Living to Tell

Book cover
Infidelby By Ayaan Hirsi AliFree Press. 353p $26
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was living in Holland on Sept. 11, 2001, when jetliners piloted by Muslim fanatics crashed into the World Trade Center, killing thousands. As a Muslim, Ali had urgent questions: Was this really Islam? Did Islam permit, even call for, this kind of slaughter? Did I, as a Muslim, approve of the attack? And if I didn’t, where did I stand on Islam?

Those questions are central to Ali’s compelling new memoir, which has been denounced by some because of the author’s biting criticism of Islam as practiced today by many Muslims.

Ali consulted her religion’s holy book, the Koran, and concluded that it authorizes, even mandates, that Muslims slay infidels. The 9/11 hijackers believed they were honoring Allah and buying a one-way ticket to Heaven.


A native of Somalia, the author grew up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Her father was a rebel who fought to topple Somalia’s Marxist government. Much of Ali’s childhood was chaotic. She recounts daily beatings by her mother and others. In one chilling scene, an itinerant Islamic teacher grabbed Ali by her hair and smashed her head into a wall, fracturing her skull.

Ali describes four ancient practices, in particular, that led her away from Islam: female genital mutilation, the subservient role of women, arranged marriages and honor killings.

Most Westerners probably know little about the widespread practice in some African cultures of cutting off the genitalia of young girls and sewing the skin together so they cannot have sex before marriage. Many of these children die from the procedure and others suffer lifelong pain. Although the custom predates Islam, clerics often justify it in the name of Islam. Ali graphically describes her own brutal mutilation at age 5 at the hands of her grandmother.

The author’s father told her that once she married, she would need her husband’s permission any time she wanted to leave their house. After her father forced her at age 22 to marry a man he had selected, Ali was supposed to join her new husband in Canada. But when the plane made a stopover in Germany, she fled to Holland, knowing that another kind of life was possible.

Ali gained refugee status by lying about her backgroundan action she now regrets. She then became a Dutch citizen and later was elected to Parliament. She set out to raise Dutch awareness of honor killings, the practice of family members slaying a woman who has sex outside marriage, even if the woman was raped. Islamic immigrants in Holland learned they could not escape the barbaric tradition.

Ali’s taut, energetic writing captures her remarkable journey from oppression to freedom, her courage in the face of numerous death threats and her wrestling with timely questions about religion, faith and tolerance.

Growing up, Ali voraciously consumed books, from Huckleberry Finn to Valley of the Dolls. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideasraces were equal, women were equal to menand concepts of freedom, struggle and adventure that were new to me, she writes.

More and more, the author perceived a sharp divide between open inquiry in the West and stultifying narrowness in Islam. She believes Westerners have been hoodwinked into thinking that Islam is principally a religion of peace, despite abundant contrary evidence. Referring to Saudi Arabia, she writes, Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret away this reality: hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved, just as the Prophet Muhammad decided centuries ago. Westerners are afraid to look critically at the religions or cultures of minorities for fear of being called racist, she says.

Christians for centuries burned women believed to be witches, led crusades against supposed infidels and tortured alleged heretics. The Reformation and the Enlightenment followed, a process that, Ali writes, has yet to touch Islam.

One of the book’s most riveting scenes unfolds on the first page. Ali had teamed with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to produce a short movie about mistreatment of women in Islam. One morning in 2004, as van Gogh was leaving his apartment, a man named Muhammad Bouyeri shot him, slashed his throat and pinned a letter to his chest saying that Ali would be next. As a member of Parliament, she was given round-the-clock police protection. Last year she moved to the United States, where she now works for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

For years, Ali struggled with belief. She did not understand how a compassionate God could demand that His creatures be hanged in public and that unbelievers have to go to Hell. She eventually became an atheist. The author does not write at length about her current spiritual beliefs, leaving one with the impression that atheism may be a temporary refuge.

Infidel succeeds both as compelling memoir and as timely social, political and religious commentary. Ali’s blunt critique may help educate Western readers about a darker side of one of the world’s major faiths.

The book is credible precisely because Ali grew up within Islam and is writing from her experience and keen observations of practices that repelled her. It would be sad confirmation of her thesis if her arguments were met with death threats rather than informed criticism.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

As the reader has no doubt anticipated, Greenblatt has emulated the Shakespearean endeavor: The book is a rumination on the current president, without once mentioning the man by name.
Thomas JacobsMay 25, 2018
A strong vision and mission are two keys to a distinctive university.
Jeffrey von ArxMay 18, 2018
Pat Conroy shares his inner self.
Jay HooksMay 18, 2018
Liam Callanan explores Paris, but also explores the existential anxieties of the writer’s life as well as the consolations that come from a life of reading.
Mark Bosco, S.J. May 17, 2018