I first heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali around 2007. At the time, I was just beginning to explore atheism and its ramifications actively. Hers was the latest shiny name in the atheist world, since she had recently published her autobiography, Infidel. Through the blog world, probably mostly via Friendly Atheist, I had heard fragments of her story: a woman who grew up in a Muslim country and later rejected Islam so thoroughly that the offended Muslims called for her to be killed.
So, when in the summer of 2008, I chanced upon Infidel in the Sunnyvale library, I was excited to read it. And, I was right to be excited. Within just a few pages, I had already been enchanted by her fascinating web of stories about her childhood.
Soon, however, it became clear that there was much more to her life and her book than just an interesting cast of family members; she had a message to transmit, and it was one that I distinctly did not want to hear. Despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, I really want to believe that people are mostly good, and that no society would embrace beliefs and actions that are inconsistent with being good people. (How many counterexamples must I see to rid myself of this viewpoint? Who knows… And yes, I am entirely aware that my standards are higher than almost anyone else’s.) In the past, I have attacked people rather ferociously for claiming that proponents of Islam (or any other religion or culture, for that matter) are primarily problematical people; surely the vast majority of them must be reasonable.
Ali points out several problems with Muslim society. In Infidel, she is primarily concerned with its treatment of women. Like most (all?) other major religions, Islam encourages horrific subjugation of women and is supported in this by its holy text. But, while other religions have made at least a little bit of progress toward rectifying the worst abuses and injustices, Islam is stuck in the 7th century, when the Quran was written. In much of the Muslim world, in 2010, women are still the property of their husbands, fathers, or brothers, and can be beaten and sexually abused at the whims of random males. Worse, they don’t seem to think that there’s anything wrong with this picture. Surprisingly, women frequently involve themselves actively in furthering this subjugation.
Granted, this is far from the picture I see among Muslims I know. But it’s very unlikely that what I see is representative of the larger portion of the population: those I know have (as far as I can tell) largely adopted western values and would probably be among the most progressive members of society were they to find themselves in a predominantly Muslim country, such as Somalia (where Ali was born).
It’s hard to argue with her — she has lived there and experienced it firsthand. Furthermore, she has told the outside world about it, only to be rewarded by having her collaborator murdered while announcing that he was coming for her next. She must be right; why else would people be so upset as to threaten to kill her? And the threats are sufficiently serious that she has to take bodyguards with her everywhere she goes for the rest of her life.
After being forced into an arranged marriage, Ali fled to the Netherlands, where she was given refugee status. At the time, she was still a Muslim, trying to hold onto her beliefs in a culture in which they no longer seemed to make much sense. Eventually, she renounced Islam and became an atheist. She started to criticize Islam publicly; this led to the further rejection of her family, who had already been socially damaged by her decision to bolt from her forced marriage and were very unhappy with her.
After hearing Ali talk last week, I read her latest book, Nomad. She begins by talking about her attempts at reconciliation with her family. Missing from these chapters are the captivating stories sprinkled throughout Infidel. In their place is a serious sad tales of a family torn apart by religious belief and lack thereof. Her parents were largely unwilling to accept a non-Muslim daughter. Her conversations with her father mostly involved him reciting large chunks of the Quran in a frantic attempt to convert her back to Islam. Her conversations with her mother included fits of rage and guilt-tripping attempts, on the grounds that her mother expected to be punished for her daughter’s disbelief.
When reading Infidel, I was able to see that the situation is very bad for Muslim women, and in particular, she has a lot of sensible things to say about the evils of female genital mutilation, to which 98% of Somali women are subjected. What I had not realized was that the situation is also very bad for Muslim boys. Ali’s older brother, Mahad, was at one time a very promising student, consistently inspiring glowing reports from his teachers and scoring among the top few students in the country on exams. However, now he is a severely depressed man, unable to do anything properly. Boys are subjected to verbal abuse, constantly being told that they are failures who will bring dishonor to their families. They are always expected to be perfect and are chastised for even the faintest blemish. Mahad was regularly told that he was a disgrace, that he was not his father’s son, and was beaten brutally by his father for anything and everything. Such treatment is typical. Expected to live up to such absurd expectations, many boys eventually rebel and turn to a life of crime; many of those who don’t become severely depressed.
While Infidel is an autobiography, Nomad is partially also a treatise on the problems with Muslim society and a plea for the western world to do something about them. She focuses on what she considers to be the three main problems: sex, money, and violence. All of these are handled in a much more sensible manner in the west. She was shocked when she first moved to the Netherlands that people could talk about these things openly and responsibly, even with fairly young children, and society didn’t crumble as a result. In fact, by virtue of talking about them, Dutch adults were much better equipped to be responsible in these areas. In order to acclimate refugees in these areas, Ali recommends that, when people are offered refugee status, they also be given a crash course in how these things are viewed in western society. I think that’s a very good idea; it will help people avoid some serious problems that she and many other people she knew encountered upon moving to the Netherlands.
After a while, she moved from the Netherlands to America and finally reached a culture that I have been immersed in and may be able to discuss intelligently from my own experiences. I find some of her observations baffling. Perhaps she’s still a starry-eyed newcomer to this country (she moved to the US in 2007), as she seems not to notice any of the problems that are so obvious an troubling to me. For example, she discusses the American ideal of family and contrasts it with that of Europe. The difference is that the American structure is far more rigid, with only really acceptable family being a man and a woman married and with some kids. She considers that to be a good thing, for the most part. To me, this rigidity is a particularly blatant instance of American stupidity and intolerance.
Worst still is her suggestion that Christian, and especially Catholic, groups try to convert Muslims. For one thing, this idea reeks of condescension: she is an atheist, but she thinks so little of Muslims that she is confident in their lack of capacity to understand the same reasoned arguments that worked on her. But also, she is completely blind to the problems with Christianity. Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has probably been the greatest instigator of human rights violations the world has ever seen, and they are doing next to nothing to rectify this or improve in the future. Has she managed not to notice the pedophile priest scandal? Does she think it isn’t important? Might she not know about the connection between the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the pope? How about Christianity’s opposition to gay marriage? Abortion? Stem-cell research? Evolution? It’s hard to imagine that giving this vile religion another 1.5 billion potential converts could possibly be a good idea.
But aside from the end of the book, where I feel she offers some severely misguided suggestions, I found this book to be impressive. Not enjoyable, exactly — it’s difficult and painful for me to read about the struggles she has been through, and that others less brave than she continue to endure each day, and I couldn’t handle more than about two chapters in a sitting — but impressive. Rather than collapse under hardship and bitter memories, as so many do, she has used them to help and inspire other people in situations.
I got a lot out of reading Nomad, and I’m glad I did. Yet, it suffers from the same problem as do many other sequels: Nomad is a very good book; Infidel is an extraordinary book.