Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel is one of the major memoirs of the age: a stunning story of a courageous human spirit emancipating herself from ignorance and oppression. Her book delivers a powerful personal testimony for liberty with all the force that comes from direct experience of tyranny. She is a Frederick Douglass for our time.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan, the daughter of a prominent Somali clan figure. Her father fell afoul of Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre, and was imprisoned. Ayaan, her mentally unstable mother, and her brother and sister fled first to Saudi Arabia, then to Kenya. Freed from prison, her father abandoned the family and took another wife, his third: Ayaan’s mother was his second.
Ayaan’s father was a man of some education, in his way a forward-looking man. Otherwise, however, her upbringing was grim. Her father’s relative enlightenment did not prevent Ayaan’s grandmother from genitally mutilating Ayaan at age 5. Nor did it deter Ayaan’s father from forcing her into an arranged marriage to an uncongenial man solely because he came from the right clan – and had obtained residence in Canada.
But Ayaan, like Douglass, is one of those minds that blooms on its own, seizing nutrition almost from the air. She read trashy English-language novels – and questioned why Somali women could not be free to live and love as they wished. She submitted to Quranic education – and wondered how Allah could be called merciful when his rules were so cruel.
Changing planes in Frankfurt en route to her “husband” in Canada, she made a break for freedom. She arrived in Holland, invented a false name and false story for herself, and obtained asylum. She began to work as a translator, won admission to Leiden University to study political science, gained a job as a researcher at a Dutch Labor Party think tank. At each step along the way, her questioning grew louder and more insistent.
Most women in Holland could walk the streets on their own, wear more or less what they liked, work and enjoy their own salaries, and choose the man they wished to marry. They could attend a university, travel, purchase property. And most Muslim women in Holland simply couldn’t. How could you say that Islam had nothing to do with this situation? And how could that situation be anyway acceptable?
When people tell me it is wrong to make this argument – that it is offensive, that it is inopportune at this particular moment – my sense of basic justice is outraged. When, exactly, will it be the right time? (279)
And thus began Ayaan’s career as a dissident.
Ayaan had fallen in love with Holland and the West from the moment she arrived at Frankfurt Airport.
When we landed at the Frankfurt airport, early in the morning, I was dazed by the scale of it. Everything around me was glass and steel, and all so finished, down to the last little fixture. …
Everything was so clean, it was like a movie. The roads, the pavement, the people – nothing in my life had ever looked like this, except perhaps Nairobi Hospital. It was so modern it seemed sterile. The landscape looked like geometry class, or physics, where everything was in straight lines and had to be perfect and precise. (183)
How had all this been accomplished? Coming from a land torn by war, where rulers thought only to enrich themselves, Ayaan wanted to learn the secrets of Dutch success.
Government was very present in this country. It could be bureaucratic, sometimes stupidly complex, but it also seemed very beneficial. I wanted to know how you do that. This was an infidel country, whose way of life we Muslims were supposed to oppose and reject. Why was it, then, so much better run, better led and made for such better lives than the places we came from? Shouldn’t the places where Allah was worshipped and His laws obeyed have been at peace and wealthy, and the unbelievers’ countries ignorant, poor, and at war? (222)
The answer, she came to believe, was law and liberty: the Western liberal tradition. She came to love her new homeland with fierce passion: its laws, its order, its tolerance, even its punctualit
Waiting to change buses, I noticed that the bus came precisely at the time it was supposed to, 2:37, to the minute. It had been the same with the buses in Bonn, and this eerie punctuality seemed positively uncanny. How on earth could anybody predict a bus would arrive at exactly 2:37? Did they also control the rules of time? (191)
It angered her that so many of her fellow migrants did not share her feelings of gratitude to her new land – or her desire to adapt to Dutch ways.
It irritated me now when Somalis who had lived in Holland for a long time complained that they were offered only lowly jobs. They wanted honorable professions: airline pilot, lawyer. When I pointed out that they had no qualifications for such work, their attitude was that everything was Holland’s fault. The Europeans had colonized Somalia, which is why we all had no qualifications and were in this mess to being with….
It was the same sort of defensive, arrogant attitude that I had often seen among people from rural areas who emigrated to the city, whether Mogadishu or Nairobi. Here in Holland, the claim was always that we were held back by racism. Everyone seemed to be in a constant simmer of anger about how we were discriminated against because we were black. If a shopkeeper wouldn’t bargain over the price of a T-shirt, Yasmin said there were special, discount prices only for white people. She and Hasna told me they often didn’t bother paying for buses; they just invented appointments in town, and if the refugee office idn’t give them a ticket, they said they were being racist.
“If you tell a Dutch person it’s racist, he will give you whatever you want,” Hasna once told me with satisfaction. There is discrimination in Holland – I would never deny that – but the claim of racism can also be strategic.
As a new immigrant, Ayaan had taken every and any kind of work she could get. She cleaned factory floors. She packed thread into flatboxes at a dye factory. She stuffed letters into envelopes. She boxed cookies at a bakery. At first, her earnings were simply deducated from her refugee welfare benefit – and her fellow refugees scoffed at her.
Now, as a researcher at the Labor Party think tank, she urged party leaders to address the plight of Muslim women and children in their midst. The Dutch were allowing Muslims to create their own religious institutions, as Catholics and Protestants were allowed to do.
But, Ayaan argued, this
compassion for for immigrants and their struggles in a new country resulted in attitudes and policies that perpetuated cruelty. Thousands of Muslim women and children were being systematically abused, and there was no escaping this fact. Little children were excised [ie, genitally mutilated] on kitchen tables – I knew this from the Somalis for whom I translated. Girls who had chosen their own boyfriends and lovers were beaten half ot deaeth or even killed; many were regularly slapped around. The suffering of all these women was unspeakable. And while the Dutch were generously contributing money to international aid organizations, they were also ignoring the silent sufferings of Muslim women and children in their own backyard. (246)
Ayaan was accused of emotionalism, of speaking without facts. But as she pointed out, there were no facts: the Dutch government, which kept statistics on everything, declined to keep statistics on honor killings.
Then came the 9/11 attacks. And Ayaan was led to question – not just the primitive folkways of the Somalis – but the religion they professed.
By declaring our Prophet infallible and not permitting ourselves to question him, we Muslims had set up a static tyranny. The Prophet Muhammad attempetd to legislate every aspect of life. By adhering to his rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves …. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves. (272)
Ayaan was determined to be a slave no more.
A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions or longings I felt when I read those books. A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit. That is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside; so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside your mind. (94)
The assassination of Pim Fortuyn in March 2002 inspired her to voice her criticisms more forcefully.
She ran for Parliament as a free-market Liberal, championing assimilation of migrants. And with Theo van Gogh, she made her famous movie: “Submission.”
Many well-meaning Dutch people have told me in all earnestness that nothing in Islamic culture incites abuse of women, that this is just a terrible misunderstanding. Men all over the world beat their women, I am constantly informed. In reality, these Westerners are the ones who misunderstand Islam. The Quran mandates these punishments. It gives a legitimate basis for abuse, so that the perpetrators feel no shame and are not hounded by their conscience or community. (307)
What followed made world headlines: the murder of van Gogh and Ayaan’s forced seclusion. Ayaan had long publicly acknowledged that she had lied on her asylum application. Now a panicky minister of the interior used this fact to strip Ayaan of her Dutch citizenship. An uproar: the government fell – and Ayaan’s citizenship was reinstated. In the interim however she had again been offered refuge, this time by Christopher DeMuth of the American Enterprise Institute – a man who has done many great things, but few nobler things. Thanks to Chris, I can proudly call Ayaan my colleague.
The question is: What are we to make of this Voltaire of our time? Some Americans feel discomfort with her outspoken atheism. But I ask them: If all you had ever heard about God was cruelty and capriciousness, rules that defied reason and sadism that lasted through eternity – how much faith could you muster in such a God?
We had heard all about Hell. That was what Quran school was mostly about: Hell and all the mistakes that could put us there. The Quran lists Hell’s torments in vivid detail: sores, boiling water, peeling skin, burning flesh, dissolving bowels, the everlasting fire that burns you forever, for your flesh chars and your juices boil, you form a new skin. These details overpower you, ensuring you will obey. The ma’alim whose class [her sister] Haweya and I now had to attend on Saturdays used to shriek out the taboos and restrictions, the rules to obey, spitting sometimes with the excitement of it: “You will go to Hell! And YOU will go to Hell! And YOU, and YOU – UNLESS! …” (81 )
That ma’alim or teacher would later nearly murder Ayaan. When she ceased to attend his class, he tracked her to her home and beat her until he cracked her skull. Only a late and lucky medical intervention saved her from fatal concussion. A devout man, however, the teacher made sure that he brought another man with him to the beating, so nobody could accuse him of having been alone with a woman. That would have been a sin.
A loving God – a God who cherishes reasoning and human questioning – such a God, she was taught all her life, was no God at all.
Ayaan wants the West to understand what it is up against. We are not, she warns, dealing with dwindling folkways of ancient time, but a growing new body of belief, grimly determined to refuse all accommodation with the modern world.
A new kind of Islam was on the march. It was much deeper, much clearer and stronger – much closer to the source of the religion – than the old kind of Islam my grandmother believed in, along with her spirit ancestors and djinns. It was not like the Islam in the mosques, where imams mostly recited by memory old sermons written by long-dead scholars, in an Arabic that barely anyone could understand. It was not a passive, mostly ignorant, acceptenace of the rules: Insh’Allah, “God wills it.” It was about studying the Quran, really learning about it, getting to the heart of the nature of the Prophet’s message. It as a huge evangelical sect backed massively by Saudi Arabian oil wealth and Iranian martyr propaganda. It was militant, and it was growing. (87-88)
Against this growing global Islamic militancy, Ayaan Hirsi Ali challenges Westerners to stand by their belief in freedom and individuality – precisely because those beliefs, though Western in origin, apply equally to all humanity.
People accuse me of having inherited a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument. Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes? When I came to a new culture, where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different, would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice? … To accept subordination and abuse because Allah willed it – that, for me, would be self-hatred. (348)