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Author: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Details: (c) 2007 Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Pub 2007 Simon and Schuster Free Press; ISBN 1-84739-597-X

Verdict: Infidel is a fascinating autobiography, and I found its political argument challenging if not completely convincing.

Reasons for reading it: It's a book I've heard a great deal about and I was very interested in it.

How it came into my hands: [personal profile] zvi posted about a voucher for KoboBooks which meant that this was startlingly cheap.

Infidel lived up to my expectations and then some. Ali writes for an audience who are completely ignorant of her cultural background, but without patronizing or over-explaining. The writing is lively and passionate but also matter-of-fact even when dealing with horrific experiences, which I think is among the best ways to make an impact. For me, the first section was the most interesting, because it describes Ali's childhood and youth in Somalia (with interludes in various other African and Middle Eastern countries), and a rough overview of the background and politics and so on that led to her having the experiences that she did. Not only is this very well written, it's an extremely unusual perspective for books written in English and published in places where I'm likely to come across them.

The second half of the book is less interesting in some ways, just because I've read really quite a lot of accounts of refugees settling in a Western country and getting used to the high level of personal freedom but weak community connections, wanting to fit in but without giving up their old culture and so on. It's a theme I'm drawn to, definitely, and Ali's account is well written and adds something profound to the discussion, but it wasn't as new to me as the first half.

However, the way that Infidel is different is that Ali doesn't just try to build her life in a new country, she gets heavily involved in politics. She becomes the Dutch equivalent of an MP, and also joins with Theo van Gogh, the controversial film maker, and collaborates on the anti-Islam film which caused so much anger that he was eventually assassinated. I actually hadn't quite realized that Ali was directly involved with this film, though I knew she was very much caught up in the controversy and violence that resulted. The combination of Ali's experiences of misogyny (up to and including genital mutilation and a forced marriage) committed in the name of Islam, and living through her friend's murder, the death threat against her carved into his body, and having to go on the run from extremists who wanted to kill her for making this film, makes her justifiably very angry with Islam.

She is not only critical of Islam, though, but of the multicultural ideals of liberal Dutch people which mean that they can turn a blind eye to extremism, violence and misogyny, or even tacitly support these evils because they want to promote racial harmony and not impose their culture on immigrant groups. This made the book a very difficult one for me to read, because multiculturalism, pluralism and religious tolerance are among the most important values in my life. Ali begs the reader not to accept her arguments just because of how much she personally has suffered, but to let them stand or fall in their own merits. Well, to do her justice there are some glaring holes in her case; she simply dismisses out of hand the idea that European colonialism had any effect on the situation in contemporary Africa, and she categorically disbelieves in racism. Or at least racism by white people against black people; she gives several examples of ethnic prejudices between various African and Arab groups. She seems to be arguing that the Netherlands has a higher standard of living than Somalia precisely because post-Christian secular humanism is objectively better than Islam, which ignores inconvenient facts like the higher standard of living in Muslim Malaysia compared to Christian / secular Ethiopia.

I think it would be too easy for me to just dismiss the whole of her point based on this kind of debating society point-scoring, though. She's making a very serious charge that liberal, tolerant people like me are partly responsible for failing to prevent abuses committed in the name of Islam. Part of my trouble is that even if I do accept Ali's statement, because I do believe in racism and colonialism, I don't think the solutions are anything as like as simple as what she seems to be proposing. Also I'm very conscious that any measures against "Islam" can very easily rebound on me; witness some of the debates going on across Europe about ritual slaughter or circumcision, for example. I am very much against creating a situation where all Muslims have to constantly prove that they're morally perfect in every way in order to be allowed to practise their religion.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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