The trajectory of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's life has points in common with that of Frank Schaeffer, whose quasi-autobiographical Crazy for God I posted about last weekend. But the contrast between where she started and how far she has come is vastly greater. The first part of this book is a fascinating look at a culture so alien to our own that it's hard to imagine it existing on the same planet; the rest is a profound story of personal and intellectual self-liberation.
Ayaan (Somali names don't consist of first and last names like ours -- I will use personal names for simplicity) was born in 1969 in Mogadishu, Somalia. She started off somewhat advantaged by the character of her parents -- her father Hirsi Magan Isse was well-educated, and her mother Asha had an independent streak, having divorced a previous husband before marrying Hirsi Magan. Still, at first Ayaan was raised fairly typically for a Somali girl, in an environment almost unimaginably different from what we know in the West -- a world in which clan identity and lineage were the very basis of identity, and individuality was constrained by traditional taboos and a rather muddled folk version of Islam.
Hirsi Magan was a leader of the democratic opposition to the Siad Barré dictatorship in Somalia, which meant that during much of Ayaan's childhood he was in prison or exile; his family also lived in exile in Kenya, which had a large Somali refugee community, but he was often not able to be there with them. In both Somalia and Kenya the family was surrounded by what Westerners would consider abject poverty and filth, but to Ayaan, of course, that environment was simply normal. At her father's insistence she did at least get a good basic education, including learning English and getting exposure to Western culture through novels.
The most harrowing passage in the book is Ayaan's description of her and her younger sister's clitorectomy. Their father strongly opposed this traditional practice, but their grandmother had it done in his absence. Ayaan later notes that this horror is inflicted on six thousand girls in the Islamic world every day, or more than two million each year.
The family also spent some time in Saudi Arabia, which proved even more backward and barbaric than Somalia, despite being richer. Ayaan's description of mass panic there over a Lunar eclipse is rather amusing.
Ayaan's adolescence coincided with an Islamic revival among the Somalis and other Muslims living in Kenya (the same phenomenon was going on throughout the Islamic world as a whole). Rather like the Protestant reformation in Europe centuries before, this revival aimed to purify Islam of the accretion of folk beliefs and practices which had merged with it over the centuries, returning to the pure Islam of Muhammad and the Koran. It was a movement which would later culminate in al-Qâ'idah and the Taliban.
Kenya's Somali community became infested with free-lance preachers ranting about hellfire, sexual purity, and the absolute submission of females to male authority. After spending some time listening to one of these fanatics, Ayaan began to have doubts:
I thought that perhaps Boqol Sawm was translating the Quran poorly: Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman's statement in court should be worth the same as a man's?.....I bought my own English edition of the Quran and read it so I could understand it better. But I found that everything Boqol Sawm had said was in there. Women should obey their husbands. Women were worth half a man. Infidels should be killed. (p. 104)
Adolescence also meant the prospect of an arranged marriage, the norm in Somali culture. All the other Muslim girls Ayaan knew anticipated the same fate. None were enthused about it, but none could imagine a plausible alternative.
One day Ayaan's father informed her that he had found a match for her, a Somali man who lived in Canada but had come to Kenya to find himself a bride. She met the man and felt no attraction or compatibility, but her father simply ignored her objections. The marriage ceremony took place without her consent or presence; neither was required to make it valid.
When she was sent to join her "husband" in Canada, she had to stop in Germany for a time. There, at last, she rebelled and fled to stay with a Somali friend who lived in the Netherlands as a refugee -- and her life changed course completely. Plunged into a world utterly different from what she had known, she found that the despised infidels had built a society far richer, happier, more peaceful, and less corrupt than anything to be found in the Muslim lands she had known. Eventually, determined to understand how this had been achieved, she embarked on the formal study of the history and culture of the West.
She found the answers she sought -- but she also found that the roots of the West's success were profoundly secular, utterly incompatible with Islam. The Dutch way of life, too, refuted what she had been taught. Women were equal and sexuality relatively unconstrained by taboo, yet Dutch society did not collapse into chaos. Instead, it was Somalia that was collapsing into chaos; Siad Barré's regime finally fell, but Hirsi Magan's dream of democracy died in blood-soaked anarchy as clan feuds escalated into all-out civil war.
It was the September 11 terrorist attack that finally forced Ayaan to face the contradiction between her Muslim upbringing and the Western civilization she had come to love:
But I could no longer avoid seeing the totalitarianism, the pure moral framework that is Islam. It regulates every detail of life and subjugates free will. True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behavior. Their world is divided between "Us" and "Them" -- if you don't accept Islam you should perish. (p. 272)
All these statements that Bin Laden and his people quote from the Quran to justify the attacks -- I looked them up; they are there. If the Quran is timeless, then it applies to every Muslim today. This is how Muslims may behave if they are at war with infidels. (p. 273)
The Dutch people around her, knowing almost nothing about Islam, didn't get it:
Ruud said, "Ayaan, of course these people may have been Muslims, but they are a lunatic fringe. We have extremist Christians, too, who interpret the Bible literally. Most Muslims do not believe these things. To say so is to disparage a faith which is the second largest religion in the world, and which is civilized, and peaceful." I walked into the office thinking, "I have to wake these people up." (p. 268-269)
She was to have many such conversations with well-meaning but ignorant Westerners.
Ayaan's final apotheosis came when her Dutch boyfriend loaned her The Atheist Manifesto to read on vacation:
Just looking at it, just wanting to read it -- that already meant I doubted, and I knew that. Before I'd read four pages I already knew my answer. I had left God behind years ago. I was an atheist. (p. 281)
She began to speak out about issues such as honor killings among Muslims in the Netherlands (Dutch politicians claimed she was exaggerating the scale of the problem -- she proved otherwise). She began to receive death threats, but refused to be intimidated. Under Islamic law, her renunciation of Islam was itself a crime requiring death, and you can only be killed once.
Her collaboration with Theo van Gogh on the film Submission, and van Gogh's subsequent murder by a Muslim, finally did "wake these people up". After years of Muslim arrogance and intimida-tion, it was the last straw. Ayaan was placed under suffocating security; later she learned that several mosques had been burned down, suggesting that the government feared the whole country might erupt if she too were killed. Her warnings about the danger Islam poses to secular civilization could no longer be ignored.
As the West enabled her to free herself from Islam, so she has contributed to the West's protracted struggle to free itself from that same scourge.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali still lives in seclusion today, to avoid the fanatics who seek to carry out Islam's sentence of death for her "apostasy" and for telling the truth.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's website