Mindy Newell: Defining Oneself

I have been engrossed for the last week in Infidel, an autobiography that chronicles the life and times of political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and how she became who and what she is. Ms. Ali will be familiar to those readers of this column, who, like me, strive to never miss an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews. She has also appeared on FOX News, CNN, and just about every news organization around the world – though I don’t know if she has ever been invited onto Al-Jazeera, even here on the U.S. version.

But if not, here’s a short version of Ms. Ali’s biography. Born into a traditional Muslim family in Somalia in 1969, her father was Hirsi Magan Isse, a leader of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front and who was actively involved in the Somalian Revolution against the Siad Barre government. Although Mr. Isse had been educated in the West and had a more “relaxed” view of Islam, while he was in prison for his opposition Ms. Ali’s grandmother, against both parents’ wishes (her mother followed her husband’s views at the time, becoming more rigid as the years went by), arranged for the traditional female genital mutilation of Ms. Ali and her younger sister.

Background: Female genital mutilation is the circumcision of the clitoris and the removal of the inner, or minor, labia; the entire vulva is then sewn shut, and a small hole is lanced into the skin to allow the flow of urine.

After her father’s escape from prison, the family moved three times, first to Saudi Arabia, then to Ethiopia, and finally settling in Nairobi, Kenya. There Ms. Ali attended the Muslim Girls’ Secondary School, which was funded by Saudi Arabia, and where she was inspired by a teacher to adhere to the strict Wahhabism interpretation of Islam that the Saudis practice – which is interesting, because Ms. Ali was, shall I say, not impressed with the practice of Islam she saw as a young girl while living in Mecca. She does speak of the peace she found within the Great Mosque itself.

Turning her back on the more relaxed version of Islam practiced in Somalia and Kenya, Ms. Ali became immersed in the religion, donning the hijab, sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood, and agreeing with the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie for his portrayal of the Prophet in his The Satanic Verses.

At the same time, she was reading Nancy Drew stories, romance novels by Danielle Steele and Barbara Cartland, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. She also read the great classics of Western literature, including Wuthering Heights, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, the South African writers polemic about racism and apartheid in his country.

So Ms. Hirsi Ali was a study in diametrically opposed forces: the Islamic subjugation and degradation of women, to which she clung for many years, and the Western beliefs of freedom and equality between the sexes. However, when a marriage was arranged for her, she sought and gained political asylum in the Netherlands in 1992. There she obtained a graduate degree and began to speak out against the Muslim abuse of women. Ms. Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003, representing the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. When her Dutch citizenship was questioned in 2006, she resigned her seat – this action is believed to help lead to the fall of the Dutch administration in 2006.

In 2002 Ayaan Hirsi Ali renounced Islam and all religions, announcing her atheism, and attributing it to her personal “multi-year journey.” Time Magazine named Ayaan Hirsi Ali one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2006; she continues to be an advocate for Muslim women, for free speech, and Islam itself. She believes the religion is in desperate need for a “Reformation,” similar to what occurred in the Middle Ages when Martin hung “The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on (according to custom) October 31, 1517. Because of this, Ms. Hirsi Ali lives with continuous death threat hanging over her like the sword of Damocles.

I became aware of Ms. Hirsi Ali when she worked with Danish writer and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, scripting his film, Submission (2004), which criticized the Islamic treatment of women; in one scene an actress, dressed in a see-through burqa, is nude, and the viewer can easily see texts from the Koran (or Qur’an) validating the religion’s subjugation and abuse of women. Outrage ensued among Dutch Muslims, and one young man, Mohammed Bouyeri (allegedly a member of the terrorist Hofstad Group), violently killed Van Gogh, shooting him eight times, slitting his throat, and then attempting to decapitate him. The killer left a letter, a death threat against Ms. Hirsi Ali, pinned to Van Gogh’s chest with a knife.

Now, as to comics…

I don’t really know of many Muslims in American comics, at least historically, although I do know of The 99, created by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Columbia Business School graduate, and published by his Kuwait-bashed Teshkeel Comics. They were distributed all over the Middle East, India, and Indonesia, and reprinted here in the States via Marvel. Still, though the beliefs and creeds of Islam forms the basis of the book’s themes, none of the characters were specifically Muslim, and the marketing of the book “promoted universal virtues” such as cooperation, wisdom, and generosity. The 99 themselves were an international group of teenagers and adults who are empowered individually by each of the mystical Noor Stones. By working together and combining their specific gifts, the 99 overcame all problems and foes.

But the comic was not received well in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait because the 99’s “super-powers” were based on the 99 attributes of Allah as described in the Qur’an, The Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, head of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, said The 99 is a work of the devil that should be condemned and forbidden in respect to Allah’s names and attributes.” On July 2, 2014, ISIS issued death threats and offered rewards for the assassination of Dr. Al-Mutawa.

I read and have copies of the graphic novels Persepolis (2003) and Persepolis 2 (2004), the English translations of the autobiographical work of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born French citizen who is also Muslim. (I also went to see the animated Persepolis with Alixandra in 2007.) It is the story of a rebellious young girl, named Marjane, who comes of age during the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

And now, of course, there is Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona. Kamala Khan is the Pakistani American teenager who discovers she has shape-shifting abilities and takes the name of “Ms. Marvel” after her hero, Carol Danvers. Ms. Wilson, a convert to Islam, said that while Kamala certainly fights her share of super bad guys, but also…”explores conflicts with Khan’s home and religious duties…[it’s] not evangelism. It was really important for me to portray Kamala as someone who is struggling with her faith.”

Editor Sara Amanat, who conceived the idea along with co-editor Stephen Wacker after a conversation about Sara’s childhood as a Muslim-American, said, “Her brother is extremely conservative, her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant, and her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.”

Most important, Ms. Amant said:

“As much as Islam is a part of Kamala’s identity, this book isn’t preaching about religion or the Islamic faith in particular. It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self. It’s a struggle we’ve all faced in one form or another, and isn’t just particular to Kamala because she’s Muslim. Her religion is just one aspect of the many ways she defines herself.”

This American Jewish woman wholeheartedly agrees.