Ayaan Hirsi Ali


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Infidel Summary

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Infidel (2007, Free Press) is an autobiographical memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born woman who left the Islamic faith and now campaigns for awareness of the plight of women in Muslim societies and for Islamic liberalization. The story begins in her childhood and follows Ayaan as she moves with her family from Mogadishu to Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to Kenya, escapes from a forced marriage and settles in the Netherlands. The book chronicles her controversial activism and her political career, and ends with the murder of her collaborator Theo van Gogh by a Muslim man of Moroccan origin. Reactions to the book have been highly politically charged, with many admirers of Hirsi Ali reviewing it favorably and commending her courage.

The book opens with a series of reminiscences and anecdotes about Ayaan’s childhood that seem to demonstrate the superstition and cruelty that she sees as problematic aspects of Islamic societies. Her given name is Ayaan Hirsi Magan, of the Darod clan. Ayaan’s grandmother makes her and her siblings memorize their lineage going back 800 years, apparently a common practice in cultures where kinship ties often need to be leveraged for material assistance. Her father, Hirsi Magan, is imprisoned on and off for years for his activities in opposition to the USSR-aligned revolutionary government of Somalia (led by Siad Barre). Her mother’s name is Asha. She has an older brother, Mahad, and a younger sister, Haweya. Their lives are rife with beatings, threats and verbal abuse from teachers and parents. At the age of five, her grandmother arranges for her and her sister to undergo a genital mutilation procedure, even though their father, imprisoned at the time, objects to it as barbaric. The practice is common among Somali Muslims as a means of maintaining “purity” in unmarried girls. Many girls die as a result of it.

Eventually Ayaan’s father escapes from prison, fleeing to Ethiopia and later Saudi Arabia. The family relocates to Saudi Arabia in order to be with him, but no sooner do they arrive than the insurgent war against the regime is reignited, and he is called back to the Somali-Ethiopian border. The family lives in Mecca without a male head, severely limiting their opportunity. It is in that country–with its extreme gender segregation and religious control over all aspects of life–that Ayaan encounters the full-fledged conservative Islamic society that would form the context for her later politics and activism. Her mother’s beatings continue.

Eventually the family is reunited with their father and moves to Ethiopia, where he is a respected leader among Somali exiles. But life is dangerous there as a result of Hirsi’s prominent role in the insurgency, and after a year there they flee to Kenya. Ayaan’s mother objects to this move, since Kenya is a non-Muslim country, but goes along with it. Before long, Hirsi is pulled away once again.

In Nairobi, Ayaan attends an Islamic school for girls and becomes fluent in English and Swahili. As the oldest daughter, she is responsible for a great deal of domestic labor, and is punished by her mother if she fails to perform it unquestioningly. Her mother hires a private tutor for her, but he is enraged by her doctrinal challenges, and he beats her. His successor, a female tutor, is more effective and influential. Ayaan’s observance grows stricter even as she continues to privately indulge in forbidden novels and question Islamic doctrines. The common thread is her yearning for a clear understanding of the Prophet’s revelation in the face of apparent inconsistencies.

Ayaan and her sister return to Mogadishu to live with relatives while she works at a United Nations office. During this sojourn, she begins a relationship with her cousin and they secretly marry. Soon, though, the insurgency turns into full-blown civil war, and a rival clan attempts to exterminate the Darod. The sisters flee Mogadishu.

Back in Kenya, Ayaan’s father arranges her marriage to a Canadian man named Osman Moussa. She dislikes him and refuses to go along with the match, but is told that her participation was not required for the ceremony to be valid. She has no choice but to accept the marriage. Osman goes back to Canada to arrange for her visa while she awaits him in Germany.

Once she is on the ground, Ayaan is amazed by the realities of life in Europe. She flees once more, now to the Netherlands. She gains refugee status based on a fabricated story of her escape from Somalia, changing her age and name to avoid detection. Eventually, Osman finds out where she is and comes to the Netherlands to collect her, but she refuses. He has no recourse, and returns to Canada alone. Ayaan attends language school to learn Dutch. She works at a variety of jobs, from cleaning to sorting mail. Later she would work as an interpreter for Muslim refugees at the asylum center where she herself sought refuge. She becomes a Dutch citizen in 1997, five years after fleeing there from Germany.

Eventually she enrolls in Leiden University, where she graduated with a Master of Science degree in Political Science in 2001. During her early years in the Netherlands and while studying at Leiden, she is enchanted by European history, Western civilization, and the peace and prosperity generated by societies founded on tolerance. She increasingly begins to see the adherence of Muslim immigrants in the West to the customs of their communities of origin as problematic, defying the freedoms of conscience and worship that she had grown to treasure.

After graduation, she works for a think tank affiliated with the center-left PVDA. In 2001, she watches the World Trade Center fall and sees Muslim children celebrating in the streets. She disputes those who say that such extremism represents a mere fringe–in her experience, such views are common among Muslims. In 2002, she formally renounces the Islamic faith and begins to comment publicly on issues of Muslim extremism and mistreatment of women. Her increasing profile combined with her public apostasy attracts death threats from Muslims, and she splits with the PVDA over the issue of her protection. The next year, she runs for office with the center-right VVD and is elected to the parliament.

In 2004 she collaborates with director Theo van Gogh on a short film called Submission on the topic of women’s subjugation in Islam. She writes the script and provides the voice-over. The film was released to outrage from Dutch Muslims. The book ends with van Gogh’s murder a few months later.