Book Review: Infidel


Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 and raised by a mother and grandmother that neither wanted nor appreciated her. In fact, they brutally beat her constantly. As a girl in a Muslim world, Ayaan Hirsi was a useless liability. Yet, despite all the obstacles in her path, she was able to flee her oppressive culture, earn a university degree, get elected to the Dutch Parliament, and emigrate to the United States where she now works at the American Enterprise Institute.

Infidel is an autobiographic account of Ayaan Hirsi’s harrowing journey from oppression to freedom and Islam to atheism. As I read the story about her grandmother holding her down as a man crudely cut off her genitals I seethed with indescribable anger. When I read of her perseverance in attaining her degree in political science I was inspired. When I read of the plight of refugees in camps along the Kenyan border I was saddened and moved to tears. Infidel moved me; it inspired me.

In Somalia, where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam. Uncircumcised girls will be possessed by devils, fall into vice and perdition, and become whores.

Religion makes good people do very bad things. Ayaan Hirsi’s own grandmother arranged for the genital mutilation and held her down while it was performed by “an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan.”

Then the scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs, indescribable, and I howled. Then came the sewing: the long, blunt needle clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia, my loud and anguished pretests, Grandma’s words of comfort and encouragement. “It’s just this one in your life, Ayaan. Be brave, he’s almost finished.” When the sewing was finished, the man cut the thread off with his teeth.

Once, when Ayaan Hirsi refused to participate in a Quran lesson taught by an itinerant ma’alim, he and another man beat her so severely it fractured her skull.

They dragged me inside and the ma’alim blindfolded me with a cloth and started to hit me with all his strength with a sharp stick, to teach me a lesson.

He grabbed my braided hair and pulled my head back, and then he shoved it against the wall. I distinctly heard a cracking noise. Then he stopped.

The next day her mother and grandmother tied her up, beat her, and left her on the floor to teach her the same lesson.

One of the more sobering accounts in the book is of a young Kenyan boy accused of stealing. A crowd captured him and spontaneously began to stone him for his alleged crime.

There were stones, shrieks, kicks, more stones. People were shouting MWIZI, MWIZI, “Thief, Thief.” The kid was severely wounded. Blood was streaming from his head. Every blow made him bleed more. His eyes were so swollen you couldn’t see them anymore. Then someone kicked him hard, in the mouth, and he just lay there, on the ground, twitching.

To escape an arranged marriage Ayaan Hirsi fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and eventually citizenship. She worked her way through school working as a translator. After graduating she fought for refugee rights and to protect women from the brutality of Islam. This activism eventually won her a seat in the Dutch Parliament.

The brutality she suffered and witnessed in Islamic culture caused her great confusion, especially when contrasted with the humane and effective, mostly secular European culture. Eventually she realized Allah was not real.

I could no longer avoid seeing the totalitarianism, the pure moral framework that is Islam. It regulates every detail of life and subjugates free will. True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty.

If you believe that Allah predestines all, and life on earth is simply a waiting room for the Hereafter, does that belief have no link to the fatalism that so often reinforces poverty?

The same could be asked of belief in a Christian god. In fact, the similarities between Islam and Christianity were surprising to me. Ayaan Hirsi’s path to atheism was also very similar to my own. Reason for her eventually trumped dogma. Her feelings after realizing she no longer believed in god and mine are alike.

I had no one to talk to about this. One night in that Greek hotel I looked in the mirror and said out loud, “I don’t believe in God.” I said it slowly, enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief.

It felt right. There was no pain, but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure and carefully tiptoeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out, piece by piece–that was all over. The angels, watching from my shoulders; the mental tension about having sex without marriage, and drinking alcohol, and not observing any religious obligations–they were gone. The ever-present prospect of hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

I loved reading Infidel! It makes me feel less alone as an atheist. It makes me appreciate the many material advantages I often take for granted. It makes me appreciate more my family and friends who support and lift me. It makes me feel like anything is possible if I but persevere. It makes me hate the scourge of religion and its corrosive effects even more.

6 Replies to “Book Review: Infidel”

  1. Mike and Kim says: Reply

    Wow. I’m constantly amazed and inspired by the obstacles some people overcome. It sounds like a great read!

  2. Wow, interesting. We have quite a few Somalis here, now (and they're reasonably conspicuous because black people are still a very small minority here). I think I'd be pretty safe in saying that most people have no idea what they have been through, and therefore often not much compassion. To most of us they are just these mysterious dark brown women in unusual dress; or cab drivers with poor English who have trouble finding anything but the airport.

    1. It's difficult to imagine just how desperate the situation is over there. Reading Ayaan Hirsi's account made me feel grateful for everything I have: possessions, security, freedom.

  3. @Steven – It's difficult to imagine just how desperate the situation is over there. Reading Ayaan Hirsi's account made me feel grateful for everything I have: possessions, security, freedom.

  4. I loved that Ayaan was able to walk away from a lifetime of abuse and repression, and still believe in herself and in humankind. The emotional stress and bitterness diminished the potential of so many (and understandably so) in the book. I felt her frustration with this in the book. Which I think only fueled her drive to continue her education and fight Islam. Unfortunately, the control religion has in our lives doesn't stop at the Somali border.

    1. Excellent comment, Kim. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

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