Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel

By my lights, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of the most admirable human beings alive today, a walking, talking embodiment of the emancipatory powers of education and the courage and power of the individual. But large swaths of the modern world would disagree with me. To much of the left, she is an inconvenience, a contradiction: a black-skinned former Muslim who has shed the faith and culture of her birth and now quotes John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville in defence of her adopted culture. And to a large number of her former co-religionists, she is a heretic, a blasphemer. Just ask the man who murdered her friend, the documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who swore she would be next – or her own father, and much of her family beside, who have refused further communication with her in the wake of her apostasy. Hence Infidel, her memoir: the harrowing journey she took from Muslim Somalia and Saudi Arabia to Christian Ethiopia and Kenya, and finally to the Netherlands and America.

Some of the details of her early life in Somalia are worth recounting. She was born into poverty, not knowing the comforts of warm running water or electricity until a visit to Saudi Arabia when she was ten. Her early education was typical of Somali Muslims: light on facts and heavy on scripture. Her parents are both Muslim, but their faith was intertwined with Somali paganism, and she grew up in a time when the Muslim world – in reaction to the perceived superiority of the West – was seeking to return to a “purer” Islam, one unadulterated by paganism or Western ideas, and so she witnesses, for example, the rising popularity of extremist preachers and the Muslim Brotherhood; and like all good Muslims of the time, she studies the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose black-and-white theology, with its harsh distinctions between the faithful and the unbelievers, animates today’s jihadi terrorists. Ayaan is unflinching in her reporting of all this, and her simple act of bearing witness is profoundly moving. Here, for example, is her narration of the excision of her clitoris, performed not by a doctor or medical professional but a local villager, a blacksmith:

Then the scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs, indescribable, and I howled. Then came the sewing: the long, blunt needle, clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia, my loud and anguished protests, Grandma’s words of comfort and encouragement. “It’s just this once in your life, Ayaan. Be brave, he’s almost finished.” When the sewing was finished, the man cut the thread off with his teeth.

Ayaan’s experience, alas, is a common one, not only in Africa and large parts of the Middle East, but in Europe now as well (see this recent report on female genital mutilation in Sweden), and though she carefully notes that there is no doctrinal mandate for the procedure within Islam, its practice is considered compatible with the Islamic outlook on sexual pleasure:

Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia, where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam. Uncircumcised girls will be possessed by devils, fall into vice and perdition, and become whores. Imams never discourage the practice: it keeps girls pure.

And in a further testament to the dangers of ignorance, Ayaan’s grandmother believes that, were it not removed, her clitoris would continue to grow until it was “dangling down” her leg. Ayaan was only five years old when she suffered this fate; her younger sister, Haweya, was just three when she was held down and cut.

In what might properly be viewed as the memoir’s second half, Ayaan runs away from an arranged marriage organized by her father, without her knowledge or consent. The man is a prosperous Somali living in Canada, and wishes to find himself a “traditional” wife – oh, the wonders of globalization! (Incidentally, in Bruce Bawer’s book While Europe Slept, he details how this system of arranged marriages is used to abuse family reunification policies: a man arrives in the host country and then sends for a bride from his home country; his choice is often young or underaged, and always ill-educated; when she arrives, unable to speak her new country’s language and utterly estranged to its customs, she finds herself dependent on her husband – exactly the “traditional” arrangement he was looking for!) Ayaan, however, has other ideas, and when she is sent to Germany to meet her betrothed, she runs off to Holland and applies for asylum. This marks the beginning of her life as a Westerner, and her conversion is a painful one, necessitating the shedding of her religious worldview. Why is the Netherlands so prosperous, so physically beautiful, so technologically advanced? Why is it not rife with clan warfare, or religious fundamentalism? Why is its bureaucracy efficient and immune to corruption? Why, in other words, is the land of the unbelievers so much more pleasant a place to live?

What distinguishes Ayaan, above all else, is her incredible curiosity. Unable to answer the above questions, she decides to apply herself in search of answers. She learns Dutch, her fourth or fifth language, and uses her polyglot skills to land a job as an interpreter for the government; with the money she earns from this job, on top of the (exceptionally generous) stipend she receives from the Dutch government, she puts herself through university, and not in the government-approved “practical skills” program, but in the much more challenging political science program at the centuries-old Leiden University. Here, she encounters for the first time the main currents in Western thought, from the Greeks down to Locke and Hume and Rousseau, and she begins to formulate an understanding of Western prosperity and liberty rooted in its intellectual traditions – something few modern university students know anything about. Her final act of courage also amounts to a defence of her host country and its culture and values: when she witnesses, first-hand, the influx of ultra-conservative Muslim immigrants into the Netherlands, and the destructive attitudes and values they bring with them, she speaks out. For example, she writes a newspaper article criticizing the Netherlands for failing to protect Muslim women from the abuses of their domineering husbands, and for their failure to tabulate the number of honour killings committed on Dutch soil.

Today, Ayaan travels in the company of bodyguards, and cannot broadcast her public appearances far in advance. Like Salman Rushdie, she will live the rest of her life looking over her shoulder. This is the price she has paid for speaking the truth; the least we can do, in return, is listen to what she has to say.