By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Illustrated. Free Press. 353 pages. $26.
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Illustrated. Free Press. 353 pages. $26.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to the attention of the wider world in an extraordinary way. In 2004 a Muslim fanatic, after shooting the 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.
A Somali by birth and a recently elected member of the Dutch Parliament, Ms. Hirsi Ali had waged a personal crusade to improve the lot of Muslim women. Her warnings about the dangers posed to the Netherlands by unassimilated Muslims made her Public Enemy No. 1 for Muslim extremists, a feminist counterpart to Salman Rushdie.
The circuitous, violence-filled path that led Ms. Hirsi Ali from Somalia to the Netherlands is the subject of “Infidel,” her brave, inspiring and beautifully written memoir. Narrated in clear, vigorous prose, it traces the author’s geographical journey from Mogadishu to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and her desperate flight to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage.
At the same time, Ms. Hirsi 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.
Ms. Hirsi Ali, now 37, belongs to the Osman Mahamud subclan of the Darod clan. Its members, by tradition, are born to rule, which may explain the author’s self-possessed, imperious gaze on the cover of her book. Her mother came from a family of nomads, and Ms. Hirsi Ali grew up listening to desert folk tales narrated by her grandmother, who, like many Somalis, followed a “diluted, relaxed” version of Islam that included traditional magic spirits and genies. It also required that young girls undergo genital mutilation, which Ms. Hirsi Ali, a victim of the practice, describes in horrific detail.
Somalia’s troubled politics provided Ms. Hirsi Ali with an eventful childhood. Her father, an opponent of the country’s Soviet-backed dictator, spent years in prison. The family, living on clan charity, moved to Saudi Arabia, where Ms. Hirsi Ali recoiled at the local interpretation of Islam, and later to Ethiopia and Kenya, where Ms. Hirsi Ali added Swahili and English to her growing list of languages. Without knowing it, she was becoming a permanent outsider, a misfit wherever she traveled.
The 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. Ms. 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. Ms. 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.”
In 1992, in her early 20s, Ms. Hirsi Ali made a dash for freedom. Instead of joining her new husband in Canada, she bolted to the Netherlands. There, she pretended to be fleeing political persecution, and the authorities granted her refugee status. She had brought shame on her family and her clan, but the order and rationality of the Netherlands intoxicated her, right down to the houses “all the same color, laid out in rows like neat little cakes warm from the oven.” She could not imagine what the Dutch had to vote about, since everything seemed to work perfectly.
Ms. Hirsi Ali’s struggles to gain a toehold in her new country, and her perceptions of the West, told through innocent eyes, put flesh and blood on an immigrant story repeated countless times throughout Western Europe. Alienation, dislocation and the burden of too many choices warp the lives of people rooted in traditional societies based on clans and tribes. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s own sister, who joins her in the Netherlands, sinks into deep depression and psychosis.
Fluent in English, and determined to learn Dutch, the highly adaptable Ms. Hirsi Ali makes her way, first as a translator for various social services, then as a political researcher for the Labor Party, and eventually as a political candidate with uncomfortable views on Islam, immigration and assimilation.
Ms. Hirsi Ali, disturbed at the economic and social plight of Muslims, warned the Dutch that their liberal policy of helping immigrants create separate cultural and religious institutions was counterproductive. She deplored the crimes of violence against Muslim women committed daily in the Netherlands, to which the authorities turned a blind eye in the name of cultural understanding. After the 9/11 attacks, she was vocal in insisting that, despite well-meaning assurances to the contrary, there really was a meaningful link between the Muslim faith and terrorism.
“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.”
Ms. Hirsi Ali’s provocative comments on Islam and on the need for Muslim women to reject their traditionally submissive role (the subject of a short film she made with Mr. van Gogh) channeled mounting Muslim anger directly at her.
Death threats have since driven Ms. Hirsi Ali to the United States, where she has accepted a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group.
This is a pity. As a politician, she focused Dutch minds on a subject they steadfastly ignored. In her brief career, she forced the government to keep statistics on honor killings, in which enraged family members murder sisters or daughters believed to have brought shame on the family or clan. Much to the surprise of the Dutch, it turned out that there were a lot of them. Unfortunately, Ms. Hirsi Ali is no longer in the Netherlands to point out these things.
We wish we could identify some hopeful sign for Darfur on the horizon. But we are not naïve: The world has managed to live with the consequences of its inaction for three years now; surely it can do so for many more. Meanwhile, the confidence of those who terrorize and kill will only grow. Recently, NBC News interviewed a 17-year-old girl who was attacked in October 2006. "You are black," a man in a Sudanese uniform had taunted just before raping her. "You have no place here." Then he offered a prediction: "We will push you out of here. This land will remain for us." And you know what? He's probably right.