Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali: challenging liberalism and extremism simultaneously

I rarely read non-fiction and even more rarely autobiographies – I tend to be interested in themes, periods or cultures rather than people. That said, I’ve been curious about Ayaan Hirsi Ali for years and her autobiography successfully tackles issues of history, geography, culture and religion – so I was engrossed.

For those unfamiliar with this lady, she is a former Dutch politician who was born in Somalia and grew up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. She moved around often as a child as her father was a rebel against the (nominally) Communist dictator, returning to Mogadishu as a teenager shortly before the civil war tore it apart. She got out of Somalia before the borders closed, then went back to help smuggle other refugees across. She speaks simply about these experiences, as she does of the beatings her mother inflicted on her and the ‘excision’ of her and her sister (i.e. genital mutilation) without sensationalism or even particular bitterness.

Strong-minded and insightful, she came to question the tenets of Islam (having at one point been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) and eventually sought asylum in Holland when she was married off against her will. She put herself through school and university, joining a Labour Party (PvdA) think tank on graduation and unexpectedly being asked to stand for election for the Liberal Party (VVD) after regularly speaking out in the media on the social issues of integration for Muslims in Holland. Her infamous collaboration with controversial film director Theo van Gogh (Submission Part 1), led directly to his murder and she was sent into hiding by the Dutch government. After a bitter wrangle within the VVD, she was stripped of her citizenship (later reinstated) and moved to the US, where she still lives and works within a political think tank.

There’s no way to sum up her life that isn’t intriguing. Her autobiography is consistently engaging, always accessible, often heart-breaking. Her matter of fact approach is part of what makes the book so readable, regardless of how incendiary the topics. She speaks almost entirely of things that will enrage either Westerners or Muslims (or both!), unapologetically and in the interests of debate: she is single-minded in her position that we cannot integrate if there is no dialogue and no respect.

This has been my most thought provoking read in years. She challenges some of my liberal beliefs, and provides context for her arguments that are hard to refute. I have to argue in return that she grew up in a hardline Muslim context – I’d like to argue that there are moderate, liberal, reforming Muslims (in the West at least) – but the 10 years since publication have largely vindicated everything she says.

I am going to have to re-examine various of my views, and read more widely. I think she’d approve – reasoned and informed debate has shaped her adult life, and the fight to bring that freedom to her people will probably keep her beyond busy for the rest of her life.