I’ve recently been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s bestselling memoir, Infidel (Free Press, 2007). The author, for those who don’t know her story, is a Somalian who was granted political asylum in the Netherlands after fleeing there to escape a forced marriage. She earned a college degree in political science from the University of Leiden and fought for the rights of Muslim women as a member of Parliament. When Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist in 2004, a note pinned to his body promised that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be next. She had collaborated with van Gogh in the production of a film critical of Islam.
Part of the thrill of reading her story is that it provides a lens through which we can view not only her culture of origin but also our own. Again and again, we find parallels between Islamic fundamentalism and our own homegrown varieties, particularly in attitudes towards women and their bodies. This is an extremely rich territory for thought and discussion.
I was especially struck by Hirsi Ali’s frequent references to the belief, so pervasive in Islamic societies, that the sight of a woman’s body—or even a single part of it (the hair, the eyes, the ankles, the neck) can release an uncontrollable torrent of desire in men. When this happens, chaos (fitna) ensues, and social order is impossible to maintain. Everything falls apart, vehicles crash into each other, and men go into a frenzy.
Well, anyone acquainted with scapegoating theory (particularly the work of anthropologist René Girard) recognizes this state of chaos as a mimetic crisis, also sometimes called a “sacrificial” crisis because the only measure that seems able to stop it is a sacrifice. And who is to be sacrificed? The “guilty” party, of course. Public stonings of women in Somalia and other Muslim countries are typically carried out as punishment for infractions of the morality codes that apply to their bodies, which are considered the property of men. The women are “guilty” of inciting the men and of provoking the crisis.
If you haven’t seen where I’m going with this, I’ll make it plainer. The hysteria that is inspired by the thought of same-sex marriage in our culture is analogous to the hysteria that grips Islamic societies when they contemplate the mere thought of a liberated female body. The idea that people could assume ownership of their bodies and follow their own lights in matters of sex, joy, partnering, and caring is extremely threatening to institutions that have traditionally controlled these goods.
Wherever the idea of Hell holds sway, it can be a highly effective tool of intimidation. Hirsi Ali learned from an early age that eternal damnation was the price of rebellion against Islamic codes of conduct, and she believed this almost to the day that she declared her apostasy. But such threats are only about the Hereafter. Their “secular” counterparts are predictions of disaster in this world—public disorder, plagues, famines, and other signs of God’s displeasure.
In American culture, the James Dobsons and Mike Huckabees have discovered that threats of eternal damnation no longer carry much water, so they fall back on the “secular” version of the threat. They tell us we are facing “civilizational collapse” (collapse of the secular order), and their particular scenario for its unfolding is entirely a function of what people will believe. Pat Robertson didn’t have much luck with the “hurricane-as-God’s punishment” approach, so he adopted a “cultural,” scenario in which an intolerable chaos of desire is unleashed upon the world, pedophilia and sado-masochism become rampant, and humans have sex with animals.
These scenarios of mayhem and disaster are of course frightening to the gullible, but they are comical to those of us who have seen them for what they are: grand guignol bogeymen whose only purpose is to control our sexuality by scaring us witless. The fear that drives these horrific representations can be nothing less than the fear of sexuality itself.
So what does Hirsi Ali discover when she finally removes her headscarf in the open street in the Netherlands? Here’s the passage from page 195:
The next morning, I decided to stage an experiment. I would walk out of the door without a headscarf. I was in my long green skirt and a long tunic, and I had my scarf in a bag with me in case of trouble, but I would not cover my hair. I planned to see what would happen. I was sweating. This was really haram, and also the first time I had walked in a public space with my hair uncovered since I was sixteen.
Absolutely nothing happened. The gardeners kept trimming the hedges. Nobody went into a fit. Still, these were Dutch people, so perhaps not really men. I walked past Ethiopians and Zaireans, and no one paid any attention to me; but then, these people were not Muslims either. So I walked over to the group of Bosnians. Nobody looked at me. If anything, I attracted less attention than when I was covering my head. Not one man went into a frenzy.
Canada has had same-sex marriage since 2005, and no ill effects have yet been observed. My partner and I visited Victoria, BC only a month ago and saw no signs of civilizational collapse there. The buses were running on time, the flowers in the Butchart Gardens were still lovingly tended, and the newspapers carried no reports of increased bestiality among the local population.