Thursday, October 16, 2008

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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)


Anonymous said...

I have this book but I haven't read it yet. Thanks for the review. I've seen some interviews with her. Last I heard she's living in the U.S. I don't remember why she decided to leave Holland. I have a vague memory she said she didn't feel safe there.

I think her lack of differentiation between radical and moderate Islam was covered in one of the interviews I saw. She said that she only spoke from her own experience.

Another lady to look up is Dr. Wafa Sultan. I may be mistaken about her story. I've only read a couple bio's on her. I don't know that she's written about her life story. What I remember is she grew up in Syria. She went to medical school in Jordan. In class one day she witnessed a band of gunmen come in and shoot her professor to death. She resolved from that day to try to escape to the West. She made it, and currently teaches at UCLA. Like Ali she became an atheist.

Sultan became a hero to me when she went on Al Jazeera and told off the Middle East, saying if they want respect they need to stop promoting ignorance and fomenting radicalism, and contribute something to the world. She made the best argument for Western civilization I've heard in a long time. You can watch (video link) her appearance on Al Jazeera on MEMRI. The whole conversation was in Arabic, so they provide English subtitles.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's reasons for leaving Holland are described in some detail in the book. There was a move by one politician to have her declared as an illegal because she lied on her citizenship application. This was a real threat but did not eventuate for complex reasons which are explained in the book.

Thanks for the Wafa Sultan connection. I read her story on wikipedia and there are many similarities with Ayaan's story (and similar sorts of criticisms too). Both women challenge the idea that there is a moderate Islam. I don't know enough to decide about this.

Anonymous said...

Re: Whether there is a moderate Islam

I forgot about that aspect. Yes, I remember Wafa Sultan talking about this. Walid Shoebat and Kamal Saleem are a couple former Muslims (also reformed terrorists who used to operate in the West Bank) who say the same thing, that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. They say that the beliefs and behaviors you see with the terrorists are that of true Muslims. I think they both converted to Christianity.

From my own research it sounds like there is some truth to that, but it's not the whole story. For example a common story I hear about with suicide bombers is they are told that if they martyr themselves (kill themselves and their target) that Allah will set aside a place for them in heaven with a bunch of virgin women. Muslim scholars I've heard from have said this is not part of the Islamic faith at all. Secondly, suicide is a sin that is very clearly spelled out in the Koran. Thirdly, killing innocent people is explicitly forbidden. The problem is the jihadists have found imams who will effectively "bless" such actions, or rationalize the Koran in such a way that will allow them to do all of these things. That's one narrative.

I read an article a while back by a Muslim reformer in Europe titled "We Must Renounce Our Violent Hadiths" that I thought made some good points. Apparently after the Koran was written some supplemental stories and rules were written called "hadiths", and some of them are definitely anti-jewish and pretty threatening towards them. Apparently in Islamic culture in many parts of the world the hadiths are considered as part of the canon of Islamic faith, with as much legitimacy as the Koran.

From my own experience I have met and seen people who I would consider to be moderate Muslims, people who have no desire to do anything violent to me or anyone else who does not go along with their faith. I understand that to some who come from the Middle East these people are not considered "true Muslims", but they think they are. They are devout. They go to mosque and pray towards Mecca as required by their faith, and they read the Koran.

I've heard from those who say that Islam is an entirely different animal, because it is not just living according to the dictates of, and worshipping, a god, but is also a political movement oriented towards creating an Islamic state.

My hope is that Islam can be reformed. As far as I'm concerned I've seen evidence that it can be. I think on a societal level we could use Turkey as an example. It is an Islamic nation that has been westernized.

A challenge for us in the West will be to integrate some aspects of Islam into our culture and system. In a democracy everyone gets to have their say. Historically we've done this with jewish people here in the U.S. without sacrificing what is fundamentally American.

What I use for reference is Christianity. If one looks at the faith itself it was always peace-oriented, but the history of Christian culture in Europe was violent for centuries. It managed to reform itself to create what we know as Western civilization today.

Ultimately this is part and parcel of the "War on Terror". I think the only way that it can truly be won is for Islam to reform itself. That's the hard part. Perhaps you've heard this saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." (this applies to education as well :) ) Thomas Friedman has written about this extensively. He's argued for years that what's really needed is a civil war within Islam with the reformers vs. the radicals.

We can be there to help along those who are curious about how to reform, but those who are unwilling to reform cannot be forced to learn. I think the dynamic of the war, and this is something I'm sure the multiculturalists object to, is "reform, or else!" So there is definitely motivation to do it. One of the ways we've managed to make Iraq more peaceful is to reach out even to certain people involved in the insurgency, and offer them an out where they can be legitimate participants in the government, so long as they renounce the insurgency and disarm. This has only worked of course because of the threat of violence if they do not decide to do so. Some may argue that this environment removes the possibility of choosing. I would say this is not true. There is still a choice involved and some have definitely chosen to remain violent and not reform.