Thursday, October 01, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Infidel

Shop Indie Bookstores
If One of Us was the story of fanaticism grown in a sea of political tolerance, Infidel is the story of political understanding grown in a sea of conservatism, which some might and do call fanaticism. The books segued nicely into each other though, as usual, I had no master plan when I read the books back to back. One of the joys of being a voracious and somewhat indiscriminate- while also particular- reader is the "mash ups" that happen. One of Us followed by Infidel is one of those mash ups.

The other thing about Infidel is that it's one of those books, like The Emperor's New Drugs, is both totally readable, totally convincing, and totally against everything you think you know to be true. I think it's a good thing to read things like this. In Infidel's case, the book is exceptionally moving (not so much with The Emperor's New Drugs) and hard to put down. You'll want to recommend it to your friends. You'll want to talk about it with your friends. And your friends might look at you like you're at least half mad.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (she's famous so I'm not spoiling anything) was born in Somalia and lived there, Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia as a girl. She was raised Muslim in Muslim countries and was a believer. Eventually she sought and received asylum in Holland, where she eventually stood for and won political office. After about 10 years she left Holland and now lives in the United States. From the beginning, according to Hirsi Ali's memoir, and we all know that we are the heroes of our own movies, so who knows how early this consciousness really came to her, Hirsi Ali realized that it sucked to be a woman where she lived, as a member of the religion she believed in. Women were second class citizens- her grandmother describes a "woman alone [as being] like a piece of sheep fat in the sun." A distasteful class of person, to be sure. Hirsi Ali's mother made some bold and dangerous choices- divorcing her first husband and marrying for love. This didn't work out so well for her or her family in many ways, even though it seemed a potential modern path. But she also wanted to (and did) bring her family to Saudi Arabia, believing this was the land of true Muslims, which young Hirsi Ali found eminently stifling. She beat the crap out of Hirsi Ali and her younger sister. From an early age, she raised Hirsi Ali to be an adult woman: cooking, cleaning, etc. In Ethiopia, she paid little attention when Hirsi Ali's religious teacher gave her such a beating that she nearly died.

Hirsi Ali first began to think critically and then slowly began to rebel against her religion, which she had taken up wholeheartedly, even donning a hidjab when she didn't have to. She resisted "women's traditional subjugation... Even as a child, I could never comprehend the downright unfairness of the rules, especially to women. How could a just God-a God so just that almost every page of the Quran praises His fairness-desire that women be treated so unfairly? When the ma'alim told us that a woman's testimony is worth half of a man's, I would think, Why?" She goes on:
A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions and longings I felt when I read [romance novels]. A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit: that is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside.
Eventually, Hirsi Ali decides this isn't for her. She develops a sense of self, gets college educated, etc. She stands up for herself, gets her arranged marriage nullified, etc. She also realizes that she is a single-issue politician: she would fight for women's rights. And as her internal voice grew in strength, it also began to be heard. When 9/11 happened, she was horrified: everyone in dear, well-meaning, politically correct Holland (think Oakland/Berkeley on politically correct PEDs) was saying that Islam had nothing to do with it. Hirsi Ali didn't think so: "it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam." Eventually she went on to leave her religion, but this was a defining moment for her:
It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam. War had been declared in the name of Islam, my religion, and now I had to make a choice. Which side was I on? I found I couldn't avoid the question. Was this really Islam? Did Islam permit, even call for, this kind of slaughter? Did I, as a Muslim, approve of the attack? And if I didn't, where did I stand on Islam?

Delving into what she's been taught (and what the readers have learned, if they're following along), Hirsi Ali explains that, in her interpretation and the interpretation of her family, neighbors, countrymen and teachers, Islam is about obedience to Allah: "We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert in the seventh century. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves." She realized that most women in Holland were living post-Enlightenment European lives, while Muslim women in Holland were not: they were covered, couldn't leave home without the permission of the men in their lives, were excised on kitchen tables, and were in arranged marriages. And yet, she was shut down by her adopted-countrymen when she brought this up. She lived under armed protection for months (years?) due to the immense reactions to her statements. She is hated by many on the left for suggesting that religion- a specific religion- is a problem and that tolerance and avoidance of the issue are also at fault.

This is a new, unsettling idea for me. I can't condone it, but I can't, after reading Hirsi Ali, condemn it, either. I was a religion major for a reason: religion is this giant driving force that drives so many (maybe all) of the people in the world, whether as individuals or as societal groups, that so many of us in "liberal," modernized societies don't want to look at or talk about or touch because we're modern and liberal. We've "separated" religion from the state, so we're uncomfortable thinking about how religion might actually influence the state or the people. And yet it does, so very clearly. And as Hirsi Ali argues, a hands-off approach can have dire consequences for individuals and for the state. This book is a must read. It will shake you and leave you thinking.


thb said...

I also read this book in 2015 and thought it terrific for all the reasons themacinator did: provocative and an insider's view that is rarely shown with this much intimacy AND intellectual fervor. Even more, that author turns to the right, no Hollywood ending here! thb