“A Star of God”

She should not have survived, this resilient one. But she not only made it out of hell, she flourished in spite of what anyone would have predicted.

InfideAyaan Hirsi Ali is a remarkable person. Her autobiography, “Infidel”, is an extraordinary tale, even though the title is a misnomer. The book should have been called “Apostate,” for that is now her Muslim identity. If she were merely an infidel, her rise from dirt-poor Somalia to the Dutch parliament would not be nearly so interesting.

Perhaps the publishers thought we infidels wouldn’t know the difference between the two designations. However, the reality of her success has made her a marked woman precisely because her unforgivable sin and the shame she has brought on her family is directly due to her flight from Islam, i.e., her apostasy. Were she merely an infidel, her ignorance could be excused; the fundamentalists wouldn’t care.

This is a story of faith: its devout practice, and then the shedding of it when Ali came into contact with the Western world. As an adolescent she was as pious as Mary Theresa, the girl in my class who went on to become a nun. The Muslim Brotherhood’s teachings came to her neighborhood and Ali became one of their most devout practitioners:

I began praying in the evenings sometimes. It is a long ritual. First you wash and cover yourself in the long white cloth, fixing your gaze to the floor because Allah is present and you do not look God in the eye. You recite the opening chapter of the Quran… Then you prostrate yourself, with your palms open toward Mecca, the heartland of religion. You say Praise to Allah, and stand up again; you say another verse of the Quran — you are free to choose which verse. You repeat the whole procedure, two, three of four times, depending on what time of day it is… Then you sit and end the prayer by looking sideways, first right and then left, and you cup your hands together and ask for God’s blessing. You beg: Allah make me wise, forgive my sins. Bless my parents and give them health, and please Allah, put my parents in Paradise. Please Allah, keep me on the safe path.

Then you take your prayer beads, which are a multiple of thirty-three — or as I did, for I had no beads, you use your finger bones. Each hand has fifteen bones in it, counting the base of your thumbs, so two hands plus the three digits of one extra finger, are thirty-three. You say Praise be to Allah thirty-three times; God forgive me thirty-three times; Allah is great thirty-three times; and then, if your choose you may also say Gratitude to Allah

Prayer is a long procedure, and it is required five times a day. In the beginning I almost never managed to do all of it, but it felt good to be trying.

Ali’s mentor in this progression was Sister Aziza, who had formerly lived in the world (she held jobs as an airline attendant and a bank teller) but had turned her back on all that to become a teacher at the Muslim Girls’ school that Ali attended. Her impact was a revelation for Ali’s sixteen-year-old yearning adolescence:

Sister Aziza was different from any other teacher we had ever had. For one thing, she wanted to be called by her first name, Sister Aziza, rather than Miss Said. For another, she was veiled. Not just with a headscarf, which many teachers wore; Sister Aziza cloaked herself in full hijab. Thick black cloth fell from the top of her head to the tips of her gloves and the very limit of her toes. It was spectacular. Her pale, heart-shaped face stood out against a sea of black… and he had a smile in her eyes. She never shouted the way the other teachers did.

Is it any wonder that Ali became enthralled with this beautiful woman, the apex of Muslim femininity?

Her classes were compelling, but I didn’t become an instant convert. And what was so great about Sister Aziza was that she didn’t mind… She told us God didn’t want us to do anything — not even pray — without the inner intention. He wanted true, deep submission: this is the meaning of Islam. “This is how Allah and the Prophet want us to dress,” she told us. But you should do it only when you’re ready … ”

[… ]

As women, we were immensely powerful, Sister Aziza explained. The way Allah had created us, our hair, our nails, our heels, our neck, and ankles — every little curve in our body was arousing… only the robe worn by the wives of the Prophet could prevent us from arousing men and leading society into fitna, uncontrollable confusion and social chaos.

She was strict about obedience and hygiene. Every month, Sister Aziza told us we must shave our underarms and pubic hair to make ourselves pure. We must purify ourselves after our periods. Womanhood was both irresistibly desirable and essentially filthy, and all these interventions were necessary to earn Allah’s pleasure.

… there were two kinds of struggle for Allah and the first effort was the jihad within ourselves: submission of our will. We must want to obey our parents and to behave in a manner that spreads kindness.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was hooked. She asked her mother for money to have the tailor make a hijab of her own. She began wearing it to school:

It had a thrill to it, a sensuous feeling. It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected, but potentially lethal, femininity… I was unique… Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim… I was a star of God. When I spread out my hands I felt like I could fly.

Anyone who has raised a teenager knows full well this stage of self-absorbed search for an identity. Hirsi Ali had found her answers to the questions of “who am I?” Of course, it didn’t last terribly long — the stumbling block for her was the necessity for an unreciprocated obedience to a man. Even in Somalia she had somehow absorbed the notion of equality; if she must obey her husband, then he too must obey her. It proved to be a fatal contradiction in the life she was constructing for herself.
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Hirsi Ali’s brutal treatment at the hands of her frustrated and abandoned mother — the constant beatings while being tied up, the rage that filled their home — brought her to a decision: her mother had been caught up in this world and then abandoned by Ali’s father; she vowed this would never happen to her:

I was beginning to rebel internally against women’s traditional subjugation. In those days, I was still wearing a hidjab. I thought a lot about God, how to be good in His eyes, and about the beauty of obedience and submission. I tried to still my mind so it would become a simple vessel for the will of Allah… But my mind seemed bent on being distracted from the Straight Path.

You could see where this “small spark of independence” would lead. She simply could not “comprehend the unfairness of the rules, especially for women.”

It is important to know this Ayaan Hirsi Magan before she metamorphoses into Ayaan Hirsi Ali (her grandfather’s name). Without their childhood stories we cannot truly understand the adults we think we know. She took her grandfather’s name to avoid being tracked down by her father’s relatives when she escaped from an arranged marriage to a Canadian Muslim and jumped the train to land in Holland as a would-be refugee.

Her success in her new country is also remarkable, especially when you consider the odds against a Somalian refugee ending up as a member of the Dutch Parliament for seven years. The fact that she was eventually hounded out of the country, living under constant security because of the hatred the fundamentalists had for this uppity apostate, does not make her life there a failure.

During her life in Holland, Ali shed her Muslim faith and became an atheist. That part of her journey seems fated: once the fire has been extinguished, it cannot be lit again. So she sets out to discover what her life will be as a non-believer. In the book at least, she appears not to have a quarrel with religion per se, though she is suspicious of any inroads it might make into political life. One can hardly blame her. However, the limits of her personal history are visible here: she doesn’t know enough history to understand that the religious impulse can be retained without harming the commonweal. The consuming, all-or-nothing Islam of her childhood predestines her passage from all to nothing. That is the pity of fundamentalism of any sort.

So now she lives here in the U.S., working for the Heritage Foundation. Given her leftist leanings, it is an odd match, but I think it will be a fruitful one.

Yes, she still lives a guarded life. Like Salman Rushdie, she will never be entirely safe. But this is a resilient woman. Wherever she goes, however many times she has to re-invent her life, Ali will land on her feet, orient herself and keep going.

As I said in the beginning, Ayaan Hirsi (Magan) Ali is a remarkable person. Reading her life will leave you pondering your own.

11 thoughts on ““A Star of God”

  1. I read excerpts of her book at Barnes and Noble, and plan to read the whole book eventually.

    Hirsi Ali’s family life is familiar, and is the story of countless middle and upper class educated Africans from the horn of Africa. Many of our parents generation had an unhappy marriage for many reasons. In the 50’s and 60’s, it was mostly the boys that were educated. Many of had them traveled to the West for their graduate studies. These men married barely educated girls of their home country. More often than not, the marriages were unhappy as the wife and husband were now two different types of people. The men had seen the world, were educated and not so tradition minded. They quickly found their wives uninteresting and saw them as backward. The wives became frustrated and unhappy because they knew that their husbands had a certain contempt for them. They took their frustrations out on their children-especially their daughters. Their daughters have a chance to get educated (unlike their mothers), and they too grow to resent and disrespect their mothers whom they see as backward as well. On the other hand the daughters idealize and love their educated progressive father. Add revolution, civil war and displacement and you have a tragic story.

    Islam is Ali’s punching bag that she beats because of all her frustrations and hurt in her past.

    Even though I hate the way she lets herself be the poster child for many bigots, I understand her story and a part of me cheers on this Somali girl who made it big.

    I hope she made peace with her mother.


  2. This brave lady is despised by the left, who accuse her of making money from her dramatic story. My take on her is completely opposite. Oh, she might make some money, but, most importantly, she explains how Islam steals muslimas’ souls.

    Great post!

  3. Young minds are so easy to manipulate. That is why it is so hard to escape Islam. Islam is so stupid but because they severely punish anyone or anything that criticizes it. the yound do not dare to question.

    I also agree that Ayaan’s experience with Islam has made her deeply suspicious of any religion. Can’t really blame her there. A lot of apostates from Islam are bitter because Islam stole part of their life. I can understand that bitterness as well.

  4. I cheer Hirsi’s escape from the demons of Islam but would not laud her story as a western success. She now despises all religion and has special words of condemnation for Catholicism.

    The causes near and dear to her heart now are extreme tolerance, non-discrimination and equal human-rights for all; abortion, same-sex “marriage” and gender-equity, (whatever that is), all those lovely causes that are currently undermining the West. Plus, she has publicly stated that sharia law is fine by her as long as it democratically instituted.

    This is not a poster-child for western ideals regardless of her courage is ditching her own previous devils.

  5. I can tell from my experience with Somalis. The males are often behaving like crap where those unveiled Somali girls cunduct themselves in a way that do call for respect.

    Had an argument with that Somali taxidriver on the way home from a show tonight. One will often be cheated on the fare when traveling with those shameless aliens in their newly adopted technicals.
    If you don´t pay attention and behave tough and firm, them there Somali no good taxi boys will lure away far to much of your hard earned money.
    I do, when I hear that broken norwegian, speak in the same tone one would to a six year old stealing candy. If it evolves into an argument, a flinch of berserker attitude frightens the dude enough to get things true. So it is no big deal, but a regular multicultural nusance.

    When I read this piece about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I come to think of a certain Somali girl I worked with at Ullevål hospital some years ago. She told me very little about her past. But she was very sincere when she told me she never ever wanted to go back. And proud to make her own living independent of any clan or patriarch.

    I believe there are many Ayann Hirsi Alis out there. Like Kadra Noor for instance. Her courage has shown the Norwegian public there are inhumane and barbaric coustumes beeing imported from the third world. Exposing crazy traditions can only come from within. These unveiled Somali girls need our support.

  6. Zenobia–

    She has made a kind of peace with her mother. She sends her money regularly. Unfortunately, she had to stop sending it via her brother, who was taking it.


    Her dislike of Catholicism is only a little less worse than what she feels for Islam. She recognizes the similarities of their catechesis, of the way the creed, the cult and the code is passed on.

    Once the flame of such devout attempts at submission have died, they can’t be re-kindled.

    But I never think of her as a poster child for anything other than her resilience. She is one tough human being. That’s why I focused on her childhood. People who transcend such beginnings are mysterious and special..as was Churchill.

    I don’t like her political/cultural stances; I think some of them are the result of a characterological deformation brought about by her experiences in childhood.

    Nonetheless, her story needs to be heard and pondered. This is not a simple person who can be reduced to what she thinks.

  7. Dymphna, I agree that she is resilient and I wish her only well.

    She does, however, wish to use the west and its wrong-headed insistence of ‘tolerance toward all, even the intolerable’, except for ANY religion, for her own ends and those ends would be the political/cultural stances of which we both disapprove and disagree. I don’t like being used.

    You haven’t stated what you think about Hirsi’s opinion that sharia is okay if it’s democratically accepted instead of being imposed.

    Dymphna, there are so many instances in which I agree with you, truly, but there are a few such as this that I cannot let pass without a protest. I do not wish to offend.

  8. I read this book from cover to cover on my flight out of Iraq a few months back, and it was a very moving experience. I definitely consider Ayaan Hirsi Ali a personal hero. The things she has been through and the things she has accomplished are astonishing.

    Given the conservative/fundamental oppression she was put through, it is hardly surprising that she veered strongly to the left in many of her opinions. It seems only natural that the further left you go, the more you would be against fundamentalism. I am sure she was shocked to come to the West and see that was not the case.

    It’s a bitter irony that she will be presented with even more so in America. Her short term popularity for being so devoutly against Islam will only protect her for so long.

    Cindi’s comments are a fair reflection of a large portion of conservatives which means she will be alienated there. And, her outspoken anti-islamness has already guaranteed she will have no place amongst the American left.

    She is probably doomed to an equally marginalized role in both left and right circles here. And it is to our great detriment.

  9. Cindi-

    Her ignorance of Dutch law vis a vis religion’s place in the public sphere — including the right to establish denominational schools–got her into real trouble. She has only that Islamic filter from which to view things.

    Her degree was in social work. It ought to have been in history because she is sadly lacking in perspective. I hope the Heritage Foundation is having her read de Tocqueville, political and religious history in America, etc.

    No, I don’t agree with her that sharia is all right as long as it is democratically elected. Hitler was democratically elected…that’s an example of her lack of knowledge of history.

    I agree with mistkerl that she will find it hard to gain an audience on so thin a basis as she portrayed in the book. But she has plenty of time to mature into a broader view of life and a better understanding of democracy — which can end up as a rigid authoritariansim if it stands alone. The tyranny of the majority…

    As I said, I focused on her childhood in order to show how she developed. She’s bright –though not brilliant — and I hope her own history, plus of lack of understanding of western history doesn’t limit her to a continued knee-jerk philosophy that is based on being against something…that path has no staying power.

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