Sunday, June 22, 2008


Infidel is an autobiography by Ayaan Hirsi Ali - you may have heard of her. She was born in Somalia, and eventually moved to The Netherlands as a refugee where she met the director Theo van Gogh. They made a short film together and he was killed by a Muslim extremist. (I'm not ruining the book, by the way - aside from being all over the news, that's all spelled out in the first few pages.)

The first part of Hirsi Ali's book describes her life growing up in Africa. She had a pretty terrible childhood, and it's rather agonizing to read. I don't really like her writing style, which sort of goes like, and then this terrible thing happen, and then this terrible thing happened, and then this terrible thing happened...

I think she spent so much time describing her horrendous childhood for two reasons - she's trying to illustrate how difficult life is for young girls and women in the various Muslim countries and communities she lived in, and also because (she's very upfront about this) she lied in her process to get refugee status in The Netherlands, and was trying to justify her right to be there.

The second half of the book explains her experience in Holland, her intellectual awakening, her feminist awakening, and her entry into politics. Particularly after 9/11, she starts to question Islam. She writes:
I didn't want to do it, but I had to: I picked up the Quran and the hadith and started looking through them, to check. I hated to do it, because I knew that I would find Bin Ladin's quotations in there, and I didn't want to question God's word.

While so many in the west were concerned about a general backlash against Muslims and all basically all Middle Easterners, she holds that it's not a faith of peace, but a faith that's rooted in violence and, in practice, not only tolerates but encourages treating women badly and beating children. Again, she writes:
Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Quran; we are taught in in Arabic, which most Muslims can't speak. As a result, most people think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant...True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty.

I'm all for questioning organized religion. Hirsi Ali rightly points out that the messages of religious texts we have today have been heavily influenced for centuries by the writings of men. Her message, that Islam is wrong, strikes me (who has a small amount of respect for the freedom of religion) as a simplistic response to outrageously complex reasons for violence in various societal groups. The fact that she now works for a right wing "think tank" in Washington DC (that also boasts Newt Gingrich as a "fellow") makes me wonder what her intentions really are. She certainly is for more integration of immigrants into the lands where they immigrate - but is she for the dissolution of Islam?

She's supposedly motivated by improving the lives of Islam women. How Feminism and ultra-conservativism got so mixed up, I'll never understand. But, no matter how frustrating I found her book, she made me think about these issues a little more. Even though I think she's a little bit of a crackpot, she did make me question a few of my own opinions about these issues.

Here's the short film she made with van Gogh. It's about 10 minutes long.


Becky K said...

I read this book last year. I know what you mean about the laundry list of bad things that happened to her. It gets overwhelming at times.

I have to admit that the claims she made in her book scared me, particularly the ones that detail the violence within Islam. I took some of it with a good dose of skepticism, because my own religion (I am a mormon) is often misunderstood and people who leave it are very likely to criticize it once on the outside. For one thing, Ayaan's religion highly influenced her culture & way of life, and once out of it, she had to learn a new way of living. I think that a lot of what she said in the book came from a need to justify herself for completely turning away from everything she was taught. But I think there is some truth to her claims, which is scary. After what happened to her and her friend that filmed her movie, I was even reluctant to blog about the book (dumb? maybe; I did blog about it, but I didn't say what I really wanted to say), but it made me think. I know you shouldn't judge a whole group of people by extremist who live its edges, but I did take away from reading it that Americans really don't know what we are doing making war against them.

Kathy said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, K. This book has been on my list for quite some time but I think now I'll leave it alone....