a Muslim fanatic, which shocked not only the Dutch, but people across Europe, who had assumed that such violence to suppress free speech was impossible in modern Europe. Hirsi Ali had to be surrounded by body guards. Eventually, she left Parliament, and then left Holland in 2006 to join the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C. She calls herself an "infidel," because she has rejected Islam and become an atheist. But as a Fellow at AEI, she might be called a "conservative infidel."

In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long section on female genital mutilation (pp. 149-160). I use this to illustrate the dangers of multicultural relativism. Multiculturalists argue that since all moral standards are culturally constructed, there is no universal standard for judging cultural traditions as better or worse, good or bad. So if female circumcism is a deeply rooted cultural tradition in some social groups, we cannot properly condemn it without showing the "cultural imperialism" of imposing Western cultural values on a non-Western culture. Against this, I argue that female genital mutilation can be rightly condemned as frustrating the natural desires of the women who suffer from this practice. These natural desires are universal insofar as they manifest a universal human nature. If the good is the desirable, then we can condemn cultural practices that unreasonably frustrate our natural desires.

Hirsi Ali confirms much of what I say about female circumcism being based on false beliefs that impose unnecessary suffering on women who have had this done to them (see, for example, Infidel, pp. 31-34, 112-13, 140). But she seems less inclined than I am to rely on gradual reforms. She notes that the Quran does not mandate female circumcism, and that most Muslims do not circumcise their daughters. To me, this suggests that a reform campaign could stress that this practice is not really dictated by Islam. In fact, Hirsi Ali's father opposed the practice as barbaric and was shocked when he discovered that her grandmother had done this to her. And yet, Hirsi Ali does not see much room for gradual reform, because she is convinced that all of Islam is a brutal denial of human liberty and happiness, particularly the liberty and happiness of women.

Hirsi Ali's father argued that the Quran did not support Islamic fundamentalism, because the Quran could be interpreted as compatible with democratic liberty. But she disagreed, because she had been persuaded by the fundamentalist Muslims--like the Muslim Brotherhood--that the Quran cannot be properly interpreted this way (see pp. 179, 347-48). She is convinced that Islam in its "purest form" as dictated by the actual words of the Quran requires the sort of theocratic tyranny and denial of individual liberty sought by fundamentalist Islam as practiced in countries like Saudi Arabia and promoted by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This then leads her to the conclusion that to embrace the libertarian principles of the European Enlightenment, which denies theocratic tyranny by promoting religious liberty and toleration, she had to totally reject Islam and become an atheist.

But the Quran is more ambiguous on these matters than she is willing to admit. It declares that "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). And some Muslims see this as Quranic authority for religious liberty and toleration. Some argue for "minding one's own business," and they cite the Quranic verse that says: "O you who believe! Guard your own souls: If you follow right guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray" (5:108).

The ambiguity of the Quran on whether belief can be coerced by law is similar to the ambiguity of the Bible. A big part of the Enlightenment argument for toleration and religious liberty turned on interpretations of the Bible. Although much of the Old Testament seems theocratic, the New Testament can be read as favorable to religious liberty. The Christians of the New Testament do not use government to enforce their Christian beliefs. Proponents of religious toleration could cite the New Testament as supporting their position, and this was crucial for promoting toleration as compatible with Biblical religion.

By contrast, Hirsi Ali leaves her reader with the impression that the Enlightenment defense of toleration requires atheism. One reason for this is that she seems to identify the Enlightenment with the French Enlightenment and its scorn for religious belief. But this ignores the British and American Enlightenments, which were more favorable to religious belief. (Gertrude Himmelfarb has defended this analysis of the Enlighenment in The Roads to Modernity.)

As Hirsi Ali indicates, the crucial issue is whether morality is separable from religious belief. Fundamentalist Islamists--like fundamentalist Christians--assume that without religious belief, there can be so solid morality. Consequently, the moral order of any society requires the enforcement of religious belief, which then tends to support theocratic tyranny. But if there is a natural moral sense rooted in human nature, then we can judge good and bad without necessarily requiring any specific religious doctrines. In the British and American Enlightenments, it was generally assumed that this natural moral sense would be shared by all healthy religious traditions. We could allow for religious liberty and thus religious multiplicity with the confidence that the natural moral sense would prevail even without agreement on religious doctrines.

Darwin's biological account of the moral sense as a product of natural evolution supports this position. Although some religious believers scorn this Darwinian morality as atheistic, there is nothing in the Darwinian argument that dictates atheism. Saying that morality is part of "Nature's Law" leaves open the possibility that behind this Nature is "Nature's God."

According to Hirsi Ali, "Darwin said creation stories were a fairy tale" (p. 239). But that's not quite right. Darwin certainly denied the theory of "special creation" of each species. But he left open the possibility that the original laws of the universe were impressed on matter by the Creator (as he suggested at the end of The Origin of Species).

Hirsi Ali says that "Spinoza . . . was the first modern European to state clearly that the world is not ordained by a separate God. Nature created itself, Spinoza said" (p. 282).

Perhaps so. But this points to the problem of ultimate explanations. If we ask why nature exists and exists with the kind of order that it has, the naturalist might say that nature is just a brute fact that is self-contained and self-explanatory. That's just the way it is! But such an assumption that "Nature created itself" cannot be proven, because such an assumption is the starting point of any proof. And yet the transcendentalist might appeal to the Divine Creator as the uncaused cause of Nature as an alternative starting point. The choice between these two stances on First Causes cannot be resolved by pure reason alone. And this leaves room for religious faith.

So I generally agree with Hirsi Ali that there is a universal human nature that allows us to judge cultural traditions as better or worse in conforming to that human nature, and therefore that multicultural relativism is wrong. I also agree with her that this gives us a natural ground for morality that does not absolutely depend on religious belief.

But I do not agree with her that this leads us to atheism. Rather than a dogmatic atheism, we might better be left with a skeptical openness to fundamental mysteries that allows for religious faith even as it allows us to condemn theocratic tyranny. Darwinian conservatism neither affirms nor denies the theological truth of religious belief. But it does respect the practical truth of religious traditions that foster social cooperation and healthy morality.


Les Brunswick said...

Very interesting. The question at this point would seem to be whether the Koran, correctly understood, has a view of human nature similar to the Western natural law view that Darwinian science has confirmed.