Talking about religion let alone Islam is a contentious issue, has been ever since 9/11 and will be in the years to come. When I began to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s account of her life in her novel Infidel, I didn’t realize the depth of the islamophobia and political upheaval I would be exposed to. I thought I would be reading an account of a life turned upside down by civil war but this memoir is more than that, it’s a look at the failure of various political systems and the wayward beliefs of religious crusaders that brought us to this point in history.
The novel follows Ayaan’s journey as a young Somalian woman ingrained with the beliefs of Islam and her transformation into a refuge turned political activist in Holand. I’m not Muslim and I don’t follow Islam so it would be wrong for me to act as if this book has taught me everything I need to know about Islam. While I won’t make such a large assertion I will say this; Ayaan’s account of Islam dislodged a prominent myth that I’ve perpetuated when discussing religion and particularly Islam; that the text itself does not condone violence and yet that is exactly what Ayaan is saying in her novel. According to her, Islam is written in Arabic and not every Muslim speaks Arabic, the Quran is therefore translated and taught to its followers and this is where the problem lies, the interpretation focuses on peace but the text itself, written in an era where war and oppression were prevalent speaks the opposite. War on unbelievers is encouraged and oppressing women is acceptable. I don’t think that this is true only for Islam, in the Sikh religion the holy book is written in Punjabi and for the generations that cannot read the text it is translated. How do we know that the translation is a correct depiction of the meaning behind the words? We can interpret things however we want but that doesn’t make us right and I think that’s what Ayaan is saying in her novel, some interpretations have become holy word when they’re not and because of this we find ourselves in a very unnecessary holy war.
I don’t want to start a religious debate but I do want to articulate that reading this book as someone who believes in God and prays daily it was interesting to see Ayaan’s arguments for not believing and for becoming atheist. If we believe that everything in life is preordained because there is a God then we live life reactively, we don’t try, we think hey it’s meant to happen and therefore it will. I can see why it would have been so liberating for Ayaan to let go of this mentality, shed her identity as a Muslim woman and decide that walking left, right or going straight hasn’t already been decided but will be decided by her alone.
When I first picked up this book I remember being asked “have you heard about her?”, “do you know her story?”. I recall looking at the picture on the cover and thinking what did she do? I get it now. She received refugee status in Holland by misrepresenting herself. It’s a horrible thing to do when you think of the fact that someone more deserving might have gotten her spot instead. Honestly though, I don’t care. I read this book and at the end of it I admired her. I admire her wit, her strength, her story, the intelligent way she presents her arguments. Yes, she did lie, but in her circumstances wouldn’t you have done the same?
A remarkable book and a must read.