In 2003, Dutch voters voted in as a member of Parliament a woman of Somalian descent, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The remarkable thing about this was that it had been only a decade since Hirsi Ali had been a young refugee seeking asylum in Holland.
At that point, she had never held a job in her life, and knew nothing about European history or the Dutch language.
A Muslim girl brought up in the conservative milieu of Somalia and Saudi Arabia, she was unused to, even shocked by, the values of the West. Her new life gave her a vantage point from which to examine the ways of the old, as also a sense of the sovereignty of the individual she had never known before. The wonder and empowerment of this intellectual journey, more than the physical or the political one, animate the pages of Infidel, Hirsi Ali’s plainspeaking and revelatory autobiography.
Ali was born in Somalia and spent her childhood living in a number of either failed or repressive states, while her father, a prominent Somalian opposition leader, cobbled together a resistance against the country’s corrupt dictator. The values she grew up with were, on the one hand, those of the clan and, on the other, those of Islam. While still a child she had to undergo the female genital mutilation commonly found in, though by no means exclusive to, the Islamic world.
Women had little or no independence: Before marriage they were the property of their fathers, and after that of their husbands. In public life there was very little respect for the rule of law, government was hopelessly ineffective and mired in corruption, and the warring clans made a travesty of the idea of a civil society. It is Hirsi Ali’s argument in Infidel that all these things were related.
Infidel takes unusual positions on many issues, from religious fundamentalism and feminism to multiculturalism and immigrant assimilation. As someone who has seen and lived through both sides of the story on all these questions, Hirsi Ali’s views are arguably more important than those who might approach them in a more theoretical way.
Central to her argument is her wide-ranging critique of Islam, a religion of which she was once a faithful adherent. Not only that, she also differs from those who would make a careful distinction between mainstream Islam and militant or fundamentalist Islam. The Quran itself, and the message of absolute submission it preaches, is to her eyes deeply problematic. Hirsi Ali regards the Quran less as a transcendent text that communicates the word of God than as “a historical record, written by humans”. Its mindset, too, is that of a certain time and place, that “of the Arab desert in the seventh century”. Further, there is no distinction in Islam between the religious and the secular sphere: The Quran legislates on every aspect of life. Women suffer particularly badly, for they are subjugated in the name of the Quran.
Their sexuality is seen as provocative and in need of being controlled, and their men are granted absolute rights over them. Many of the Quran’s verses propagate ideas incompatible with modern notions of freedom, equality and individual rights, yet debate on these matters is forbidden because “worship of God means total obedience”. In the past, contends Hirsi Ali, the Christian world, too, was equally close-minded and suffocating, but the revolution ushered in by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment—Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire, Mill, Locke—brought about a separation between the church and the state, and a new respect for reason and the individual’s right to choose his or her own way of life. No matter was too sacred to be debated. In her opinion, Islam, too, needs a similar Age of Reformation. She is critical of the way in which western governments and intellectuals have become nervous about this right to freedom of speech, of free debate and criticism, out of respect for the pieties of multiculturalism and a fear of being called racist. It is a controversial message.
A close associate of Hirsi Ali’s, the Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in 2005, and she herself now lives in the United States after facing death threats. But like many of the thinkers she admires, her unorthodox ideas have set off a crackling and far-reaching debate (Time magazine named her one of its “100 Most Influential People of 2005”). This autobiography provides an unforgettable lens on the most vexing problems of our age.
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