Book review: Infidel
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press, New York 2007

Infidel is the remarkable autobiography of a courageous and admirable young woman. What is remarkable about it stems mainly from the cultural differences that she describes. In her early life, Aayan Hirsi Ali had a strict and brutal Muslim upbringing within a rigorous clan system in war torn Somalia. She depicts her family life in vivid detail. While not unusual in that context, her account seems extraordinary from our cultural perspective. Included is a brief but rather excruciating description of the circumcision of her brother, and the excision, as she calls it of her sister and herself.

After spending most of her life as a refugee from war and poverty in Nairobi, at 23, Hirsi Ali went to Holland. At 33, she was elected to the Dutch parliament. As she describes this remarkable achievement, at each step it seems that she was only really doing what circumstances and her conscience compelled her to do. She did have the courage however, and the ability, to transcend her culture, and eventually, her religion. The tragedy that she highlights is that so few others, in similar circumstances, manage to achieve this transition. What happens after filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered adds a bizarre twist to the story.

For most of her book, Hirsi Ali is sympathetic to Islam, but as she leaves it after September 11 she fires some telling parting shots. Some of the most insightful views of Islam often come from ex-Muslims, and she is no exception.

For those that seek to explain the motives of the September 11 hijackers as being something other than religion she has the following. Regarding the letter left by Mohamed Atta: "Everything about the tone and substance of that letter was familiar to me. This was not just Islam, this was the core of Islam". (p269)

In describing the strictures of Islam and the complete denial of reason they require, she says "we Muslims had been taught to define life on earth as a passage, a test that precedes life in the hereafter" (p271). This is not inconsistent with the proposition put by Sam Harris, that Islam, more than any other religion, is a "cult of death".

On leaving Dutch Parliament she regarded her work there as largely done, because Islam was now part of the debate. "All kinds of opinion makers were now saying that it was irresponsible and indeed morally wrong to pretend that appeasing Islamic leaders would magically lead to social harmony" (p340). In the on-going freethought debate about whether it is better appease religion or confront it, it is clear where Hirsi Ali's opinions lie.

Infidel is a compelling and moving book. It should be required reading for every Muslim schoolgirl. Although still proud to be Dutch, Hirsi Ali has begun a new academic career in the USA. We may safely assume that we have not heard the last from Aayan Hirsi Ali.

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and is a founding member of  the Secular Party of Australia.

This paper was published in The Australian Atheist, No 3, May-June 2007.
(C) Copyright 2007 John L Perkins