Ayaan Hirsi Ali blames Islam for the miseries of the Muslim world. Her new autobiography shows that life is too complex for that
Say what you will about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she fascinates. The Dutch-Somali politician, who has lived under armed guard ever since a fatwa was issued against her in 2004, is a chameleon of a woman. Just 11 years after she arrived in the Netherlands from Africa, she rode into parliament on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, only to leave again last year, this time for America, after an uproar over lies she had told to obtain asylum.
Even the title of her new autobiography reflects her talent for reinvention. In the Netherlands, where Ms Hirsi Ali got her start campaigning against the oppression of Muslim women, the book has been published under the title “My Freedom”. But in Britain and in America, where she now has a fellowship at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, it is called “Infidel”. In it, she recounts how she and her family made the cultural odyssey from nomadic to urban life in Africa and how she eventually made the jump to Europe and international celebrity as the world's most famous critic of Islam.
Read as a modern coming-of-age story set in Africa, the book has a certain charm. Read as a key to the thinking of a woman who aspires to be the Muslim Voltaire, it is more problematic. The facts as Ms Hirsi Ali tells them here do not fit well either with some of the stories she has told in the past or with her tendency in her political writing to ascribe most of the troubles of the Muslim world to Islam.
Ms Hirsi Ali's father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was one of the first Somalis to study overseas in Italy and America. He met his future wife, Asha, when she signed up for a literacy class he taught during Somalia's springtime of independence in the 1960s. The family's troubles began in 1969, the year Ms Hirsi Ali was born. That was also the year that Mohammed Siad Barre, a Somali army commander, seized power in a military coup. Hirsi Magan was descended from the traditional rulers of the Darod, Somalia's second biggest clan. Siad Barre, who hailed from a lesser Darod family, feared and resented Ms Hirsi Ali's father's family, she says. In 1972, Siad Barre had Hirsi Magan put in prison from which he escaped three years later and fled the country. Not until 1978 was the family reunited with him.
As a young woman, Ms Hirsi Ali's mother, Asha, does not seem to have inhabited “the virgin's cage” that the author claims imprisons Muslim women around the world. At the age of 15, she travelled by herself to Aden where she got a job cleaning house for a British woman. Despite her adventurous spirit, in Yemen and later in the Gulf she found herself drawn to the stern Wahhabi version of Islam that would later clash with the more relaxed interpretation of Islam favoured by Ms Hirsi Ali's father and many other Somalis. She and Hirsi Magan fell out not long after the family moved to Kenya in 1980. Hirsi Magan left to join a group of Somali opposition politicians in exile in Ethiopia and did not return to his family for ten years.
Ms Hirsi Ali says her mother had no idea how to raise her children in a foreign city. She frequently beat Ayaan and her sister, Haweya. Although they and their brother, Mahad, attended some of Nairobi's best schools, Haweya and Mahad dropped out early on. Ms Hirsi Ali herself meanwhile fell under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some of the best passages in the book concern this part of her life. As a teenager, Ms Hirsi Ali chose to wear the all-encompassing black Arab veil, which was unusual in cosmopolitan Nairobi. “Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority,” she writes. Even as she wore it, Ms Hirsi Ali was drawn in other directions. She read English novels and flirted with a boy. Young immigrants of any religion growing up with traditional parents in a modern society will recognise her confusion: “I was living on several levels in my brain. There was kissing Kennedy; there was clan honour; and there was Sister Aziza and God.”
Ms Hirsi Ali sounds less frank when she tells the convoluted story of how and why she came to seek asylum at the age of 22 in the Netherlands. She has admitted in the past to changing her name and her age, and to concocting a story for the Dutch authorities about running away from Somalia's civil war. (In fact she left from Kenya, where she had had refugee status for ten years.) She has since justified those lies by saying that she feared another kind of persecution: the vengeance of her clan after she ran away from an arranged marriage.
However, last May a Dutch television documentary suggested that while Ms Hirsi Ali did run away from a marriage, her life was in no danger. The subsequent uproar nearly cost Ms Hirsi Ali her Dutch citizenship, which may be the reason why she is careful here to re-state how much she feared her family when she first arrived in the Netherlands. But the facts as she tells them about the many chances she passed up to get out of the marriage—how her father and his clan disapproved of violence against women; how relatives already in the Netherlands helped her to gain asylum; and how her ex-husband peaceably agreed to a divorce—hardly seem to bear her out.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not the first person to use false pretences to try to find a better life in the West, nor will she be the last. But the muddy account given in this book of her so-called forced marriage becomes more troubling when one considers that Ms Hirsi Ali has built a career out of portraying herself as the lifelong victim of fanatical Muslims.
Another, even more disturbing story concerns her sister Haweya's sojourn in the Netherlands. In her earlier book, “The Caged Virgin”, which came out last year, Ms Hirsi Ali wrote that her sister came to the Netherlands to avoid being “married off”. In “Infidel”, however, she says Haweya came to recover from an illicit affair with a married man that ended in abortion. Ms Hirsi Ali helped Haweya make up another fabricated story that gained her refugee status, but the Netherlands offered her little respite. After another affair and a further abortion, Haweya was put into a psychiatric hospital. Back in Nairobi, she died from a miscarriage brought on by an episode of religious frenzy. “It was the worst news of my life,” Ms Hirsi Ali writes.
Mental illness, abortion, failed marriages, illicit affairs and differing interpretations of religion: much as she tries, the kind of problems that Ms Hirsi Ali describes in “Infidel” are all too human to be blamed entirely on Islam. Her book shows that her life, like those of other Muslims, is more complex than many people in the West may have realised. But the West's tendency to seek simplistic explanations is a weakness that Ms Hirsi Ali also shows she has been happy to exploit.
February 9, 2007
Although I haven't had much time for reading others' blogs recently (or writing on my own), I've come across several posts elsewhere (Umar Lee, Indigo Jo) about Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Infidel. The latest issue of the Economist (February 10-16, 2007) has come out and they have reviewed the book. Interestingly enough, they have panned the book. (The Economist continues to surprise me by both reporting on a considerable number of Muslim issues and providing amazingly fair coverage.) Their review of the book is below. I have highlighted some segments of the review in blue that I think are fairly important.