I don’t often read a book that changes my way of thinking, but then I don’t often read a book like Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia, she had a traditional Muslim childhood, marked by privation, family dislocation, tribal rivalries and civil war. She survived regular beatings, genital mutilation, a forced marriage and the expectations that she would become a dutiful Muslim wife and mother, hidden behind a veil, simply because this was ‘the will of Allah’.
In her adolescent years Ayaan began to question her faith. “If God was merciful”, she writes, “then why did He demand that His creatures be hanged in public? If He was compassionate, why did unbelievers have to go to hell? If Allah was almighty and powerful, why didn’t he just make believers out of the unbelievers and have them all go to Paradise?”
Against all the odds she managed to escape as a refugee to Holland, where, having learned to speak Dutch, she enrolled at university and, a few years later, gained Dutch citizenship. Getting involved in local politics, she began to speak out about Islam and, in particular, the plight of Muslim women. “How could a just God - a God so just that almost every page of the Quran praises His fairness - desire that women be treated so unfairly?”
It took Ayaan a little longer to escape from the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of Islam, but once she’d renounced her faith she embraced the freedom of a secular life, unveiled, in Holland. Having become a member of parliament, she called Islam “a barrier to free-thinking, an obstacle to innovation of all kinds, political, social, intellectual and moral”. Invited to participate in televised debates, she soon found that this kind of talk has violent repercussions, even in a western democracy. Her past was not so easy to escape.
She became a target for Muslim reprisals after she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh, a film-maker, to make a film about Muslim women called Submission. When Van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim extremist, a note left on his body warned that Ayaan would be next. She was forced into hiding, with round-the-clock protection, and now lives in America, where her perceptive views - and books such as Infidel and Heretic - confirm that she has not been silenced. She saw the flaws in a religion that’s locked into a bronze age mindset: “Shouldn’t the places where Allah was worshipped and His laws obeyed have been at peace and wealthy, and the unbelievers’ countries ignorant and poor and at war?”
Considering all the privations of her early life, and the upheavals of moving from one war-ravaged country to another, it’s amazing that she is still alive to tell her story (beautifully written - in an understated, undramatic way - in English, her third language). Her resilience is extraordinary. It takes a lot of courage for an ex-Muslim to speak openly about the religion, because the punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries is death. She has an answer for those who suggest she has a death wish: “Some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice”.
I will think of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, her harsh upbringing and her luminous, almost rancour-free book, whenever some buffoon insists blithely that “Islam is a religion of peace”.
Sanctuary ring on the door of Adel Church...