Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. New York: Free Press, 2007. 353 pp. $26.00 (cloth).
Infidel is a heroic, inspiring story of a courageous woman who escapes the hell of a woman’s life in the Muslim world and becomes an outspoken and blunt defender of the West. Ms. Hirsi Ali takes the reader on her own journey of discovery, and enables him to see, through concretes and by sharing her thought processes, how she arrived at the conclusion that Islam is a stagnant, tyrannical belief system and that the Enlightenment philosophy of the West is the proper system for human beings.
In Part I, Ms. Hirsi Ali describes her childhood in Muslim Africa and the Middle East. With her father imprisoned for opposing Somalia’s communist dictator Siad Barré and her mother often preoccupied with finding food for her family, young Ayaan and her siblings grew up listening to the ancient legends their grandmother told them—legends glorifying the Islamic values of honor, family clans, physical strength, and aggression. Born in 1969 in Somalia, Ms. Hirsi Ali moved frequently with her family to escape persecution and civil war, living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. At a colonially influenced Kenyan school, she discovered Western ideas, in the form of novels, “tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust and friendship. These were not like my grandmother’s stark tales of the clan, with their messages of danger and suspicion. These stories were fun, they seemed real, and they spoke to me as the old legends never had” (p. 64).
Forced into an arranged marriage, she was shipped to Germany to stay with distant family while awaiting a visa for Canada to join the husband she didn’t know. At age twenty-two, alone and with nothing but a duffle bag of clothes and papers, she took a train to Holland to escape the dreary life of a Muslim wife-slave. “It was Friday, July 24, 1992, when I stepped on the train. Every year I think of it. I see it as my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own” (p. 188).
In Part II, Ms. Hirsi Ali shares her wonder of arriving in modernity, and her relentless effort to create a productive, independent life for herself. After being granted asylum, she worked menial jobs, learned Dutch, became a Swahili translator, earned a vocational degree, and finally graduated with a degree in political science from one of Holland’s most prestigious universities. An outspoken advocate of the rights of Muslim women, she was elected to the Dutch parliament in 2003, as a “one-issue politician”—she “wanted Holland to wake up and stop tolerating the oppression of Muslim women in its midst” and to “spark a debate among Muslims about reforming aspects of Islam so people could begin to question” (p. 295). She became a notorious critic of Islam, at one point daring to call the Prophet Muhammad a pervert for consummating marriage with one of his many wives when she was only nine years old. In 2004, she made a short film called Submission: Part 1 in which she depicted women mistreated under Islamic law raising their heads and refusing to submit any longer. Tragically, the film’s producer, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered by an offended Muslim, who left on van Gogh’s body a letter threatening Ms. Hirsi Ali with the same fate. Since 2004, Ms. Hirsi Ali has had to live under the constant watch of bodyguards, often going into hiding for months at a time.
Although the straight facts of her life are in and of themselves admirable, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s intellectual journey as presented in Infidel is truly awe inspiring. This journey begins in Africa in the disturbingly dark world of Islam—with its disdain for thought and reason, its self-sacrificial ethics, and its corrupt, tyrannical politics—and ends in the West with her having become an outspoken champion of reason and freedom. . . .