I recently finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel. I heard about it from my friend Joe. But my real interest in the book came from my years of living in the Netherlands. Our Dutch years fell squarely during the time period in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a particularly influential public figure. I can’t say that her autobiography was a particularly well-written book. I’m not sure that I can even say that it was enjoyable to read. It was, however, very informative. The book helped me to understand my decade of living as an immigrant in Amsterdam Oost. Particularly some historic events that happened right in our neighborhood.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia during a period of conflict and instability. Her family moved around to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya as she grew up. Along the way, her clan from Somalia played a key role in supporting their family. And their Muslim faith was also a significant part of their identity. She grew up during a period of rising fundamentalism in North Africa and the Middle East. She traveled to Europe in 1992, pledged in marriage to a Somali man living in Canada. After landing in Frankfurt, however, she decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands. She received refugee status from the Dutch government. Later, she earned a degree in political science from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. And she ultimately made a name for herself by speaking out against the Islamization of Europe.
She drew from her experiences as a woman in the Muslim world to criticize her culture. Particularly its treatment of women and antagonism towards the West. She came to believe that “radical Muslims” were not so much “radical” as they were “Muslims.” She cited explicit support in the Quran for many of their “extreme” positions. After the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States and the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, her voice was amplified. She was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003 (the same year that our family moved to the Netherlands).
Once in power, she continued her advocacy against the Islamization of Europe. In 2004, she made a short film together with Theo van Gogh. The piece used provocative imagery juxtaposed with verses from the Quran to highlight the plight of Muslim women in Europe. And it got both Ali and van Gogh in a lot of trouble with Dutch Muslims. Weeks after the release of the film, in November of 2004, van Gogh was murdered on the Linnaeusstraat in Amsterdam. About a quarter of a mile (500 meters) from our house.
Ali received countless threats during this same time period. Eventually she gave up her seat in Parliament and temporarily lost her citizenship, too. She was buffeted by the winds of political change. But she finally moved to the United States where she wrote her book and continued to offer her perspective to a changing world.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali uses this book to share an important perspective for the world today. She appreciates the freedoms of the West, but she also recognizes the limitations of the West. Pluralism is better than theocracy. Free speech is better than censorship. Still, pluralism can be dangerous when it subjects one segment of society to abuse, in the name of protecting cultures. And free speech is not necessarily the easier, or safer, path.
I’ve long noticed that Dutch culture and politics are a surprisingly accurate predictor of American culture and politics. There’s consistently a ten to fifteen year delay in areas of philosophy, arts, culture, and public policy. I’ve seen it with gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, increasing scrutiny of immigration, and the rise of nationalism. We are now roughly 15 years from the peak of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s influence and activity. Thus, it seems that her book could be timely.
I don’t know how much this book would appeal to readers who didn’t live through its events, personally. Again, I don’t think it was particularly well-written. It doesn’t fully align with my own views. I cannot offer a whole-hearted recommendation for everyone to read it. Still, I’m glad that I read it.