Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been reviewed everywhere already, and there’s no way to do justice to Ali’s story without reprinting her entire book. If there’s any book we’ve discussed that must be read in its entirety to receive the full impact, this is it.
In trying to think about what I could add to the discourse, I’m going to focus on how Ali’s story mirrors my own journey from fundamentalist to skeptic. Although my childhood was nowhere near as severely limited as Ali’s and I did not suffer any of the physical or cultural constraints and abuse that Ali experienced, I found that I was very familiar with the path Ali’s life followed:
- nominally believing in religion as a young child
- buying into extremism as a teenager
- finding that reading and exposure to different experiences punched holes in my mental wall of protection
- first hesitantly, and then excitedly, stepping outside religious boundaries to find freedom
- ultimately finding a way to tell my story and use my voice to speak out against the extremism that I once bought into
The first half of Infidel traces Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s childhood as she travels with her family from Somalia to Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to Kenya. “I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.” So begins a recitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s family history. When Infidel opens, we see the five-year-old girl memorizing her bloodline as part of her indoctrination into Somalian tribal society and the flavor of Islam that her family adhered to.
Throughout most of her childhood, Ali’s family practiced a non-political form of Islam that, while still extremist, was not enforced by the government. The exception was the one year that her family spent in Saudi Arabia, doomed from the start when a male relative failed to show up at the airport when Ali, her sister, and her mother arrived, and they found it was illegal for them to take a taxi without a male chaperone. Even without government enforcement, the Islam that Ali grew up with was severe: Ali’s brother was given priority over the two sisters and did not even have to respect his own mother, the children had to memorize the Koran even when they did not understand the language it was written in, and Ali was beaten almost to death by a ma’alim (religion teacher) who thought she was not being disciplined enough by her mother (even though she also frequently beat her daughter in a way that would land you in jail in the United States). Although Ali was not devout, she nonetheless believed what her elders taught her about religion.
As a school girl, Ali read novels and she sometimes also snuck out to see movies, which were her only contact with Western society. While this may seem like a minor point, the stories had a huge impact on her. Reading is not to be underestimated, even trashy novels can have a big impact on those who don’t know anything about secular culture. At the same time that Ali started reading Harlequin romance novels, she was introduced to a new teacher at school. The romance novels gave her a look into Western sexuality and culture, and her new teacher gave her a look into the political world of Islamic extremism. From the books she read, for the first time Ali learned that women had a choice. And when she was 16, facing the complexities of adolescence and adulthood, she chose to become a “true Muslim,” by following a radical and political interpretation of Islam–one that she still claims to be the core of Islam even after rejecting her former faith. She found power in submission: praying five times a day, wearing a headscarf and a black hidjab, avoiding the seductions of Satan. “It had a thrill to it, a sensuous feeling,” she wrote. “It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected, but potentially lethal, femininity.”
Nothing in my life was as extreme as what happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I grew up in suburban Long Island among Catholics, Jews and people of many different backgrounds and nationalities; I memorized Bible verses, but in English and voluntarily; I had pastors that thought my mother, my sister, and I were too independent, but my mother taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be as a woman; I wore dresses and skirts and didn’t watch TV for years, but I was never beaten (more than a token spanking) by anyone. Ever. But I still relate to Ali’s journey, which is what makes this book so wonderful. To be given the chance to enter someone else’s life and to feel their experiences, even at a great distance, opens the door to understanding and compassion. It should be the goal of every writer to create such an open door with their words.
I’ll write about the second half of Infidel in a separate post, and then we’ll get started on Irreligion by John Allen Paulos.