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Lessons from an Infidel

Imagine you are female, five years old, and your grandmother decides it is time for you to be “purified.” She invites strangers into your house to conduct this anticipated ritual. After circumcising your brother, they grab you and hold you down. Without any anesthesia, they cut out your genitals with scissors and sew your labia together, leaving only a small opening for urination.

You are beaten into submission throughout your young life. At one point, you are beaten so badly by a religious teacher and your own mother that you end up in the hospital for twelve days. Your siblings are also beaten regularly. You must obey every order given to you by adults.

You are told that you must have a man to protect you. A woman without a man, you are told, is like sheep fat in the sun — fly-covered, decaying, useless. You and your family live in abject poverty. You are uprooted time after time to escape the civil unrest of the countries you live in. You narrowly escape genocide. You are told that if you disobey the scriptures or defy the word of God, you will burn in Hell. All the evil in the world, you are told, is because of the Jews. You immerse yourself in your religion in the hope of finding peace.

When you are twenty years old, your father, who has been estranged from you most of your life because of political unrest, returns. One day, he tells you excitedly that he has found a husband for you. You have never met this man before, but it is your destiny. You will be married whether you are present at the ceremony or not, and you will move to Canada, where he lives. You are sent to Germany to await a visa from Canada, but when you step off the plane in Frankfurt you realize that everything you were told your entire life about the West may not be true. You see men and women mingling easily together. Everything is orderly and clean. You feel safe. There is hot, running water. Food is abundant.

You know almost immediately that you can never go back to the life you just left. You cannot live with a man you do not know. You decide to run away to Holland where, you learn, you can request political asylum. When your family learns of your defiance, you are hunted. Your family and your husband find you, but you know now that you have rights. You refuse to leave. They send tribal elders to hold a trial to discuss your fate. When they ask you why you refuse to leave Holland and be with your husband, you tell them, “It is the will of the soul. The soul cannot be coerced.” You are finally left alone.


This is a true story, and it is only part of the riveting life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an immigrant from Somalia who recounts her journey from Africa to Europe in her autobiography, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007).

As she tells her story, Hirsi Ali reveals her evolution from a world of faith and bondage to a world of reason and freedom. Her constant quest to understand the cultural and political differences between Islamic nations and the West led her to be one of the most controversial figures of modern times. Her life experiences gave her the strength to deliver her message to the West, a message that Westerners themselves are loathe to make at the risk of sounding racist — that women in Islam are oppressed and that this oppression is causing these societies to lag behind the West.

“Life,” she argues, “is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and the individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state.” Hirsi Ali believes it is possible to change the state of the Muslim world, and it doesn’t need to take six hundred years of reformation. She believes people adapt quickly to good ideas and that it is “possible to free oneself — to adapt one’s faith, to examine it critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of the oppression.”

As a member of parliament in the Netherlands, she risked her life to speak out about the plight of Muslim women in Holland and throughout the world. After the death of her friend, Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who was brutally murdered for a film he made with her, Hirsi Ali was forced into hiding for several years. She now lives in the United States and works as a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she continues her work on Islamic societies and women’s rights.

This book is not only an extraordinary story of triumph, it is a powerful lesson for anyone wanting to better understand the nature of the conflicts between Islamic nations and the West and for anyone who doubts the inevitable consequences of religious tyranny. Reminiscent of Salmon Rushdie before her, Hirsi Ali’s intellectual honesty shows us how precious our political freedom is and how our most sacred right — freedom of speech — is being threatened as we languish in guilt over our past transgressions.

Hirsi Ali has written elswhere that “Liberty does not come cheap.” She is right to wage a battle for free speech now. Without freedom of speech, the West as we know it, as a society that respects individual sovereignty, will cease to exist. The backlash over the Danish cartoons should be a potent augury of what may come to the U.S. if we do not defend our own Bill of Rights today. When people like Hirsi Ali are silenced in America, it will be too late.

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