Rethinking Tolerance: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the cover of this book there’s a quote from The Boston Globe about how Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become the “darling of conservatives” because of her outspoken stance against Islam.

I don’t think I would have chosen to read this book had it not been the July selection for my local library’s book club and I’ve decided that going to a book club might be a good way to meet people in my new town. This quote was intriguing enough to keep me going through the first several chapters until the story itself had me reeled in.

This book was a challenge for me in a couple of ways. First, the content itself is a bit difficult to read. Hirsi Ali and her sister and brother were “circumcised” in their home when they were between the ages of 4 and 6. For the girls, this meant excision. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say it was brutal enough that I had to put the book down for two days before I could bring myself to read more of her story. And that wasn’t the only challenging part. There’s brutality at every turn, along with the sense of being trapped in a life that can’t possibly bring fulfillment or even pleasure or a feeling of safety. These were things I found difficult to read.

Not only was this element challenging, but Hirsi Ali’s position about Islam challenged my ideas of tolerance and caused me to look at my own tolerance in a different light.

Hirsi Ali contends that, rather than being an exception, the honor killings and terrorist activities of Muslim extremist groups are actually specifically sanctioned by the Quran. Because the religion hasn’t been secularized the way that Christianity and Judaism have, the only acceptable way to follow Islam is a fundamentalist way. The proofs she offers—quotes from the Quran, stories of brutality against Muslim women that she experienced and witnessed in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and, later, among refugee populations in The Netherlands, and even the fact that, for expressing this view of Islam, she’s being hunted down and must live a hidden life—are compelling and make it difficult to simply dismiss her claim as simply a result of an unfortunate childhood.

Hirsi Ali points to the honor killings that still take place among Muslim refugee populations in Holland. She contends that the continued existence of such practices even in Europe is a result of the Dutch propensity towards blanket tolerance of all cultures. She contends that this tolerance has led the Dutch to have an entirely hands-off approach when it comes to these populations. As a result, these refugee communities are never forced to integrate into Dutch society and internalize the very tolerance that allows them to remain separate. They never have to learn the language. Due to the Dutch social safety net, they never need to take jobs. The government funds their religious-based schools, so their children never need mix with Dutch children and never need learn subjects that might cause them to question Islam.

I generally would rather not question others’ religious practices. I want to be tolerant, and described on their own as policies, I would have agreed that the Dutch policies were the tolerant way to go as regards immigrants. But with the way Hirsi Ali presents them juxtaposed with the violence in the culture, I have a bit of a moral crisis to work through.

A couple of months ago, a friend posted a story about how an Orthodox Jewish newspaper in New York removed the images of Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from a photo of the White House situation room because their paper has had a long-standing religious-based practice of not publishing images of women. While I felt uncomfortable with the idea that they had altered a photographic record of an historic event (they were in the situation room watching the raid that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden) to make it seem as though no women had been present, I felt equally uncomfortable making a strong statement against the practice. It seemed rude and intolerant to criticize a practice based in someone else’s religious beliefs.

The much more extreme examples in Infidel have me questioning this stance.

Aside from being thought-provoking, I thought this memoir was quite well-written. There were some inconsistencies as her views of her religion evolved, but I would expect that with a memoir. (For example, early on, she blames the corruption of the Somali government for people there becoming more clannish, then later she blames the Dutch government’s tolerance for the clannishness of the Muslim immigrants there.)

I found it interesting that the language in the beginning of the book, when she’s writing about her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, is more simple, matching the developmental stage she would have been in at the time. As she matured and her thinking became more complex, so did her language. When she got to the place in her story in which she’s pursuing a degree in political science from a Dutch university, her language becomes noticeably more sophisticated and complex. It’s almost like I can see the light shining into her understanding of the world.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story is inspiring to me, especially at this time that I’m seeking to develop my public self. She came from a much different background than I did and has gone much further in her public life than I ever plan to (I have no plans to run for Parliament, nor do I plan to live in hiding because people are trying to kill me for my views), but watching her journey from cloistered child and young woman to public figure, buoyed primarily by the strength of her convictions, gives me a sense of the direction I want to go in my own life.

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5 Replies to “Rethinking Tolerance: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali”

  1. I’ve heard her speak. She is a very intriguing woman, and she has also prodded me to think about how far tolerence should go. When does one say enough is enough. Presently I tolerate differing opininions as long as your/my opinion or practice does not prohibit another’s opinion or practice. However, when considering anecdotal examples, that approach doesn’t work either. Quite a dilemma you’ve brought to light. Great post.


    1. It’s definitely a dilemma. I’ve been wrestling with it since I read the book, as she clearly was writing the book. I would love to hear her speak.

      I’m not sure I would feel comfortable going to the other extreme and speaking against an entire religion, but I think it’s probably appropriate (and perhaps imperative) to call out practices and viewpoints that don’t respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Understanding the origins of such practices (poverty, corrupt government, tribalism, etc) doesn’t necessitate condoning them. But as you say, where’s the line? How do we express respect while condemning oppressive practices?


    1. It’s a pretty powerful one. If you pick it up, I’d love to hear what you think of it and this issue of tolerance.


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