Taylor: The test of any demagogue

…it’s hard to disagree with someone’s personal experience. I may question someone’s opinions; I can’t question her experience.

I read a disturbing book recently—Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

It’s disturbing on two counts. First, because it attacks Islam. I don’t like attacking someone else’s religion, just as I don’t like someone else attacking mine.

But second, Infidel is disturbing because it’s hard to disagree with someone’s personal experience. I may question someone’s opinions; I can’t question her experience.

In Infidel, Ayaan Ali shares her childhood as a young girl in Muslim enclaves of Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. She describes, in excruciating detail, her beatings, her humiliations, her genital mutilation. She tells how she used clan loyalties to survive. She writes of submitting, unhesitatingly, to male domination.

Until finally, while being flown to Canada for an arranged marriage to a man she loathed, she escaped to Holland.

Granted asylum, she adapted to a new culture, earned a degree in political science and was eventually elected to the Dutch parliament.

By then, she had become convinced that Islam itself caused the conflicts between Muslim immigrants and the Dutch culture. To avoid perceptions of prejudice, Dutch police deliberately did not mention race or religion in crime statistics. Ali brought in legislation requiring them to record honour killings of women.

The statistics proved shocking.

But her actions enraged hard-line Muslims.

An associate was murdered on the street in Amsterdam. A note, stabbed onto his chest, held her responsible.

She escaped again, to the U.S.

Ali argues that floggings, stonings, amputations, beheadings, honour killings and genital mutilations are not occasional aberrations. Nor are they restricted to a few radical fundamentalists. They are, she insists, intrinsic to a seventh century mindset. Because the Qur’an claims to come directly from Allah through Mohammed, its teachings can’t be doubted, questioned, or re-interpreted. To do so would set up one’s own reason as equal to God’s.

Thus any deviation from traditional norms becomes apostasy.

I don’t know enough about Islam to judge her analysis. But as I read her story, one theme kept coming through to me—it is easier to foment hate than to foment love.

Over and over, in country after country, she describes how devout believers—I’m tempted to call them rabble-rousers—whipped up local Muslims to be more fervent. To be less tolerant of other religions, other cultures. To set themselves apart from the impure. To hate the unholy—including any in their own midst who might have defiled Islam. To build fences, to defend traditions, to reject outside influences.

Ayaan Ali writes only about Islam. She doesn’t criticize other faiths. But I see the same tactics in Christianity, in Hinduism, in Judaism. They’re not even restricted to religion. They’re used in sports, in the military, in politics—to demonize the enemy.

It’s always easier to incite negative emotions than positive ones.

Indeed, I’d argue that, just as you cannot legislate goodness or generosity, you cannot harangue audiences into being kind or thoughtful. You cannot browbeat people into going out and being gentle. You cannot promote tolerance by frothing at the mouth. The means contradicts the supposed end.

The test of any demagogue is the emotions he exploits.

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