In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author of The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story, from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West.
One of today’s most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali burst into international headlines following an Islamist’s murder of her colleague, Theo van Gogh, with whom she made the movie Submission.
Infidel is the eagerly awaited story of the coming of age of this elegant, distinguished–and sometimes reviled–political superstar and champion of free speech. With a gimlet eye and measured, often ironic, voice, Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs, her ironclad will, and her extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, genital mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots. In her early twenties, she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she earned a college degree in political science, tried to help her tragically depressed sister adjust to the West, and fought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. Even though she is under constant threat–demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan–she refuses to be silenced.
Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali’s story tells how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.
One November morning in 2004, Theo van Gogh got up to go to work at his film production company in Amsterdam. He took out his old black bicycle and headed down a main road. Waiting in a doorway was a Moroccan man with a handgun and two butcher knives.
As Theo cycled down the Linnaeusstraat, Muhammad Bouyeri approached. He pulled out his gun and shot Theo several times. Theo fell off his bike and lurched across the road, then collapsed. Bouyeri followed. Theo begged, “Can’t we talk about this?” but Bouyeri shot him four more times. Then he took out one of his butcher knives and sawed into Theo’s throat. With the other knife, he stabbed a five-page letter onto Theo’s chest.
The letter was addressed to me.
Two months before, Theo and I had made a short film together. We called it Submission, Part 1. I intended one day to make Part 2. (Theo warned me that he would work on Part 2 only if I accepted some humor in it!) Part 1 was about defiance–about Muslim women who shift from total submission to God to a dialogue with their deity. They pray, but instead of casting down their eyes, these women look up, at Allah, with the words of the Quran tattooed on their skin. They tell Him honestly that if submission to Him brings them so much misery, and He remains silent, they may stop submitting.
There is the woman who is flogged for committing adultery; another who is given in marriage to a man she loathes; another who is beaten by her husband on a regular basis; and another who is shunned by her father when he learns that his brother raped her. Each abuse is justified by the perpetrators in the name of God, citing the Quran verses now written on the bodies of the women. These women stand for hundreds of thousands of Muslim women around the world.
Theo and I knew it was a dangerous film to make. But Theo was a valiant man–he was a warrior, however unlikely that might seem. He was also very Dutch, and no nation in the world is more deeply attached to freedom of expression than the Dutch. The suggestion that he remove his name from the film’s credits for security reasons made Theo angry. He told me once, “If I can’t put my name on my own film, in Holland, then Holland isn’t Holland any more, and I am not me.”
People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.
This is the story of my life. It is a subjective record of my own personal memories, as close to accurate as I can make them; my relationship with the rest of my family has been so fractured that I cannot now refresh these recollections by asking them for help. It is the story of what I have experienced, what I’ve seen, and why I think the way I do. I’ve come to see that it is useful, and maybe even important, to tell this story. I want to make a few things clear, set a certain number of records straight, and also tell people about another kind of world and what it’s really like.
I was born in Somalia. I grew up in Somalia, in Saudi Arabia, in Ethiopia, and in Kenya. I came to Europe in 1992, when I was twenty-two, and became a member of Parliament in Holland. I made a movie with Theo, and now I live with bodyguards and armored cars. In April 2006 a Dutch court ordered that I leave my safe-home that I was renting from the State. The judge concluded that my neighbors had a right to argue that they felt unsafe because of my presence in the building. I had already decided to move to the United States before the debate surrounding my Dutch citizenship erupted.
This book is dedicated to my family, and also to the millions and millions of Muslim women who have had to submit.
Part I: My Childhood
Chapter 1: Bloodlines
Chapter 2: Under the Talal Tree
Chapter 3: Playing Tag in Allah’s Palace
Chapter 4: Weeping Orphans and Widowed Wives
Chapter 5: Secret Rendezvous, Sex, and the Scent of Sukumawik
Chapter 6: Doubt and Defiance
Chapter 7: Disillusion and Deceit
Chapter 8: Refugees
Chapter 9: Abeh
Part II: My Freedom
Chapter 10: Running Away
Chapter 11: A Trial by the Elders
Chapter 12: Haweya
Chapter 13: Leiden
Chapter 14: Leaving God
Chapter 15: Threats
Chapter 16: Politics
Chapter 17: The Murder of Theo
Epilogue: The Letter of the Law
“A brave and elegant figure … an honest woman … No one who reads her [memoirs] will doubt the self-questioning and the rigorous honesty of her mind. Perhaps, as in Voltaire’s short story ‘L’Ingénu’ it is that too much honesty is sometimes unpalatable, even if it is couched in civil terms … She has an open mind that has released itself from the old straitjacketed frame of reference of Right and Left, she is instinctively, deeply antiauthoritarian and she is unlikely to stick to straight ideological lines. She will go on asking difficult questions.” – Isabella Thomas, The Observer
“Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of Europe’s most controversial political figures and a target for terrorists. A notably enigmatic personality whose fierce criticisms of Islam have made her a darling of … conservatives … and … popular with leftists … Soft-spoken but passionate.” – The Boston Globe
“Too potent a social critic to be tolerated any longer [in her home country] … an unflinching advocate of women’s rights and an unflinching critic of Islamic extremism.” – The New York Times
“A charismatic figure … of arresting and hypnotizing beauty … [who writes] with quite astonishing humor and restraint.” – Christopher Hitchens