By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, $26, 367 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY SOL SCHINDLER
How does a pious young Muslim girl who loves and obeys her parents turn into a T-shirt-blue-jeans-wearing vocal feminist? Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was that young girl, has written about the process in a book called “Infidel,” a term some Muslims have used to describe her.
Ayaan was the daughter of a proud, strong woman who divorced and later married the man of her choice, the charismatic Hirsi Magan. He had just returned from the United States with a degree from Columbia in anthropology, and was putting his considerable talent and energy into making a new, democratic Somalia. Thus when Siad Barre led a coup and became dictator, Mr. Magan was outraged and began working against him. In time he was arrested and thrown into prison, leaving his wife and three small children in care of her mother.
When Ayaan was five, with her father in prison and her mother traveling, her grandmother, very much a traditionalist, decided it was time for the children to be circumcised. Male circumcision is mandatory in Islam, but female circumcision, though practiced in several Muslim countries, is not and is unknown in the larger Muslim countries of Central and South Asia.
Mr. Magan being what was known as a liberal in those days was against it, but he was in prison. The grandmother, daughter of a nomad, believed in djins, evil spirits and demons, and felt it was time to make her grandchildren pure. Female circumcision consists of the excision of the clitoris and inner labia, with the outer labia being sewn together with a small opening for urination, a very bloody and painful operation that became etched in the memory of the small child.
In time Mr. Magan was able to escape from prison with the help of a friendly official (later executed for his act of friendship) and took refuge in Ethiopia. From there he flew to Saudi Arabia where his family could join him.
Mr. Magan secured employment and the family for once had ample funds, but again happiness was elusive. He was discontent because the Saudis constrained all political activity although he persisted in secrecy; the mother could not go anywhere without a male escort, inhibiting mobility; while the author resented being called aswad abda, black slave girl, by her Arab teachers. These problems ended when the family was given 24 hours to leave the country and they took refuge in Ethiopia, and later Kenya.
In Nairobi, Ayaan matured with the usual teenage problems, but the pivotal point in her life was when her father selected the man to be her husband. Osman Moussa had come all the way from Canada to find a traditional Somali spouse, because the Somali girls in Canada were according to him loose and immoral.
He was not bad looking and had lots of money. Everyone considered him a marvelous catch, except for the author who found him “an idiot, dull, trite, and a bigot.” She expressed her misgivings to her father but these were waved aside. She had no easy way out and decided to go through with the ceremony which had already been arranged.
But when it came time for her to join Osman in Canada, who was waiting for her while she secured a visa, she planned simply to disappear. She spoke English, which she had learned in Kenya, and had a certificate from a secretarial school which she felt would enable her to gain employment. She felt England would be the best place for her to go.
When the plane landed in Germany, however, she discovered she would need a visa to get to Great Britain, whereas the Netherlands was only an hour and a half away, and no visa was required. She immediately went there and applied for sanctuary as a refugee.
Holland was like an epiphany for her. She marveled at the tolerance and understanding the Dutch officials showed her, a complete stranger. Because of her zeal and energy she soon became valuable as a translator, was admitted to the university and took classes in political science.
She slowly discarded old habits, and took to blue jeans so that she could ride a bicycle, the standard method of transportation. She succeeded in gaining a master’s degree and then joined the Wiardi Beckman Institute as a junior researcher and began writing papers both for the institute and on her own. She focused on the inadequacies of Muslim integration into Dutch society and basically blamed the imams who were too rigid and doctrinaire in their teachings.
As a result she gained celebrity and considerable popularity. In an amazingly short time she was elected to the Dutch parliament as a member of the Liberal Party (in Western Europe liberals are the right wing; they believe in capitalism and are somewhat against the welfare state). The ever politically correct Dutch could vote liberal and be free of any charges of racism when the candidate was African.
In her role as a leader against reactionary Islam she joined a famous filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, to make a short film entitled “Submission” whose thesis was that the Koran is an act of man, not of God, and can, therefore, be interpreted and applied to the modern era in a way different from seventh-century Arabia. Inevitably, death threats arrived.
There is a special Dutch police force, the DKDB, that protects the royal family and members of parliament. Since the author had become a member of parliament, she was now under their protection. She pleaded that this protection be extended to Theo Van Gogh. He, however, wanted no part of it. A short time later he was assassinated, and the author’s security intensified. She was even told she would be safer out of the country. The reader might wonder why it was so difficult for the Dutch to protect a single citizen in their own country.
When it became officially known that she had fudged her asylum request papers by not giving her complete full name, something she had admitted to early on in both print and TV, she was asked to resign from parliament. This she did, and accepted a position with the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington.
Interestingly, a Jan. 19 story in The Washington Times noted that the number of imams in the Netherlands had dropped significantly because of a hardening attitude of the Dutch government. Acts do have their consequences.
The author still loves the Dutch and their culture, and feels herself Dutch in spirit. Whether she remains here or returns to the Netherlands, which she says she wants to do, one can be sure her pen and her mind will be working actively for the betterment of her fellow men and women.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.