I've been mulling over how to start this for several days. I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's explosive memoir, Infidel, in the context of other reading: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini's second novel that focuses on the suffering of women in Islamic culture; and The Known World, a novel by Edward P. Jones about the precarious lives of slaves and freed slaves set in pre-Civil War rural Virginia. All three are tales of oppression and brutality. And with each I was left with a profound sense of sadness. One thing is clear, the struggle to treat one another as image bearers, and failing belief in God, at least as fellow human beings, is pervasive.
I also read Newsweek's July 30 special report on "Islam in America." This report, while in part concurring with Ali's belief that integration and not multiculturalism is the solution to influencing change in Muslim culture seems too optimistic. Ali refutes a benign view of Islam that many Americans seem to hold, at least judging by the letters to the editor in the following issue of Newsweek. Ali says, "Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Quran; we are taught it in Arabic, which most Muslims can't speak. As a result, most Muslims think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant"(272). Further, she asserts that the attacks on September 11 were not about frustration due to poverty or lack of power, but belief. "Every true Muslim would approve, if not support the attack" (270).
Ali's message is likely not welcome by many-on the one hand it offends the politically correct sensibilities we try so carefully to construct. And on the other, as the title of the book suggests, it challenges the very core of belief for a growing Muslim population and incites anger and violence. Hers is a personal story, but one that sheds light on universal themes of justice, triumph over adversity, the lure of power, and the effect of hope.
Infidel chronicles the author's life as best as she can remember the details and without the benefit of being able to verify her recollections (her family connections are, in her words, "fractured"). It is in part a coming of age story, but with global-sized consequences from her thought life and actions. Her youth was spent in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, moving overnight when necessary to avoid sure death as the result of her father's political activities. And while Ali had what seems like extraordinary opportunities most Muslim women in Africa don't receive, her world was severely limited by our Western standards. She was circumcised at age six. She willingly took on wearing a hijab, covering her full body, in an effort to please God. She sought to study the Quran, not merely learn it by rote, questioning the teaching when she was perplexed.
Over time the inconsistencies she witnessed-particularly in how men and women were regarded and treated-troubled her: "If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development" (94). And her flirtations with Western thought through contraband books and movies caused her to question what she lived, what she read, and the ideals she had about justice. Even in something as banal as a Harlequin romance "was a message-women had a choice."
While traveling to Canada to join her husband after a forced marriage, Ali sought and won refugee status in Holland. From there she obtained a divorce, legitimized by the religious leaders. She was now on her own, without family, without the clan. During her time in the refugee camps and in school, she served as interpreter for Somali men and women. But it was as she met women from Morocco, Bosnia, and other Muslim nations, that she saw that her plight and experience as a woman was universal.
Due to Holland's generous social benefits provided to refugees, Ali was able to complete her education, pursuing political science, and eventually win a seat in Parliament. Her goal was to 1) get Holland to stop tolerating oppression of Muslim women, 2) generate a debate among Muslims about reforming aspects of Islam, and 3) help Muslim women become aware of how bad and unacceptable their suffering is. In debates and papers, she openly discussed her belief that multiculturalism, a view that fosters continued identity with the home culture over integration into the host culture, is counterproductive. Following a debate where Ali critiqued Muslim culture, she noted, "This peaceful country, which thought it had reached the peak of civilization and had nothing more to worry about…was waking up to the nightmare of citizens who completely disagreed with fundamental values like free speech" (293). Her commitment to revealing the brutality Muslim women endure led to the making of a film, which resulted in the death of the producer and continued threats on her own life.
In reading, I could not help but compare some of her critiques of Islam to aspects of what sometimes passes for American Christianity: A Muslim fundamentalism that focused on empty behavior and not heart change: "Islam is submission. You submit on earth, in order to earn your place in Heaven" (132). Accounts of cold stoicism in the face of extreme adversity shrugged off as the "will of Allah" because to show "bitterness, or despair, would be to fail the test of faith" (154) reminded me of suppressed heartbreak in the "name of God's will."
What was hardest about reading this account was rooting for the author, rejoicing in her triumphs against the "odds," only to have her replace one death for another. In the end, Ali exchanges a belief in Allah for belief in self: "I had left God behind years ago. I was an atheist….My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book" (281). In that she misses the logical conclusion of her own bankruptcy. But her story is not over, which is a reminder to pray for the Ali's who are struggling against oppression-and for those who labor to bring the gospel to all those who struggle under the burden of Islam.