Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beloved Infidel?

Speaking of articulate, today's Chronicle ran a review of Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I first become aware of Ali through Ian Buruma's book about the murder of Theo van Gogh. Then, over this past week, I watched the VTR recording I had made from Book TV of a talk she had given at the American Enterprise Institute. So I was hardly a tabula rasa when I approached Sandip Roy's Chronicle review, which was probably not to Ali's advantage.

Ali put on a first-rate show at the American Enterprise Institute. Lynette Clemetson might have called it the sort of show that has given the adjective "articulate" such a bad name. I would prefer to ask just how much of it was show. Perhaps I would have been less skeptical had I not (again, through the good graces of Book TV) heard Karen Armstrong's lecture about the ways in which the Western world had come to misunderstand Islam. This set me to wondering to what extent, in both her book and her lecture, Ali was cultivating Western distrust of Islam on the same grounds that Armstrong was calling serious misunderstanding. In other words I found myself caught in a she-said-she-said story, desperately looking to the metanarrative that would bring some clarity to my confusion.

Then I remembered seeing a documentary entitled In Satmar Custody, and I realized the extent to which the story in that film could fuel highly indignant feelings of anti-Semitism if one assumed that all Jews (or, for that matter, even all Orthodox Jews) behaved (particularly towards women) the way this small Satmar community did. When we encounter a category noun, such as "Muslim" or "Jew," we have a natural inclination to seek out a bunch of generalizing propositions that, in a sense, justify that noun standing for a category in the first place. However, one of the most important lessons from Wittgenstein is that there may be very view of those propositions, if any at all. He occupied himself with less inflammatory nouns, such as "chair" or "game;" but the lesson is still the same. Whatever generalizing proposition we may propose, we inevitably run into exceptions; and sometimes there are far more exceptions than we initially anticipate.

Sometimes the best we can do is pull together as many sources as we can. It is not that I doubt the sincerity of Ali's testimony. I even believe it is important that she has done such a good job in documenting it. I can also understand anyone who wishes to challenge me on turning to Armstrong, an ex-nun, in search of a counter-narrative. In this respect the Internet can sometimes serve us well. Back when Virgil Goode was raising a stink about Keith Ellison taking his congressional oath of office on a copy of the Qu'ran, I decided to do a bit of digging into the value of the symbolism. In my previous blog, I reported on a Web site that laid out a series of value statements from the Qu'ran, all of which seemed more than appropriate for any man or woman about to assume legislative responsibility. My guess is that Ali would not dispute that evaluation, even if she had personally experienced Muslim practices inconsistent with those values. So, once again, we have to work these things out for ourselves, because when compelling rhetoric is applied to reinforcing an opinion we really want to have, the result is almost always tragic for everyone involved.

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