Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is the latest book we've read for the book club here in Santiago. It is very different from everything else I've read and reviewed here mainly because it is a straight up autobiography. As such, I will not review it in the same fashion as other books and instead give my overall impression as I briefly summarize it.

The book details the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Muslim Somalia and how she ends up with a political career in the Netherlands. It's a book of a painful life as she struggles through cultural and religious oppression and achieves her freedom, a freedom that costs her dearly and places her life in mortal danger. It is not a light, easy book and will instead force you to think about some potentially controversial subjects.

Now, on to the review.

This book was fascinating, though parts of it were very cruel and difficult to read. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 and lived through a time of civil unrest. Her father was a leader in the opposition force to the government at the time and was in prison for Hirsi Ali's early childhood. Because of the political turmoil in Somalia, Ayaan and her family fled to Saudia Arabia, then Ethiopia, and finally Kenya. The book relates the lifestyle they had in all those countries and does a good job of contrasting them.

Of the four countries in Hirsi Ali's early life, Saudia Arabia may have been the most economically advanced, but it was also one of the more repressive ones. When they arrived, since a man was not with them (it was Hirsi Ali, her sister and brother, and her mother), they were not allowed to leave the airport. This was a constant problem there as women are not supposed to be outside without a man. This was a recurring theme throughout the book: that in Islamic culture men practically own their women. Her presentation of Islam is one of an obsession with submission, obedience, and prevention of sin at the expense of personal liberty and freedom. It can be a bit heavy handed at times, but Hirsi Ali tries to ease you into this way of life by having you follow her through the innocence of childhood, the conflicting teenager years, and then the maturity of adulthood.

I have never lived in a country as it breaks down by civil war, nor have been mutilated, beaten, or punished in the name of purity and honor and preventing sin. As such, it was enlightening to read about Hirsi Ali's difficult childhood. She presents it as normal in these countries, but as morally incorrect and as a Western audience I sympathized with her. The sheer brutality that women (and to an extent men as well) experience in those countries was staggering. These parts can be hard to read for some people, but can be a real eye-opener if you give them the chance. It may feel like it's from the Dark Ages, but it was actually the 1970s.

When she reaches Holland in 1992, it is as an act of defiance in order to escape her arranged marriage. She lives in fear of her father and other members of her clan who see it as a dishonorable act to not do as her father says. As she lives in Holland, she feels liberated from the clutches of her culture and religion. The happiest parts of the book are probably here, when she is slowly freeing herself and truly finding her path. The book does slow down a bit afterwards as she starts reflecting about her religious and political beliefs. It's well presented, though, so you can see how her opinions have evolved and, more importantly, can understand why her beliefs have caused such an uproar. You can see how Holland responds to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and how Hirsi Ali's life is put in danger by Islamic extremists. I remember how the US and Puerto Rico reacted to 9/11 and this book helps put things in a broader perspective.

Throughout the book, but especially at the end, she is highly critical of Islam and of Muslim society. I would encourage readers to approach this with an open mind and just see what she has to say. You may disagree with her opinions, but in a free and open society you still have to respect her. It reminds me of many movements were women have stood up and spoken out for their rights and are threatened and harassed for doing so (for example, recent issues with GamerGate). An interesting counterpoint is that while in the West, these issues can result in death threats directly to the women, in Hirsi Ali's case these threats come first through her father (since she is unmarried). That is: they contact the man "in charge" of her. It's a subtle point that emphasizes the differences between men and women in Islamic society.

Overall, the book was a fascinating read and a look into a different society and way of living. Hirsi Ali presents her story very well and makes you sympathize with her plight. You learn a lot about the Somali lifestyle, about Islam, and about how women are treated in other parts of the world. It's a book that makes you think about human rights and religion in the modern era.

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