Book Review: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Spoiler Alert!!  Spoiler Alert!!  This review discusses events that happen in this book, which some readers may wish to see unfold as they read it, rather than know what happens in advance.  Though this is not a work of fiction, it does follow a linear narrative and some readers may not want to know some of the details before reading the book.

Infidel is the English translation of the biography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Ali is the Somali-born former Dutch Parliamentarian, famous for her criticism of Islam, her fight on behalf of Islamic women, and her involvement in the film Submission, which led to the assassination of director Theo Van Gogh.  She was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2005.

The book is a rather straight forward autobiography, that covers her life up until the time that it was written.  She describes, what I could only call a disturbing childhood, in which she lived in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  Her father was involved in the resistance against the Somalian dictatorship and was often in exile or jail during her childhood.  Her mother routinely beat her, and her grandmother was a living relic from a superstitious tribal past.  When she was 5 years old her grandmother arrange for her and her sister to have their external genitals cut off and sewn together, in a horrific FGM incident.  They were raised an extremely Islamic world, where women were routinely beaten and abused by male relatives, and told to be silent and submit to their husbands and fathers.  Marriages were commonly prearranged by one’s parents, and females were not expected to have any sexual enjoyment or any will of their own for that matter.  Honor killings were also common.

During all this time Ayaan discusses her struggles with her Islamic upbringing, her exposure to western ideas from cheap novels and her relationships with the people around her.  At one point her aunt forces her into a prearrange marriage with a cousin, without her father’s consent.  This relationship last for one night, before the man leaves her and flies to Europe (much to her relief).  Shortly afterward, she witness the horrors of the chaos of the civil war that hit Somalia in the early nineties, and the resulting poverty and starvation.  She even helps save some relatives from starvation in a refugee camp.

Another prearrange marriage, sends her on an air flight to Germany, where she escapes to Holland, rather than Marry the man her father has chosen for her (who is awaiting in Canada).  In Holland, she applies for refugee status and eventually citizenship.  She gets a job as a translator, which allows her to see much of the same violence against women, taking place among the Muslim population of her adopted country, as she witnessed in her third world past.  She contrast this with the rather peaceful and well ordered lives the native Dutch and non-Muslim migrants experience in the same country.  This gets her interested in pursuing a political career.

During much of this time she becomes increasingly secularized and doubtful of the truth of Islam.  The September 11th attacks finally, send her over the edge. She becomes an atheist and is vocally critical of Islam.  She also remains highly concerned about the rights of Islamic women.  Her outspokenness begins her political career.  Subsequent chapters discuss her meteoric rise to fame, her work with Van Gogh, her being forced to live in hiding after his death, a dispute concerning her Dutch citizenship and her ongoing work.

Throughout the book, she discusses her relationship with the Islamic faith and her family.  She also describes the plight and dysfunction that women in the Islamic world experience in great detail.  Her story is unique and incredible, and it is told in a manner that is consistently holds the reader’s attention.  Though it covers many horrific experiences, there are still frequent moments of humor and relatability throughout the book.  Though I do not agree with all of her positions, I think her work building awareness of the plight of Muslim women and her fight for free speech are admirable and of the utmost importance.  She clearly has led an amazing life, and in many ways completely lucked out (which she acknowledges).  I found the book to be a great read and a real eye opener.

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