Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's _Infidel_

In this essay, I will briefly summarize the general contents of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2007 book Infidel and then offer some of my reactions to the book.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “My Childhood”, describes Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life in a variety of countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia. She talks about her frequently absent yet loving father, her embittered but protective mother, her often annoying brother, and her free-spirited yet troubled sister. She describes the clan system of Somalia in great detail, and the cultural mores and expectations of Muslims generally and Somalians particularly.

She goes on to describe her life of constant moving and varied cultural environments. Through these many moves she picked up a variety of languages. She describes the horrifying details of the circumcision of all of the children at a very young age. A man cut off her and her sister’s clitori with a scissors when they were five and four years old. Ayaan’s recovery was agonizing, and her sister’s recovery was unspeakably painful. Ayaan believes that the experience did permanent damage to her sister’s view of the world. Her sister, Haweya, will die after a miscarriage many years later after having gone insane.

The second part is called “My Freedom.” Ayaan escaped an arranged marriage by going to Holland and applying for refugee status. As she studied Enlightenment and Western philosophy and political thought, her mind moved ever further away from Islamic teachings about God, our relationship to God, and the relationship between mosque and state. She eventually became an atheist. She later became a prominent politician in Holland after having earned a degree in political science.

In 2004, she wrote the script for a controversial short movie called “Submission.” The famous Dutch provocateur Theo van Gogh directed the film. Ayaan warned him that such a critical statement of Islam would lead to murder attempts. Van Gogh refused any protection and was murdered in broad daylight by Mohammed Bouyeri in November of 2004. Ayaan went into deep hiding and eventually moved to the United States, where she works for the American Enterprise Institute. She still lives under armed protection to this day.

This book was very long and incredibly deep, so I will here mention just a few of my reactions to this book.

The book gives the reader a deep sense of Somalian culture and its clan-based social system. Ali contrasts the Islam of Somalia with the Islam of Saudi Arabia in helpful and informative ways. She gives the reader an amazing insight into the categories through which these cultures perceive the world. With half her life firmly rooted in Islamic Africa, and the other half firmly rooted in the post-Enlightenment West, Ali is in a unique and powerful position to offer this information in a way that the Westerner can understand.

I was moved to tears by the story of Ali’s sister, Haweya. The account of her circumcision and the tension she felt between her obligations as a Muslim woman and her all-too-human failings cannot fail to cripple any reader. Look into her eyes in the photo insert after you have read the book. You will be standing on the edge of eternity.

I see in this book the work of someone who may be remembered in history as the most influential and important feminist of the twenty-first century. Although some in the feminist movement have recognized Ali’s revolutionary power, too many Western feminists either ignore her or even cast aspersions upon her. Ali exposes the weaknesses of Western feminism, which has long ignored the plight and suffering of women in much of the Islamic world. If women in the Christian world—especially in the United States—had to endure what the women Ali describes have to endure, the feminist establishment would be filled with the kind of righteous energy that once drew enlightened souls to its causes. Western feminism lost that energy long ago. Ali now carries that energy into the new century.

Even those who may disagree with some of her views can never question her integrity, sincerity, and importance. She is a woman who rose from the most modest of upbringings to become a woman who is willing to risk her life (she will never be able to live without protection) for the sake of the emancipation of women and men from dangerous and outdated ideas about sex, about women, about homosexuals, and about unbelievers. I believe that there is a real possibility that she may help to start a kind of Reformation in the Islamic world, which would ultimately benefit all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The book is rather long and took me a while to finish. Perhaps there were too many details in there for many; I, however, was so invested in every detail that the length wasn’t a problem. I advise you to spend some time with this woman. Her knowledge is broad and her wisdom is deep. She is a jewel from Somalia for all of us.

And I pray that Haweya has found her peace. The world failed this precious woman.

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