Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Pub 2007.
I bought this book last year, after hearing an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a podcast. I expected the story to be both brutal and remarkable, intense, so I delayed starting it till I had some time to get through it in one go, with time to reflect. Vacation time was perfect.
Infidel is the first of Hirsi Ali’s memoirs, and tells of her life from birth/childhood through to the events of 2004, including her resignation from the Dutch parliament and her move to the US. In between, the reader follows her and her family through Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Germany, and the Netherlands, as Hirsi Ali seeks freedom to be an individual. She details her endurance of oppression, physical abuse (to put it mildly), political upheaval, and terrorism, all before the age of 40. Throughout, she explores her own faith and religion and her political and social beliefs, developing firm appreciation and commitment for human rights and civil freedoms.
Hirsi Ali is an outspoken and eloquent advocate for truth and free speech. She presents through her life journey how she came to believe in those things and in their importance. She is intelligent, perceptive, and compassionate, and takes firm responsibility for herself. As she describes and reflects on her experiences, she presents them vividly and somewhat dispassionately and then reflects thoughtful on both the events and their impacts. This dual perspective made the story highly evocative and effective, letting the reader see and feel what she experienced and and consider it in the larger context. At the same time, she respects the story and the journey and doesn’t jump far ahead to “and so this is why I now believe…”, so the flow of the history is maintained. I didn’t know how the story would end, but along the way I felt like I learned along with her and so can understand where she ends up.
Hirsi Ali is often called Islamaphobic because of her fierce objections to the life and culture imposed (especially on women) by fundamentalist practitioners of the religion. In the book, she makes very strong points that, given they are based on her own life and experiences, are difficult to dispute. She wrestles with the conflict in herself between belief and questions, and ultimately finds that, because Fundamentalist Islam does not allow or tolerate questions – it must be followed as written, or even just as you are told it is by clerics and elders – it is rigid, unforgiving, and (can be) inhumane. As a moral framework (and as a basis for government and society), she presents it as both archaic and cruel, a cruelty she experienced through violent beatings, FGM, forced marriage, and segregation. And so she questions why people and countries persist in establishing and maintaining such a strict framework that, time and again, fails to result in either success or happiness for its participants.
- About the Netherlands: “This was an infidel country, whose way of life we Muslims were supposed to oppose and reject. Why was it, then, so much better run, better led, and made for such better lives than the places we came from? Shouldn’t the places where Allah was worshipped and His laws obeyed have been at peace and wealthy, and the unbelievers’ countries ignorant, poor, and at war?”
- About Islam in the Western world: “Islam influences every aspect of believers’ lives. Women are denied their social and economic rights in the name of Islam…sons brought up watching their mother being beaten will use violence. Why was it racist to ask this question?”
Throughout, Hirsi Ali states many uncomfortable questions and ideas. Why is it okay (if not encouraged) for media and entertainment to mock and belittle Christianity, but any representation Islam is discouraged if not forbidden? Why do Muslims flee terrible circumstances in their home countries and then establish a diaspora in their new country that perpetuates the same culture and customs that created the misery that they fled? Why do those same migrants accept and rely on social supports in their new country and actively rely on their new freedoms to then work to keep their communities isolated and actively undermine the country that they’ve migrated to? Within Islam, why can’t there be reforms and moderations to bring the religion and culture into the modern world without destroying both themselves and others?
Although lauded as great literature and a masterpiece, the actual writing is adequate but not great. I frequently thought that the book would have benefited greatly from better editing, and while it is a translation to English from Dutch (which perhaps explains some clunkiness), there is much jumping around of timelines in the early 90s that I’m sure are entirely just typos and/or poor editing and ordering of the story. While these can be confusing, they do not take away from the vivid and visceral violence of those times and experiences, and the painful and complex journey of Hirsi Ali’s life.
Much better written (as one might expect) is the foreword by Christopher Hitchens. He aligns with Ali on many topics, including atheism and relativism, provocatively responding to some of Ali’s questions: “…if Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, then it is they who must expect to do the adapting. We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy…(this demand is) not to extend our multicultural or polyethnic culture, but rather the demand to negate it.” Very strong words, but Hitchens’ comments and questions are apropos to the book: why does one group (with its threats of terrorism) get a pass on violence, incest, abuse, and mutilation (esp. of women) when others have had to or have found ways to conform and adapt to the moral and cultural societies that they choose to become a part of? Many thought-provoking questions.
Hirsi Ali presents all of her history, questions, decisions, and actions without histrionics or despair. Facts and events are objective, with follow-up commentary and searching questions, but there is never a suggestion of seeking sympathy or pity or allowance for anything other than the right to be free in thought and speech, and to participate in society as an equal. Hirsi Ali admits all her errors and wrongs, and does not seek or give herself absolution for any of it. And she takes little pride in her accomplishments, stating frequently that she is grateful for her good fortune and that she makes conscious choices to not fall into the trap of anger and vengeance or of submission and acceptance that she sees as so detrimental, and were so damaging to the other women in her family.
Fate: a friend has expressed an interest in reading this one, so I’ll be passing it along to them.