“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”
In the first scene of Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a child of 5, sitting on a grass mat. Her grandmother is teaching her to recite the names of her ancestors, as all Somali children must learn to do. “Get it right,” her grandmother warns. “They are your bloodline. . . . If you dishonor them you will be forsaken. You will be nothing. You will lead a wretched life and die alone.”
Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circumcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It’s a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hirsi Ali escaped — and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women.
The break began when she slipped away from her family on her way to a forced marriage in Canada and talked her way into political asylum in Holland, using a story she herself calls “an invention.” Soon after arriving, she removed her head scarf to see if God would strike her dead. He did not. Nor were there divine consequences when, defying her ancestors, she donned blue jeans, rode a bicycle, enrolled in university, became a Dutch citizen, began to speak publicly about the mistreatment of Muslim women in Holland and won election to the Dutch parliament.
But tragedy followed fame. In 2004, Hirsi Ali helped a Dutch director, Theo van Gogh, make a controversial film, “Submission,” about Muslim women suffering from forced marriages and wife beating. Van Gogh was murdered by an angry Muslim radical in response, and Hirsi Ali went into hiding. The press began to explore her past, discovering the “inventions” that she had used to get her refugee status. The Dutch threatened to revoke her citizenship; the American Enterprise Institute offered her a job in Washington. And thus she came to be among us.
Even the bare facts of this unusual life would make fascinating reading. But this book is something more than an ordinary autobiography: In the tradition of Frederick Douglass or even John Stuart Mill, Infidel describes a unique intellectual journey, from the tribal customs of Hirsi Ali’s Somali childhood, through the harsh fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia and into the contemporary West. Along the way, Hirsi Ali displays what surely must be her greatest gift: the talent for recalling, describing and honestly analyzing the precise state of her feelings at each stage of that journey.
She describes how she felt as a teenager, voluntarily wearing a hijab, a black cloak that hid her body: “It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim. All those other little girls with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites.” She writes of meeting her husband-to-be’s family: “I concentrated on behaving properly: Speaking softly, being polite, avoiding shame to my parents. I felt empty.”
She also describes how horrified she felt as an adult after Sept. 11, 2001, reaching for the Koran to find out whether some of Osama bin Laden’s more blood-curdling statements — “when you meet the unbelievers, strike them in the neck” — were direct quotations. “I hated to do it,” she wrote, “because I knew that I would find bin Laden’s quotations in there.” And there were consequences: “The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attacks, and it refused to close again. I found myself thinking that the Quran is not a holy document. It is a historical record, written by humans. . . . 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.”
That moment led Hirsi Ali to her most profound conclusion: that the mistreatment of women is not an incidental problem in the Muslim world, a side issue that can be dealt with once the more important political problems are out of the way. Rather, she believes that the enslavement of women lies at the heart of all of the most fanatical interpretations of Islam, creating “a culture that generates more backwardness with every generation.”
Ultimately, it led to her most controversial conclusion too: that Islam is in a period of transition, that the religion as it is currently practiced is often incompatible with modernity and democracy and must radically transform itself in order to become so. “We in the West,” she writes, “would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life.” That sentiment, when first expressed in Holland, infuriated not only Hirsi Ali’s compatriots but also Dutch intellectuals uneasy about criticizing the immigrants in their midst, particularly because both Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh went further than the usual criticism of radical, political Islam: Both believed that even “ordinary” forms of Islam, such as those practiced in Hirsi Ali’s Somalia, contain elements of discrimination against women that should not be tolerated in the West. Thanks to this belief in female equality, Hirsi Ali now requires permanent bodyguards. But having “moved from the world of faith to the world of reason,” Hirsi Ali now says she cannot go back.
Still, she describes herself as lucky: “How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today?” she asks rhetorically. “And how many have a real voice?” To that, it’s worth adding another question: How many women with Hirsi Ali’s experience of radical Islam have emerged to tell their stories? And how many can do so with such clarity and insight? Infidel is a unique book, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a unique writer, and both deserve to go far.