HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 6, 2007
One Woman’s Fascinating and Courageous Journey

John R. Guthrie
TheChickasawPlum.com


There are many Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s to meet in Infidel. Each possesses her own intrigue: She is the child on the sun-scorched plains of Somali listening with awe to her grandmother’s words of wisdom; e.g. -- if a lion approaches while guarding the flock, make yourself small and avoid eye contact. Then again she is the five-year-old victim of a brutal and agonizing genital mutilation perpetrated by that same grandmother and other neighborhood women. Eventually, she becomes the submissive, the girl in the billowing black hidjab who as an adolescent became more devout than the angels themselves. Then in a charming affirmation of her humanity and personhood, she was also the adolescent woman, the tempted and the temptress, who penned, “I knew the angels were watching but I kissed him anyway.”

The following is a brief sample of anecdotage that compels the reader to continue: “In a sense,” Hirsi tells her readers, “my grandmother was living in the iron age….My mother, Asha, was born sometime in the early 1940s, along with her identical twin sister, Halimo. My grandmother gave birth to them alone, under a tree. They were her third and fourth children; she was about eighteen, leading her goats and sheep to pasture when she felt the pains. She lay down and bore forth; then she cut the umbilical cords with her knife.  A few hours later, she gathered together the goats and sheep and managed to bring the herd safely home before dark, carrying her newborn twins. Nobody was impressed by the exploit: she was only bringing home two more girls.”

One incident from the many that colored Hirsi’s growing up years says much: She told an itinerant minister, a ma’alim hired to provide religious tutoring for her at home that “people stopped writing on boards 500 years ago…” He beat her with a stick, slamming her against an exterior wall in the process. She was then beaten by her mother. This was followed by a feeble suicide attempt on Hirsi’s part. Dizzy and loosing consciousness, she was hospitalized the next morning at the insistence of an aunt. Her fractured skull from the ma’alim’s assault was accompanied by a subdural hematoma. She underwent emergency neurosurgery.

Hirsi writes of the anti-Semitic cast and Anti-Americanism many Muslims are taught early. The prevailing credo is that, “Everything that is wrong is the fault of the Jews.” She notes Osama Bin Ladin quoting from both the Koran and the Hadith, a book of traditional commentary on sayings of the Prophet, “The day of judgment will not come until not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”

The inability of most Somali’s and other Islamics to assimilate into the generous  hospitality of Netherlands is equally disconcerting. Hirsi was a striver; for a job, for formal education, for intellectual integrity. Yet “…in Holland the claim (from other Somalis) was always that we were held back by racism.…but the minute I said, ‘ I’m sorry, tomorrow morning I have to wake up early,’ the Somalis were at me. I was acting white, who did I think I was.” Further, “Holland’s multiculturalism -–it’s respect for Muslims way of doing things—wasn’t working.”

Hirsi’s travels alone are material that could make a compelling story; places that roll of the tongue like the stuff of adventure novels. Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia are way stations along the way. Even more inspiring and enthralling than her geographical journey is her travel through the hidden passages of heart and mind from dutiful Muslim woman to a mature, self-reliant person and self-proclaimed atheist.

A central theme of Infidel is Islam’s unceasing oppression of women. Yet for the thoughtful person, Hirsi’s story brings to mind the commonality of religious practices in many sects. Female genital mutilation is by no means exclusively an Islamic practice. According to WHO “In cultures where it is an accepted norm, female genital mutilation is practiced by followers of all religious beliefs as well as animists and non believers.” Allah, Hirsi was taught, “could see into our hearts, and he knew we were not dedicated to him (80),” an affirmation heard by many a Sunday Schooler in this country. Her father advises her to ask of herself in moments of doubt “What would Allah Do?” Hirsi was taught early on by society as well as by her mentor, “Sister” Aziza, that women were at once “irresistibly desirable and essentially filthy.” While there may be variance in degrees of abuse, this brings to mind the Roman Catholic “Magdalene Sisters” laundries as portrayed in the Peter Mullan film. Then there is the secondary role which women are relegated in major U.S. denominations, Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic to name but two. Probably because it has survival value, women often become among the most enthusiastic supporters of practices that relegate them to second class status. That makes outspoken and self-directed women such as Hirsi jewels indeed.

In another thought-provoking incident related in Infidel, Islamic school boys made the news by harassing a gay school teacher. An imam then went on Dutch TV to proclaim homosexuality to be a “threat to humanity” a public utterance rare indeed in a country that was a focal point of the enlightenment. Yet homophobic proclamations are heard in Christian pulpits across the U.S. every Sunday morning; e.g. Pat Roberson’s proclamation that "...the acceptance of homosexuality is the last step in the decline of Gentile civilization." 

Hirsi rejected the existence of supernatural creatures including angels of whatever brand name and became a part of a “Society that worked without reference to God, and it seemed to function perfectly. This man-made system of government was somehow much more stable, peaceful, prosperous and happy than the supposedly god-devised systems.”

An emotional low point for Hirsi involved the slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, a distant relative of the famed 19th century painter Vincent. The murderer, identified as "Mohammed B," was detained shortly thereafter and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Like Christian abortion doctor murderer Paul Hill, executed in Florida, Mohammed says he'd do it again. In the belief systems of both perpetrators, they had a ticket to heaven for the murder they committed. 

Hirsi Ali is now a fellow at the conservative American Heritage Institute. In Infidel she has produced a fine and thought-provoking book, one well worth for reading it and for reflection on its contents.


Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
New York: Free Press: 2007
ISBN: 9780743289689
Hardcover: 368 pages


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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