Book 13: “Infidel”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I’ve read very few biographies, auto- or otherwise. It’s not a form of writing that has appealed to me much previously. I think fiction can hold great insight in to the human condition, and that non-fiction books are a great source of learning about specific fields. Of course, my view is narrow and limited. Biographies go off. Biography or autobiography can give me insight in to other lives, in to other ideas, and in to a person’s analysis of the formation of their own, or another’s, identity. Wow.

Thus I greatly enjoyed reading Infidel and have been brought further round to the field of autobiographies in general. The book covers the life of one Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, born in Somalia, raised Muslim, lives in a bunch of places, then seeks refuge in Holland, becomes a politician, and makes something of a name for herself for her criticism of aspects of the Islamic religion and Holland’s migration policy. This last point is a little controversial. Ali, it’s fair to say, sees Islam as a religion with a number of inherent problems, deeply in need of criticism and renewal. In the face of this, she sees policy around immigration, assimilation and multi-culturalism, as being woefully outdated. At the heart of her argument is a view that values of tolerance and inclusivity are threatened by the fundamentalist views of Muslims who are being tolerated and included in societies whose values they oppose. Due to this, there are many Muslims with whom Ayaan is not popular herself and, it’s probably fair to say, many secular progressives who find Ali’s message confronting.

I think I can begin by saying that Infidel is a book that brought home to me how ignorant I am. It’s actually pretty embarrassing that I know so little about certain places, cultures, or phenomena, that reading a simple autobiography can really shake up my knowledge. To be fair, there are some places/cultures/phenomena that I really could probably get away with not knowing about, but the Middle East, Islam, and multi-culturalism are probably not in that group. Whether or not I agree with Ali’s point, it has been valuable for me to encounter her views and the origin of them, and to be able to add my awareness of this to the range  of factors influencing my own identity and ideas.

In terms of Ali’s views, the book makes a strong case that expecting immigrants to adapt the values of their new home has not worked, and that cultural relativism has gone too far. The strength of the case isn’t surprising: Ali, as the author, has total control over my perception of her and of her argument. Due to this I’m taking her argument with a grain of salt and, while I’ll stew over it, I am really keen to her critical analysis of what she has had to say and why it is flawed.

Ali feels that debate over immigration is one of the most crucial issues that humanity, and liberal nations in particular, need to grapple with this century. Whether or not that much is true, it’s fair to say that this issue is certainly getting a lot of coverage, dominating a lot of minds, and influencing a lot of votes. Reading this book is a chance to get to know an outspoken commentator on the issue and the experiences behind her views, to challenge your own ideas, and to build a foundation for your own conceptions to be deeper and better informed.

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