10 Discussion Questions
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In 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a five-page letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch Parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a film of about female oppression under Islam, entitled Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran. Her memoir, Infidel, begins with an account of the murder and deals with Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somali and elsewhere, her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, her election to Parliament and her eventual move to the United States. When this book came out, she worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Questions For Reading Groups
1. Some of the practices that Hirsi Ali describes, such as female circumcision, have had wide publicity in the U.S. and may have lost some of their shock value. How did Infidel affect your view of them?
2. Did Infidel change your views of any other events that have had extensive media coverage in the U.S., such as tensions in Western Europe between longtime residents and recent immigrants? How did it affect your views?
3. One of the themes of Infidel is the liberating power of books. Hirsi Ali says that at the Muslim Girls’ Secondary School in Nairobi, she read books like 1984, Wuthering Heights and Cry, the Beloved Country. “Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele [sic]. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.” [Page 69] Some people might say women aren’t equal in the novels like those of Susann and Steel – that the goal of their female characters is above all to get a man. Is Hirsi Ali is accurately characterizing any of those books or authors that you’ve read?
4. Ian Buruma, a Dutch author who has met Hirsi Ali and wrote A Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin, 2006) about the Van Gogh case, said in a review of Infidel: “I know from having spoken to her on several occasions that she resents people attributing her views, including her conversion to atheism, to personal experiences. She insists that she arrived at her opinions intellectually and not because she was traumatized, say, by being painfully circumcised as a child, or brutally beaten by her religious instructor or tormented by guilt whenever she was touched by a boy.” [The New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2007, p. 14] Did Infidel convince you that Hirsi Ali arrived at her opinions that way? Why or why not? How much, if any, difference does her ability to do this make to the overall success of the book?
5. Buruma says in the same review that Hirsi Ali’s descriptions of life in the West “have an idealized, almost comic book quality that sounds as naïve as those romantic novels she consumed as a young girl” and “offers up the West as a caricature of sweetness and light, which is then contrasted not to specific places, like Somalia, Kenya or Saudi Arabia, but to the whole Muslim world.” Do you agree? Or do you think she was describing Holland as she saw it at first, a view that later changed?
6. Generations of American school children were taught, and some may still learn, that in the Crusaders went to the Holy Land to fight the “infidels.” The word that Americans once applied to people in other parts of the world, some now apply to us. How, if at all, does this affect your view of the use of words like “infidel”?
7. Hirsi Ali says that “a new idea crept up on me” on her first day in Bonn, a stopover on her way to Canada to join a husband she had been forced to marry: She didn’t have to go to Canada but “could disappear here.” [page 187] Did you believe that this idea suddenly occurred to or that she’d been planning all along to defect? Why?
8. After arriving in Holland, Hirsi Ali went to the Refugee Aid office and learned that the authorities wouldn’t give her asylum just because she had been forced to marry a man she didn’t love. So she cooked up another story about why she wanted to stay: “This story was detailed, consistent, but it was an invention. With hindsight I’m not proud of this fact but, but yes, it is true that I did not tell my full story to get into Holland.” [Page 193] Later she invents another story so her sister can stay in the Netherlands. What makes much of Infidel credible despite these admissions?
9. Hirsi Ali says that the Dutch government treated her well while reviewing her application for refugee status. She received free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. Hirsi Ali also had free laundry services, legal representation, and health care, and got a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. [Page 192] Did any of this make you say, “I want to move to Holland! Where’s my plane ticket?”
10. Some critics have referred to Hirsi Ali a “feminist” because of her strong advocacy of the rights of Muslim women. Yet she took a job with an American conservative think tank. Are these two incompatible? [“No Rest for a Feminist Fighting Radical Islam,” by William Grimes, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2007, p. E1.]
11. Some of the ideas in Infidel relate to those in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is popular with reading groups. If your club has read that book, what similarities and differences do you see between the two?
Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26. Published: February 2007.
A review of Infidel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April 2, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Memoirs” category.
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