I cannot remember whom or what prompted me to read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but I am so glad I did.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not an enigma. She is an intelligent and strong woman with one of life’s most uncanny stories. As my eyes turned the pages of her book, I was convinced what I was reading was some masterful creative nonfiction, a story fit to be told by Shahrazad of Arabian Nights fame. Her paragraphs were rich in expression, detailed descriptions of her fragmented life and solid resolve through five countries, and dissimilar cultures. Her story was so close and at the same time so distant that I did not know how to interpret or even correctly appreciate it.
Ali speaks on surviving life in Africa, specifically in Kenya and Somalia, something I can relate to. She details her fractured family and nebulous religious, cultural, traditional systems, which are dissimilar to the systems around me, yet through my period with the book, I partially saw myself in her words. Ali also challenges any and every Islamic dogma upon which my faith is founded. Through bizarre experiences and critical thinking, she puts across a valid analysis of why everything I believe in seems wrong and needs reform. I would pause at certain paragraphs and try to convince myself that she was a crazy devil sent to test my resolve, and yet I read on. I followed her from Somalia to America.
At the end of it, I had not lost faith. Rather I had come to understand that you could not undermine a person’s decisions unless you have been through what they had been through, drawn parallels, felt their pain and shared their joy.
Ali argues that Islam is oppressive and legitimizes violence, especially against women. She very famously claimed in a magazine interview that we are at war with Islam. Her new book Heretic, expands on her call for reforms. As Ali mentions in the early chapters of Infidel, Islam is all about one’s intention. Allah looks at the heart. This I agree with, but not much else. I however empathize with her pain and admire her propensity to be in constant evolution, from an abused Somali girl in Nairobi to an influential Dutch politician. One cannot help but appreciate the effort she has put into making a life of her own for herself, where she is in charge of her decisions and destiny.Aside the religious and moral motifs in the book, Infidel presents a serious issue, mostly overlooked in Africa: the issue of identity.
The geographical and cultural span of the book drew my attention to how Africans – both on and outside the continent – identify. The gospel that is constantly being preached about a communal society makes it impossible to imagine Africans with an identity crisis – you always have someone. However, I find this very unsettling for today. I cannot pull the pre-colonial card, but post-colonial Africa has a growing identity crisis and the solution to this seems to be confused with Pan-Africanism. The ideology of Pan Africanism that seeks to promote solidarity among Africans by any definition is the strongest chance the continent has at surviving in the modern world. I support it, yet I find it fictional – a delusional coping mechanism.
Africa is probably the most segmented place on earth, divided along, race, wealth, clan and tribal systems, chieftaincy, and colonial affiliations. Ayaan had to memorize 200 years of her family lineage to aid in her identification with the Somali social fabric. This clan system is one of the factors contributing to perpetual violence in the region. As Hajooj Kuka’s film, Beats of Antonov shows, Sudanese also have to choose between the Africanized south and Arabized north, which is remotely causing conflict.
Africans need to correct the issues of identity before approaching unity. Intercontinental migration, conflicts, epidemics and the modern family system continue to alienate the individual from the collective, the new members of the clan from the tribe. There is constant chatter about the future of Africa but I believe the solution to the challenges we face today lie in the problems of the past. Africa and her diaspora should attempt to identify with a common purpose.
After the Second World War, Africans where unified under the illusion of flag independence. Now the dust has settled and the rubble can be seen. The cracks in our identities need to be mended should an attempt at continental unity be feasible.
The Need to Know
The importance and power of knowledge is another reason I trudged through the book. I cannot pretend to want the best for Africa when all I know about Somalia is that it is infamous for pirates, thanks to Captain Philips. This demonstrates another thought Infidel made me dwell on: the need to know. Ali managed to achieve fulfillment in life out of the need to know. The desire to understand why her people were oppressed, why her mom saw the Ethiopians and Kenyans (both black as her) as inferior, why Islam only brought pain to the women around her. Through the need for these answers, Ali came to understand more about herself and her world, which made it easier for her to exist in it. Being ignorant brought nothing but unnecessary pain to her. I think every human being should aspire to knowledge; a thorough understanding of one’s self and one’s world.Similarly, Africans both on and outside the continent should aspire to know more about each other and not accept the stereotypes subtly presented to us.
“This is the only way we can salvage the dream of a united Africa – not just the knowledge of the existence of the Masia or the Wolof, but the many dynamics of the continent and how to manage these dynamics for a collective good.”
Infidel is a confusing yet beautiful book. It takes a lot of courage, especially as a Muslim to read it. I would recommend anyone to read it, only if you are willing to be challenged and to learn. You might be presented with a lot, but I believe our principles are worth challenging from time to time.
Written by Hakeem Adam.