Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press. 368 pp. $26.00
Autobiography is one of the glories of Western literature. Through self-examination and confession (in the manner of Augustine of Hippo or Rousseau), the individual is able to explain how he came to be himself and (in the manner of André Malraux or Arthur Koestler, to select just two from innumerable examples) to record his own moral, intellectual, and political course against the background of his times. A fictionalizing memoirist—a Casanova, a Baron Münchausen, or some passing celebrity—is easily detected, and the questionable light that an autobiography sometimes throws on its subject is itself integral to the strength of the genre.
In the Muslim tradition, however, autobiography is one among other recent borrowings from the West, and still restricted by and large to fictional justification of the author, usually a one-man ruler or a general, and almost always ghost-written, often by a Westerner. Nor is this very different literary circumstance simply a matter of chance, or a result of the preoccupation of Muslims with other genres like historiography and poetry. What is involved is a bedrock issue of culture.
Autobiography is not compatible with the core values of shame and honor still pertaining throughout the Muslim world. Objectivity and honesty are at the mercy of those values. To say anything adverse about the background of one’s family, tribe, sect, or ethnicity is to invite shame. Self-examination and confession of personal fault carry an irredeemable loss of status, in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others. As for criticism of Islam, or even of particular practices and customs held (often wrongly) to be sanctioned by the faith, this incurs the risk of severe punishment, including death.
Given both the inhibitions from within and the penalties from without, the inner life of Muslims has remained secretive down the centuries, and quite unnecessarily mystifying. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch parliamentarian now living in the United States, smashes these bonds. She has examined her birthright as a Muslim and a woman, and found it wanting. At crucial moments in her life, she has had the courage to challenge received ideas and expected behavior. Coming to the West, she has understood that the compulsions and customs of the Muslim world are a matter of tradition rather than of reason, and that freedom is there for whoever reaches for it.
How she managed to overcome every sort of social and cultural handicap and emancipate herself is the thrilling story told in Infidel, and it is related in a tone of dignified and intelligent restraint. Contrary to Edward Said and all who in his wake claim that the West intentionally victimizes Muslims, here is outstanding evidence that the model of Western liberation is available to everyone.
The first part of this book is an illumination of the inner life of Muslims that eludes outsiders. Born in Somalia in 1969, Ayaan as a child did indeed seem destined to a permanent victimhood, about which nothing could be done except to assign blame to non-Muslims. Her country was hardly more than an inhabited space. The grip of its dictator, Muhammad Siad Barre, a self-proclaimed Soviet client, doomed it to tribal rivalry and civil war—a situation that has become only more brutal and Hobbesian right up to the present.
She belonged to a sub-clan of the leading tribe, the crème de la crème, and she is careful here to grant that there are virtues in tribal society, among them solidarity and a secure identity. Her father was influential in the tribe. He had been to college in America and held that democracy and nationalism would one day make Somalia great. Most of the time, however, he was abroad, plotting a coup against Barre that never seemed to materialize.
Apologists for Islam like to insist that Muslim families display a higher morality and enjoy greater contentment than do others. But as Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells it, the practices that derive either from Islam or from custom make for injustice, domestic violence, and general unhappiness. Without even informing young Ayaan’s mother, for instance, the absent father in due course took a second and then a third wife and had other children with them. Forsaken and often close to destitution, the mother had to bring up her three children on her own. She herself, as a young woman, had run away to Aden, but this early effort to take control of her life proved beyond her. Allah had willed her to inferiority, and that will had to be enforced.
Throughout their childhood, Ayaan and her younger sister Hawiya were beaten mercilessly by their mother. (Their brother Mahad was privileged as a male; at him she merely threw curses, one of which was “You Jew!”) Another member of the household was Ayaan’s grandmother, once a nomad raising animals in the Somali desert, and an upholder of the simplest and most fatalistic tribal custom and Islamic faith. “A woman alone is like a piece of sheep fat in the sun,” was the sum of her wisdom.
A day came when these two grown women supervised the genital mutilation of young Ayaan and Hawiya. Excision of the clitoris was supposed to keep them “pure,” although purity from what was never explained. The memory of the cut and the scar of the sewn wound were to be lifelong reminders of a custom that conflates family and tribal honor with sexuality, and abuses millions of Muslim (and some African non-Muslim) women.
Intermittently, the father united his family—in Saudi Arabia, then in Ethiopia, finally in Nairobi. Hirsi Ali thus acquired Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, and English. The pressures on her to be dutiful and obedient were immense but confusing. In response to a question, a religious teacher, an Arab mu’allim, hit her head so hard against the wall that he fractured her skull. Another made a pass at her. A third, a woman in Nairobi, instilled in her the wisdom that a Muslim girl does not seek control but instead disappears, “until there is almost no you inside you.”
Hirsi Ali duly wore a hijab, read the anti-Western writings of the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, and subscribed to the beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood. What kept alive “the tiny, meek beginnings of my rebellion,” she writes, were English novels, however trashy. The equal footing of boys and girls in the books of Enid Blyton, an author often derided nowadays by intellectual snobs, sparked her imagination.
Still a teenager, she took her rebellion a stage further by going through a form of marriage with a persuasive and handsome cousin, spending only a single painful, furtive, and illegal night with him in a squalid hotel before he left to study in Moscow. They never met again. The whole episode was treated by her family as though it had never happened. Soon afterward, her father proudly announced that he had arranged for her to marry someone from their sub-clan who was now doing well in Canada.
In the second part of Infidel, the tempo shifts as Hirsi Ali more and more confidently makes decisions for herself in a way that her upbringing conditioned her to think could never be done.
The flight to Canada and her arranged marriage had a stopover in Germany. There she ran away, and a very different future now began. Asylum seekers, she had heard, were especially welcome in Holland; and so it proved.
To acquire Dutch citizenship, a refugee had to have been persecuted at home. Hirsi Ali had lived through civil war and the collapse of Barre’s Somalia; she had searched refugee camps for cousins in need of rescue. To describe this to the authorities as persecution was perhaps exaggerated, but not by much. “We refugees invariably tell such lies,” she writes. Altogether she met nothing but helpfulness in Holland, with a wide range of social benefits thrown in.
Adding Dutch to the languages she spoke, Hirsi Ali soon found work as a translator and interpreter. Others among her fellow refugees were feckless and pleasure-seeking, and some were openly racist toward the Dutch who had sheltered them. Many had landed in a modern world they could exploit but not really understand, and became lost. Hirsi Ali’s human curiosity was of a different kind. What impressed her was the orderliness of the country, the rule of law, the good manners of the police. Why, she wondered, “should infidels have peace, and Muslims be killing each other, when we were the ones who worshipped the true God?” Like other Muslims, Somalis were sure of their superiority to unbelievers; but just looking around she could see they were not.
Tribal elders, some with the rank of princes, tracked her down, seeking to persuade her that her conduct was shaming them all. Asked why she was breaking with custom, she gave a resounding answer: “It is the will of the soul. The soul cannot be coerced.” To their credit, they left her, in what was to be a final parting of the ways.
Hirsi Ali’s father, accusing her of succumbing to the West, soon cut her off and asked Allah to punish her. Her sister Hawiya came to live with her, but could not adjust; she became feverishly devout and had visions, perhaps schizophrenic, and eventually killed herself. About all this, about the stresses built into the family by Islamic faith and custom, she writes with a candor that reveals the core of her personality.
With almost fairy-tale ease, Hirsi Ali passed exams, entered Leiden University to study political science, enrolled in a left-wing think tank and then in a more congenial right-wing think tank, and so made her way into the Dutch parliament. Once there, she championed the assimilation of immigrants to Western norms, arguing that the unfair treatment of women within Islam was something the Dutch authorities should no longer tolerate among the Muslims in their midst.
Her mixture of firmness, rhetoric, and charm won virtually unanimous support from Left and Right, and she became the brightest political star in Holland. In a telling image, she speaks in Infidel of a shutter that used to descend in her mind whenever Islam came under question. Her extraordinary ascent lifted that shutter forever.
The openness of Dutch society is a marvel; but so was Hirsi Ali’s determination to be a free citizen of the world. No longer a Muslim, even nominally, but rather an avowed atheist, she saw herself following proudly in the footsteps
of Spinoza, Voltaire, Mill, and Bertrand Russell. In an ironic turn, this caused a certain consternation among some who were otherwise disposed to embrace her. Religious Dutch people in particular were suddenly not sure how to respond to having the Enlightenment crammed down their throats.
But this passage in Hirsi Ali’s life was fated to come to an end, almost haphazardly, when she and the director Theo van Gogh made a short film for the purpose of publicizing the abuse of women in the Muslim world. A Dutch Moroccan jihadist murdered van Gogh in an Amsterdam street, pinning a note to his corpse to the effect that Hirsi Ali was next in line to be killed. Nothing like this had happened in Holland for centuries. The Dutch ruling class panicked. Her white lie about having been persecuted was used as a pretext to remove her citizenship and therefore her seat in parliament, and the government fell in the ensuing national uproar. Shaking the dust from her feet, Hirsi Ali accepted an offer to work at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where she now resides.
This autobiography, however, is not the story of a nine-day wonder. It is instead a profound challenge to the Muslim world to examine itself and everything that has kept it backward.
Such self-examination and honesty, Hirsi Ali shows, are instruments not of shame but of liberation. Nor need they always be accompanied (as they have been in her case) by a repudiation of faith and custom. If there is hope for reform in Islam, it lies in the example she sets in this book.