Infidel
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press | 368 pages | 2007 | ISBN-13: 978-0743289689 | US$26 / £12. 99

Ayaan Hirsi Ali became internationally famous after the murder in broad daylight in an Amsterdam street of a Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, by a Muslim on November 2, 2004. Ali, a refugee from Somalia who had become a Dutch citizen and then an MP, had made a short film with van Gogh in September 2004; entitled Submission. It concerned the plight of Muslim women in Holland and was openly critical of Islam. It was this that led to van Gogh’s murder. A note left on his body by his Muslim killer made a death threat against her life as well. In the ensuing uproar she was forced into hiding for many months and had her Dutch citizenship rescinded, then later restored. Now she is living and studying in America.

This book is her autobiography. It is divided into two parts; the first is “My Childhood” and the second – significantly – “My Freedom”. The book’s title is itself deliberately challenging, for to be an “infidel” – in this context unfaithful to Islam – is the worst crime a Muslim can commit. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s tale, in essence, is her slow, painful journey from being a true believer, anxious to obey all the rules laid down for women in the Koran, to becoming a freethinker and finally an atheist. Despite all its repetitions and intellectual confusions it is a compelling story, very pertinent to our time.

Ali’s grandmother, descended from nomadic tribesmen in rural Somalia, was as her granddaughter says, “living in the Stone Age”. Her mother, keen to break away from centuries of poverty and illiteracy, left for Aden aged 15. Unusually from her background, she chose her own husband, a fellow Somali. Ali’s father, who came from a tribe of traders, had been educated in America. He was committed to fighting the corruption and tyranny prevalent in post-independence Somalia and spent some years as a political prisoner. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not beat his wife, wanted his daughters to be educated, did not believe in segregated prayers and was opposed to the barbaric custom, widely practised in Somalia as in some other Islamic countries, of female circumcision. Ali, her sister and brother were excised at her grandmother’s insistence while her father was absent from home – a traumatic experience which, Ali implies, caused permanent psychological damage to her sister, Haweya, who developed psychosis in adult life. Ali herself, born in 1969, seems to have inherited a fierce spirit of survival and independence from both her parents.

Clearly a clever girl, her early education was patchy. The family moved from Mogadishu, the Somali capital, to Saudi Arabia, then to Ethiopia and finally to Kenya during her childhood as they followed her father into various exiles. This meant learning by heart verses from the Koran in Somali, then in Arabic, then in Amharic and lastly in English, when the family finally settled in a poor district of Nairobi. Under the influence of a Muslim teacher, this idealistic young girl began to take her faith seriously; in her teens she took to wearing a full-length hidjab with a black head covering, and praying several times a day. This newfound fervour, one feels, was not unconnected to the problems of home life; her parents’ marriage had disintegrated and her father had deserted. Her mother, struggling to keep the family afloat, could not cope with three adolescents and there were endless rows and beatings. Islam provided cultural and intellectual certainty in Ali’s unstable world.

She longed “to be convinced that Islam was true”. Yet, faced by the obvious injustice in the lives of the women around her, the suppression of their individuality, the suffering they often endured at the hands of their menfolk, persistent questions constantly surfaced in her mind: “How could a just God – a God so just that almost every page of the Koran praises his fairness – desire that women be treated so unfairly?” She concluded that in Islam, “becoming an individual is not a necessary development” for a woman. Yet she did not reject her faith; along with some of her friends she yearned for a reformed version of Islam, where debate and discussion – “a dialogue with Allah” – were allowed rather than a narrow insistence on rote-learning, rules and, for women, passivity, silence and submission.

In July 1992, in an effort to escape an arranged marriage and life in Canada with a man she hardly knew, Ali fled to Holland as a refugee. In doing so she knew that she was cutting herself off from her family, her tribe and her clan, the three elements which had dominated her life to this point. When confronted by clan members she stated that “the soul cannot be coerced”. It was this inner conviction that has informed her later life in Holland and now the States.

Through determination and hard work she managed to study political science at Leyden University. Here she encountered thinkers of the European Enlightenment for the first time; they filled the huge vacuum left her gradual loss of her Islamic faith. While acknowledging that “the Prophet did teach us good things… to believe in a Hereafter… to be compassionate and show charity to others”, this was not enough to prevent the author thinking that the moral outlook of billions of her fellow Muslims had been “frozen in the mindset of the Arab desert of the 7th century”. Educated Muslims, she noted, would constantly refer to Islam’s golden age of Averroes, Avicenna and “saving Aristotle”. “So what has happened in Islamic civilization since the year 1200?” she asked herself.

Having rejected a religious outlook Ali was easily led to embrace rationalism. Darwin informed her that “creation stories were a fairy tale”; he was supported by Freud, Durkheim and the other freethinkers she now read voraciously. She concluded that “the Enlightenment cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kingship, social hierarchy and the domination of priests.” In this battle for ideas, the Catholic Church was seen as oppressive – not unlike the faith she had rejected. Somewhat naively, Ali believed that Islam could benefit from the Enlightenment and “infuse traditions that are rigid and inhumane with the values of progress and modernity”.

Some aspects of progress and modernity, such as a woman’s “right” to abortion, clashed with Ali’s instinctive sense of right and wrong; she was shocked at her own sister’s decision to have an abortion, calling it “murder” and offering to bring up the baby. Yet she also seems to have accepted uncritically the mores of her host country. Further, she has not asked herself whether the religious instinct in man might not have predated fundamentalist Islam; indeed, whether the search for truth, to which she appears to be committed, might not be a deeper and more spiritual quest than she allows for.

Not recognising a religious dimension to life, she cannot answer the question: why is Islam so powerful and persuasive for so many people, intellectuals as well as peasants? Analysing it solely in socio-economic terms, and being persuaded that the post-Enlightenment Western world has the key to human fulfilment has narrowed her perspective. It demonstrates an intellectual rigidity not unlike that which Ali has repudiated.

It has also blinded her to the obvious flaws in the ever-tolerant Dutch multicultural experiment. It was this tolerance, after all, which led to conflict and violence in Dutch society and finally to the death of Theo van Gogh. The Dutch imperative to be “sensitive and respectful of immigrant culture”, building them mosques and schools, led inevitably to the growth of Muslim ghettoes and the continuing abuse of Muslim women. Yet Ali felt a growing mission “to put the plight of Muslim women on my country’s agenda”. This put her in a very difficult position: to the liberal Dutch she was seen as right-wing, even, ironically, as a “racist”; to the Muslim community she was an apostate, someone who had challenged the writings of the Prophet and who therefore merited to die.

That Ali, who believed she had “moved from the world of faith to the world of reason” and who now fights for the “enlightenment of Islam”, cannot not see the contradictions in her position and the artificial gulf between its “either/or”, is one of the interesting, indeed urgent questions raised by this book. The questions posed by Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture, the relationship between faith and reason, as well as the Muslim rejection of the hollow, materialistic side to Western culture, are aspects of this debate that Ali has not (yet) considered. She is a brave woman and it is to be hoped that her search for truth will continue.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.