Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I've recently read this book. It made me think, cry and sometimes laugh. Her story is incredible, very well written and powerful.
It helped me understand Islam, the Middle East and Africa since Ayaan lived in and graphically describes Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. She was raised as a Muslim and suffered many beatings (at one point her skull was fractured by her Quran instructor and she nearly died), genital mutilation, civil war (in Somalia) and an arranged marriage.
Her relationships with her extended family and clan are described in detail. The suffering of her mother and sister in particular are heart breaking. For me, the saddest part of the book was what happened to her sister, who eventually descended into madness. Nothing is spared in description as, after years of doubt and agonising, Ayaan finally rips off the burqa (and also the hijab) and becomes a liberated woman. She is a great writer of personal, intimate prose and she has an enthralling story to tell. One aspect of this book is you obtain the full sense of the journey from Ayaan's grandmother, a desert nomad, through all the painful stages to the emergence of a modern and liberated Ayaan.
She describes the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a reaction against widespread government corruption and the propagation of a fundamental, literal interpretation of the Quran
After escaping to the Netherlands (running away from the forced marriage), Ayaan completed her education in politics and history and worked as an interpreter. In that role she witnessed more horror in the way Muslim women refugees were treated by men. She witnessed and participated as the public debate broke out in Holland about tolerance and integration of Islamic refugees. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the murder of Pim Fortuyn she participated more in the public discussion, received death threats, ran for parliament and was elected. She subsequently helped Theo van Gogh make a film about Islamic culture (Submission). Because of this film van Gogh was murdered and a note addressed to Ayaan was stabbed into his body.
You can read this book as an amazing personal story, or, for one perspective of the role of Islam in the world today, or, to deepen your understanding of what happens to some people as they grow up in the countries mentioned above
Of course, the book has been criticised. It might be true that she doesn't distinguish clearly between moderate and fundamentalist or literal Islam. What she does is track the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and what that means for her lived experience, which applies to many others. You get the very strong impression that to live as a Muslim woman in certain countries does mean in practice following certain fundamental principles which enslave women psychologically, physically and socially - eg. when in Holland she campaigned for the number of honour killings in in that country to be recorded in the data base. And when it was, as a trial, everyone was shocked at how many there were.
So, how to distinguish between the lived experience of many, many women in a time of resurgence of fundamentalism and the counter point that there is some distinction between fundamental and "modern Islam"? I don't know.
Others would criticise Ayaan for her "right wing" affiliations. She currently works for the American Enterprise Institute as a Resident Fellow. I think the evolution of her political views is well described in the book. At one stage she was a researcher for the Labour Party in Holland but eventually left them because of their too tolerant stance towards the abuse of Islamic women. If the so-called left doesn't take a stand against honour killings, genital mutilation and the like then should we blame her for joining the right? Not in my view.
One of the reviewers says:
"Hirsi Ali has invited her critics to walk a mile in her shoes. Most wouldn't last a hundred yards" (Aminatta Forna, Evening Standard)