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The Good Faith of an Infidel: Examining Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Nomad

05/26/2010 11:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new memoir, Nomad, is the most powerful book you will have read in a long time. Hirsi Ali writes with the clear eye for detail and narrative flair of a novelist. She invites the reader to witness the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam -- and Islam within the West -- first hand, not as an abstraction in Sam Huntington's Harvard seminar room or in the august pages of Foreign Affairs, but as it has played out in the very intimate interstices of her personal life.

Hirsi Ali is more than a nomad. She is a time traveler between the universes of tradition and modernity seeping over into each other's territory. In this book she takes us along on that emotionally tumultuous journey from the moment doubt morphed into her defection from the "childlike" womb of Islam to her nagging guilt as an undutiful daughter; from her giddy intoxication with newfound liberty to the fear for her safety and the loneliness of her freedom "The world outside the clan is rough, and you are alone in it," her grandmother had warned her.

Rarely does the telling of a very personal story also tell one of the key stories of our time. But Hirsi Ali accomplishes this in Nomad.

We witness a wrenching deathbed reunion with her once proud Somali warlord father, in exile and on welfare in the largely Muslim ghetto of East London. They had not spoken in years since, as Hirsi Ali puts it, "Living as a Western woman meant I had shed my honor." Yet, even as he beseeched Allah with his last breaths to return his wayward daughter to the fold of family and faith, his lingering anger and deep disappointment yielded to love. "He ultimately allowed his feelings of fatherly love to transcend his adherence to the demands of an unforgiving God," she writes.

Not so for the customs of the clan and the tenets of the faith. Hirsi Ali could not attend the funeral because "women are not allowed to be present at the graveside during a Muslim burial ceremony." But it was only when she stepped out of the hospital onto the East London streets that her personal grief over her father's loss once again met the reality of what she had chosen to leave behind. This passage illustrates Hirsi Ali's gift for turning quotidian observation into poignant insight:

"Seated outside a halal fast-food shop was a small woman in a long black robe with a black embroidered beak of cloth tied over her nose and mouth, in the style of Algerian women. Two small children were crying in the buggy beside her, and she was trying to jiggle and comfort them while she lifted her cloth beak to try to eat her pastry modestly underneath it. Her older toddler was wearing a veil too. It was not a face veil, but it covered her hair and shoulders; it was white and lacy and elasticized so it fit snuggly over her head. The child couldn't have been older than three.

"Two shop fronts further down was a huge mosque, the biggest mosque in London my escorts told me. A small crowd of men stood outside, all wearing loose clothing, long beards and white skull caps. All these people had left their countries of origin only to band together here, unwilling or unable to let go, where they enforce their culture more strongly than even in Nairobi. Here was the mosque, like a symbolic magnetic north, the force that moved their women to cover themselves so ferociously, the better to separate themselves from the dreadful influence of the culture and values of the country where they had chosen to live.

"It was just a glimpse, and yet I felt an instant sense of panic and suffocation. I was right back in the heart of it all: inside the world of veils and blinkers, the world where women must hide their hair and their bodies, must cower to eat in public, and must follow a few steps behind their men on the street. A web of values -- of honor and shame and religion -- still entangled me together with all these women at the bus stop and almost every other woman along Whitechapel Road that morning. We were all very far from where we had been born, but only I had left behind that culture. They had brought their web of values with them, halfway across the world."

Further on her journey, we listen in on her halting, guilt-laden phone calls with her mother, one of her father's several wives, living alone and virtually abandoned, though among her Duhulbahante ancestral tribe in a gritty hovel in the remote reaches of what was once Somali territory. From her memories, Hirsi Ali envisions it as "a little hamlet of cinderblock buildings, unpaved roads, thorn bushes and endless dust."

In one of the more interesting passages of the chapter "My Mother," Hirsi Ali lifts the veil on a taboo subject: the emotional damage to women and children as a result of the practice of polygamy.

"Even though she was my father's second wife, from the day she learned that my father had married a third woman and had another child, Sahra, my mother became erratic, sometimes exploding with grief and pain and violence. She had fainting episodes and skin diseases, symptoms caused by suppressed jealousy. From being a strong, accomplished woman she became a wreck, and we, her children, bore the brunt of her misery."

Though tenderly attached to her grandmother, who lovingly helped raise her and her sister, Hiirsi Ali sees in her grandmother the fatal flaw that traps the tribal communities of Muslim Africa. Having tasted what Octavio Paz called the "republic of the future" in America, it especially drives her crazy to see her grandmother focusing all her energies and emotions on the past, always looking back to what she knows instead of looking forward to what might be.

At the end of the book, we read Hirsi Ali's letter to her "unborn daughter," a moving prayer for a future bond of love to replace the broken tether to her past that is at the same time a profoundly humanist manifesto. Remembering her father as she imagines her child, Hirsi Ali writes "I could never re-adopt his belief in Allah, in prophets, in holy books, angels and the hereafter. But our unconditional love for one another, the love between a parent and a child, was so much more powerful than that belief. And the proof was the way we clutched each other's hands at the end. That earthly love is my faith. It is the love I shall always give you."

Through these insights of Hirsi Ali into the formative crucible of family, clan and faith -- and their relentless drilling down on duty, honor and shame -- we learn more about why young men, especially those living or raised in the West, become susceptible to the jihadist siren than from all the weighty tomes of intelligence analysis. "With a collective feeling of being persecuted, many Muslim families living in the West insulate themselves into ghettos of their own making, " she writes. "Unhappy, disoriented youths in dysfunctional immigrant families make perfect recruits to [the jihadist] cause."

The answer for Hirsi Ali is precisely not the well-meaning "multiculturalism" that leaves each to their own, as has been the case in Holland where she was a member of parliament and defender of immigrant women's rights. The answer is the opposite: integration of Muslim immigrants as individual citizens into Western society. Frustrating that process, Hirsi Ali warns, will lead to peril for the West given the scale of Muslim immigration and the high birth rate of Muslims in the West.

Unlike Hirsi Ali's nemesis Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic scholar who wants the West to accommodate Islam as a community of faith and practice, Hirsi Ali insists that Islam, especially in the clannnish permutations of its immigrants, must instead let go of the individual. (On this score, a new book by Paul Berman, "The Flight of the Intellectuals," is a very fitting complement to Nomad.)

Some quibbles. I do get the sense once in a while in the second half of Nomad, which discusses her arrival in America, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a little starry eyed about the West. Yes, Christianity at its best is about love; and no, it is not an all-encompassing theocratic order. But in its fundamentalist reaches the literalism and dogma of evangelicals generates plenty of intolerance, hypocrisy and familial dysfunction. And let's don't forget about the sex scandals in the Catholic Church.

Also, no doubt, in contrast to her experience of misogyny and polygamy Western men look pretty good. But to suggest they are nearly always upright and faithful to their wives and family is to ignore the reality of so many ugly divorces, forlorn children raised by the media, battered spouses and deadbeat dads. Certainly, the West has its fair share of desperate housewives.

Many Muslim readers will have bigger squabbles. How much does Hirsi Ali's experience, in which faith and clan are fused, tell us about, say, modern Turkey or Iran? Others, like Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Shiite theorist and first president of revolutionary Iran, will argue that the concept of "Tawhid" -- that the whole of existence is one -- understands that freedom, not submission and domination, is the path to the divine. Yet, admittedly, he lives in exile outside Paris like Trotsky in Mexico City while "actually existing Islam" is run by the Revolutonary Guard back in Tehran.

Above all, like Hirsi Ali's first account of her defection from Islam, Infidel, the power of this book is that it was written in "good faith" as Nicola Chiaromonte meant it: As a witness to her moment, Hirsi Ali calls it as she sees it. She has arrived at her beliefs not by retreating into orthodoxy out of fear of uncertainty or through the nihilism of indifference, but because experience has led her to them. If she wants to live in this world as a free woman, here she must stand.