A risky life story, sensitively told
|Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Born in Somalia in 1969, Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled an arranged marriage at the age of 22 and won refugee status in Holland. Five years later she proudly became a Dutch citizen, and six years after that a Dutch member of parliament and an international celebrity. It's a remarkable life story, and in Infidel she tells it with considerable literary flair.
Raised by her mother and grandmother, Ali spent her formative years in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, an unsettled life shaped by her father's active role in Somali opposition politics. In prison or working underground and away from his family during much of Ali's youth, her father seems more a spectral presence than an everyday influence. Yet in the pre-modern patriarchal culture of Somalia, even absentee fathers remain immensely powerful and controlling figures. Ali's tough struggle to reconcile her feelings for her father, a man she loved and revered as a child, with her emerging sense of herself as an independent modern woman in Holland is one of the most affecting features of her book.
The headline moments in Ali's European life make for a gripping tale. She quickly rose to prominence in Holland in 2001 when, immediately after the September 11 attacks, she began speaking out against Muslim segregation in Europe, challenging the Dutch multicultural model and publicizing the brutality that many Muslim women suffered at the hands of the men inside their Dutch ethnic enclaves. Invited to stand as a Liberal candidate in the 2002 parliamentary elections, she accepted with the goal of advancing the cause of Muslim women in Holland. As she puts it, "I was a one-issue politician."
Her public statements so inflamed Muslim opinion in some quarters that she soon required 24-hour bodyguards. Then, a few months after the broadcast of a film she had made with Theo van Gogh in 2004, a Muslim extremist shot van Gogh and stabbed a letter into his corpse with a knife. The threatening letter was addressed to Ali. Dutch security services were so spooked that they immediately whisked the young MP out of the country and placed her under protective guard for several weeks at an anonymous Massachusetts motel.
All of these developments earned Ali much media attention, as did the uproar in Holland when her citizenship was almost revoked in 2006. The law-and-order immigration minister, having suddenly withdrawn Ali's citizenship on the grounds that she had used a false name when applying for naturalization, was forced by outraged public opinion to back down. (When Ali had sought Dutch refugee status in 1992, she had altered her name so that her Somali clan would have difficulty locating her.) Ultimately Ali's citizenship was reconfirmed, and the minister's clumsy handling of the affair brought down Holland's coalition government. Ali, who had by then tired of politics, had already decided to leave parliament and take a job as a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington (where she now works). She was thought by some to have been hounded out of Holland, but she stoutly denies this, affirms her strong attachment to the country that took her in and insists she is happy to remain a Dutch citizen.
Below the dramatic surface of these public events in the Netherlands runs an even more engaging personal narrative that only a writer as sensitive as this one could deliver well. It is the story of how a thoughtful young Somali female, deeply embedded in her culture's all-embracing patriarchal clan system and held in Islam's firm grip, gradually developed the intellectual and emotional wherewithal to break away. In pursuit of her freedom Ali had to sever family ties and separate herself from the network of clan support by which most Somalis survive at home and abroad. She also turned away from Islam and became a vocal critic not only of Muslim extremism but also of mainstream Muslim practices. Her evolution was painstaking and fraught with personal risk, but as a writer she makes the most of her struggle, lacing her memoir with shrewd commentary on the cultural jolts and epiphanies she experienced as she entered European life and abandoned her past.
Ali's journey from the ancient Muslim world of East Africa to full integration into post-modern Europe spans by some measures more than 1,000 years. She made it in roughly one decade. Without support from the generous Dutch welfare state in her first years in Holland, her destiny might have been more humble, but thereafter her achievements have been hers alone. She earned a degree at the illustrious University of Leiden while supporting herself as a translator, and made her mark as a public figure through her work as a writer. Not yet 40 years old, and exceptionally talented, courageous and determined, Ayaan Hirsi Ali must surely be counted among the most remarkable public intellectuals of our time.
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2007, 353 pages, $32.00 (hardcover).