Just before Christmas I finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel in which she recounts her personal journey out of the oppressive form of Islam she grew up with in her native Somalia. Ali recounts in vivid detail the mutilation, abuse and degradation of women and girls that were sanctioned and allowed by the Muslim faith of her youth. Because Somalia was in the midst of a civil war, at different points in her childhood Ali was a refugee living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. At age 22 her father arranged for her to marry a Somali man living in Canada she had never met. En route to join her new husband, Ali escaped to Holland, where she concocted a story that enabled her to gain refugee status and eventually become a Dutch citizen. Through the largesse of the Dutch welfare system Ali was able to earn a masters degree in Political Science and eventually she was elected to the Dutch parliament.

From her political position Ali called attention to the ongoing degradation of women that was occurring in the growing Muslim community in Holland (mostly from Morocco) and the complete lack of interest on the part of most Dutch Muslims to become integrated into Dutch society. Through the openness and tolerance of European countries toward other cultural and religious groups, Ali contends that Muslim communities in European countries are allowed to continue the barbaric and horrific practices toward women that she experienced growing up. When she made her views public through the production of a short film called “Submission,” the producer of the film was assassinated and her life was threatened. She fled to the United States where she now lives and works as a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute.

Ali’s story is troubling on two levels. First of all, she describes in graphic and horrifying detail the brutality she experienced in the form of female circumcision, beatings and extreme limits on her ability to grow and develop; she contends these acts toward here were common experiences of all Muslim women and girls in the places where she lived.[To see a video interview with Ali about these practices go to this link.] Second, her story challenges all the Western notions of pluralism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance. Attempts at creating religious dialogue, such as Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, depend on people of various religious groups having a mutual respect for each other’s right to believe in their own way. At the same time such efforts assume that people practicing those religions have a level of freedom and dignity within the contexts of their faith. For instance, Armstrong contends that compassion is at the heart of all the world’s great religious and therefore is a standard around which people of all different faiths can gather. However, Ali points out that while Islam teaches compassion, that call to compassion is meant to apply only to those within the Muslim faith, while those outside the faith are considered worthy of death.

Now Ali’s experience of Islam is quite different than that reflected by the Muslims in this country I have known and talked with. For instance, Muslims I have had in my classes have been very open to dialogue and don’t see Islam as degrading to women (though many of them still wear the veil and long robes), nor do they ally themselves with the radical elements of Islam. Moreover, a 2007 Pew Forum study revealed that Muslims in this country where generally pleased with life in the US and did not support terrorism. However, a more recent Pew Forum study found that nearly 70% of the world’s population lived in countries with “high restrictions on religious freedom.” Translated this means that 70% of the world’s people live under religious systems that do not abide by such values as respect for difference, tolerance and dialogue. Ali rejects the notion that such intolerance of others’ views is a result of suffering and poverty and claims instead that such closed views to outsiders is intrinsic to Islam and central to the teaching of the Koran.

There is no question that Christian history has its share of repression through the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms against Jews and Muslims, enslavement of African slaves, genocide against American Indians, and the blessing of repressive colonization throughout the developing world. We still are dealing with the effects of this history. Moreover, there are still Christian groups such as “The Family” that mix conservative politics with Christian beliefs and seek to control and oppress others in the name of their faith. Likewise certain dimensions of Zionism would like no better than to completely remove all Palestinians from Israel. So this is not an indictment of only Muslims, but of all religious groups that leave no place for dialogue and respectful interaction.

When on Christmas yet another radical believer sought to martyr himself in the name of his God on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, I find myself deeply troubled by the current intolerance that seems to span our globe. While I want to be open to the views of others, when those views include the mutilation and abuse of women, the restriction of basic freedoms and a lack of respect for difference, such views can not be endorsed or permitted. For all their faults the societies of the West, including the US, at their best strive to be open to a variety of lifestyles and beliefs. This openness is something we must continue to uphold in the face of fundamentalists near and far who would obliterate others in the name of their God.