Fundamentally different

I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2006 book ‘Infidel’.  It’s a compelling read telling the story of Ali’s horrifying childhood in Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya and her journey out of Islam and to prominence as a womens’ rights activist and politician in Holland.  As I read it, I reflected on the voices of my kids teachers who tell them that all religions are equally valid (or even leading up the same mountain).

Like Ali, I grew up in a fundamentalist religious home.  We held a holy book in high esteem and attended a place of worship twice (or more) a week.  We prayed before meals and held to a strict moral code.    We were encouraged to follow in the way of a prophet and to accept his values and those revealed in the book over, above and occasionally against the values of our society.  But that is where the similarities end. 

Ali’s traditionalist grandma in Somalia, Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood teachers in Kenya taught her that Jews and the west were opposed to everything good in the world, must be shunned and should be overthrown by force where possible.  My parents and church taught me (in word and example) that the West’s values were the best of a bad lot and that people of every creed and race should be loved and equally treated as neighbours. 

Ali was taught that women must submit to men in every area of life, that they should accept excision, arranged marriage and beatings from husbands as part of their submission to God.  We were taught that men and women are created equal in God’s image.  My sisters were encouraged to follow in my mum’s footsteps in education and freedom of choice 

It’s clear that our circumstances were radically different.  I grew up in a peaceful and prosperous democratic nation with free at point of need education and healthcare: Ali grew up in a range of countries dogged by poverty, sickness and corruption.  But the divergence between our faiths struck me as even more marked.  Our prophet taught us to love and care for even Samaritans (hated racial enemies) and told his followers to put their swords away.  Ali’s prophet spoke of love and submission for those who submit to his strictures and the sword for the rest.  Our book told us that God was a good heavenly father who could be wrestled and argued with and resisted.  Her book told her that God was an impassable and unapproachable force to whom submission is the only option.   These are radically different fundamentalisms because they have fundamentally different foundations.  The nations built on these fundamentally different foundations are fundamentally different societies.   But we’re still teaching our kids that all religions are essentially the same – leading to love peace and harmony.  This is historically; empirically; fundamentally false.

It comes as no surprise to me later in the book that Ali moved on from her belief in the prophet and the book.  I’d like to think I would have had the courage to do the same.  But I don’t feel the need to jettison either my prophet or my book, because they are a contributing stream to western freedoms rather than a desperate dam holding them back.  It also unsurprising that Ali sought to awaken her sleepy new nation to the divergences between the worldview of the fundamentalisms of its growing immigrant communities in the 1990s and Western democratic values of personal freedom and human dignity.   

The fundamentals Ali grew up with and rejected are completely different from the ones I grew up with and accepted.  The book has spurred me on to have to have grown-up conversations with my own kids about this, because it seems that they are not being told about it at their (generally excellent, accessible, caring, free) schools.