A couple years ago I saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali in The Unbelievers. She was well spoken in this documentary about science and reason, and I was intrigued by the circumstances that led her to reject her religion, Islam. I recently finished her first autobiography Infidel where she explores this topic in-depth.
I know – a book about religion, sexism, abuse, and refugees doesn’t sound like fun reading. But this book surprised me. I was inspired and transfixed by Ali’s story, and could barely put the book down over the two days it took me to read it.
Insights into a different world
Ali writes clearly and simply, which makes this book all the more powerful. For example, here is how she describes the dichotomy she observes in Saudi Arabia:
People were patient with each other in the Grand Mosque, and communal — everyone washing his or her feet in the same fountain, with no shoving or prejudice. We were all Muslims in God’s house, and it was beautiful. It had a quality of timelessness. I think this is one reason Muslims believe that Islam means peace: because in a large, cool place full of kindness you do feel peaceful.
But as soon as we left the mosque, Saudi Arabia meant intense heat and filth and cruelty. People had their heads cut off in public squares. Adults spoke of it. It was a normal, routine thing: after the Friday noon prayer you could go home for lunch, or you could go and watch the executions.
She is not afraid to describe the good, the bad, and the ugly in this book. It’s an eye-opening look into Muslim culture and a world that I usually only glimpse on TV.
For most of the book, Ali describes growing up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya with her family. She lives with her mother, sister, and brother after being abandoned by her father.
Ali grew up under strict cultural and Muslim rules. Her genitals were sewn shut at the age of seven (I could barely read those passages), she attended segregated Muslim schools, and experimented with different ways to cover up her body through headscarves and robes. She had many questions about religion, sexuality, and equality as a child, but rarely were they answered to her satisfaction.
Eventually, Ali escapes an arranged marriage that her father sets up, and is accepted into Holland as a refugee. She learns Dutch and works hard to pursue a degree in political science. In a few years, she makes a name for herself and is elected as a MP.
In Holland, her faith starts to dissolve, and combined with the 9/11 attacks, she starts questioning her beliefs. She writes:
Surely, no Muslim could continue to ignore the clash between reason and our religion? For centuries, we had been behaving as though all knowledge was in the Quran, refusing to question anything, refusing to progress. We had been hiding from reason for so long because we were incapable of facing up to the need to integrate it into our beliefs. And this was not working: it was leading to hideous pain and monstrous behaviour.
There are big, sweeping generalizations in this paragraph for sure, but this statement hit me because it’s not unique to the Muslim religion. All religions have an element of blind faith, and people who question it are often outcasts.
There has to be room to ask questions, innovate, and adapt in all areas of our lives – even religion. We can’t “ignore the clash between reason and our religion”, even if it’s seen as sacrilegious. It’s an uphill battle, and I commend Ali for being brave enough to take a stand and point out when religion hinders us instead of helps us.
A controversial woman
At first, I felt uncomfortable reading and writing about this book because I know there is a large population in the world who condemns her. She speaks out about changing and reforming Islam, and not as much about how to understand and integrate with Muslim populations. She is biased based on her upbringing, and makes generalizations about immigrants, Muslims, and women that can be extreme (especially if taken out of context).
However, I admire the fact that Ali is a woman who is not afraid to share unpopular and controversial opinions.
Even if you’re a bit turned off by her opinions, I still recommend this book to learn more about an inspiring woman who stands up for her beliefs. Besides being an amazing rags to riches story, Ali’s story is full of bravery, hard work, and the willingness to learn and adapt.