‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Open discussion

infidelI’ve been trying to figure out how to handle our online discussions of Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Having a different post for each chapter seems a little cluttered and chaotic, and since we’re all at different places in the book, I figured having one central post might be the way to go. If anyone had a better idea, please share it. I want to make this as enjoyable and easy for everyone as possible.

This post will likely attract some inflammatory comments from people who haven’t even read the book. I will delete any that are rude, threatening, or do not contribute to the overall conversation.

For future reference, clicking the image of this book in the sidebar will bring you back to this post.

So, join in and have fun!! :)

Author: Brian

Blogger. Bookworm. Michael Jackson fanatic. Lives in Kentucky with partner of 11 years and three fabulous felines.

22 thoughts on “‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Open discussion”

  1. I’ve read through chapter 5 so far and I’ve been struck by several things. I knew very little about Islam, although probably more than the majority of Americans. This book has opened my eyes to several things about the culture in the Middle East.

    Family and genealogy apparently play a huge role in everyday life. Learning to recite the names of forefathers, doing everything to avoid dishonoring them, and having members of your clan almost everywhere you go that are willing to help you out are some of the benefits and detriments to this type of familial structure.

    I’ve already found the treatment of women and children to be offensive, but have a new understanding of how the cultural and religious beliefs dictate that behavior. The physical assaults by the mother were despicable, especially when she hog-tied her daughter before administering them. It caused me to understand Ayaan’s desire to adopt the traditional clothing as a means of protecting herself from further abuse or dishonor.

    Her recounting of genital mutilation was quite painful to read, yet also informative. I did not realize the extent of the mutilation or that the remaining tissue is actually sewn together. I was also unaware that males are circumcised or that women are taught to groom their unmentionables.

    I was astounded by the general attitude of those living in Saudi Arabia toward Jews. Distrust and hatred is so ingrained into the schools and culture that I don’t see how peace can ever be possible.

    Life in most of the places that she has lived up to this point in the book seems very foreign to me. It’s hard to relate to someone living under the threat of attack by lions, strange men, or totalitarian government. In some ways religion may become all that some of these people can cling to – a constant in an otherwise tumultuous existence.

  2. Wow! You’ve done an exceptional job in drawing together the first portion of the book. Much of the territory the author covers in those early chapters I was exposed to in my work as a counselor of international students, so I had a foundation of experience and relationships to call upon that softened the blow(s).

    In addition to your fine summary of responses, what impresses me is that you do not bring to your reading the kind of judgment that commonly arises when we are confronted with cultural attitudes and practices so different from our own. There is much in the author’s experience to draw back from and label. You are to be commended for remaining open.

    Your reading audience might be interested to know that popular author Alice Walker (The Color Purple) co-directed a documentary about female genital mutilation and produced a book by the same title: Warrior Marks. Other informative resources may be harder to find than these.

  3. Just to get a different prespective, here is an article ( http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060619/lalami ) from The Nation magazine written by a Muslim woman (Laila Lalami) who has read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s writtings. The article is very long. I will quote two parts here.

    This lumping together of various Islams–the geographical region, the Abrahamic religion, the historical civilization and the many individual cultures–is symptomatic of the entire book, and makes it particularly difficult to engage with Hirsi Ali in a useful way. Her discussion of female genital mutilation (FGM) is a case in point. In at least six of the seventeen essays, she cites the horrendous practice of FGM, which involves excising, in whole or in part, young girls’ inner or outer labia, and in severe cases even their clitorises. Hirsi Ali is aware that the practice predates Islam, but, she maintains, “these existing local practices were spread by Islam.” According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa by Animists, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as by Ethiopian Jews, sometimes in collusion with individual representatives of the faiths. For instance, the US State Department report on FGM reveals that some Coptic Christian priests “refuse to baptize girls who have not undergone one of the procedures.” And yet Hirsi Ali does not blame Animism, Christianity or Judaism for FGM, or accuse these belief systems of spreading it. With Islam, however, such accusations are acceptable. A few years ago, Hirsi Ali proposed a bill in the Dutch Parliament that would require young girls from immigrant communities to undergo a vaginal exam once a year as a way to insure that the parents do not practice FGM. The suggestion is all the more interesting when one considers that the vast majority of Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands are from Turkey and Morocco, where FGM is unheard of. But there is a personal reason for this passionate stance: When Hirsi Ali was 5 years old, her grandmother had the procedure performed on her, without her father’s knowledge or approval. The experience marked Hirsi Ali profoundly, and the fervor and determination she brings to the fight against this horrifying practice are utterly laudable. By making inaccurate statements like the one quoted above, however, she muddies the issues and alienates the very people who would have the religious standing in the community to make this practice disappear.

    So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women–and men–in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women’s rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women’s organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn’t this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equa

  4. Brian,

    “Wow!” is right–both the book and your synopsis of the first few chapters. The treatment of children and women difficult to read.

    It is interesting the posts you get from people who probably haven’t read the book but want to discredit the author. In response to the article posted by randall, and in defense of the book and its author, she states on page 31 that “female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia…”

    So she is not seeking to indict all Muslims or all Islamic nations, nor exclude “Animists, Christians…or…Ethiopian Jews”, she is simply writing about her personal experiences in the countries in which she lived.

    Her observation that in Somalia “Imams never discourage the practice of FGM and that many girls die during or after their excision, from infection” is heartbreaking.

    Karen, thanks for choosing this book, I probably wouldn’t have selected it on my own.

    Brian, thanks for enlarging the circle of your discussion group to include your online friends. I’m looking forward to this learning experience.

    JimT

  5. I can’t take any credit for the choice of the book. Brian suggested it as we wrapped up the last book–which was also his suggestion. Whatta guy, that Brian!

  6. @JimT – I agree with you about most of her detractors. She isn’t perfect, but (from what I’ve read so far) is speaking from personal experience. You can’t fault anyone for that.

    Which chapter are you on?

    @Karen – Actually, I think credit should go to Margaret. She mentioned it during one of our last IGIL meetings and it piqued my interest. ;)

  7. I finished the book a few months ago and continue to write an research about Ali and the issues raised by her story and her continuing presence on the international stage : http://mitzvahmom.podbean.com/2007/09/09/anniversary-of-911/

    The comments from Laila Lalami in the article published in Nation magazine object to Ali’s generalizations about the lives of Muslim women. However, in my research, I couldn’t find much online that gives evidance that Arab women in general are accustomed to debating and expressing their ideas in public. I was able to locate individual Arab woman, on You Tube etc. who were educated and affluent and confidant about speaking out. I found some reason for hope that we’ll hear more about the views of Arab women. For example, the Arabic television channel MBC in Cairo and its hit all-female talk show, KALAM NAWAEM. Read more about the program in this PBS documentary “Dishing Democracy.” Also, readers “Infidel” participating in this discussion group may enjoy this interview with the filmmaker of Dishing Democracy….http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/

  8. Even though she is telling a personal story. I get a feeling of tremendous diversity among the muslims in the book and the way they respond to each other. It seems religion is a personal experience that is both imposed on us by our families and immediate culture and something that changes with our perspective and knowledge of the possibilities. People that live in closed societies have a very limited perspective and therefore cannot expand their horizons. People that live day to day on the edge of subsitance cling to what they know. If you look at her father’s attitude (The spirit is more important than the rule) it is clear he views his religion as an open journey. He has travelled and been educated and experienced many different points of view. But as a woman his wife has a more limited experience full of fear and humiliation. She views the rules as necessary and her religion is more about fear. She is afraid for her daughters when the father allows them to break the rules or takes them to live in an infidel country. This seems like a basic dichotomy in many religions rules vs. spirit, fear of punishment vs pursuit of enlightenment.

  9. I am through chapter 6 in this book and I have to say that it is quite a page turner, which can’t be said for most memoirs, in my opinion, either by the way they are written or the subject matter.

    I am astounded by this religion on so many different levels but I am trying really hard to reserve judgement. But sometimes I am literally slack-jawed. A specific foot to first set foot into a bathroom? WoW!

    Also I am reminded that there are extremists in every religion (trying to avoid the use of the term “fundamentalist” after reading JimT’s post)…and they are absolutely, well, mind-boggling extreme. I don’t know how else to describe it. It seems that in every religion, there are those individuals that are happy to point their finger and tell you you’re going to burn in hell. This psychology has always, ALWAYS fascinated me.

    In a strange way, I can identify with the author regarding her religious turmoil and the questions to which she seeks answers. I know the feeling of really trying to blend in, and wanting to be like, but at the same feeling a stronger urge to want to stand up and asked how a just “god” could let some things happen. (Free will, I know, I know. I’ve heard it many times.) Of course I could never, ever compare myself with the author as her adversity far outnumbers mine, but in a way, sometimes I feel her pain, religiously. Ok, as I write this, I want to slap myself because there is no possible way my life even vaguely resembles her. But still…somehow I get her.

    One idea I had about Muslims was kind of difficult to me. There are all these laws about women not showing their bodies because men may be tempted to sin or whatnot. On one level I think the treatment of women is atrocious, to say the least. Completely unequal (despite the conversation she has with an extremists who swears that men and woman ARE equal…really interesting conversation, I think!) Anyway these laws say to me that women have a LOT of power. We have the power to cause men to sin? That seems like an awful lot of power that we are allowing onto creatures that are ultimately considered sub-par in their society. It is a weird dichotomy, for me, although ultimately I believe the women in their society are mostly powerless…

    I look forward to the next half of this book and continuing my education on Islam and the world of cultures that extend beyond me! Thanks for suggesting this book, Brian!

  10. PS. Isn’t the mother an interesting character? So full of hate and depression, and so wanting to be the “ideal” Muslim woman who stays at home, obeys her husband, etc. But she displays so many opposites–her first divorce, the way she yells at her husband before he leaves her. She strikes me as a woman who has not quite figured out what she believes. A really interesting character; one of my favorites, actually. I am fascinated by her multifacetedness. (is that a word?)

  11. Brian,

    Thanks for selecting this book and inviting all of us to be part of the discussion. It is definitely a page turner. I finished it Thursday night; couldn’t put it down. I carried it everywhere for a week and read some of it everytime I got a few spare minutes. (Just having the book in my possession started a couple of interesting conversations that I may share about later.)

    Ali is an incredible writer, very descriptive and in-touch with her own feelings. I know that many of her critics complain that she over-generalizies. I found that she was careful to note the cultural and religious differences between various nationalities, cultures and Muslim groups.
    She aptly describes tremendous diversity among the muslims (and Africans) in the book and the way they interact with each other. Also, I found her description of the refugee camp absolutely heartbreaking.

    I agree with Randomyriad’s comments that “religion is a personal experience that is both imposed on us by our families and immediate culture and something that changes with our perspective and knowledge of the possibilities.” What’s fascinating is that even as some people explore beyond their “closed societies” and encounter new and broader perspectives, their response is uncertain. Some embrace the new ideas and customs, as Ayaan did in Holland; others press in to what they know, becoming more closed-minded and dogmatic and rigid in their opinions.

    JimT

  12. I’m very interested in her descriptions of the rise of Islamic fundamentalists in one nation, and how during the past thirty years their influence has spread to other nations and communities throughout the Middle East, and some African and European nations.

    The whole issue of “assimilation vs. seaparation” as different religious groups, or people of different nationalities, migrate to new countries is very interesting. The immigration debates in our country (USA) will increasingly heat up over this issue: do we demand that newcomers assimilate into a basic “American culture”, or remain separate and practice their own religious and cultural customs even when some of them (like female genital mutilation) may seem abhorrent or abusive by Western standards.

    I also enjoyed Ali’s description of her own spiritual journey as she began to question the religious doctrines with which she grew up. I’m with Caroline in feeling that “In a strange way, I can identify with the author regarding her religious turmoil and the questions to which she seeks answers. “Sometimes I feel her pain religiously.”

    In order to personalize one’s faith there must be a process of critiquing, scrutinizing, challenging what was always accepted as “truth”.
    There are extremists, or “fundamentalist” in every religion. It is indeed “mind-boggling” that some people can hold some of the extreme positions that they do. I don’t think It is so much that they are “happy to point their finger and tell you you’re going to burn in hell” as Caroline points out, but rather attributed to two things: fear, and a quest for truth.

    Those who hold to the fundamentals of whatever religion do so because they believe those “truths” to be god-given absolutes that apply to all people of all cultures of all times. Along with that is often a fear of angering this god who reveled these truths.

    What is interesting and scary is how extreme religious groups who have a different god and a different understanding of “truth” react to those who disagree with them.

    JimT

  13. JimT–well said about fundamentalism and extremism. I am really trying to have a more open mind and this book does give some insight to me as to how a person can feel so strongly and really, really BELIEVE that their religion is “the way.” It gives me good perspective.

    I’m through Ch. 8, I think, or at least the part about the refugee camp and the baby that was basically dead. It’s amazing…she paints such a detailed picture. I sometimes feel like I can smell the camp. It is easy to feel detached from these events but this book seems to bring it all straight home. Very gripping.

  14. You guys are way ahead of me now. I’m still on chapter 6. I actually read another book last week to give you a chance to catch up with me. LOL

    Anyway, you guys have done a fine job describing your feelings about the book.

    In a strange way, I can identify with the author regarding her religious turmoil and the questions to which she seeks answers. I know the feeling of really trying to blend in, and wanting to be like, but at the same feeling a stronger urge to want to stand up and asked how a just “god” could let some things happen.

    I know exactly what you mean. I still struggle with those things.

    That seems like an awful lot of power that we are allowing onto creatures that are ultimately considered sub-par in their society.

    Very interesting perspective!

    I’ve been mortified by the treatment of women in Middle-eastern countries as described in this book. They seem to be mere property to most and any behavior that might inhibit male dominance is deemed undesirable or sinful.

    For instance, culture dictates that jealousy is one of the worst feelings to display. How convenient for the male who wants multiple wives! Can’t the women see through these things?

    Isn’t the mother an interesting character?

    To say the least. She does seem like a strong woman at times, but weak at others. I think she was also a terrible mother at times and a good one at others. She obviously cared for, provided for, and protected her family, but also mistreated them terribly. Although, I’m not sure that anything she did to her children was outside the norm for their culture. I’m only in chapter 6, though, so I might discover worse things later on.

    Just having the book in my possession started a couple of interesting conversations that I may share about later.

    Can’t wait to read about them!

    I know that many of her critics complain that she over-generalizies. I found that she was careful to note the cultural and religious differences between various nationalities, cultures and Muslim groups.

    I agree. Most of the claims by her detractors seem unfounded.

    do we demand that newcomers assimilate into a basic “American culture”, or remain separate and practice their own religious and cultural customs even when some of them (like female genital mutilation) may seem abhorrent or abusive by Western standards.

    Exactly. Would FGM be covered by our laws protecting religious freedom or be seen as child abuse?

    What is interesting and scary is how extreme religious groups who have a different god and a different understanding of “truth” react to those who disagree with them.

    Very true!

    Thanks so much for reading with me. :)

  15. During our discussion of this book today after church, I mentioned how I saw similarities between the way women are (mis)treated by the rules of various religions. It seems that they often suffer more than their male counterparts in matters of dress and behavior.

    The women under the rule of Islam must abide by strict regulations on clothing, appearance, and behavior, yet the males seem to have little reason to show self-constraint. This is also true of some Pentecostal faiths, where women have always bore the brunt of the ridicule for the way their religion dictates that they dress (long dresses, long hair, no makeup, no jewelry), while Pentecostal men can more easily blend in with their “worldly” peers.

    The same is true of many mainstream Christian churches that feel that women have no right to hold positions of power and that the man should be the head of the house and the church.

    All of this begs the question: why are women so often at a disadvantage when it comes to religion?

  16. Brian,

    I was thinking along these lines after reading your post last week about your childhood memories and the recollections from your Pentecostal upbringing.

    While the thinking is misguided (that’s a huge understatement), much of the discrimination against women in various religious contexts stems from in religious circles stems from men blaming women for the sin in the world because in the Genesis story Eve was the first one to succumb to the serpent’s temptations.

    In many evangeligel denominations women are still barred from serving as pastors or deacons. Ironically, some women are the most ardent defenders of this arrangement. I was part of a (baptist) church once that was discussing allowing women to serve as deacons and some of the fiercest opposition came from women who felt people were going against the teaching of scripture and committing some horrific sin by even suggesting such a thing.

    JimT

  17. I finally finished this book last night. I had laid it down for a couple of weeks and didn’t get back into it until late last week. I read over half the book this weekend. As others have stated, it’s quite the page-turner. I found the last half of the book much more interesting than the first.

    Ali is an amazing woman in every aspect of the word. She defies all the odds with her ambition to learn and succeed and her refusal to keep her mouth shut about issues that she found important, even if that meant putting her life at stake. Her story of success makes me feel like a failure.

    What do you guys think about her ultimate conversion to atheism? I understood her change of beliefs in relation to Islam, but would have thought that she might have considered another faith, not total rejection of God and the afterlife. I refuse to judge her decision, though, as I still have questions that religion seems unable to answer.

  18. I really liked the following few lines from the last chapter:

    I moved from the world of faith to the world of reason – from the world of excision and forced marriage to the world of sexual emancipation. Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other…

    The message of this book, if it must have a message, is that we in the West would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life.

    I think those are pretty powerful words. Are we guilty of becoming so politically-correct and socially-conscious that we are actually aggravating some of the ills in our world? Can we afford to respect so-called religious freedoms when they infringe on the liberties of the weak? How does one affect change among a group of people who refuse to think for themselves?

    I found the following video that I thought was quite interesting. The interviewer does seem rather biased against Ali and I have a sneaking suspicion that he hasn’t even read her book, but she makes some important statements. I also love her voice.

  19. Really enjoyed reading all of your comments regarding Hirsi Ali’s Infidel.

    One of the books best attributes is the way it draws you in. It covers pretty serious content, but in a very readable way which pleased me greatly in terms of encouraging a wide range of tastes and ages to actaully “read” the book.

    I also appreciated the way she has made it “her story” rather than a fact sharing opinion pushing quest. In that way she shares her opinions but without the same potential level of offense.

    I was challenged by an early comment she made “..some things must be said, there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice”

    I was also challenged by her caution regarding a temptation to politically correct indulgence/tolerance of Islam in terms of allowing others the right to their religious views. Tolerance of other religious views is not a bad thing, but where it leads to such “abuse” surely tolerance is overrated.

    Shortly after reading Hirsi’s Infidel I found myself reading “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (by Khaled Hosseini auther of The Kite Runner). Its a fiction, but a femal focus story wrapped up in the trials of Muslim women. It opened up Hirsi’s story to me in a different way.

    I really enjoyed the read which i found left me with a great sense of compassion for the women of Islam, perhaps more so than the sense of outrage that women still suffer these things in the Third Millenium…

    Thanks again for your insights

    Liz

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