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It is rare to find autobiography as absorbing as this. Not only because of the author's unusual path from the desert of Somalia to the USA via the Netherlands, but also on account of the engaging writing style. Clear and descriptive, the narrative of her eventful life had a profound impact on this reader. Born and raised in Somalia, she spent part of her youth in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, describing through the eyes of a child what it was like to live there.

She makes the history of Somalia come alive under the dictatorship of Siad Barre, explaining the clan system and comparing the relaxed Muslim practice in that country with the strictness of Saudi Arabia and the hypocrisy and racism that go along with it. The short experience of Ethiopia and later the long stay in Kenya, both predominantly Christian countries, were different again and she really captivates one's attention with the places and the people. One of the most salient memories she recalls is the obsessive anti-Semitism in Saudi Arabia. Where her family lived in the city of Riyadh, Jews were blamed for everything.

A sub-theme of the book is the increased radicalization of Muslims, partly because of the failures and the suffering brought about by Barre and the chaos of the civil war that unseated him. She noted this radicalization taking place amongst Somalis and others in Kenya where she spent most of her adolescence. This radical strain was brought to Africa by Arabs and Iranians, both Sunni and Shia, also reflecting the failure of secular ideologies and bad government in the dictatorships of the Muslim world.

There are sympathetic but honest portrayals of her family and friends: her mother who showed healthy signs of independence early in life but eventually lost hope and became embittered, her loving and tolerant but mostly absent father, her brother who stayed in Kenya and her sister who, when she couldn't cope in Holland, died tragically after returning to Kenya.

Instead of stirring up feelings against Islam, this book makes one contemplate the location of each individual's birth, how little free choice there really is in a closed society, the powerful hold of your community's history and culture, the difficulty of resisting brainwashing and how grateful people in free societies ought to be for the blessings that a lot of us take for granted.

The book is also about a second journey - the one from a stifling experience of oppressive religion to enlightenment and an embrace of Western values like individual freedom, freedom of speech and the rule of law. The fact that the individual mattered and had a right to life, to choice and freedom, was a joyful discovery.

This theme interweaves with the history she so deftly chronicles: the collapse of Somalia, the slow decline in Kenya, Dutch politics in the face of dysfunctional multiculturalism that however well intended, harms individuals in the immigrant communities and society as a whole. More information of what is going down in The Netherlands and Europe as a whole is available in While Europe Slept by Bruce Bawer and Menace In Europe by Claire Berlinski.

It is humbling to read of the author's wonderment at Holland where even the police were friendly and helpful, and everything worked. She clearly loves The Netherlands; her words radiate with gratitude and appreciation of Dutch culture and society. I especially enjoyed the account of her studies at the University of Leiden where she discovered the great Western philosophers.

Infidel is the story of a life that has experienced mutilation, war, deprivation, tragedy, adventure, drastic adaptation and inspiring achievements, by an unusually courageous, empathic and resourceful individual. There are 11 black & white plates of family and other people who played a part in her life. As far as leaving Islam is concerned, I recommend the following informative books by two equally courageous women: Because They Hate by Brigitte Gabriel and Now They Call Me Infidel by Nonie Darwish.
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on 20 August 2007
It's not often that one reads a work of non-fiction that is both intellectually brilliant and as gripping as a thriller. This is Hirsi Ali's autobiography, and it succinctly covers a spectacularly broad sweep of topics as it follows her life path from her birth in Somalia to her emigration to the US as a celebrity hunted by Islamic fundamentalists: the oral traditions and clan structure of Somalis; the relationship between Somali culture and Islam; female genital mutilation; the hierarchies of inter-African racism; the Muslim Brotherhood; the Somali civil war; the political culture of the Netherlands; the murder of Theo van Gogh; and much more. Hirsi Ali has been accused by various wishy-washy liberals of being an `enlightenment fundamentalist', but there is nothing judgemental or hectoring about her writing; she explains even horrific events matter-of-factly, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion from facts that speak for themselves. She writes with great human sympathy about friends and relatives whose flaws might seem to make them unworthy of it, from the traditionalist grandmother who had her genitally mutilated and the mother who beat her mercilessly to the Dutch minister who tried to revoke her citizenship. The characters in her life story are all too human.

Hirsi Ali's self-declared mission is to fight the oppression of women in Islamic societies. She has often been accused of attributing to Islam abuses, such as genital mutilation, that are local cultural practices not sanctioned by the Koran. But this criticism is unfounded; as she makes clear early on, her point is that the authority of Islam, as it is interpreted in traditional societies, is used to sanction such abuses. And as she points out, the Koran really does appear to sanction other abuses against women, such as wife-beating (The Koran 4:34). Hirsi Ali is perhaps a bit sweeping in her condemnation of Islam; I'd question her suggestion that Osama bin Laden's interpretation of the Koran is necessarily the accurate one (holy texts are open to multiple interpretations, after all). Or her implication that Islam is inherently more problematic than Christianity or Judaism (there are some pretty politically incorrect passages in the Old Testament as well). But she makes a refreshing change from the dissembling of guilt-ridden liberals terrified of sounding `racist'. Democratic Muslims should welcome the debate, while fundamentalist Muslims deserve to be offended as much as possible.

Whether you agree with everything she says or not, it's difficult not to feel a sense of utter exaltation as this woman from a traditional background drags herself up, shakes off her own prejudices, takes on the brutes of primitivism and fundamentalism - and triumphs. It's an inspiring read with a truly nail-biting finish.
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on 4 August 2010
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 naïve 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.


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.
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This was a book club choice and one that we all felt taught us much. However it is definitely not an easy read, and why should it be really, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has had the most challenging of lives. This book ends before her happy ever after though, not mentioning her rewarding marriage and happy motherhood, international acclaim that thankfully came after.

We talked for three hours over the topics raised in the book. The tale is brutally honest and spares little detail. The way that the author was raised in Nairobi, Mogadishu, sounds medieval in many parts. The butchery of FGM is an everyday thing for her grandmother to espouse although her mother wasn't for it, it still took place when the grandmother was given charge. This defacement has echoes throughout the story, for AHA and her fellow Somali sisters. Abeh, her father, comes and goes, but she loves him unconditionally, although he is mostly very hard on her, his approval is always sought. The cruelty of the climate around submission of women is well documented, the law of the tribes, the unofficial benefits system run by brothers in the USA sending money to families in Somalia, the 'protection' of females and the restrictions required of them are clearly listed.

The pace of the book, which is written with the help of the many acknowledged at the end, picked up for me when Ayaan Hirsi Ali reaches Holland. The book flowed better after that for a while although once she became a politician again it stalled. Whether you find it so will depend on the angle you are coming at the book from. We set out to learn, understand and evaluate. It was heartwarming that so many supported the author and spoke so directly to her. I enjoyed reading her reactions to life in Holland, where 'everything worked so perfectly'. The charity Refugee Aid comes out of it well and I appreciate the work they do more now. I realise more now about the way in which a large collection of refugees will inevitably include some who cannot adjust and inadvertently practice a form of mutual zenophobia, and others who accept every opportunity with both hands and rise above the everyday worries to stand out from the crowd and speak up.

Perhaps to be considered a necessary book for feminists, women, and men who try to understand; to be required reading for students, this serious, honest, often horrific book will linger long in the mind after closing the last page.
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on 28 March 2007
It is such a shame that reviewers let their own subjective preconceptions affect their reading of a book (although I guess we all do to a certain extent).

It seems as though some of the reveiwers of this book had already decided that Ali was similar to Rushdie.

I have a thorough knowledge of Islam, and as I read I could feel her desperately trying to distinguish cultural traditions from the religion.

Her conversion comes more in the form of experiencing her own form of 'Enlightenment' as she reads the writers of the European Enlightenment.

It seems that the 'this book is rubbish' reviewers decided that Ms Ali was a kufr before they even read it.

Even if it was an attack on Islam I would have thought any Muslim would be able to understand (and be interested by) the process that she went through in rejecting her religion.

Unfortunately, Muslims who turn their back on their religion are the worst of the worst in many Muslims eyes.

Ignore these bad reviews and read this book as an interesting and insightful look at different cultures and feminism.
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on 24 November 2008
I bought this book as an extra when buying something else. I planned to read it on holiday, but it arrived three days before I left and I made the mistake of dipping into it beforehand. It was a mistake because my total absorbtion in this autobiography left me with no more than a few pages to read on my trip. It is a long time since I learned so much from a book. Ayaan writes simply, and without rancour about a life that appears beyond belief to a western male. It is a wonderful, literary achievement that deserves our attention.
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on 16 May 2007
Others have described the book in detail. I found it compelling, and it helped me understand better the Muslim women I have met who remain with violent, abusive husbands here in the UK: the cage door may be open, but the bars - of religion and family - are still firmly in place. It is certainly polemical - much more so than, say, the work of Nawal El Saadawi, who has remained in Egypt to challenge the system from within, and who is once again under threat from the regime there. Those who have found this book interesting are urged to read "Woman at Point Zero" as well.
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Infidel is an overwhelming book to grasp. Why? Well, because so much has happened so far in Ms. Ali's life. In addition, she takes you into mental spaces where you've never been before and this takes more than a little stretching.

Here's the bottom line: In the course of her first three and a half decades of life, Ms. Ali moved from being born into a medieval-type lifestyle in Africa and Arabia based on Islam to becoming a prominent social critic of Islam in Europe and the United States who is well listened to wherever she goes. At the same time, she required enormous personal security to keep her alive as those she criticized sought to silence her.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in a traditional high-clan Somali family whose father was a leader in the Somali civil war against the Marxist dictatorship of Siad Barre. While her father was progressive in some ways, her grandmother wanted to follow all traditional practices. Her mother was estranged from her father, and often seemed to be fighting a losing battle for her sanity. As a result, Ms. Ali seemed to get the worst of each person's influence.

Her grandmother forcibly arranged for her female circumcision. Her mother used to alternate between beating Ms. Ali and forcing her to do all of the household work. Her father was usually absent except when she became an adult and he forced her into an arranged marriage she opposed. A Muslim teacher once almost killed her through a beating.

Early in her years, Ms. Ali began to value equality for women and decent treatment from the men in the household. Those instincts were viewed as totally anathema to her family and clan members.

On her way to join the new husband picked out by her father, Ms. Ali escaped to Holland where she becomes a successful applicant for refugee status. She soon was earning a living as a translator to help pay for her education, and later worked for a political think tank. There, her outspoken views about the dangers of permitting Muslim practices to be freely followed in Europe caused quite a stir. She became a Dutch citizen and was able to switch parties and run for Parliament, earning a seat in her first election. With this prominence, her criticisms had more effect.

Ms. Ali burst on the international scene in 2004 when she collaborated with Theo van Gogh to create a short documentary, Submission, Part 1, that had rocked the Muslim community with its physical and psychological boldness. A partially undraped woman is portrayed speaking directly to Allah rather than submitting to her faith in totally covering clothes. Two months later, van Gogh was assassinated. In the aftermath, the quest to keep her safe made her life a nightmare. In the aftermath, her citizenship was challenged and she has since moved to the United States to continue her role as a social critic of Islam.
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on 11 April 2007
In broad terms this book describes Ayaan Hirsi Ali's transformation within the liberal culture of Holland from a Somalian refugee steeped in Islamic mysticism and clan tradition into a secular westerner in less than ten years. In that same time frame it also describes how Holland has had to confront many of the attitudes it has to multiculturalism when faced with deadly violence from its Muslim immigrants, whenever their mysticism is challenged. The murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh, being of particular note.

As well as this, the book concentrates on what it is for a woman to live under Islam, from the draconian attitudes of Saudi Arabia to the comparatively less draconian attitudes of Somalia. There are many virulent critics of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Mostly Muslim men for whom Islam works very well indeed.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has clearly demonstrated that Islam can be effectively countered if women choose to not accept life under its constraints and humiliations. And if western governments actively protected Muslim women's rights as individuals, Islam would be much less difficult to confront.
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on 4 February 2008
Amazing, not a word I use often, but this word describes Aayan Hirsi Ali perfectly. She was born with a sense of justice in Somalia to Somalian parents,her father was heavily involved in politics, but not so involved with his family.
Aayan was the stalwart of the family,the well behaved elder daughter badly treated by her mother, but this giving her a sense of survival from the harsh family,harsh country & cruel Islamic teachings.
She tells her story without self pity,just the events & facts, which I admire greatly, this is not a novel it's almost a diary.
Her story takes you from here,her decision to escape from the clutches of Islam, a forced marriage & her arrival in Holland, where to her amazement she found men didn't rape the first woman they saw without Islamic dress.
Where she could speak her mind,where people were kind, where people helped & respected her, where most of all they listened to her.
This for me was the best part of the book,to read a Muslims 'unbiased'[ who by now is almost an Apostate] view of democracy.
All the lies she had been fed by Imams over the years on what we the Infidels were like she now saw first hand it simply wasn't true.
It's a sad, cruel,but uplifting story which should be read by all in the west, it's a crash course in Islam, it tells how life really is for the majority of Muslim women,from female circumcision to the way marriage is conducted by Muslim families, where the girls have no say in the choice of their life long partner,a husband.
The husband who does the most barbaric thing on the wedding night to their brides,the way women are shut up in the house whilst men have free movement without restrictions, how women are slaves to them & their needs.
Is it any wonder that this woman now fights for Muslim womens rights.
She became an MP to speak on their behalf, was & is still, being hunted down for speaking against Islam, the penalty is death.
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