Blogs > HNN > Christopher Hitchens on Ayaan Hirsi Ali; FGM Revisited

May 9, 2006 3:29 pm

Christopher Hitchens on Ayaan Hirsi Ali; FGM Revisited

Here's an important piece by Christopher Hitchens in Slate on the recent fate of Dutch parliament member Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I blogged recently about Hirsi Ali here.

For an excellent earlier treatment of the same topic--female genital mutiliation (FGM)--by a believing Muslim woman, see Fauzia Kassinjda's moving book, Do They Hear You When You Cry? The book, written in 1999--in the days before our recent controversies about terrorism and immigration--puts INS policy in perspective. It especially puts into perspective the claim that immigrants and asylum seekers have it easy when they make it to our shores. It's an interesting question, by the way, why Elian Gonzalez made the headlines around that time but Kassinjda never quite did. It's an equally interesting question whatever became of the small controversy over FGM that did arise.

This symposium in Boston Review in 1996 offers some useful insights into how academics were thinking about these issues a decade ago. I've taught the symposium several times since the year 2000 to undergraduates, typically in introductory philosophy courses, in the context of discussions about cultural relativism and related issues. My impression is that students are much quicker to judge practices like FGM than they were, say, seven years ago, in the pre-9/11 age. They reject Tamir's (admittedly ill-argued) view with near unanimity, and defend Nussbaum's with vehement conviction.

Seven years ago I might have taken that as a good sign--evidence of emancipation from cultural relativism--but now I'm not so sure. 9/11 has, in my view, had the effect of making moral dogmatists out of students. They can make adverse judgments of anything so long as it's vaguely Muslim. As for the rest of the moral universe, they're often at sea.

FGM is practiced by (certain) Muslims but has essentially nothing to do with Islam. For a number of reasons, that distinction is becoming harder and harder to convey to students whose yen for judgment outstrips their knowledge of the world. But then, can't the same be said of their elders?

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