Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Grim Walk to Freedom

A slaughter calculated to terrify non-Muslims throughout Holland took place in Amsterdam on Tuesday morning, November 2, 2004. While riding a bicycle to his film studio, Theo van Gogh was gunned down by a bearded man in traditional Islamic clothing. The assailant, a Dutch-born man of Moroccan descent and a devout Muslim, was incensed by a short film that van Gogh had made about the oppression of women under Islam. As van Gogh lay mortally wounded, the young man repeatedly plunged a stabbing knife into his body, then slit his throat with a butcher’s knife. Finally, the killer took the first knife and stabbed a letter written in Arabic and Dutch to van Gogh’s chest.

The letter, which opened, “In the name of Allah the kind, the merciful”, was addressed “to an infidel fundamentalist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali”. Sprinkled with quotes from the Koran, it claimed that Ayaan had offended Islam, and it threatened her with slaughter in this life and torment in the next.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the target of the killer’s wrath because, among other things, she wrote the script for Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission. She has since written other works critical of Islam, including the subject of this review, her internationally best-selling autobiography, Infidel. (The second instalment of her autobiography, Nomad, was reviewed in the September 2010 issue of Quadrant.)

Infidel opens and closes with references to Theo van Gogh, and its penultimate chapter details how his murder has affected Ayaan herself. But such is the nature of Ayaan’s life that van Gogh’s murder is merely one of many dramatic and horrific events recorded in the pages of her autobiography, which traces her life from childhood to adulthood, from genital mutilation to forced marriage, from Somalia to Holland, and from Islam to apostasy. 

Ayaan’s account of her upbringing is both fascinating and ghastly. She was born in Somalia in 1969 to devout Muslim parents who belonged to an important Somali clan. Due to his political activities and his other wives, Ayaan’s father was rarely home, so her mother and grandmother were responsible for her (and her siblings’) upbringing.

From the outset Ayaan’s life was governed by the strictures and superstitions of Islam and the obligations and expectations of her clan. Her mother and grandmother drummed into her the Islamic and clannish concepts of honour and submission: 

In Somalia, little children learn quickly to be alert to betrayal. Things are not always what they seem; even a small slip can be fatal. The moral of every one of my grandmother’s stories rested on our honor. We must be strong, clever, suspicious; we must obey the rules of the clan.

Suspicion is good, especially for a girl. For girls can be taken, or they may yield. And if a girl’s virginity is despoiled, she not only obliterates her own honor, she also damages the honor of her father, uncles, brothers, male cousins. There is nothing worse than to be the agent of such catastrophe.  

Ayaan learned that the worth and welfare of women and girls depended entirely upon men—fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. “A woman alone is like a piece of sheep fat in the sun,” her grandmother told her. “Everything will come and feed on that fat. Before you know it, the ants and insects are crawling all over it, until there is nothing left but a smear of grease.”

When she was five years old, Ayaan was “circumcised”. Although female genital mutilation was (and is) standard practice in Somalia, as in other Muslim countries across Africa and the Middle East, her father was opposed to it. But her mother and grandmother arranged to have her and her sister, Haweya, “circumcised” in his absence: 

She [Grandma] caught hold of me and gripped my upper body … Two other women held my legs apart. The man, who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan, picked up a pair of scissors. With the other hand, he caught hold of the place between my legs …

Then the scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs, indescribable, and I howled. Then came the sewing: the long, blunt needle clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia …  

Female genital mutilation makes for misery on the wedding night. At the age of twenty, Ayaan was secretly and briefly married to her cousin Mahmud. (Her parents knew nothing of this marriage and it did not last beyond the wedding night.) Of her husband’s “effort of forcing open [her] scar” she said: “It was horribly painful and took so long. I gritted my teeth and endured the pain until I became numb.”

Some time after she had been made “pure” through the mutilation of her genitals, in 1978, Ayaan relocated from Somalia to Saudi Arabia. This nation was her mother’s choice: “My mother didn’t want to move to Ethiopia, because Ethiopians were Christians: unbelievers. Saudi Arabia was God’s country, the homeland of the Prophet Muhammad. A truly Muslim country, it was resonant with Allah …”

Alas, Saudi Arabia is indeed a faithful Muslim country, a model Islamic society. And that is what makes it such a barbarous place, as Ayaan soon found out: 

In Somalia we had been Muslims, but our Islam was diluted, relaxed about regular praying, mixed up with more ancient beliefs. Now our mother began insisting that we pray when the mosques called, five times each day …

In Somalia, both school and Quran school had been mixed (boys and girls); here everything was segregated … All the girls at madrassha were white; I thought of them as white, and myself, for the first time, as black. They called Haweya and I Abid, which means slaves …

My mother found comfort in the vastness and beauty of the Grand Mosque … But as soon as we left the mosque, Saudi Arabia meant intense heat and filth and cruelty. People had their heads cut off in public squares. Adults spoke of it. It was a normal, routine thing: after the Friday noon prayer you could go home for lunch, or you could go and watch the executions. Hands were cut off. Men were flogged. Women were stoned …

Some of the Saudi women in our neighbourhood were regularly beaten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their screams resounded across the courtyards: “No! Please! By Allah!” …

In Saudi Arabia, everything bad was the fault of the Jews. When the air conditioner broke or suddenly the tap stopped running, the Saudi women next door used to say the Jews did it. The children next door were taught to pray for the health of their parents and the destruction of the Jews …

[My mother] hated having to go out without a man, hated being hissed at by men on the street, stared at with insolence … To be a woman on her own was bad enough. To be a foreigner, and moreover a black foreigner, meant you were barely human, unprotected: fair game …

None of the Saudi women we knew went out in the street alone. They couldn’t: their husbands locked their front doors when they left their homes.

Some time after we moved to Riyadh we started school … we learned how good Muslim girls should behave: what to say when we sneezed; on which side we should begin to sleep, and to what position it was permissible to move during sleep; with which foot to step into the toilet, and in what posture to sit. The teacher was an Egyptian woman, and she used to beat me. I was sure she picked on me because I was the only black child. When she hit me with a ruler she called me Aswad Abda: black slave-girl. I hated Saudi Arabia.  

In 1979, Ayaan’s family shifted from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia, where Ayaan was shocked to discover that “the little girls in school with me were not Muslims. They said they were Kiristaan, Christian, which in Saudi Arabia had been a hideous playground insult, meaning impure.” Her mother confirmed the shocking truth: yes, “Ethiopians were kufr; the very sound of the word was scornful.” Yet Ayaan “adored” living in Ethiopia after Saudi Arabia: “The people were kind. The teachers didn’t punish anyone much.” 

A year later Ayaan’s father sent the family to Nairobi. Although Kenya was a non-Islamic country (and therefore despised by Ayaan’s mother), the influence of Islam was strong, thanks primarily to the Muslims who had sought refuge there. As they entered their adolescent years in Kenya, Ayaan and her sister began to read English-language novels and “An entire world of Western ideas began to take shape … All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas—races were equal, women were equal to men—and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.” Ayaan especially liked romance novels, whether they were “good books” like Wuthering Heights or merely “trashy soap opera”. She found that “buried in all of these books was a message: women had a choice”. That is, women apart from Islam had a choice.

But while Ayaan was drawn, through the books she was reading, to the notion of freedom and equality for women, she was also drawn deeper into Islam. She came under the influence of Sister Aziza, an Arab Kenyan, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, “a huge evangelical sect backed massively by Saudi Arabian oil wealth and Iranian martyr propaganda”. In imitation of Sister Aziza, Ayaan began to wear “a huge black cloak” that fell to her toes and “a black scarf” over her hair and shoulders. Yet even as she grew more devout, Ayaan began to doubt: how could Islam be true when because of it women were so downtrodden?

One day, when she was seventeen, Ayaan dared to question a Muslim Brotherhood teacher who was telling the mothers and teenage girls who had gathered to hear him that they owed their husbands absolute obedience. “If we disobeyed them, they could beat us. We must be sexually available at any time outside our periods, ‘even on the saddle of a camel,’ as the hadith says.” Concluding that “This wasn’t any kind of loving partnership, or mutual giving”, Ayaan asked, “Must our husbands obey us, too?”

When the irate teacher told her, “You may not question Allah’s word!”, Ayaan began to question in her mind whether Allah’s word really said the things the teacher claimed it said. The flaw could not be in the Koran, she reasoned, so it must be in the way the teacher was representing it: 

I told myself, “None of these people understands that the real Quran is about true equality. The Quran is higher and better than these men [teachers].”

I bought my own English edition of the Quran and read it so I could understand it better. But I found that everything [the teacher] had said was in there. Women should obey their husbands. Women were worth half a man. Infidels should be killed. 

When she was twenty-two, in 1992, Ayaan was given in marriage to a distant cousin whom she had never met. Her father arranged the marriage despite her objections and proceeded with it despite her refusal to attend the wedding: 

The day of my wedding I did what I always did every day. I dressed normally and did my chores. I was in denial. I knew that over at Farah Goure’s house there was a qali [Islamic marriage celebrant] registering my union with Osman Moussa before my father and Mahad and a crowd of other men … Neither my presence nor my signature was required for the Islamic ceremony.  

After the wedding, Ayaan’s husband left Kenya for Canada, where he had settled some years earlier, and she was supposed to follow him there. Her father sent her to Germany to await the issuance of a Canadian visa. But soon after arriving in Germany, she caught a train to Holland intending to apply for asylum: 

It was Friday, July 24, 1992, when I stepped on the train. Every year I think of it. I see it as my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own. I was not running away from Islam, or to democracy. I didn’t have any big ideas then. I was just a young girl and wanted some way to be me; so I bolted into the unknown. 

In Holland, Ayaan learned that she could not apply for asylum on the grounds of forced marriage. (Millions of Muslim women would be able to claim asylum on that basis.) So she lied, claiming to be a refugee from the civil war in Somalia, fleeing for fear of persecution. The Dutch officials believed the lie and gave her asylum. With characteristic perception, Ayaan notes one of the more serious consequences of her lie: “I was occupying a bed meant for someone deserving.” When people enter a country surreptitiously and then deceive the officials of that country to get refugee status, they deprive genuine refugees of a place. Ayaan was to pay dearly for her lie some years later. But initially her deception worked to her advantage.

Ayaan soon realised that she was not the only illegal immigrant who had lied to get legal status to stay in Holland. It seems it was common practice among the asylum seekers from Africa to lie about their background and their reason for leaving their homeland: “the camp was full of people with manufactured stories”.

Ayaan was impressed by the efficiency, prosperity and liberty she everywhere encountered in Holland. The vast superiority of life in the West compared with life in Islamic countries raised questions in her mind about Islam: 

This was an infidel country, whose way of life we Muslims were supposed to oppose and reject. Why was it, then, so much better run, better led, and made for such better lives than the places we came from? … We had always been sure that we, as Muslims and Somalis, were superior to unbelievers, and here we were, not superior at all. 

From the moment she entered Holland, Ayaan was astonished by the kindness and decency of the Dutch. These white Westerners—from public officials to private individuals—treated her with respect and went out of their way to help her. The first person she encountered at the first refugee centre she went to was a policeman. He gave her instructions, a bus card and a train ticket. She writes: 

Police to me were oppressors, demanders of bribes. They were never helpful. I asked him, “Why are you helping me?” and he smiled and said, “Those are the rules.” I asked, “And is every policeman this kind?” and he replied, “I sure hope so.”

After this, anything was possible. To me, government was bad. It was crooked and duplicitous and it oppressed you. And here all these people were busy helping you, and this for foreigners. How on earth did they treat their own clans?  

At another refugee camp, a policewoman gave Ayaan a pink card and said with obvious delight, “Oooh! Congratulations! … You can stay in Holland for the rest of your life. You are a recognized refugee, and now I will read you your rights.” They were effectively all the rights of a citizen, with citizenship to follow. When the policewoman asked if she had any questions, Ayaan said, “Yes. Why are you doing this?” The policewoman replied, “The authorities have determined that you have a well-founded fear of persecution. It’s the law.”

Ayaan was getting a glimpse of the glory of Western democracies: the rule of law. Western societies have avoided the rule of tyranny and the rule of anarchy because they have established the rule of law. And this rule involves laws founded on a respect for individual human life and freedom, laws intended for the benefit of all, laws framed in parliaments by legislators elected by the people, laws enforced impartially by independent-but-accountable police and judges. Welcome to the West!

Many of Ayaan’s fellow Muslims did not share her gratitude for the welcome they had received in Holland. On the contrary, they despised the Dutch—despised them because they were white, because they were gullible, because they were infidels. Ayaan states: 

It irritated me now when Somalis who had lived in Holland for a long time complained that they were offered only lowly jobs. They wanted honorable professions: airline pilot, lawyer. When I pointed out that they had no qualification for such work, their attitude was that everything was Holland’s fault. The Europeans had colonized Somalia, which was why we all had no qualifications and were in this mess to begin with. I thought this was so clearly nonsense. We had torn ourselves apart, all on our own …

Here in Holland the claim was always that we were held back by racism. Everyone seemed to be in a constant simmer of anger about how we were discriminated against because we were black. If a shopkeeper wouldn’t bargain over the price of a T-shirt, Yasmin said there were special, discount prices only for white people. She and Hasna told me they often didn’t bother paying for buses; they just invented appointments in town, and if the refugee office didn’t give them a ticket they said they were being racist …

Sometimes it did feel good to be around Somalis, to relax with people I completely understood. Adapting to Dutch people was still a huge effort for me. But the minute I said, “I’m sorry, tomorrow morning I have to wake up early [for work],” the Somalis were at me. I was acting white, who did I think I was …

I felt embarrassed and even let down by the way so many Somalis accepted welfare money and then turned on the society that gave it to them.  

Ayaan relates that she took her Somali friend Yasmin to visit two young Dutch women one evening. These women were Christians and had shown enormous kindness to Ayaan. They had a pleasant meal together and an earnest conversation. Yet, Ayaan states, “The minute we left, Yasmin started rubbing her skin; when she got home she washed for hours. ‘I sat in their house and ate off their plates, and they are not purified!’ Yasmin said. ‘She is filthy. This whole country is filthy.’” Yasmin had discovered from the conversation during the evening that the two Dutch women had not been “circumcised”.

This account, by the way, shows that it is nonsense to claim that Muslims are only upset with us in the West because of our decadence. Yes, they are offended by the supposed immodesty of our women. However, the truth is, Muslims are not offended simply because our women wear bikinis or don’t wear veils. They are offended because Western women have intact genitals. As Ayaan’s friend said to the Christian Dutch women: “If you’re not cut, you’re not pure.” There is nothing that will satisfy devout Muslims short of full submission to all the monstrous dictates of their religion. 

Another of Ayaan’s friends, this time a Muslim from Morocco, complained constantly, but it was about the Dutch [rather than her Muslim husband, who beat her repeatedly]. She was always insisting that shopkeepers looked askance at her because they were racist, and they didn’t want Moroccans in the shop. Personally, I thought they were staring at her bruises [from her husband’s beatings], and told her so. They never looked strange at me, and I was far darker …  

It seems that the Somalis and other black asylum seekers never tired of alleging racism against the Dutch. In part, these allegations reflected the racism in the hearts of the asylum seekers themselves: they despised the Dutch because of their skin colour. They assumed that anyone with a white skin must, ipso facto, despise anyone with a black skin. And working from that racist stereotype they believed themselves to be the victims of racism whenever a white person failed to do or say exactly what they wanted them to do or say.

The Somalis were also guilty of bullying and deceit. They discovered that they could intimidate and manipulate the Dutch by means of these false allegations. As Ayaan notes, “the claim of racism can also be strategic”. One of her friends told Ayaan much the same thing, saying with satisfaction, “If you tell a Dutch person it’s racist he will give you whatever you want.” 

Although Ayaan had been experiencing doubts about Islam for some time, it was the September 11, 2001 attacks on America that brought matters to a head. She was shocked by the attacks themselves. She was shocked by the revelation that those attacks were launched by Muslims. She was shocked to see the rejoicing of Muslims worldwide over the attacks. She was shocked to realise that those attacks were motivated and justified by Islam itself.

She was shocked, too, by the excuses made by Western commentators and intellectuals on behalf of the Muslim terrorists. And she quickly saw through the nonsense of these apologists’ arguments: 

Infuriatingly stupid analysts—especially people who called themselves Arabists, yet who seemed to know next to nothing about the reality of the Islamic world—wrote reams of commentary. Their articles were all about Islam saving Aristotle and the zero, which medieval Muslim scholars had done more than eight hundred years ago; about Islam being a religion of peace and tolerance, not the slightest bit violent. These were fairy tales, nothing to do with the real world I knew.

Everything in the newspapers was “Yes, but”: yes, it’s terrible to kill people, but. People theorized beautifully about poverty pushing people to terrorism; about colonialism and consumerism, pop culture and Western decadence eating away at people’s culture and therefore causing the carnage. But Africa is the poorest continent, I knew, and poverty doesn’t cause terrorism: truly poor people can’t look further than their next meal, and more intellectual people are usually angry at their own governments; they flock to the West. I read rants by antiracist bureaus claiming that a terrible wave of Islamophobia had been unleashed in Holland, that Holland’s inner racist attitude was now apparent. None of the pseudointellectualizing had anything to do with reality.

Other articles blamed the Americans’ “blind” support for Israel and opined that there would be more 9/11’s until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved. I didn’t completely believe this either … If the hijackers had been nineteen Palestinian men, then I might have given this argument more weight, but they weren’t. None of them was poor. None of them left a letter saying there would be more attacks until Palestine was liberated. This was belief, I thought. Not frustration, poverty, colonialism, or Israel: it was about religious belief, a one-way ticket to Heaven.  

Being conversant with the Koran and the Hadith (the revered accounts of the actions and sayings of Muhammad), Ayaan intuitively understood that “The Prophet Muhammad was the moral guide, not Bin Laden, and it was the Prophet’s guidance that should be evaluated.” Yet, for fear of what it would mean for her faith, she was personally reluctant to subject the Prophet’s moral guidance to evaluation: 

Bin Laden’s quotes from the Quran resonated in my brain: “When you meet the unbelievers, strike them in the neck.” “If you do not go out and fight, God will punish you severely and put others [to fight] in your place.” “Wherever you find the polytheists, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them.” “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends; they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them.” Bin Laden quoted the hadith: “The Hour [of Judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”

I didn’t want to do it, but I had to: I picked up the Quran and the hadith and started looking through them, to check. I hated to do it, because I knew that I would find Bin Laden’s quotes in there, and I didn’t want to question God’s word. But I needed to ask: Did the 9/11 attacks stem from true belief in true Islam? And if so, what did I think of Islam?  

Concerning the first question—“Did the 9/11 attacks stem from true belief in true Islam?”—Ayaan’s answer is, yes and yes. Osama bin Laden was a true believer in Allah and Muhammad; and his understanding of Islam was true. Hence, “This [9/11 attack] was not just Islam, this was the core of Islam.” Concerning the second question—“And if so, what did I think of Islam?”—the atrocity of the 9/11 attacks shook Ayaan’s already shaky faith in Islam to ruin.

Ayaan’s response to Islam after 9/11 calls into question the responses of many non-Muslims in the West. While Ayaan and other Muslims like her were beginning to see Islam for what it is, numerous non-Muslims took it upon themselves to shield Muslims from the truth of their religion, declaring Islam to be a religion of tolerance and peace, a beautiful and noble religion that Bin Laden had hijacked for un-Islamic purposes. And so an extraordinary opportunity to free Muslims from the darkness of Islam, and to protect open societies from the dangers of Islam, was squandered.

Fortunately, Ayaan knew better than to believe the woolly-headed, gushy-hearted nonsense of the Islam-is-peace apologists. She saw Islam for what it is and turned away from it. The rest of Infidel documents how she freed herself from the bondage of Islam and began to expose the threat that Islam poses to Holland and to other Western nations.

Unfortunately, when Ayaan became an apostate she also became an atheist. In Infidel, and in her otherwise-fine collection of essays, The Caged Virgin, she expresses hostility to any belief in any god.

While her shift to atheism is understandable, it is, in my view, mistaken. She seems to assume that God is essentially as Islam defines him: a God who is all power and self-absorption; a God whose sovereignty is so absolute that it cannot be influenced even by goodness. And, given the cruel, capricious nature of this almighty God, who would not prefer atheism to him?

But the choice is not atheism-or-Allah. Christianity offers a very different understanding of God. And this understanding has been profoundly instrumental in the formation of the Western societies Ayaan now cherishes. Until she appreciates this, she will never be able to appreciate fully why it is that (as she correctly asserts) “Western culture is superior to Islamic culture”. 

Andrew Lansdown contributed “Why Muslims Hate Dogs” in the September 2010 issue.  

Leave a Reply