Friday, September 3, 2010


Feeling myself slip into the easy trap of devouring great novels, I decided to change courses completely and read Infidel. In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story. Narrated in clear, vigorous prose, it is a consistently focused narrative of a spectacularly eventful life launched almost inadvertent into an unparalleled adventure in moral courage. It traces Hirsi Ali's geographical journey from from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West. She is a famously eloquent and consequential revolutionary, and tells her story with the clarity of an electron microscope, depicting every detail, she creates a work of universal resonance in this brave, inspiring, and beautifully written memoir.

One of today's most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, came to the attention of the wider world in an extraordinary way. In 2004 a Muslim fanatic, after shooting Ali's colleague and filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh dead on an Amsterdam street, pinned a letter to Mr. van Gogh’s chest with a knife. Addressed to Ms. Hirsi Ali, the letter called for holy war against the West and, more specifically, for her death.

Infidel is the eagerly awaited story of the coming of age of this elegant, distinguished, and sometimes reviled, political superstar and champion of free speech. With a gimlet eye and measured, often ironic, voice, Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs, her ironclad will, and her extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots. In her early twenties, she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she earned a college degree in political science, tried to help her tragically depressed sister adjust to the West, and fought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. Even though she is under constant threat, demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan, she refuses to be silenced.

Ali describes a journey “from the world of faith to the world of reason,” a long, often bitter struggle to come to terms with her religion and the clan-based traditional society that defined her world and that of millions of Muslims all over. Her family was politically liberal but pious, with one foot in the remote past and the other in the modern world. In Nairobi, her grandmother kept a sheep in the bathtub at night and herded it during the day. Hirsi Ali, at her English-language school, devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and English adventure series, “tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust and friendship.” She eventually became a woman very like one of George Eliot’s heroines — earnest, high-minded and ardent, forever chafing at the limits imposed by her religion and her society.

Rebellion came slowly. Hirsi Ali, under the spell of a kindly Islamic evangelist, passed through a deeply religious phase. She describes, quite persuasively, the attractions of fundamentalism and the growing appeal of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in disintegrating societies like Somalia’s. But nagging questions disturbed her faith, especially as she encountered inflexible doctrines on the role of women, and their need to submit to men. “Life on earth is a test, and I was failing it, even though I was trying as hard as I knew how to,” she writes of her anguished, questioning adolescence. “I was failing as a Muslim.”

“Holland was trying to be tolerant for the sake of consensus, but the consensus was empty,” she writes. “The immigrants’ culture was being preserved at the expense of their women and children and to the detriment of the immigrants’ integration into Holland.” Hirsi Ali quickly came to a 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."

Hirsi Ali came to a more controversial conclusion as well: 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.

Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali's delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam, informed by a genuine understanding of the religion. Telling the story of how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. More than simply discovering western libertarian values, Ali shows a deep and critical understanding of her history, how it's shaped the modern world, and shows it's prognosis for dealing with the festering problem of Europe's Islamic subculture. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.

What makes Hirsi Ali a voice of world historical importance is partly her great art, exhibited here; it is also her shining courage. Simply, in an age where truth is penalized, banned, distorted, Ali Hirsi simply speaks the truth. This is a remarkable woman. She has crossed an impassable divide, and has been able to reach the other side after considerable suffering, work, and tears. Her extraordinary life seems more an ongoing work in progress than a settled iconographic career, for she seems to be fated to say what many do not wish to hear.

How well does anyone in the west understand Islam, and all the things it does to people? Do we really understand female genital mutilation, beaten women, arranged marriages, the compulsive need to hide the feminine, and the complete loss of individual freedom? Many still don't have a clue, but this book makes a very real effort to explain a few things, as it is time the west came to its senses, and faced reality. It is not "one world," all cultures are not equal in value, and the individual matters much more than the collective living in darkness.

This book will grab your imagination like no other, transplant you into a world you have probably never known, and introduce you to the intimate world of a Muslim family swept by circumstance all over Africa, Arabia, and Europe. The complex interaction of tribes, clans, cultures, extended families and nations (and their consequences) isn't dryly analyzed, it is woven into a personal drama with the momentum of a locomotive. The love of family rides perilously over the jarring railbed of refugee life, of ancient and modern Islamic conflicts, all of it recounted with real compassion in beautifully clear English. 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, and years from now, maybe even centuries from now, her depth and integrity, and the depth and integrity of others like her, will still be having a positive impact on the world.

My tip for this book is simply read and learn about other people. While we learn from our own mistakes, trails, and experiences, we can also learn a great deal from those who have suffered more, experienced more, and fought for more before us. We can chose to let them inspire and motivate us to become stronger people, people who believe wholeheartedly in something, and stand up for it, people who take risks, who help others, and people who never stop growing.

No comments:

Post a Comment