The book is Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman from a strict Muslim upbringing, with an unquenchable curiosity and a passion to bring justice to oppressed women and girls. Her story is both horrifying and inspiring, enlightening and provocative. It's the kind of memoir that makes you grateful for every little thing you have that you normally take for granted. Like genitals that aren't mutilated, for example, or the freedom to go in and out of your house whenever you want.
Born in Somalia, into a culture that values honor above all, Ali learned early on to protect and defend her family's honor by utter submission within the clan, and retaliation outside of it. When her grandmother called her stupid, and hit her, she was not permitted to talk back; but when a schoolmate struck her in the face, Ali's older cousin, supported by her family, ridiculed her for not retaliating, and forced her to fight until both girls were bloody.
Ali recalls that by the time she was ten, she had lived through three different political systems,
all of them failures. The police state in Mogadishu rationed people into hunger and
bombed them into obedience. Islamic law in Saudi Arabia treated half
its citizens like animals, with no rights or recourse, disposing of women
without regard. And the old Somali rule of the clan, which saved you
when you needed refuge, so easily broke down into suspicion, conspiracy and
Also during those early years, she endured the excruciating horror of genital excision, sometimes called female circumcision, which involved a home surgery so horrific that I can't describe it in a PG-rated blog. On the same day, her brother and sister underwent the "necessary and proper dignity of purification" as well, on a table in the bedroom. Ali remembers her brother's silent tears and her sister's screams as the itinerant circumciser wielded his scissors. She was five years old, her sister four, her brother six.
Besides experiencing the ritual abuse and cultural disregard for girls, Ali also contended with a mostly absent father and a hardened, bitter mother who dispensed affection frugally but fierce punishment and criticism liberally. In spite of all of this suffering and disappointment, the tone of Ali's memoir is astonishingly affable, matter-of-fact, and even forgiving.
Ali escapes to Holland to avoid an arranged marriage--and this becomes a place of enormous change, growth, and challenge for her. Three years after successfully seeking asylum, Ali finds herself translating for other asylum seekers. She obtains a degree in political science, and eventually--you might think this sounds like a fairy tale, but it really happened--becomes a member of the Dutch Parliament.
The memoir not only traces the author's travels across countries, continents, political systems, and cultures, but it also narrates her journey from Islam to atheism. This aspect of Ali's compelling life story accentuated the strength of her character, her courage, and her bright, questioning intellect. The destination of atheism, by the time Ali arrives there, more than three-quarters of the way through her narrative, seems almost inevitable.
Is that strange for me to say? I'm a person of deep Christian faith, with no inclination to ditch it. I suspect that one of my favorite atheists, Christopher Hitchens (who wrote the forward to Infidel, and who has become friends with the author), would argue that Ali's gradual intellectual abandonment of her faith logically applies to any faith, to believe in God in any form and by any name.
But that's only true if all faiths are fundamentally the same. I'm one of Richard Dawkins' deluded believers: Jesus teaches a counter-intuitive gospel (love your enemies; take up your cross) that rejects the do-it-yourself salvation of other faiths. I don't feel threatened by Ali's conversion from Islam to atheism; in fact, I think her truth-telling is brave and inspiring. Hitchens' forward asserts that you can't read Infidel "and expect to be confirmed in the rightness of your 'own' religion as against the 'other' one," and that's true. But "not confirming" does not equate with disproving or discrediting.
I recommend Infidel to my vast Green Room audience, and I'd like to know what you think about it.