Book Review: Infidel

Summary: Brilliant, brave, inspiring. Read this book.

In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim fanatic, Mohammed Bouyeri, who was enraged by van Gogh’s production of a film titled Submission which criticizes the mistreatment of women in Islamic societies. Van Gogh’s murderer shot him eight times, cut his throat, and left a letter pinned to his body with a butcher knife.

The letter was addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It said, in essence, “You’re next.”

If you’re an atheist and you’ve never heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you need to read this book. Infidel, her autobiography, retraces the incredible journey of her life: from a childhood in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, where Islam was the law of the land and women were slaves, to freedom and enlightenment in the West, where she became an atheist, rose to fame as a member of the Dutch Parliament, enraged Muslims and leftists alike with her unsparing criticisms of Islam, and ultimately played a role in the toppling of a Dutch government. Submission was her film, produced on her behalf by Theo van Gogh. This book is the story behind that film, and gives insight into a personal enlightenment and a life that spans millennia of human cultural development.

Infidel begins with Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somalia, daughter of a family of nomadic desert herders. As it opens, her grandmother, a fierce, spare woman, is teaching her to recite the names of her ancestors going back three hundred years. In Somalian society, one’s ancestry and clan are everything, determining social status and the course of one’s life. Ayaan and her siblings, her brother Mahad and sister Haweya, grew up following the same tribal rhythms that have dictated human existence for millions of years: moving around with their animals, following the rains, all their possessions stacked on their backs. When she was five, in accordance with custom, she was mutilated by men of the tribe, her clitoris cut off so that she would remain “pure” for her future husband.

However, she was not entirely disconnected from the larger world. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a powerful man in Somalian society and one of the leaders of a rebel movement working against the dictator Siad Barré. It was this involvement that led to Hirsi Ali’s family fleeing Somalia while she was still young, traveling to Saudi Arabia and later to Kenya. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, a cruel and violent theocracy where women were oppressed and enslaved, left a vivid impression on her, and even while young she wondered why the law of God dictated that she had to be forever inferior to men.

Hirsi Ali spent her adolescence in Kenya, which was more open and free of a society than Saudi Arabia, but only relatively so. A rigid, fundamentalist strain of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, was sending Saudi-backed preachers into Kenya and throughout Africa. On one occasion, a Quran tutor beat her so severely for disobedience that he fractured her skull, necessitating emergency surgery to save her life. Still, the schools of Kenya were her introduction to English and to Western authors – classics like the Bronte sisters, but also pulp romance novelists like Danielle Steele, all of which gave her a glimpse into a different world where women could decide their own destiny. She also, for a brief time, had her first boyfriend – a Kenyan boy named Kennedy, who shocked her by telling her he was an atheist.

The defining moment in Hirsi Ali’s life came at the age of 23, when her father announced that he had given her away in marriage to a man she had never met. Deciding she could not spend her life in servitude to a stranger, she traveled to Europe under the pretense of meeting her husband there. Instead, she escaped to the Netherlands and was granted asylum. On arrival, she was amazed by the peace, freedom and prosperity available to all citizens, and decided she wanted to study political science to learn why some societies thrive while others are failures. She worked as a translator to support herself, was eventually granted citizenship, and worked her way up to a position at a think tank. Her doubts about the rigid, restrictive dogmas of Islam steadily loosened, and the defining moment came after 9/11, when she realized that Osama bin Laden was accurately obeying the teachings of the Quran and that she could no longer in good conscience remain a member of such a religion:

…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.

It felt right. There was no pain, but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure and carefully tiptoeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out, piece by piece – that was all over… From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

When she began giving speeches and interviews criticizing the repressive teachings of Islam, Hirsi Ali became notorious. Eventually, she joined the Netherlands’ opposition Liberal Party as a candidate for office, and was elected to Parliament in 2003. While in office, she successfully implemented reforms such as requiring the Dutch police to count honor killings as a separate category of murders. It was also at this time that she collaborated with Theo van Gogh. The book tells of the chaotic time after his murder, when she went into hiding under the protection of Dutch security services.

In a coda, we learn of the scandal that erupted when it was discovered Hirsi Ali had lied on her application for asylum (since escaping an arranged marriage was not considered to be a proper justification for refugee status at that time), although she had been freely admitting this on national media for years. Ultimately, she stepped down from Parliament, but when the Dutch immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, tried to strip her of her citizenship, such a furor erupted that Verdonk was forced to resign and her party’s coalition government collapsed. In the end, Hirsi Ali retained her Dutch citizenship and is now employed by an American think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. She still receives threats on a regular basis, but she has continued to speak out against Islam and to bring a message of freedom to women in Muslim societies throughout the world.

In a review this brief, I can’t possibly do justice to the breadth of Hirsi Ali’s journey or the dangers she’s faced down. She’s literally retraced the history of human progress in the span of a single lifetime, traveling from a nomadic Stone Age existence to an elected leadership position in a modern, industrialized democracy. Along the way, she’s overcome obstacles most of us can scarcely conceive, and shown more courage than I hope any of us will ever be called upon to display.

We who are born in the First World, who are taught ideas of individual liberty and human rights from childhood, can take these concepts for granted, but Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in a world where they are nonexistent. To escape the suffocating bonds of repression, she had to face down family, clan, culture, religion – the entire universe of her society aligned against her, all teaching in unison that a woman’s role in life is to be a pious, unprotesting slave, to be handed off like property from father to husband, and to be silent and submissive in the face of abuse and degradation. She did not live through the Enlightenment, when the landscape of ideas changed around her. Rather, she had to reinvent and rediscover them all for herself, forging a new identity from scratch, and then finding the courage to act on those newfound ideals to flee her home for a society she had never known. That she not only did so, but excelled and thrived there, is a testament to her courage and her passion for justice and equality.

Hirsi Ali speaks with eloquence and passion, not just with her words but with her life, when it comes to the dangers of excessive tolerance. European governments’ fear of ever again being perceived as racist, though well-founded and understandable, has led them to commit the opposite error: tolerating all cultures, even those that oppress women, enshrine ignorance, and violate the rights of individuals. Some cultural practices need to be criticized and changed, no matter whether they are of ancient vintage or based in religious beliefs. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has done humanity a true service by shining a light on these evils and calling them what they are, and standing fearlessly against the violent fanatics who would kill in the name of dogma. In every sense, her story is unique and compelling.

I really do feel that this book spoke to me in a way that no other atheist author ever has. Books about human rights and ethics in the abstract are one thing, but Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived that battle, not just contemplated it. Her deeply personal and candid recounting shows unmistakably why these things matter, why they were fought for and why we are still fighting for them. With her, we can say that no, all cultures and all beliefs are not equal. For the sake of humankind, and especially for the sake of womankind, the ones that are wrong need to be fought and defeated.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • John

    It was this book, Infidel, that gave me the courage to come out to my parents as an atheist. I remember my dad, a Christian, had read the book, and offered it to me as an interesting read. That was last summer, and I read the book in three days. It was the most interesting, enlightening book I had read in a long while. I identified with her journey, even though we were so far removed culturally and geographically. I felt her conviction, her triumph, and, ultimately, her resolve. If you haven’t read this book, I certainly recommend it.

    Minor spoiler here, but the ordeal she went through with her father would be especially poignant when, half a year later, my father and I went through something similar. Great book! It’s very encouraging for those who are still in the closet concerning their atheism.

  • velkyn

    It’s when I read about Ms. Hirsi Ali that I still have some hope for humanity. I also am sickened by the claims of “persecution” by Christians who have no idea what that really means. They should stop reading their Bronze Age fairy tales and read about a real noble woman.

  • hb531


    This is a very interesting concept:

    … the dangers of excessive tolerance.

    I would love to read an essay on the qualifications of this danger. Clearly it is very un-PC to not tolerate other cultures and practices. They are usually protected by freedom of speech/expression. However, the implications are complicated when the expression involves others (especially children) in acts such as genital mutilation/circumcision.

    I would also argue that such tolerance could be a society’s own worst enemy. For example, could the tolerance of radical/fundamental islam foster the development of terrorist cells? How would a society determine which behavior is likely to lead to this end? Is this compatible with a pluralistic democracy?

  • Samwise

    I picked up Infidel when I saw it in new non-fiction at the library. I intended to skim it and get a general idea, but became so fascinated that I spent all that day and night reading it. Even if you somehow don’t care about the larger societal issues, it is a powerful and moving story and worth reading for that fact alone.

  • Tommy

    I had the opportunity to see her last year at the Waldorf Astoria. I was even able to get her to sign my copy of Infidel though I didn’t get to speak to her because some Turkish woman was haranguing her about something. I have some pictures of her that I took that are in my June 2007 archive if anyone is interested.

    I have to check to be sure, but I don’t know if she is still with the AEI. She has been back in Europe since late last year because the Dutch government was going to stop paying for her security detail.

    While Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a good speaker and I admire what she has done, by becoming an atheist she has effectively shut herself off from being an advocate for reforming Islam. From what I have read, a lot of Muslims see her as a tool for the neocon agenda. Please note that I am not by any means saying that she should not have become an atheist. My point is that if the rights of Muslim women are to improve, it will be done by Muslim women themselves. However, with respect to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Islam’s loss is our gain.

  • Samuel Skinner

    To hb531
    First question- Yes. Just type in “Netherlands” and “AlQueda”.
    Second Question- Simple. Any behavior that would normally be illegal, but is granted an exemption. Laws must be universal.
    Third Question- Yes. See Germany. It is illegal to be a Nazi there- they closely regulate anything having to do with the third Reich- but they are definitely a democracy.

    Tolerance is actually a bad idea if you look at what the word means- to put up with something. A better term for how we deal with other people would be acceptance- we understand that not everyone is like us. However, certain practices and certain ideas should NEVER fall under this umbrella. For such things like slavery, ownership of women, torture, and their ilk, we have a duty to be rabidly intolerant.

  • Tommy

    Okay, I just checked and she still appears on AEI’s web site.

  • EKM

    On June 23, 2008, 12:39 pm, Tommy said:

    From what I have read, a lot of Muslims see her as a tool for the neocon agenda.

    When I first saw this post this morning, I went to the AEI’s web site and did a search on either “atheism” or “atheist”. The AEI does not seem very atheist-friendly. They seem to think it’s okay for a Muslim to become atheist, but think that Real Americans should all be Christian.

  • hb531

    To Samuel Skinner:

    Thanks for the lucid response. I like your comment on the difference between ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’. It’s interesting to note the difference of typical American rhetoric if one replaces the word ‘tolerate’ with ‘accept’. It puts a less ambiguous spin on it and seems to draw a line (at least to me). However, if accept is the word to use, what would a fundamentalist christian think of atheists? I doubt they’d ‘accept’ atheism.

  • stillwaters

    I, too, was somewhat taken aback when I saw that she was affiliated with the AEI. The AEI is quite well known as a neoconservative organization. Since neoconservatism is associated so strongly with religion, why would an atheist who is working so hard for women’s rights all over the world be a part of such an organization? I must say I am baffled by that.

  • Ebonmuse

    There’s an interview in Reason, here, in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains why she took the job at AEI. She does say that she balked at first, because she considers herself neither religious nor conservative. But from what she says, the reasons why she ultimately took the job were twofold: they made her the best offer, and they gave her permission to speak or write anything she likes. Even though she disagrees with many of their views, they don’t try to stop her from saying so.

  • Jim Baerg

    I just read the interview.

    I sort of agree with her proposal to shut down the muslim schools. I would be a bit bothered by making this only apply to some religions. To make it fair *all* religious education should be a matter of giving some understanding of a broad sampling of the religions that are or have been followed in the world. Eg: muslims get some understanding of what Hinduism, Christianity & Greek polytheism meant.

  • Tommy

    Ebon, the luncheon I attended where she was the keynote speaker was sponsored by the Cato Institute. During a break I was talking with Jerry Taylor of Cato and he said something to the effect like “Damn, the Cato Institute should have gotten her.”

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I haven’t yet read Infidel. Not sure I want to, as it sounds a bit of a wrenching read. But I would like to mention that, as a librarian, I commonly get requests for the book (more so last year when it was a best-seller). The mere fact of this is refreshing when set against the fact that I also commonly get requests for Christian inspiration, pseudoscience and Sylvia Browne. Regardless of the patron’s request, I bite my tongue and do not comment. But seeing so many people request a book by an open atheist, and knowing that in one sense, I’m not alone, is always cheering.

  • Ebonmuse

    I would also argue that such tolerance could be a society’s own worst enemy. For example, could the tolerance of radical/fundamental islam foster the development of terrorist cells?

    That’s precisely this book’s point, hb. Her argument is that European governments, fearful of being perceived as racist, gave Muslim immigrants wide latitude and trusted that they would assimilate on their own. Instead, these immigrants have built separate enclaves where they live in isolation, recreating their culture just as it exists in their home countries – in other words, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, segregated schools, honor killings, anti-free-speech riots, and many other evils. This is wrong, and we should not tolerate it. We should only tolerate those cultures and practices which respect the rights of all individuals to live in peace and determine their own destiny. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself says: people are equal, cultures are not.

    Tommy: I think her argument is that Muslim women can’t take the initiative to improve their society themselves, not while they’re trapped inside it. Too many of them remain passive and ignorant in a culture that’s cowed them with the fear of hellfire and taught them they are valuable only as property. Even the ones who do speak out tend to suffer violence and murder, which in Islam is still viewed as an acceptable way of controlling the behavior of others. If we’re going to change this, the change won’t come from inside the system; it needs to start with outsiders who see it for what it is and raise the call for revolution. I think Ayaan Hirsi Ali is in as good a position as anyone to do that.

  • Mark

    Great review. It looks like I’ll have to pick this one up.

    The Wikipedia entry seems to hint that the book was ghostwritten, though, but the cited source doesn’t have much to say on the matter… does anyone know more about this? Or does “ghostwriter” just mean something like “assistant translator” in this context?

  • Dominic Self

    Her argument is that European governments, fearful of being perceived as racist, gave Muslim immigrants wide latitude and trusted that they would assimilate on their own. Instead, these immigrants have built separate enclaves where they live in isolation, recreating their culture just as it exists in their home countries – in other words, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, segregated schools, honor killings, anti-free-speech riots, and many other evils.

    I don’t think this should be taken as being universally true, though. Speaking from a British left-wing perspective – and yes, Brits tend to be deeply confused about whether we’re European or not – the multicultural model expressly does not mandate ‘assimilation’. As long as there is a common acceptance of the law – which clearly honour killings, forced marriages and genital mutilation contravene – immigrant groups should not feel that they have to abandon their own culture in favour of ‘ours’. And whilst there are always extremists, the majority of British Muslims would be appalled at the very suggestion that they favour some sort of fundamentalist way of life. Never forget that the bombers who blew themselves up in my home city of London in 2005 did so in crowded Tubes and buses used by everyone from all walks of life, including many Muslims. It was an attack on multiculturalism itself, not Islam versus the rest, and it failed to turn us against each other as the terrorists would have wanted.

    I guess all I’m trying to do is to plead with people not to think that Europe needs to adopt some sort of macho ‘anti-Islam’ pose. Often it is just based on racism or fear of immigrants, and perpetrated by people who certainly aren’t coming from an atheist perspective. (“Britain is a Christian country and I want it to stay that way…”) Again, I’m talking about the UK and I don’t doubt the veracity of what you’re saying about the Netherlands. But certainly over here the very worst thing we could do would be to turn our back on Muslims, not least because it would be an absolute gift to extremists and radicals. Naturally, this doesn’t impede action against illegal and repulsive acts, and it doesn’t stop atheists having intellectual debates with Muslims as they would with members of any religion. But there should always be a respect of the right of individuals to express an unfamiliar culture within legal boundaries.

  • Tommy

    Ebon, that depends of course on which Muslim country you are talking about. For example, in Indonesia and Malaysia, you have organizations like the Wahid Institute and Sisters in Islam that promote tolerance, pluralism and womens rights. Even in Saudi Arabia, women are becoming more assertive in protesting the ban on driving cars and are taking to defying the ban. Either the king or some high level Saudi official was quoted not so long ago as saying that it was probably inevitable that the ban would be lifted.

    Where I see people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali doing the most good is in what she started out doing, advocating on behalf of the rights of Muslim women in immigrant communities in Europe.

  • C. L. Hanson

    I read this book too, and I think her story of growing up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya is amazing. I highly recommend her book for people living in prosperous secular democracies — not just to learn “theocracy is bad” but to mentally put a human face on those mysterious people “over there”. Her story of going to a refugee camp to find some friends and family members is a real eye-opener for people who aren’t used to the realities of war.

    That said, I almost felt like some of her conclusions in the end oversimplify the highly nuanced portrait she paints with her own life story. She seems to imply that Islam is the one thing that keeps countries like the ones where she grew up from being like Europe. But in her story she points out other important differences such as poverty and unrest which aren’t entirely caused by Islam, nor would they be easily solved even in the absence of Islam.

    Also, I agree with Dominic Self that you can’t just take the situation in the Netherlands and assume that it represents all of Europe. Different European countries vary widely in terms of their policies and attitudes towards immigrants.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Netherlands and France are supposed to be the worst at dealing with this, while Denmark is supposed to be the best.

    Basically, as long as you insist on the rule of law, equality, basic human rights and the rest and don’t back down if you are accused of being racist or unfair to Islam, you will do fine. Otherwise the word “appeasement”.

  • nfpendleton

    AEI???!!!! I did not know this. And I had such respect for this woman… That “think” tank is little more than another rightwing mouthpiece.

  • C. L. Hanson

    Netherlands and France are supposed to be the worst at dealing with this

    Yeah, they’re supposed to be, according to a bunch of Americans who have never lived there and keep reciting this supposed truism to one another.

    Here’s a different perspective: European Dream.

  • miwome

    I find her story both interesting and inspiring, but I dislike the degree to which it is often used–as, it seems, here–to paint all of Islam with one brush. For a very different perspective on what Islam is and can be, I suggest reading No God But God by Reza Aslan. (Note: The following is not a criticism of Ayaan–an atheist myself, I can appreciate her perspective–but rather of the way her testimony is interpreted.)

    Of course there are repressive Islamic societies that perpetrate horrific human rights abuses. But to pretend that this is the certain and only interpretation of Islam is to deny the voices of millions of peaceful and kind Muslims around the world, and to further the divisions that have contributed to two wars (this century), frequent smaller conflicts, the displacement of millions of people, and more.

    I find much of this thread disturbing–poverty is “not entirely caused” by Islam? Islam does not cause poverty anymore than Christianity or Zoroastrianism. Indeed, lately, citizens of more secular nations like Egypt have been turning to Islam in larger numbers in the face of unabated poverty and lack of opportunity. For them it is a refuge, not a cancer. The implication, furthermore, that “tolerating” certain practices can lead to others is more or less harmless in some applications (tolerating terrorist cells –> terrorist attacks), but can easily be adapted to “tolerating Islam leads to human rights abuses/war/terrorism/theocracy–let’s stamp it out!” This is not to say that anyone here is about to go on a crusade. I simply urge caution; the perspective I’m seeing here is very one-sided and simplistic. Islam is a complex religion with 1,500 years of history that has included near-constant debate about what Islam really is and what it means to be a Muslim. Just as it would be stupid to note the interpretation of Islam that emphasizes social justice and be blind to the radical fundamentalists, it is demeaning to take only the radicals and leave behind their wiser counterparts.

  • Ebonmuse

    Of course there are repressive Islamic societies that perpetrate horrific human rights abuses. But to pretend that this is the certain and only interpretation of Islam is to deny the voices of millions of peaceful and kind Muslims around the world…

    With all due respect, Miwome, I don’t think you can simply assume that peace and kindness among Muslims are the norm.

    In The End of Faith, Sam Harris cites a Pew study from 2002 that was conducted worldwide and asked, among other things, whether suicide bombing against civilians was justified if carried out in defense of Islam. In almost a dozen predominantly Muslim countries, substantial majorities answered yes. (The only two countries where decisive majorities said no were Turkey – an island of secularism compared to most of the Islamic world – and Uzbekistan.)

    Given that there are a billion Muslims worldwide, even a small minority who openly supported suicide terrorism would be a serious problem. But these results are far more disturbing and suggest that Islam itself, as it is currently believed and practiced, constitutes a major impediment to world peace. Millions of Muslims do not support violence and terrorism, of course, and theocratic Muslim dictatorships have caused at least as much suffering for their own people as they have for the West. But this data is real, and we can’t say that it shouldn’t be considered just because we find the result unsettling. This is a problem we need to confront and solve if Islam is ever going to overcome its violent nature and join the rest of the modern world.

    This is not to say that anyone here is about to go on a crusade. I simply urge caution; the perspective I’m seeing here is very one-sided and simplistic.

    I think it’s demeaning and untrue to say that a certain perspective being offered on Islam is “one-sided and simplistic” when it is held by many people who actually were or even still are Muslims and who are deeply and intimately familiar with Islamic faith and culture. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one.

    Another is Taslima Nasrin, who’s said, “I don’t find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove fundamentalism and keep religion, then one day or another fundamentalism will grow again. I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn’t permit democracy and it violates human rights.”

    There’s also Salman Rushdie – a former Muslim himself, which is often forgotten – who wrote an editorial on November 2, 2001 titled “Yes, This Is About Islam”. The atheist and ex-Muslim Ibn Warraq has also said that the West needs to stop trying to “protect” Islam: “We’re not doing Islam any favors by shielding it from Enlightenment values.”

    Islam is a complex religion with 1,500 years of history that has included near-constant debate about what Islam really is and what it means to be a Muslim.

    Yes, there was once much debate and freethinking among Islamic cultures. That is no longer the case. Since the Middle Ages, that has ceased to be so, and obeying tradition and authority has been seen as the only acceptable mode of conduct for a Muslim – the famous maxim is “the gates of itjihad [independent reasoning] are closed”. (Hence, efforts like Irshad Manji’s Project Itjihad to restore that open, questioning spirit.)

    To be clear, there isn’t anything intrinsically anti-intellectual or anti-humanist about being a Muslim. Christianity was once the same way, until it went through an Enlightenment that curbed (if not eliminated) most of those destructive tendencies. Islam today is very much where Christianity was a few hundred years ago, and for the same reason, it needs an Enlightenment of its own. Islam just can’t join the modern world until that happens. I can see it happening one day, but it’s not just going to be a matter of rooting out a few extremists. Islam itself needs to undergo some major changes before it can believably claim to have left its violent past and present behind.

  • RoyalCat

    Our English teacher announced today that a copy of this book arrived at our school library, I was downright ecstatic to hear that, and I look forward to reading it. (: Thanks for the review and for giving me something to look forward to.

  • XPK

    I just finished this book, which I never would have known about if I had not been poking around your site. I do not recall having ever cried reading a book before, but I cried multiple times reading this book.

    There were times when she was talking about her Muslim faith, that were exactly like other religious people from different religions describing their own faith in their own god. It was powerful how familiar the religious mindset can be between religions, as if they all come from some unfortunate god-spot in the brain.

    As more of my religious friends have discovered my atheism, I am amazed at the worry with which I am greeted. I am willing to bet they would be less concerned if I was just switching denominations, or even religions, but the fact that I could not believe in any god is unconscionable.