Review: Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Merve Pehlivan


As someone who’s been following Ayaan Hirsi Ali for years--her articles, TV appearances, debates, and most recently her memoir, I’ve been most intrigued by her multiple “we[s]”. Depending on who she’s lecturing, cautioning or criticizing in the given moment, her “we” can refer to either Muslims or the West--which to her are fundamentally irreconcilable--or more specifically, Americans or Europeans. This might be only natural for an émigré who had to change citizenship twice until age thirty-eight, but I’ve always felt that there was more to her changing identification than that, something I wanted to know about. That was part of my interest in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best-selling memoir with a title that reads above an appropriately juxtaposed picture of the author in the cover: Infidel.

Personal stories in memoirs sometimes gain a universal outreach if they offer stark, relatable revelations, verifiable patterns among a certain people within a specific period and geography. (Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a good case in point.) I wondered what Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story, the way she chooses to tell it, represents. Does she merit acknowledgment as the Muslim woman (however implausible the generalization) everybody needs to know about?

The book, first published in 2006, gives profound insight into how the author grew skeptical about the faith she was raised with and the events that have shaped her dramatic shift in worldview. More than a decade after its publication, Infidel remains relevant precisely due to the steady popularity of its author and the ideas she puts forth in the book. Shortly after 9/11, Hirsi Ali decides that Islam is not a religion of peace. Today, with the rise of terrorist attacks in Europe claimed by the Islamic State, she rehashes her strident views on the faith in right-wing media outlets again and again. Offering a clear understanding of the subtle ways in which she became the person she is today, her memoir might change the degree to which you agree or disagree with her views.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the best-known ex-Muslim in the world. She skyrocketed to international fame after Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed by a radical Islamist who knifed a letter onto the victim’s chest that included a death threat to Hirsi Ali. The two had shot a short-film called “Submission” which criticizes with sharp, disturbing imagery the treatment of women in the Islamic canon. It was 2004 and Hirsi Ali was member of the Dutch Parliament. Her story goes back to the Somali capital Mogadishu, as is told in the memoir that opens with her as a little girl and her grandmother sitting under a talal tree.

The book tells us that Ayaan is the daughter of a political dissident Hirsi Magan Isse who opposes the dictatorial rule of Somali president Siad Barré. With his being overthrown, Somalia descends into civil war. Hence, Ayaan’s early life foreshadows what’s going to shape her later years: displacement due to dissent. Her mother takes her three children and settles in Saudi Arabia. Ayaan grows up in Riyadh, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi. She goes to an English-language school, reads Brontës and Austen, and with the inculcation of Sister Aziza, her teacher of Islamic education in Nairobi, Ayaan starts wearing a “huge black cloak” to cover her entire body. She goes onto become a steadfast supporter of Muslim Brotherhood at age seventeen.

Her life takes a significant turn when her father wants her to marry a distant cousin and move to Canada with him. Ayaan first goes to Germany and then escapes to the Netherlands, thwarting the marriage plan. She seeks and obtains asylum there, and later becomes a naturalized Dutch citizen. The young Ayaan is mesmerized by her adopted country. In Holland, she finds a place “so much better run, better led, and made for such better lives” than the countries she came from. Her Islamic indoctrination is confronted with Western lifestyles and ways of thinking. As the narrator, the main character of Infidel, moves away from religion in the Netherlands, the story opens a chasm of dichotomies that informs the mainstay of Hirsi Ali’s views as an outspoken polemicist in later years.

As anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod suggests, Infidel nicely fits in the “gendered orientalism”[1] propagated in post-9/11 literature that sought vindication for the US-led War on Terror through a “moral crusade launched to save women” from their culture.[2] Gendered orientalism, just like Edward Said’s term, is built upon binary oppositions. Ayaan Hirsi Ali starts the questioning of her faith, its tenets and practices she grew up with, followed with an invention of a monolithic “good West” against “bad Muslim countries” with essentially disparate, incompatible worlds defined by rigid stereotyping. While she finds “perfectly well-ordered lives” in America, she asks, “Why was it that Holland could give its people so much better a life than any Muslim country we had seen?” She studies political science and reads European history. With a complete disregard of colonialism, slavery, and systematic exploitations by European powers for centuries; she only refers to how the Dutch “learned to be resourceful and persistent; learned negotiation, learned that reason is better than force.” She opines that “in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now,” as if the Catholic church never existed.

Infidel provides an emotional framework within which Hirsi Ali’s acerbic judgments about Islam took shape over time. One can understand the despair of a young woman who escapes forced marriage and finds herself welcome in the Netherlands with the welfare granted by her refugee status. She was physically abused as a kid by her family members and her teacher, and was a victim of female genital mutilation. It is not difficult to sympathize with someone who’s indoctrinated to such an extent that she does not question the legitimacy of this barbaric practice until she encounters non-Muslim milieus in the Netherlands. She’s hired by the immigration office to interpret for Somali women whose lives are ravaged by domestic violence. A background mired in trauma, coupled with regular exposure to similar suffering while living in a country whose natives seem to be immune to such misery leads Hirsi Ali to develop simplistic views: “People in Holland agree that violence is bad.” It's stated as though the entire Dutch population produced such agreement in the form of direct democracy.

However, Hirsi Ali does not outgrow such facile conclusions over time. Her conception of “Islam” or “Muslim” exists in a vacuum, entirely detached from political or economic conditions that have shaped the history of civilizations. To Muslim women she offers a simple recipe: free yourself by embracing Western values because “Islam denies women their rights as humans.” Granted, Qur’anic teachings, though gender-progressive in 7th century Arabia, are far from compatible with modern egalitarianism between sexes. Still, in the words of Abu-Lughod, “laying everything at Islam’s door” does little effort in understanding the complex web of economic, political and cultural phenomena that govern social behavior across geographies.

9/11, which she believes Muslims celebrated, proves to be the turning point that definitively severs Hirsi Ali’s ties with her religion. She goes on to assuming that “every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam must at least have approved of the attacks, if not actively supported them.” From then on, she’s the self-proclaimed savior who needs to “wake these people up”, meaning members of the Dutch Labor party; accepting nonetheless that she needs time to “free Muslim women from their mental cage.”  

Sharp-tongued criticism of something as horrific as female genital mutilation--the book mentions children excised on kitchen tables in Holland--is morally justifiable especially given that Hirsi Ali raises awareness about the issue under the eponymous AHA Foundation which strives to prevent FGM, honor violence and forced marriage in the United States. Nowhere on the website of the foundation are the words “Muslim” or “Islam” mentioned, which is confusingly positive. Meanwhile, Hirsi Ali’s personal statements undermine her credibility as activist and raise questions about her motivations. If one seeks to end FGM and honor violence which thousands of Muslim women suffer from, just how helpful would it be to declare every Muslim woman in the world “conditioned to meekness, almost to the point where they have no mind of their own”? One cannot help but wonder if those statements are not addressed to victims of abuse but to the likes of Fox News, The Sun or neocon think tanks such as American Enterprise which openly cherish her divisive opinions. She does not find any trouble in forming unholy alliances with, among others, Christian Science Monitor and National Review.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a smart woman. But she could still come across as clever, incisive and even persuasive if she chose to abandon condescending language (“my intention is to liberate Muslim minds”) and fine-tune her discourse. Saying “there is historical evidence that Muhammad married a nine-year-old girl” is one thing, and “Muhammad is perverse” is another, although the two statements could be equivalent in meaning. While the former is echoed and accepted by Muslims around the world, the latter is not necessarily an act of courage. Poorly-motivated provocation is vacuous, it can give headlines or neocon patronage while wasting a solid opportunity to make lasting change in the wider society. Given Hirsi Ali’s current power, what could be a fertile ground for communication with Muslim women, who she can speak to with deeper understanding than would the buyers of her book, mostly emboldens rampant anti-immigration, anti-Muslim discourse across Europe and the United States. Infidel is a personal journey of transformation, displacement and apostasy addressed to a readership limited to those who are fascinated by tales of gender oppression in far, uncivilized cultures. 



[1] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 229

[2]  ibid. p.81.



If you want to read Infidel you can find it here

Merve is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She is also the host and founder of Spoken Word Istanbul and Spoken Word Turkçe, which you can find out more about: @SpokenWordIstanbul