It's not every day you see a film that cost the director his life, and it's even more remarkable to watch it in the presence of the co-producer while a dozen RCMP bodyguards protect her from Islamic terrorists. But there we were on Friday, in the auditorium of the Earth Sciences Centre at the University of Toronto, some 150 of us, watching Submission, Part I, the 11-minute film by the late Theo Van Gogh, and listening to his collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is known around the world as an abrasive critic of Islam, an astonishingly outspoken Dutch MP and an ex-Muslim -- "an apostate," as she says.
She was in Toronto to help fight the proposal to permit the legal recognition of Islamic religious teaching, sharia, under Ontario's arbitration system. She spoke alongside Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam, and Homa Arjomad, who runs the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada.
Hirsi Ali was born 37 years ago in Somalia and raised as a devout hijab-wearing Muslim while her exiled family shuffled from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to Kenya. She bolted from family and religion when her father arranged her marriage to a cousin she didn't know in Canada. She moved to the Netherlands as a refugee.
Today, she comes across as articulate, passionate and elegant, as well as clearly secular. She has a kind of vertical beauty, a long face perfectly shaped. Apparently, a profound strength of spirit makes her appear serene, even after nearly three years of living under police protection. She makes her points with exceptional clarity in a subtle, Africa-accented English, one of her six languages. It would be hard to imagine a more persuasive advocate for Muslim women.
Her film is no less impressive. When Submission was shown on Dutch TV, many Muslims called it blasphemy. In revenge, a Dutch-born, Dutch-educated Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, murdered Van Gogh. He proudly admitted the killing and received a life sentence. He also said Hirsi Ali could be next.
Submission shows quotations from the Koran painted on a woman's body. The symbolism is clear: Muslims impose scripture on women and religion functions as an instrument of coercion.
Still, you can call Submission a religious film. The narrator, a woman, is no apostate. She addresses Allah, in whom she clearly believes, reporting atrocities (which the film shows) against women. They are flayed for losing their virginity, forced to marry men they hate, expected to accept male brutality as routine. "I feel, at least once a week, the strength of my husband's fist on my face," a woman cries. How can Allah let this happen? The film embodies faith in its most frustrated, baffled form.
The film connects with sharia because Hirsi Ali and many others believe that women will be intimidated in sharia arbitration. Experience says they will not be properly represented and may be forced into accepting violations of their rights. That seems reasonable, since Muslim women are often far less educated than their fathers and brothers.
Hirsi Ali paid special attention to multiculturalism -- which has become fashionable in large parts of Europe, as in Canada. The doctrine favours cultural groups over the individuals within them and teaches that all cultures are equal. That creates a belief that minorities can make their own rules.
"If you take multiculturalism to its logical end," she said, "it becomes racist because you are discriminating against women in one group, allowing them to be mistreated as you would not allow others to be mistreated." Multiculturalism is racist! That left her audience with something to think about.
She emphasized that genital mutilation is not in Koranic law, but many who practise it claim that religion demands it. Others insist they are following Allah's will when they deny women ordinary rights. A government that sanctions sharia in family law may find itself trapped into endorsing this nonsense.
Hirsi Ali took an MA in political science at Leiden University in the Netherlands because she wanted to study her new country. As she said recently, "I wanted to understand why we asylum-seekers were all coming here [to Holland], and why everything worked in this country, and why you could walk undisturbed through the streets at night, and why there was no corruption, and why on the other side of the world there was so much corruption and so much conflict."
Her views cause discomfort among many who consider themselves seekers of social justice. It's as if Islam were intellectually forbidden territory, a place where outsiders aren't allowed to express their well-reasoned views. Hirsi Ali calls this "the paradox of the left."
Many on the left take pride in supporting equality of women, but in the case of Islam they step back nervously and sometimes even help to encourage oppression. Sharia courts look like the perfect example.
People of liberal views desperately fear being called racists, a point that came up often during the evening. Someone asked Manji, a lesbian, why the gay community seldom expresses itself on questions related to women in Islam. She replied that many gays say privately that they are horrified by Muslim practices but "feel they have no permission to say anything for fear of being labelled racist, which is the most devastating charge you can make." Manji said Muslims sometimes use the sensitivity attached to religion as a way to choke off normal and necessary questions about Islamic practice.
As the Friday evening meeting ended, Hirsi Ali was asked how Van Gogh's murder affected her. She was disturbed by that terrible event, no doubt about it, but on the other hand she was planning to produce another film, the sequel she and Van Gogh had discussed. Otherwise, she would be allowing violence to direct her life. She won't do that. "I am not persuaded by violence. So I'll just go on."