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Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007), 353 pages. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007), 353 pages.

A guest review by Katie Finlay.

           Ayaan Hirsi Ali's remarkable life story alone would make this book worth reading; but it is not her life story that makes it necessary for her to have bodyguards. Rather, the controversial statements she has made about Islam, growing out of her own experiences, are the trigger for those who seek to kill her.

           Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali woman who grew up in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Reading about her life gives the Western reader insights into Somali clan heritage and civil war, female genital excision, the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, and the magnetic pull of Islamic fundamentalism. In Kenya, she grew even more devout in Islam, wearing the most concealing garment she could find while attending meetings where earnest young people studied the radical ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the books she read in her youth were all permeated with revolutionary Western ideas; for example, even in Nancy Drew she encountered an independent heroine free to act without the permission and supervision of men. “Most of all, I think it was the novels that saved me from submission,” she writes. Despite her objections, her father signed a contract to marry her to a Canadian Somali man. Passing through Europe on her way to Canada, she escaped from her relatives and applied for asylum in Holland. Dutch life was a revelation to her: the equality of women, conflict resolution through negotiation rather than force, and the fact that society functioned seamlessly without any reference to God. Observing the peace and prosperity of a non-Islamic society challenged her life-long assumptions. Her work as a Dutch-Somali translator took her into the dark corners of Holland—police stations, women’s shelters, clinics—where she came to recognize the consistent pattern of abuse of Muslim women by husbands and fathers.

           After the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, Ali concluded that the ideas which led to militant Islam and the oppression of women came from the Koran itself, not from external radical influences. As she began to reject Islam and speak out about the cruel treatment of Muslim women in Holland, a Dutch political group invited her to run as a candidate for Parliament. Her election and high-profile opinions brought death threats and bodyguards, but Theo Van Gogh, with whom she created a film protesting the position of women in Islam, refused protection and was assassinated. A challenge to the legality of her Dutch citizenship caused her to emigrate to the US, where she is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

           The questions Ali raises in her book are worth discussing within Western society and with Muslim leaders. Is the Koran really the source of the cruel treatment of women found in many Muslim societies? Does militant Islam derive from a correct or a twisted reading of the words of the Koran? Infidel is both compelling and provocative, an important contribution to the debate over religious values, women, and civil society.

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