Friday, July 11, 2008

BOOKS: Infidel

The last few weeks, I have been enjoying my commute in the company of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as I've listened to her fascinating book Infidel. I love books that transport me to a foreign place or time, and immerse me in a culture that I didn't know about before. And I love books that provoke thought about important ideas. Infidel does both of things exceedingly well. It is the autobiographical account of an independent-minded woman who was raised in a traditional Somali Muslim family and grew up to be a Member of Dutch Parliament advocating for women's rights. The first half of the book is a vivid account of her childhood in Somalia, and later in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya as her family escaped the turbulence of their war-torn homeland. Her description of life in places like Mogadishu, Mecca, and Nairobi is rich in detail about their houses and neighborhoods, their food, their culture and traditions. Her portraits of her parents, her siblings, her grandmother, and other family members are richly complex, infused with the emotional perspective of her childhood at the same time balanced by an unflinching retrospective assessment of their good qualities and their weaknesses. The genealogist in me was fascinated learning about the Somali tribal culture that puts such a premium on one's ancestry that children at an early age can recite their ancestry for nine generations, and when two Somalis meet, they can readily ascertain their kinship even to tenth cousins. And her description of the variations of Muslim practice between countries, and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, was illuminating and especially relevant today. She does a remarkable job of making comprehensible such alien traditions as polygamy, arranged marriages, and female genital mutilation. What is especially remarkable is how, even though she would later come to condemn some parts of the traditions she was raised with as being completely barbaric, she describes them in the context of her early life subjectively and dispassionately, neither concealing the barbarity nor revealing anger, judgment, and condemnation. The account is all the more powerful for that, allowing the reader to understand how such barbarity could be accepted and tolerated because of how it is embedded in traditional ways of life and in how sons and daughters are raised. And it allows us to understand this amazing woman on all the parts of her journey, from childhood, to adolescence when she was drawn to fundamentalism, to adulthood when she escaped to discover liberal ideas. The latter half of the book describes her life in the Netherlands, where she becomes not only a parliamentarian but a political lightning rod after making a controversial film with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh which lead to his murder and death threats for her. The book then becomes more about politics, ideology, and her intellectual autobiography, though embedded in personal experiences of immigration, learning Dutch culture, and ultimately life as a figure in hiding from death threats. She raises significant questions about whether a liberal society can survive being tolerant of a growing immigrant community within its midst that remains insular and perpetuates an illiberal way of life. (These questions have reverberations here in America, not only regarding Islamism, but in issues like the recent Texas FLDS raids, and in the fault lines of conflict between religious liberty and civil rights protections -- issues I hope to explore in future blog posts.) And she makes a compelling argument that Islam needs to undergo its own Reformation if it is to be reconciled to modernity. Her ideas and the amazing life experience that formed them make for vital and fascinating reading.

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