Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This memoir opens with the murder of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 by a Muslim outraged by a film Van Gogh had made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I remember my horror at Van Gogh’s murder, despite my years in Baltimore with its high murder rate, because it happened in Amsterdam.

I had been spending a good bit of time in The Netherlands where I delighted in what seemed to be the nature of Dutch culture: calm, practical, tolerant. I felt that I had found my spiritual homeland. All the more shocking, then, this assassination in a land where reason rules.

The film Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali made was called Submission and explored the treatment of women in Islamic culture in connection with the actual verses from the Quran mandating such treatment. After this introduction, Hirsi Ali goes back to her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Ethiopia to show how a devout Muslim girl could grow up to question the beliefs that structure and define her world.

Of course, I have read a good deal about women’s lives under Islam, but the accounts have been inconsistent, even conflicting. In this memoir, Hirsi Ali discusses the differences in the practice of Islam in different countries, and how the more repressive strain from Saudi Arabia came to dominate. Islam is more than a religion; it is a guide to daily life, prescribing men’s and women’s roles.

There are politics here, but in the form of stories: stories about her mother, her sister, her friends. A way of life is built up that is completely foreign to me. There are atrocities here too. I’ve read about female circumcision—excision, as Hirsi Ali calls it—but hadn’t grasped the full horror of it until this first-person account made it impossible to flinch away.

However, the biggest shock for me in this book was the short shrift Hirsi Ali gives to tolerance, that virtue I prize so highly and aspire to in my dealings with others. Having come of age during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., I try to respect and value differences of culture, ethnicity, appearance, gender, etc. But the latter part of this account, when Hirsi Ali moves into Dutch politics, actually being elected to Parliament, blows away my comfortable—perhaps smug—perspective. She demonstrates that tolerance can become an excuse for inaction. Some things we should not tolerate, such as girls being mutilated, wives beaten at a husband’s whim, women murdered because they have been raped and are therefore impure.

Religious belief does not trump the law, at least not in The Netherlands. Nor in the U.S. But what about in a Muslim country? I struggle now to reconcile my consciousness of the abuse of women with my respect for other cultures. I don’t want to force my religious beliefs on anyone else, nor my form of government. Yet by advocating equal rights for women, including Muslim women, I am doing just that. I don’t have any answers at this point, only questions.

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