Monday, January 28, 2013
Book Review: Infidel
“…I would like to be judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim.” -page 348
There is a real struggle in our modern world. We struggle as a man trying to tread water with a weight tied around his ankle. That weight is religion in all its forms, that constantly threatens to drag our civilization back into the mud and blood our ancestors worked so hard to climb out of. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book is a brutal look inside a world few Americans have seen in more than the glossiest of Hollywood depictions or the abstract of the Nightly News. This is the world of petty tribal infighting, of genital mutilation, of honor killings, of rape victims blamed for the crimes committed against them, of acts so barbarous it takes religion to be so audacious and blind as to even attempt justification. With a refreshingly honest, surprisingly light voice, Hirsi Ali tells her story, starting in what was, for all intents and purposes, a bronze age existence, all the way to world renowned political figure and activist.
She describes her childhood, capturing a child’s eye view of growing up in various parts of Africa and the Mid East, as her parents, each extraordinary in their own way, took different paths, and her cruel, tradition bound grandmother did much of the parenting. Her father existed like a creature out of myth, as he spent a good deal of time in prison, then as an exiled dissident. As she grew up, her mother became more cruel and sad, her father drifted in and out of her life, her family came together and fell apart, and moved, constantly moved from one city to another, from one country to another. Always on the outside, always alien, in part due to her family’s religious and racial bigotry.
As she is wooed by a sort of revivalist Islamic traditionalism, I was reminded of my own youthful experience with faith. When I first started to question the ideas of my Catholic upbringing, I too threw myself into its study, trying to make sense of it. She throws herself more fully into faith, even wearing the full body hidjab and going to spirited religious debates. In my early teen years, I felt I might be on the path to becoming a priest, my studies and fervor were so strong. But, I too found the deeper understanding and knowledge of the theology to be hollow and ultimately discarded first Catholicism, then all Abrahamic religion, then all religion, and eventually all spiritualism and belief in the supernatural of any kind. Her frustration with the lack of answers not only from her teachers and those who profess the faith most loudly, but also in the texts themselves echoes my own experiences. And I love that, at least in part, she is led to this profound questioning of accepted religion by reading trashy novels. Of course, I also remember the absolute shame and horror with which sex was talked about (if talked about at all). Not to the level that Hirsi Ali deals with, which seems extreme even by the most stuffy and sex fearing Christian standards. From the circumcision of women, to the constant chastisement for causing sin in men (just by being women), to the horrors of wedding night sex (and beyond), the world of Moslem sex she describes is disquieting at best. And it makes the institutionalized woman hatred in Christianity seem amateurish.
“Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret away this reality: hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved, just as the Prophet Muhammad decided centuries ago.” -page 347
Throughout the tale of her early life, I was constantly reminded of one of the true evils of religious thought, the denial of reality. This is a profound denial that is not limited to the more obvious things like evolution. Religion capitalizes on our very nature. It takes the things that make us human, and demonizes them. You find someone desirable? That’s bad. You enjoy music? That’s bad. Pork tastes great? That’s bad. Asking questions? That’s really, really bad. And it glorifies things that we don’t like. Denying yourself food? That’s good. Prostrating yourself for hours on end in the most uncomfortable way imaginable? That’s good. Abstaining from things that give you pleasure, be they food, drink, dancing, music, or the flesh? That’s good. Ignoring contradictions? That’s really good. Relegating fifty percent of the population to the status of pack animal, denying them a say in pretty much any aspect of society, calling them unclean, and extracting their creativity from the equation of human advancement? Oh, you know that’s good. The fear and hatred directed at sexuality seems to be almost a religious universal. It’s certainly at the heart of the three desert spawned religions. No wonder they seem to attract busybody old women and sexual predators with such alarming alacrity. But I think the essential view of so many religions is that this world, the here and now, is evil or a test or a kind of hell, and only if you accept [Fill in the Blank] can you escape your hell into something better. So, by this standard, I guess anything in the hell we live in that gives us pleasure can’t be real…or something. Obviously, this is a self-fulfilling belief system, which creates generation after generation of people who refuse to better the world, and in fact, act directly against improving the world (see: global warming deniers, Luddites of all stripes, Christian Zionists, and so many others who actively fight improving the environment, life satisfaction, peace efforts, etc.).
“If Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, then it is they who must expect to do the adapting. We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy or racial discrimination or child marriage. That is the price of ‘inclusion,’ and a very reasonable one.” -Christopher Hitchens from his forward
Once she finally breaks away, arriving in Europe, she discovers a new strength as she discovers the freedom of a society ruled by law, not divine will. She breaks out of the mold of her fellow refugees, and actually attempts to educated herself and adapt to the country that takes her in. We then see her exploration of Holland and Dutch society from the inside, through and outsider’s eyes. She learns the language, is surprised by the customs, warms to the sense of fairness, order and personal freedom. But she is also wary of their extreme politeness and wish to be inoffensive that allows horrible things to go on in the name of civility. With education and work experience under her belt, a new confidence allows her to establish herself, become a citizen, and even find love. But the events of September 11, 2001 shake her to her core and make her face things she has tried so hard to ignore, questions about her faith, about faith in general, what’s right, and who she really is.
“…It doesn’t matter who I am. What matters is abuse, and how it is anchored in a religion that denies women their rights as humans. What matters is that atrocities against women and children are carried out in Europe. What matters is that governments and societies must stop hiding behind a hollow pretense of tolerance so that they can recognize and deal with the problem.” -page 309
Her discovery of politics and celebrity is surreal, as is her sudden rise to national prominence in Holland. But of course, the threat of death, while more subtle or less omnipresent, is perhaps even more frightening in the peaceful and pleasant world of the Dutch. The idea of murdering someone because of their religious beliefs or in this case, non-beliefs is abhorrent to me to such a degree that part of my brain refuses to even accept it as a thing that happens (though of course I know it does). I mean, I think Scientology is more F-Dup than Mormonism, which is way crazier than the other religions of Abraham, which are totally insane next to paganism, which is just plain stupid. But I wouldn’t wish death on anyone for thinking they’ve been soiled by evil space ghosts that are trapped in a volcano or whatever that hack Sci-Fi writer made up when he wasn’t putting boys in sailor costumes, trying to get out of paying taxes, and hating Asians. So, I find her life under threat of death, moving from one safe-house to another, being ushered out of restaurants, etc. because of possible thug gangs and murderers out for her blood to be disquieting. More so the reaction of many people that seem to think she is to blame for the death threats. Exactly the kind of thinking (that the victim is responsible for the crime) that she is fighting so strongly against.
The brutal murder of her filmmaker associate Theo van Gogh and the strange journey of living in secluded protection that followed it is frustrating to read. So much work tossed away as people knee-jerk react to the events that shouldn‘t have been all that surprising (as so many people had been sending warnings). Not to say for a minute that she wasn’t in danger, as there really seems to have been a concerted effort to find and kill her, by various Muslims bent on silencing an apostate woman. Her stays at dingy military bases, trips across the Atlantic to stay in a dive hotel in Massachusetts, and hotel hopping in Germany are all most unpleasant, made more so by a lack of communication with friends or colleagues. But the real Kafkaesque trouble starts when she finally returns to her adopted home, Holland, where political maneuvers take away her citizenship.
Christopher Hitchens said many times civilization can not flourish without the emancipation of women, and if she accomplishes nothing else, Hirsi Ali taken a stand and struck a blow for Civilization. She has illustrated that religious belief should not, can not be a shield to protect the abuse of women and children. And it is the duty of civilized people to help those oppressed by failed ideologies. I would say this book is a must read, especially for anyone interested in social justice, women’s rights, modern religion, or current events.
Author: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Publisher: Free Press