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.
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.