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3.0 out of 5 stars Moving and damning but with caveats... (review by a practicing Muslim), 4 Aug 2010
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This review is from: Infidel (Paperback)
REVIEW UPDATE MARCH 2014 - I would recommend Kristiane Backer's recently published autobiography From MTV to Mecca as a detailed and accessible counter-narrative which juxtaposes interestingly with this book. In fact I would go so far as to say that anybody who has read this book should take out the time to read that book also as it provides another very personal take on the civilisational encounter between Islam and the West as played out in the wholly different life experiences of a European woman journeying to Islam.


This is a well-written, personal account of one woman's journey through her own mind and the world around her. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a traditional Muslim family in Somalia and lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia in her youth. Absorbing her beliefs from the societies around her, she became a "pious" Muslim, praying regularly and covering herself, so she believed, for the pleasure of God. However a lingering rancour towards what she often perceived as the myopic and misogynistic practises of the various Muslim societies she lived in festered within her, provoking an internal tension. Fleeing to Holland as a refugee was the epiphanic catalyst she needed to "free her mind" from the shackles of the dogma she had been brought up in. What she saw, felt and experienced in this "enlightened, civilised, tolerant and progressive" society was in sharp contrast to the lands she had left. Europe and the West, she concluded, were infinitely more advanced than their Eastern counterparts; their societies far more civilised and humane. Enrolling at university, she began to study social science in a bid to understand the principles which underpinned these liberated, progressive societies. Her conclusion? The societies of the East were rooted in stagnant and moribund principles derived in large part from religion: the subjugation of reason to dogma, patriarchal social structures which inhibited the empowerment and participation of women and a fearful demonisation of the "other"; a fertile breeding ground for intolerance and a rigid, binary view of the world which contributes, in no small way, to the modern phenomenon of terrorism. The West, on the other hand, had undergone a Renaissance, a Reformation (in religion) and most importantly an Enlightenment all of which had helped it evolve to a higher plane of understanding. The different experiences of lived reality she encountered first-hand in the two societies (Islamic and Western) were a logical concomitant of the principles upon which those societies were based. The result? Ali jettisons what she now perceives as the superstitious fiction of her religion, becomes an atheist and embraces liberal humanism as the most advanced generator of social values.

A captivating tale from start to finish, this is an important book in the way it raises so many key questions about the relationship of Islam (and the Muslim world - as a distinct phenomenon) with the West, the nature of faith in the modern world, and the presence, dynamics and future of growing Muslim communities in Europe. Ali became a single issue politician specialising in immigration, specifically Muslim immigration to Europe, and suggested a number of reforms to facilitate the integration process. She also became an outspoken and vociferous critic of Islam per se, arguing that its core tenets intrinsically inhibit Muslim development in the modern world. Although not expecting everybody to become an atheist like her, she wants Muslims to examine their faith and enact a reform which will allow a more amenable marriage with modernity. A powerful and often damning critique, Ali's book should force Muslims (or at least those of them with the fortitude to read it) to look more deeply at these issues and work towards alleviating some of the problems which very clearly do affect Muslims and their communities.

That said, in the interest of balance and objectivity, I do feel the following points need to be made. Firstly, Ali seems to have had an exceptionally abusive childhood being raised by a mother and grandmother who displayed signs of pathological neuroses. I would never dream of attacking my child for climbing upon me during prayer. In fact, my 3 year old views prayer time as a game, regularly clambering upon my back whilst I prostrate. Following in the recorded example of the Prophet Muhammad (s), I gently lower him to the floor before continuing on. Ali, on the other hand, was screamed at, spat upon and beaten for simply playing around as a child; a horribly ruthless response which, no doubt, seared itself into her memory and bound itself up with her experience of her faith. Unfortunately this type of vicious treatment recurs frequently in her encounters with figures of religious authority; take, for example, the Quran teacher who cracked her skull. She was also traumatised by the pre-Islamic African cultural traditions of female circumcision and genital mutilation - customs which are not practised in the majority of the Muslim world nor sanctioned by the mainstream Islamic legal tradition. Inevitably, this catalogue of horribly warped experiences tightly bound themselves up with her lived experience of the faith and in rejecting Islam later on in life, I would contend that she, no doubt, would also have been renouncing the unhappy corollary of misery brought upon her by her abusive experience of the religion. Whilst this, in no way, is intended to detract from or negate the validity of her decision, I think a broader psychological context is useful when attempting to understand, at a deeper level, the events of her life.

Another point of contention, for me, is that Ali, after her rejection of Islam, comes across as a provocateur par excellence. She seems to thrive off fomenting furore; directing attention to herself through shocking and provoking her audiences - particularly her Western, non-Muslim audiences who would baulk at making the same assertions at the risk of being labelled xenophobic or "Islamophobic". Yet, as an "insider", somebody who has lived and breathed Islam, she has the freedom to criticise without inhibition. This results in two responses. On the one hand, she is reviled and despised by reactionary Muslims who see her as a despicable traitor. On the other she is proudly proclaimed as a poster-girl of the Western "emancipation movement" - a symbolic figurehead who confirms the negative stereotypes many Westerners hold about the Islamic faith whilst simultaneously reinforcing the superiority of the Western, secular way of life. Given Ali's avowed assertions of wanting to work towards alleviating problems in Muslim societies, the success of this approach - based upon vitriolic denigration and insensitive provocation and which polarises opinions so harshly - is surely questionable.

Lastly, Ali is, in my opinion, a little too nave and simplistic in her Manichean embrace of the West and rejection of Islam. Setting them up as essentially contradictory monoliths, her book is a strong advocate of the Clash of Civilisations thesis. For me, though, her dichotomous black-and-white scenario bypasses the many shades of gray which quite clearly do exist.

On the one hand, Ali's central issue is with the PRACTICE of Islam as she has experienced it in several societies, whilst the silent majority of moderate Muslims, equally abhorred and disgusted by the acts done in the name of their religion, see them as clear perversions and aberrations of the original teachings (although Ali argues that Islam's core teachings spawn a milieu conducive to the horrors committed in its name). From this perspective, her assertion that - for example - Bin Laden in orchestrating the attack on the Twin Towers (which, incidentally, was the catalyst for her own apostasy) was doing nothing other than following the guidance of the Quran is clearly disingenuous (as is her seemingly wilful oblivion to the moderate viewpoint of the majority of Muslims). Poor Westerners who seek to learn about Islam from Ali and her kind would do well to be a little less gullible; an alternative perspective is always enriching and, in this case, the tales of European converts to Islam add an interesting nuance to the whole scenario. Those so disposed may enjoy Muhammad Asad's (formerly Leopold Weiss) classic autobiography The Road to Mecca or Charles Le Gai Eaton's magisterial Islam and the Destiny of Man as primers.

On the other hand, the West is not the rarefied haven of utopia she makes it out to be. In spite of material advances there are real social ills afflicting Western societies. Not least amongst these is the sense of anomie or existential nihilism brought about, according to some, by the absence of the sacred. This has led to what Sarte has called a "God-shaped hole in our human consciousness" and modernity has been described as a collection of forces, of growing momentum, to shovel matter - as a substitute - into this hole. Religions traditionally anchored us into a metaphysical understanding of existence which breathed life and meaning into the most perfunctory of acts; the modern outlook has denuded us of this. As opposed to the Manichean demarcation presented by Ali and others, maybe the body of contemporary material civilisation could benefit from the soul of spiritually enlightened, traditional religion.

In conclusion, this is a very interesting read which is well-written and engaging from start to finish. Ali raises some very important points which, quite simply, Muslims need to come to terms with. We are no longer living in the comfortable faith age of medieval times. Religious faith, in general, and Islam, in particular, have come under powerful and sustained intellectual attack: Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are busy digging religion's grave, whilst Ali, Rushdie and Spencer want to push Islam inside. Muslims who bury their heads in the sand and choose to ignore the exigencies of their age are committing intellectual suicide (with - by the way - no merry virgins awaiting them at the end). Ali's book is a powerful wake-up call to Muslims to tackle head-on the warped practices perpetrated in the name of their faith and, in a more general sense, to come to terms with the broader challenges of modernity.

Whether this happens, though, or whether the increasingly volatile spiral of reactionary violence, insensitive provocation and mutual resentment spins out of control is anybody's guess.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 14 Dec 2010 14:16:05 GMT
Assalamu Alaikum.

Posted on 7 Jul 2011 19:28:29 BDT
S Layer says:
A very interesting and balanced review, you should write a book!

I'll certainly read this book, but will keep in mind the points you raised, especially her rough treatment at the hands of those who should have been gentle and nurturing, which I feel should be aimed at her family and peers rather than the religion itself.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Aug 2011 06:05:05 BDT
Mr Tea-Mole says:
S Layer - thanks for your comment...

Funnily enough, I actually am in the process of writing my first book! The working title is "British or Muslim: a Crisis of Identity?" and it aims to explore the experiences and issues of living specifically as a Muslim in Britain cast within the broader backdrop of religion in the modern world and all the issues this raises. Hence this (AHA's book) is just one amongst many I'm working through to try and get as wide a perspective as possible so I can write with depth, nuance and a firm grasp of what's already out there - well that's the plan anyway!

So keep your eyes peeled, who knows - you may be reviewing my book on here next! :)

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Jan 2013 22:04:37 GMT
Umm Maariyah says:
Very thought provoking - thank you
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