The voice of the infidel

By Ronald M. Horvath | Aug 04, 2010

Audio books have become a favorite pastime of mine. They can make the morning and evening commute tolerable. And though I usually prefer a professional performer to authors reading their own works, three authors have passed my muster, Alan Alda, Bill Bryson and Ayan Hirsi Ali.

Ayan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, the naturally inquisitive child of a political activist father who was forced to flee with his family to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. His daughter was given glimpses of other peoples and cultures and adapted to new schools by learning new languages -- Arabic, Swahili and English. She also saw the breakdown of society, in Somalia due to political, ethnic and tribal conflict, and in Kenya due to a failed government.

Returning to Mogadishu, just out of her teens, she witnessed her country’s agonizing descent into civil war and barely escaped back to Nairobi’s slums, riding in the back of a truck. Secretly, in her mind, she could not accept that this was the way things had to be. She wondered why the true believers of Allah couldn’t make a better world, as in the western books and magazines that she read. Through it all the heavy burden of fealty to tribe and clan and the stiff Muslim insistence on women’s silent submission hung in her future like the dark end of a tunnel with no light at its end. All this she experienced through the heavy veil of Islamic dogma and the fatalistic view that Allah wills everything, even cruelty and suffering.

Her liberation finally came as a young woman when she was shipped off to Germany to await passage to Canada and marriage to a man of her father’s choosing. Unable to resist the call of the new she walked the clean and open streets drinking in what was her first experience with the West. Here was a world she had read about but never really believed in, where men and women walked and sat openly together, or alone, without fear of persecution, where street lights worked and buses ran on time, where no one was afraid, where Allah seemed to have no power to judge or condemn. If Islam was so superior, she thought, then why were these unbelievers so successful, so confident, and so seemingly happy.

She grabbed at her chance. Taking a train to Holland she applied for refugee status under her grandfather’s name. In one of the most generous welfare states in the world she found a new life, a chance for a real education, and freedom.

I listened to this book on CD while driving back and forth to work. I was prepared not to like this darling of the anti-Islamic right wing. But she is not a scold as she has been portrayed. Her English, though heavily accented, projects a voice that is calm, strong and sincere. Her honesty draws you in. Her subject is herself and the pursuit of a life of her own. “I had no big ideas,” she says. “I just wanted to be me.”

Unlike most Muslims who sought out ethnic enclaves in which to seclude themselves, she couldn’t wait to join this amazingly free society. She learned Dutch, took up the bicycle, and discovered that going about with her hair uncovered didn’t drive men mad with desire or call down Allah’s wrath. Not content to sit and collect welfare, she worked at a multitude of jobs until becoming an official translator for immigrant affairs while attending university.

Most of all she read. “Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas,” she said. She discovered the European enlightenment in her classes, and learned of Europe’s tragic religious and political wars, out of which rose the peaceful, orderly, free and secular society in which she had found refuge.

Still, her gift for insight wasn’t blinded by her infatuation with her new country. She could see the classes in this “classless” society. She saw how the political, economic and religious divisions in Dutch society resembled the warring clans and tribes of Somalia. But what amazed her was how rational and reasonable a secular society could be in contrast to the violence and turmoil she had seen in Islam.

In the end she graduated with a degree in political science, worked for a political think tank, and was elected a member of Parliament, all the while earning notoriety by speaking out on the lot of women in Islam and the failings of Muslim immigrants to integrate into Dutch society.

“So many dark faces,” she wrote of her work as a translator as she visited prisons, police stations and women’s shelters. Clearly Muslims could not deal with a free society, not if it meant freedom for women. Beatings, female genital mutilation and honor killings were normal behavior and her adopted country didn’t know how to handle it. After making a film called “Submission” depicting the plight of women in Islam, her partner in the film was assassinated in broad daylight and she was forced into hiding. Knowing that life would never be the same she gave up politics and, while living in an undisclosed location in the Netherlands, works for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Now I wonder if fame and notoriety won’t trap her. In her battle against the exploitation of women in male dominated Islam how long will she remain in the shelter of a corporate dominated entity in which the exploitation of everyone and everything, for profit, is just as institutionalized? Will she see the Muslims’ self-imposed isolation and stubborn refusal to mix with “unbelievers” in Dutch society mirrored in the recent conservative insistence on political purity and the demonization of liberals? Will she finally see that human ignorance and the irrational fear of change are the real enemies? Somehow, after resisting all that her old life imposed on her, I think she will.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.


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