infidel by ayaan hirsi ali


there is no pleasure in reading this book.     it is completely depressing and horribly disturbing.   that said, if you have the emotional strength, you should read it.

ayaan hirsi ali was born in somalia in 1969 and lived in saudi arabia, ethiopia and kenya before immigrating to holland.    the beginning of the book describes her life in what appears to be a relatively liberal muslim household.  her father, who had been educated abroad, opposed female genital cutting, but while he was imprisoned for political reasons, hirsi ali’s grandmother had the traditional procedure done to her and her younger sister.   let’s be clear, it’s done at home, without anesthesia.   unimaginably barbaric.   she survived the war in somalia, frequent beatings from her mother and a severe beating from a quran instructor. as a young woman she was a supporter of the conservative islamist muslim brotherhood and chose to wear a hijab.    as her life progressed, she began to chafe under the strictures she saw as being designed to subjugate women.    when she was 23 her father arranged for her to marry a man she thought was a “bigot” and an “idiot.”    en route to canada to join him, she ran away and hid from her family in the netherlands where she was eventually granted political asylum.   there she was exposed to political and social ideas that caused her to seriously question islam and  she became a well-known critic of the way muslim women and children are treated.

i found myself thinking that the quran is not a holy document.   it is a historical record, written by humans.  it is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the prophet muhammad died  and it is a very tribal and arab version of events.   it spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.

in 2003 she was elected a member of the lower house of the dutch parliament.   in 2004,  theo van gough, with whom she collaborated on the film “submission” was brutally assassinated.  a letter condemning hirsi ali to death was stabbed into van gough’s chest with a knife.   she now lives in hiding in the netherlands.

her descriptions of genital mutilation, frequent beatings, war and starvation are horrifying.    but the most disturbing aspect of the book are her insights into islam.    here are a few examples:

muhammad attempted to legislate every aspect of life.    by adhering to his rules of what is permitted and forbidden, we muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we chose.   we froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the arab desert in the seventh century.

. . .

most muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the quran; we are taught it in arabic, which most muslims can’t speak.   as a result, most people think that islam is about peace   it is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that islam is peaceful and tolerant.

the september 11th terrorist attacks were a turning point for her.

i could no longer avoid seeing the totalitarianism, the pure moral framework that is islam.   it regulates every detail of life and subjugates free will.   true islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty.   the inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of their detailed system for regulating human behavior.    their world is divided between “us” and “them” —  if you don’t accept islam you should perish.

heavy stuff.    how does a secularist who believes above all in tolerance square their belief system to hirsi ali’s fairly convincing case that islam is evil and dangerous?

my central, motivating concern is that women in islam are oppressed.    that oppression of women causes muslim women and muslim men, too, to lag behind the west.    it creates a cuture that genterates more backwardness with every genereation,    it would be better for everyone — for muslims , above all —  if this situation could change.

her writing is plodding and clunky.   she is inflammatory.   one of her central motivating factors seems to be attracting attention to herself (making up for the lack of attention from her father?).  she may be self-destructive.  certainly she is exceedingly brave.  and certainly  her views about what it means to be muslim and how muslims and non-muslims co-exist will shape political dialogue for a long time.