Nicholas Kristof seems like a decent enough fellow, with a concern for humanitarian causes. He's also something of a simpering apologist for religion — anything with a whiff of godlessness seems to put him on edge and start him whining about intolerant, obnoxious atheists.
He is definitely not the right person to have review Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book. He might be able to sympathize with the human rights issues she confronts, but at the same time he's got a kind of willful blindness to the contributions religion makes to human misery, and is guaranteed to belittle the problem of Islam.
If you haven't read Ali's previous book, Infidel(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), get cracking; you've got to catch up. It was a harrowing description of the life of a Muslim girl in a poor country who managed to escape both poverty and her misogynistic faith. Her new book is Nomad(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), about her move to America. I haven't read it yet, but it's on the list.
Kristof's review is aggravating, though, because it is so thick with — and here I'll use a word often applied to atheists — condescension. He is a privileged white American male criticizing a black African woman…and he is completely incapable of appreciating her opposition to Islam.
Even now, she needs bodyguards.
That's partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex. After her father's death, Hirsi Ali connects by telephone with her aging and long-estranged mother living in a dirt-floor hut in Somalia. Hirsi Ali asks forgiveness, but the conversation goes downhill when her mother pleads with her to return to Islam. Near tears, her mother asks: "Why are you so feeble in faith? . . . You are my child and I can't bear the thought of you in hell."
"I am feeble in faith because Allah is full of misogyny," Hirsi Ali thinks to herself. "I am feeble in faith because faith in Allah has reduced you to a terrified old woman -- because I don't want to be like you." What she says aloud is: "When I die I will rot." (For my part, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps Hirsi Ali's family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: "I love you.")
Ah, it's partly her fault. Kristof can't bring himself to mention that the reason she is threatened with death, the reason she spoke out, is because she opposes the oppression of women under Islam, something radical Islamists find blasphemous and deserving of death. She holds a reasonable, rational position that has earned her a death sentence from fanatics, and all Kristof can do is make excuses for Islam, saying that they aren't all bad (which we know; if we can't criticize the ideology because some of those who hold it are kind to kittens and give flowers to their grandmothers, we'll end up supporting some heinous regimes with our silence), and it's better for the rude critics to learn some manners and shut up.
That's really what that parting line above is about: an outspoken critic of Islam should simply silence herself and mumble consoling platitudes. What Ali wrote is honest and heartfelt: we hate to see loved ones trapped in the fearful web of superstition, and if we really care, we're willing to tell them exactly what we think, without fear.
Not to the marshmallow man, Nicholas Kristof, though. Religion is exempt from dissent, for some reason — a strong atheist can reach out in concern to a family member who responds with more god-fueled terror and anger, and all he sees is someone who wasn't sufficiently deferential to the superstition that has ruined people's lives.