Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Infidel (memoir/autobiography)

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: In this book, the author tells of her traditional Muslim upbringing in Africa and Saudi Arabia, her flight from a forced marriage as a young adult, her years of questions about God and Islam and her ultimate rejection of both, her political activism, and finally, her life being under constant threat of death because of her outspoken ridicule of Islam.

I found this book riveting on so many levels, not the least of which was the author's intellectual and emotional journey to her ultimate rejection of both religion and the notion of God. This passage regarding the author's final acceptance and acknowledgement of her atheism, especially, spoke to my own feelings:

"It felt right. There was no pain, but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure and carefully tiptoeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out, piece by piece - that was all over. The angels, watching from my shoulders . . . they were gone. The ever-present prospect of hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book."

I still clearly remember the incredulous look on a Christian woman's face upon my telling her that I don't believe in God, and her asking me, "Where in the world do you get your morals from then?" As if without God, morals are impossible. I try to be a good person, a moral person, for the sake of being good and moral, because it makes the world a better place for everyone - not out of some sense of fear of being punished in the afterlife, or out of the hope of being rewarded in the afterlife. I don't believe in God, and I don't believe in an afterlife - which, to me, makes it all the more important to make the most of this one chance at life we have on this Earth.

I have yet to encounter a religion in which hypocrisy, intolerance, and judgment are not integral. How many friends do I have who proudly label themselves by this or that religion but only apply those rules that suit them? How many wars are started by non-believers? How many hate crimes are committed by atheists? Too often, these acts are committed in the name of God. It boggles my mind that so many otherwise educated, intelligent people still subscribe to these notions that I am convinced were created as a means to control the masses.

Hirsi Ali describes life as a Muslim - especially a Muslim female - as often humiliating, violent, oppressed, and brutal. She talks at length about the wide-spread practice of female circumcision (also called excision) in the Muslim faith. Most Westerners are horrified by the concept that young girls' genitals are mutilated in the name of God . . . and yet, many of us think nothing of mutilating our baby boys' genitals in the name of God or social acceptance, and we find ways to rationalize it as being humane in the way it's performed in modern times. Even my own husband remarked that a circumcised penis "looks better" than an uncircumcised one. So genital mutilation for the sake of vanity is okay? Personally, I have a lot of guilt and regret about having my two oldest boys circumcised at birth without any thought except, "That's what everyone does, so that's what we'll do." Circumcision, absent a medical necessity, is a barbaric practice, period.

Eventually, Hirsi Ali escapes her arranged marriage, her homeland, and her religion, and finds peace in being true to herself and in being a good person for the sake of being a member of the human race. But these things do not come without a great price: she is cut off by her family and lives under constant death threats, and therefore heavy security, for speaking out against that which she sees as unjust.

A very compelling and thought-provoking book. Highly recommend it. Say the word if you want it, and I'll be happy to pass it along.


  1. Sorry but as a Muslim it seems that Hirsi is confusing, perhaps purposely, cultural traditions and religious ones. Female circumcision is not Islamic nor is forced marriage or the opression of women in marriage or society. Of course, Islamic societies have many problems, and I feel that everyone should have the freedom to express their thoughts,expose such problems, and open them up for discussion therby finding solutions, but it's always typical that the Western audience embrace anyone preaching against Islam. Admittedly, I haven't read her book, but i don't find her distinct or intellectually compelling, as I have seen several of her lectures. The one that stands out in my mind the most is her debating Tariq Ramadan (a Muslim intellectual and in my opinion a genius) and she kept flailing around and unable to make a point. Of course, I must be biased since I am Muslim, not oppressed, happy, and female.

  2. Stephanie, thank you for your take on this. I have to say, though, that I take issue with your statement that "it's always typical that the Western audience embrace anyone preaching against Islam." The truth is, I know next to nothing about Islam, and I had never even heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali before someone in my book club chose this book for our current reading selection. I think Hirsi Ali wrote a very compelling book, and one that raises a lot of questions for everyone to think about. My issues aren't with Islam; my issues are with religion and the notion of God in general - in my heart of hearts, I believe it's all nonsense.

    I am curious, though: the headscarf that you wear . . . is that religious or cultural? Is it a requirement or is it optional? What is the rationale behind it if not some form of oppression? Educate me, because I do not know.

    If you're interested in reading the book, I would be happy to send it to you.

  3. Well I suppose that we could never see eye to eye on your feelings about God and that it is all nonsense. When I look out into the universe, composed of dark energy and matter, the earth teaming with life in a perfect synergistic way, and the realization of all the infinite events that had to take place for me to be alive, sentient, and writing this sentence, I see nothing but God. Islam's ideas about God and the worship of him were the closest to my own ideas when I first began to research the religion (converted 6 years ago). Perhaps you see randomness; I see purpose. We'll agree to disagree on this one.
    The headscarf is based on two verses in the Quran and some hadith (literature on the life and saying of the prophet). It is not cultural although there are cultural forms of it. The overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars view it as obligatory, although some Muslims do not. It is only worn when around men we're not related to. Many women don't wear it for whatever reason and we don't kick them out of the club (i.e. excommunicate, there is really no such thing in Islam BTW), as it is really a small part of Islam, and not even close to one of the most imortant things regarding worship.
    The hijab is not just a headscarf, but a complete way of dress and attitude. We cover our body, everything but the face and hands (some even do this) as a gesture of modesty and faith. Believing Muslim women (and men) don't show their sexuality in the public sphere, although a healthy sex life is actually encouraged in a marriage, behind closed doors. Dressing in a modest way and covering your beauty and sexuality is considered a liberation in a exploitative society that tends to judge women on her appearance. I've never considered wearing a piece of cloth on my head and dressing modestly as a form of oppression.

    You can send me the book. I'm actually interested in Islam as it relates to culture and politics. Certainly my views on certain aspects and ideologies of the religion are subject to change as I gain knowledge and grow, but nothing could ever change my views as far as the truth of Islam goes. I'll post my email and address on another comment. Thanks for the discussion.

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  5. Stephanie, see, I would view an "obligation" to cover one's body except for the hands and face (this is only an obligation of women, however, not men, in the Muslim faith, correct?) as a form of control and oppression. But of course nobody can tell you how to feel. If you do not feel oppressed and you are happy, then who am I or anyone else to say it's wrong? I think, despite my non-belief, that the world would be so much a better place for everyone if all the world's religions could coexist peacefully and respectfully, without judgment and intolerance of others.

    I got your email address from your other comment, which I deleted; I will contact you to get your mailing address so I can send you the book.

    Thank you for engaging me in discussion.

  6. Stephanie, male circumcision is mentioned no where in the Qur'an and in fact the Qur'an is very clear that all human beings are created perfect. Both male and female cutting arose as pagan Egyptian traditions which spread to the surrounding regions and became adopted into Islam via the hadith - many of which just institutionalise cultural practices.

    Even if people think circumcision is a good sacrifice for God one should be forced to undergo it whether they are male or female as 'there is no compulsion in Islam'

    See for more and the facebook group it links to

  7. I think what I find most confusing is the fact that there seem to be so many "ways to live as a believer" that people see as "acceptable" or as "proof of their devoutness" so even within each faith there are those who "follow the letter of the law the each fine point" who would say for instance that those Muslims out and about without their guardian male and/or wearing only a headscarf in public are not true believers since they do not fully cover themselves...obviously this is a world-wide religion issue not just Muslim issue.

    But I think the major point that was made in this book was that I think cannot be disputed is that with Christianity and Western countries, the law of the land now is man's law, not religious law as it was in the 7th and 8th Centuries (which was brutal by the way - ever read Pope Joan? ) - there has been Enlightenment, Reformation etc - but with many Muslim countries (not all of course), there has been no Enlightenment, reformation - man's law does NOT govern the country but rather religious law, i.e., Islamic law, does, and in her view this is inappropriate and keeps 50% of the populations (i.e., women) of THOSE COUNTRIES oppressed. Clearly that was her first-hand experience.

    I also agree with her take on the issue of immigration and assimilation - it just does not work from a social point of view for law and order to have a group of persons from one country and culture move to another country and culture and refuse to adopt their new country's culture and laws. If you move to a country to afford yourself the benefits of their systems you also have to abide by their laws and cultural norms, even if they are seen as "negatives" - you can't have the good without the bad in my opinion. THis does not mean you cannot retain you cultural customs within your home and maintain your religious beliefs - but that is where the problem arises for immigrants from a country that exists under Islamic Law rather than man's law - if they move to a country that is governed by man's law and they refuse to recognize man's law how does that work? It doesn't.

    So I think one of the author's main points was that there has to be an Enlightenment amongst "old school" (for lack of a better term) Muslims so they realize they can have their faith but also accept man's law too - as is the case with Christianity in Western countries (yes I know I know of course that there are exceptions to this last statement since there are always the extreme fringe groups who won't follow any rules but their own) .

    ANyway my random thoughts after reading the book...