Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press, 368 pp., $26.00)
When Ayaan Hirsi Ali arrived in the United States last year, the deputy secretary of state himself formally welcomed her. But even such an unusually heralded arrival was—like most things in her life—controversial. Though she had already decided to leave the Netherlands and take up a post at the American Enterprise Institute, the broadcast of a vitriolic and misleading assault on her by a Dutch documentary crew led Holland’s impressionable integration minister to rescind—and then restore—her Dutch citizenship. Though the allegations that Hirsi Ali had fabricated aspects of her past were subsequently disproved or explained, the episode left a swarm of misconceptions hovering around her. The publication of her autobiography, Infidel, is thus not only timely but an important correction.
But the book is not really a work of self-justification. Rather, it’s a calm and deeply felt relation of a far from ordinary life. Hirsi Ali’s is a fascinating journey—from the dutiful Somalian Muslim girl we read about to the woman now known as one of the most outspoken critics of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s amazing, considering her upbringing, that Hirsi Ali has become the woman she has. She recalls her education in Nairobi, for instance, after her family moved to Kenya:
Sister Aziza told us about the Jews. She described them in such a way that I imagined them as physically monstrous: they had horns on their heads, and noses so large they stuck right out of their faces like great beaks. Devils and djinns literally flew out of their heads to mislead Muslims and spread evil. Everything that went wrong was the fault of the Jews. The Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, who had attacked the Islamic Revolution in Iran, was a Jew. The Americans, who were giving money to Saddam, were controlled by the Jews. The Jews controlled the world, and that was why we had to be pure: to resist this evil influence. Islam was under attack, and we should step forward and fight the Jews, for only if all Jews were destroyed would peace come for Muslims.
And Hirsi Ali does not spare herself from the lacerating verdict she gives to pious fanatics. Once she was present at a burning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. “It didn’t even occur to me to question that Salman Rushdie should be killed,” she writes. “If Rushdie had insulted the Prophet, then he deserved to die.”
Her firsthand insight into the fundamentalist mindset is not only disturbing but also valuable. One of the most interesting passages explains why anyone would choose to live shrouded in a huge black robe. Telling of her own choice, as a young girl, to do so, she writes: “It had a thrill to it, a sensuous feeling. It made me feel powerful. . . . I was unique. . . . Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim.”
Having questioned her childhood faith for many years—not least during her study at Holland’s Leiden University—she felt impelled to renounce her faith not just because of the events of September 11 but by the silence of her fellow Muslims in the face of such evil. In 2002, she first came to notice in Holland with a number of television appearances criticizing Islam and certain Islamic practices, such as forced marriages and female circumcision. A threat to her life was clear from the outset: what she was saying, people said, was “explosive.” Her response cites one of the central curiosities in the current battle between Western liberalism and jihad:
Explosive? In a country where prostitution and soft drugs are licit, where euthanasia and abortion are practiced, where men cry on TV and naked people walk on the beach and the pope is joked about on national TV? Where the famous author Gerard Reve is renowned for having fantasized about making love with a donkey, an animal he used as a metaphor for God? Surely nothing I could say would be seen as anything close to “explosive” in such a context.
But in 2004 an Islamic extremist, Mohammed Bouyeri, brutally murdered Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam. Van Gogh had collaborated with Hirsi Ali on the film Submission, which examined violence toward women in Islam, and Bouyeri was part of a terror cell that had planned to blow up the Dutch Parliament, Amsterdam’s airport, and the Dutch Intelligence Service’s headquarters. Bouyeri left a note addressed to Hirsi Ali on van Gogh’s body, making it clear that his group was also after her.
Ever since, Hirsi Ali’s life has been in considerable danger. Originally ferried from safe house to safe house, she finally arrived in America, making a satisfying ending for the book. Today, at AEI, she continues her fight to reform Islam and alert people to its inherent dangers and problems; many lesser people would have shut up and given up. She knows that silence does not help, and that fibs and half-truths only cause long-term problems. Her commitment to the truth, despite the risk, is an extraordinary gift—and sadly rare.
Hirsi Ali has arrived at the correct place. It’s fitting that she now lives in the land of the free, and as long as she resides there, America can continue to boast of being the home of the brave.