In 2003, Dutch voters voted in as a Member of Parliament a woman of Somalian origin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The remarkable thing about this was that it had been only a decade since Hirsi Ali had been a young refugee seeking asylum in Holland - a complete outsider.
At that point she had never held a job in her life, and knew nothing about European history or of the Dutch language. A Muslim girl brought up in the conservative milieu of Somalia and Saudi Arabia, she was unused to, even shocked by, the values of the West. But in this new world she "saw for the first time that human relations could be different". Her new life gave her a vantage from which to examine the ways of the old, as also a sense of the sovereignty of the individual she had never known before.
The wonder and empowerment of this intellectual journey, more than her physical or the political one, animate the pages of Infidel, Hirsi Ali's plainspeaking and revelatory autobiography. Infidel is about nothing less than a kind of rebirth of the self. In the world Hirsi Ali came from, "because I was born a woman, I could never become an adult", but in the West she was able to become "a person, an individual". Her autobiography - the story of the self's journey through time, contemplating the meanings of what it has gone through, and believing in the value of such a quest - is itself the most powerful symbol of that break.
Ali was born in Somalia, and spent her childhood living in a number of either failed or repressive states while her father, a prominent Somalian opposition leader, cobbled together a resistance against the country's corrupt dictator. The values she grew up with were, on the one hand, those of the clan, and on the other those of Islam. While still a child she had to undergo the female genital mutilation commonly found in, though by no means exclusive to, the Islamic world.
Women had little or no independence: before marriage they were the property of their fathers, and after that of their husbands. In public life there was very little respect for the rule of law, government was hopelessly ineffective and mired in corruption, and the warring clans made a travesty of the idea of a civil society. It is Hirsi Ali's argument in Infidel that all these things were related.
Infidel takes unusual positions on many issues, from religious fundamentalism and feminism to multiculturalism and immigrant assimilation. As someone who has seen and lived through both sides of the story on all these questions, Hirsi Ali's views are arguably more important than those who might approach them in a more theoretical way.
Central to her argument is her wideranging critique of Islam, a religion of which she was once a faithful adherent. Not only that, she also differs from those who would make a careful distinction between mainstream Islam and militant or fundamentalist Islam. Her problem is with what is taught by the Quran itself, and the message of absolute submission it preaches.
Hirsi Ali regards the Quran less as a transcendent text that communicates the word of God than as "a historical record, written by humans". Its mindset is too is that of a certain time and place, that "of the Arab desert in the seventh century". Further, there is no distinction in Islam between the religious and the secular sphere: the Quran legislates on every aspect of life. Women suffer particularly badly, for they are subjugated in the name of the Quran. Their sexuality is seen as provocative and in need of being controlled, and their men are granted absolute rights over them. Many of the Quran's verses propagate ideas incompatible with modern notions of freedom, equality and individual rights, yet debate on these matters is forbidden because "worship of God means total obedience".
In Europe, though, Hirsi Ali finds that nothing is too sacred to be debated. Registering for a degree in political science instead of one of the standard vocational courses preferred by refugees, Hirsi Ali finds her old worldview buffetted by the shock of unfamiliar and startlingly powerful ideas:
In the past, contends Hirsi Ali, the Christian world too was equally close-minded and suffocating, but the revolution ushered in by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment - Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire, Mill, Locke - brought about a separation between the church and the state, and a new respect for reason and the individual's right to choose his or her own way of life. "The Enlightenment," writes Hirsi Ali, "cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kingship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule - so long as he did not threaten civic peace and the freedom of others."
Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas.
People had contested the whole basis of the idea of God's power on earth, and they had done it with reasoning that was beautiful and compelling. Freud said we had power over ourselves. Darwin said creation stories were a fairy tale. Spinoza said there were no miracles, no angels, no need to pray to anything outside ourselves: God was us, and nature. Emil Durkheim said human beings fantasized religion to give themselves a sense of security.
In every way, to read these books of Western history was sinning. Even the history of how modern states formed confronted me with contradictions of my belief in Allah. The European separation of God's word from the state was itself haram. The Quran says there can be no government without God; the Quran is Allah's book of laws for the conduct of worldly affairs.
Almost everything was secular here. Society worked without reference to God, and it seemed to function perfectly…. This man-made system of government was so much more stable, peaceful, prosperous, and happy than the supposedly God-devised systems I had been taught to respect.
In her opinion Islam, too, needs a similar Age of Reformation. She is critical of the way in which Western governments and intellectuals have become nervous about this right to freedom of speech, of free debate and criticism, out of respect for the pieties of multiculturalism and a fear of being called racist. She herself defied those pieties by collaborating with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a short film sharply critical of the treatment of women in Islam. She writes:
When I approached Theo to help me make Submission, I had three messages to get across. First, men, and even women, may look up and speak to Allah: it is possible for believers to have a dialogue with God and look closely at Him. Second, the rigid interpretation of the Quran in Islam today causes intolerable misery for women. Through globalization, more and more people who hold these ideas have traveled to Europe with the women they own and brutalize, and it is no longer possible for Europeans and other Westerners to pretend that severe violations of human rights occur only far away. The third message is the film's final phrase: "I may no longer submit." It is possible to free oneself - to adapt one's faith, to examine it critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.It is a controversial message, liable to further incite the very people it is aimed at. Van Gogh was stabbed to death in 2005 by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin, and Hirsi Ali herself now lives in the United States after facing death threats. But like many of the thinkers she admires, her unorthodox ideas have set off a far-reaching debate. (Time magazine named her one of its "100 Most Influential People of 2005".) This exemplary autobiography provides an unforgettable lens on the most vexing problems of our age.
A crackling discussion of the questions raised by Hirsi Ali's book can be found on the European website Signandsight here, with pieces by Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur and Ulrike Ackermann among others. Another piece, by Christopher Hitchens, is here.
And here is a piece by Hirsi Ali: "The Right to Offend". And in the same vein, a piece by Salman Rushdie, "Defend the Right To Be Offended". And here is a very good essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb: "Three Paths To Modernity: The British, American, and French Enlightenments".
And it seems to me that Infidel might be read very fruitfully in comparison with - even the single-word titles of the books seem to point at each other - Minaret, the novel by Leila Aboulela published two years ago. Aboulela also tells the story of an immigrant Muslim woman arriving in the West in mid-life, but her book charts, just as persuasively, a journey in the direction opposite to that taken by Hirsi Ali. Her protagonist Najwa, floundering in the anomie of the highly secularized world of the West, eventually seeks refuge in the order and certitude of religion, and finds comfort in the sense of being "safe with God". "We never get lost because we can see the minaret of the mosque and head home towards it," goes one sentence of Aboulela's novel.
And two old posts on films with a powerful feminist message: Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor, and Tahmineh Milani's Two Women.