Review: Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. New York: Free Press, 2007. 353 pp. $26.00 (cloth).

Infidel is a heroic, inspiring story of a courageous woman who escapes the hell of a woman’s life in the Muslim world and becomes an outspoken and blunt defender of the West. Ms. Hirsi Ali takes the reader on her own journey of discovery, and enables him to see, through concretes and by sharing her thought processes, how she arrived at the conclusion that Islam is a stagnant, tyrannical belief system and that the Enlightenment philosophy of the West is the proper system for human beings.

In Part I, Ms. Hirsi Ali describes her childhood in Muslim Africa and the Middle East. With her father imprisoned for opposing Somalia’s communist dictator Siad Barré and her mother often preoccupied with finding food for her family, young Ayaan and her siblings grew up listening to the ancient legends their grandmother told them—legends glorifying the Islamic values of honor, family clans, physical strength, and aggression. Born in 1969 in Somalia, Ms. Hirsi Ali moved frequently with her family to escape persecution and civil war, living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. At a colonially influenced Kenyan school, she discovered Western ideas, in the form of novels, “tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust and friendship. These were not like my grandmother’s stark tales of the clan, with their messages of danger and suspicion. These stories were fun, they seemed real, and they spoke to me as the old legends never had” (p. 64).

Forced into an arranged marriage, she was shipped to Germany to stay with distant family while awaiting a visa for Canada to join the husband she didn’t know. At age twenty-two, alone and with nothing but a duffle bag of clothes and papers, she took a train to Holland to escape the dreary life of a Muslim wife-slave. “It was Friday, July 24, 1992, when I stepped on the train. Every year I think of it. I see it as my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own” (p. 188).

In Part II, Ms. Hirsi Ali shares her wonder of arriving in modernity, and her relentless effort to create a productive, independent life for herself. After being granted asylum, she worked menial jobs, learned Dutch, became a Swahili translator, earned a vocational degree, and finally graduated with a degree in political science from one of Holland’s most prestigious universities. An outspoken advocate of the rights of Muslim women, she was elected to the Dutch parliament in 2003, as a “one-issue politician”—she “wanted Holland to wake up and stop tolerating the oppression of Muslim women in its midst” and to “spark a debate among Muslims about reforming aspects of Islam so people could begin to question” (p. 295). She became a notorious critic of Islam, at one point daring to call the Prophet Muhammad a pervert for consummating marriage with one of his many wives when she was only nine years old. In 2004, she made a short film called Submission: Part 1 in which she depicted women mistreated under Islamic law raising their heads and refusing to submit any longer. Tragically, the film’s producer, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered by an offended Muslim, who left on van Gogh’s body a letter threatening Ms. Hirsi Ali with the same fate. Since 2004, Ms. Hirsi Ali has had to live under the constant watch of bodyguards, often going into hiding for months at a time.

Although the straight facts of her life are in and of themselves admirable, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s intellectual journey as presented in Infidel is truly awe inspiring. This journey begins in Africa in the disturbingly dark world of Islam—with its disdain for thought and reason, its self-sacrificial ethics, and its corrupt, tyrannical politics—and ends in the West with her having become an outspoken champion of reason and freedom.

With Islam as its dominating cultural force, the world in which Ms. Hirsi Ali grew up required blind obedience—obedience that left no room for thought or knowledge or for methods by which to differentiate fact from falsehood. For example, one day Ms. Hirsi Ali returned from school and “informed my mother that people had walked on the moon. Ma said it was nonsense. ‘The Kiristaan [Christians] are so fanciful they could take an airplane to a mountain and think it’s the moon,’ she told me. The day I came home and told her humans had descended from apes, she told me, ‘That’s the end of your school fees. Kenyans may have come from apes, yes. But not Muslims’” (p. 64). In that atmosphere of deep ignorance—ignorance of fact and method—it was easy for religious teachers to blame the Muslim world’s problems on others: “Everything that went wrong was the fault of the Jews. The Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, who had attacked the Islamic Revolution in Iran, was a Jew. . . . Islam was under attack, and we should step forward and fight the Jews, for only if all Jews were destroyed would peace come for Muslims” (p. 85).

She describes a world in which women in particular are taught to sacrifice and submit, without questioning:

A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit: that is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside your mind (p. 94).

In this world, virtue consists in submitting to Allah and, for women, also to the men in their families: Women are viewed as men’s property and are treated as such. Ms. Hirsi Ali repeatedly experienced firsthand how this attitude leads to constant and brutal violations of women’s rights. At age five, for instance, she was “excised” in order to preserve her virginity for her future husband:

In Somalia, like many countries across Africa and the Middle East, little girls are made “pure” by having their genitals cut out. There is no other way to describe this procedure. . . . After the child’s clitoris and labia are carved out, scraped off . . . the whole area is often sewn up, so that a thick band of tissue forms a chastity belt made of the girl’s own scarred flesh (p. 31).

In refugee camps, she witnessed women being raped—and then shunned by their own fathers and brothers for bringing shame upon the family by having had sex outside of marriage. She witnessed a young relative with an out-of-wedlock child being mistreated and “constantly molested on the street” because she was considered a whore (p. 168). It did not matter whether the sex that led to the pregnancy was consensual or rape—such a woman is blamed for the “shame” she brings upon her family and clan. No wonder then that “Most unmarried Somali girls who got pregnant committed suicide. I knew of one girl in Mogadishu who poured a can of gasoline over herself in the living room, with everyone there, and burned herself alive. Of course, if she hadn’t done this, her father and brothers would probably have killed her anyway” (p. 169).

Consistent with this view of women as men’s property, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s consent was not required when her father arranged her marriage:

The day of my wedding I did what I always did every day. I dressed normally and did my chores. I was in denial. I knew that over at Farah Gouré’s house there was a qali registering my union with Osman Moussa before my father and . . . a crowd of other men. . . . I would not be present. Neither my presence nor my signature were required for the Islamic ceremony (p. 176).

It was from the hell of this irrational, antilife culture that Ms. Hirsi Ali escaped to Europe. On her first day in Germany, she saw men and women sitting together, the women uncovered, holding hands in public, without anybody noticing. Instead of being disgusted—as she later found most of her fellow Muslims in Holland were—she felt liberated. She took off her own coat and relished in feeling “anonymous. There was no social control here. No eyes silently accused me of being a whore. No lecherous men called me to bed with them. No Brotherhood members threatened me with hellfire. I felt safe; I could follow my curiosity” (p. 185).

And follow her curiosity she did—wherever her independent thought led her. In contrast to fellow Muslim asylum seekers who sequestered themselves in Muslim enclaves within Holland, she embarked on a process of systematic observation of and comparison between the West and Islam. Through many examples, Ms. Hirsi Ali treats us to the rare pleasure of observing a mind willing to examine everything it has been taught, and able to make broad-based integrations from everyday encounters.

One day, in her work as a Swahili translator, Ms. Hirsi Ali was assisting a Somali family and a Dutch teacher in dealing with an aggressive seven-year-old. The Somali boy had hit another child who had stuck his tongue out at him and called him a name. “Doing this was completely congruent with his upbringing. In Somalia, you attack. You hit first.” She explained to the teacher that “where we come from, aggression is a survival tactic: we teach our children to hit first.” And to the parents: “Here, they solve disagreements by talking.” After finishing her work, on her way home, she drew the generalization: “I cycled home thinking, ‘This is why Somalia is having a civil war and Holland isn’t.’ It was all there. People in Holland agree that violence is bad. They make a huge effort to teach their children to channel aggression and resolve their disputes verbally. They had analyzed conflict and set up institutions to regulate it. This was what it meant, to be citizens” (pp. 244–45).

When she encountered material contrary to her Islamic beliefs, she did not reject or evade it. When she was studying and could not yet integrate all her observations into a consistent whole, she took note that she was just postponing the day when she would have to do so. “Sometimes I could almost sense a little shutter clicking shut in my brain, so that I could keep reading my textbooks without struggling to align their content with my belief in Islam. Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas” (p. 239).

Her questioning mind took her surprising places. During a vacation in Greece, ten years after she had taken the train to Holland, she realized, “I had left God behind years ago. I was an Atheist. . . . One night in that Greek hotel I looked in the mirror and said out loud, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ I said it slowly, enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief” (p. 281). Ms. Hirsi Ali became an atheist and a Westerner, not by substituting one blind belief for another, but by questioning all that she had been taught and using her mind to draw her own observation-based conclusions.

Even back in Africa, she had a questioning mind—fostered by her father, who “encouraged us to ask questions . . . The question ‘Why?’ drove my mother mad, but my father loved it: it could set off a river of lecturing” (p. 45), and by the books she read at the school influenced by English, colonial customs. “As a reader, I could put on someone else’s shoes and live through his adventures, borrow his individuality and make choices that I didn’t have at home” (p. 118). In contrast to most of the people around her, she was unable to accept Islam on blind faith: “All the other girls were content to accept the rules of our religion at face value, but I felt compelled to try to understand them. I needed my belief system to be logical and consistent. Essentially, I needed to be convinced that Islam was true” (p. 102).

In the end, she could not be convinced. She discarded the belief system into which she was born and chose a rational worldview, individualism, freedom, and the West—and did so with the conviction and clarity of having arrived at the propriety of these values firsthand. Thus, as she watched in horror with her Dutch coworkers as planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, in contrast to them and many Westerners, she understood that Islam itself, and not just a lunatic fringe, was to blame for the terrorist attacks:

I walked into the office thinking, “I have to wake these people up.” . . . Holland, this fortunate country where nothing ever happens, was trying to pretend nothing had happened again. The Dutch had forgotten that it was possible for people to stand up and wage war, destroy property, imprison, kill, impose laws of virtue because of the call of God. That kind of religion hadn’t been present in Holland for centuries (p. 269).

By speaking out and calling attention to the atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam, Ms. Hirsi Ali put her own life at risk. She did and does so, because she understands clearly what many Westerners are unable to grasp: that the Western values of reason, individualism, and freedom are morally correct—and that Islam opposes them. As she puts it, “Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other. Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values” (p. 348).

In Saudi Arabia, every breath, every step we took, was infused with the concepts of purity or sinning, and with fear. Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret away this reality: hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved, just as the Prophet Muhammad decided centuries ago (p. 347).

Infidel is an inspiring story that should be read by everyone in the West. Those who do not yet understand how backward the world of Islam is will gain crucial knowledge in this regard, and all readers will enjoy the rare spectacle of a true heroine in thought and action—a heroine who concretizes clearly what we are fighting for.

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