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Infidel – book review

infidel_by_ayaan_hirsi_ali_2007_large Readers with an eye on European politics will recognize Ali as the Somali-born    member of the Dutch parliament who faced death threats after collaborating on a film about domestic violence against Muslim women with controversial director Theo van Gogh (who was himself assassinated). Even before then, her attacks on Islamic culture as “brutal, bigoted, [and] fixated on controlling women” had generated much controversy. In this suspenseful account of her life and her internal struggle with her Muslim faith, she discusses how these views were shaped by her experiences amid the political chaos of Somalia and other African nations, where she was subjected to genital mutilation and later forced into an unwanted marriage. While in transit to her husband in Canada, she decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands, where she marveled at the polite policemen and government bureaucrats. Ali is up-front about having lied about her background in order to obtain her citizenship, which led to further controversy in early 2006, when an immigration official sought to deport her and triggered the collapse of the Dutch coalition government. Apart from feelings of guilt over van Gogh’s death, her voice is forceful and unbowed—like Irshad Manji, she delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam informed by a genuine understanding of the religion. 8-page photo insert.

From Publishers Weekly

This weekend I finished digesting the controversial autobiographical novel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the recommendation of a friend, and what a novel it was. Very well written, it chronicles the life of Ayaan from the streets of Somalia to her arrival in the Netherlands, and her journey of renouncing religion in favor of atheism. She speaks very passionately about the oppression of one half of the world’s women for religious reasons, then proceeds to warn the west about the dangers newly arrived immigrants pose.  Actually this book covers a multitude of issues, way too numerous to dissect in one post – whether Islam is truly a religion of peace, whether any religion can shed its bloody history of war and oppression, whether westerners have any idea of the value of the freedoms we have, and how vigilant we must be to guard them. It’s a fascinating saga of a book that never gets too dull or pedantic but wraps up all the issues and historical context in a profound personal story.

Ayaan doesn’t pull back punches though, and some of them are aimed at the western world, that she feels is too lenient and permissive towards immigrants. She feels that hiding under political correctness and tolerance is a reluctance to protect not only the foundations of liberty of the west, but a disservice to the women and girls that continue to be persecuted by unintegrated community members of the newly arrived. She points out the statistics of the girls killed by family members, the genital mutilations performed on kitchen tables, the women’s shelters overflowing with beaten wives, the crime rate spikes in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and the drain on resources they represent if they choose not to learn the language and participate in the economy funded by the safety net of the world that sheltered them. Referring mainly to Holland, she says that with political correctness and tolerance and fear of being called racist, the country funds ethnic schools where the children are done a disservice with a cherry picked education, heavy on religion and light on history and science, and promote harmful segregation in the name of cultural sensitivity. They are heavy topics to discuss and yet the books doesn’t get heavy with proselytizing and reads easily.

There’s lots of food for thought here, and as an immigrant I can see both sides of the issue. On one hand you have indisputable statistics that support many of Ayaan’s assertions. You don’t have to look far in Calgary to find that the crime rates are higher as a rule in the quadrant of the city where many of the newly arrived cluster. The gang problem that’s spiked dramatically in the last few years is predominantly a product of the oriental culture and our latest murder trial was of a mother who killed her daughter for her overly westernized ways.  To deny the negative impact of immigration from vastly different cultures is dishonest. But on the other hand I see a severe failing of the country to prepare immigrants for life here and perhaps even help them succeed. When predominantly young families arrive in Canada, the culture shock is often severe, I know it was for us. Despite Canada’s self-claim as a polite and friendly country it is often rather cold or uncaring towards immigrants. Sure there’s a genuinely nice culture in small towns, but that’s not where the jobs are, so newcomers end up immersed in cosmopolitan and jaded cities. Not helped by the language barrier, the people are actually not that easy to get to know with our busy lifestyles that often don’t allow us to know our own neighbors, never mind befriend someone new. We often lament that we don’t even have time to see the friends we have, let alone make time for new ones. We often wait for new people to get more ‘westernized’ before we allow them into our circle, making polite small talk at work, but not really breaking down any cultural barriers.

So what are people to do? They do what comes naturally. They find other immigrants from their country, and sigh in relief. Often lonely and homesick, having left all their friends and many family members they understandably feel comforted at meeting someone, anyone who understands, has been there and speaks the language. Quite often the informal ‘training’ they get from their friends is invaluable and not found in any guidebook. Newly arrived people don’t need to know how Canada’s parliament system works right away, they need to know how to purchase bus fare and navigate the city.  Where to buy groceries and how to enroll your child in school. What work options are available and where to take English courses. This, and a myriad of other basic things, skills and tips are not found in any guide for newcomers and make culture shock more severe than it needs to be. Many people get overwhelmed with all the information flying at them with mach speed and you end up with older generations that have lived in Canada for twenty plus years and still don’t speak English.  But the biggest way we fail immigrants is by failing to truly streamline their re-accreditization in their chosen profession. That’s how we end up with the most educated cab drivers. I cannot count how many people have degrees that are sitting there unused while they do menial work because they have to start from scratch and get re-certified, negating the years of effort it took to get the degree in the first place. These are people who are in the prime of their earning years who cannot afford to go back to school for four, six or eight years as they have a family to support, so their degrees get shelved as they find ways and means to support them. In the meantime, politicians bleat about nurse and doctor shortages as well as every other employee shortage you can think of, yet can’t find the time to streamline the process of getting qualifications recognized.  This is a criminal waste of talent and ensures that many immigrant families’ earning power is low longer, contributing to both the burden on social services and delaying their productive integration into our society.

Whew. This is just one of the many tangents this book can take you on, so needless to say it’s an excellent and important read.  I now leave you with a picture that is much more tranquil than the rant I just went on. Feel free to agree or disagree below. Or just pet a cat.

Infidel - cat 3

Infidel - cat 2

Infidel - cat in a pot

8 comments to Infidel – book review

  • What an amazing post. I have this book on one of my shelves. My husband read it before me and he loved it. I did read Ayaan’s other book – The Caged Virgin – that I enjoyed tremendously.

    You know, I was reading your post and nodding my head in agreement through the whole thing. While I didn’t have to face any problems that immigrants face because I was born here, my parents and their relatives and friends did. When they came here in the 50s from a war-torn, poverty-stricken Europe, it was a tremendous culture shock. Yes, they did not need to learn about parliament, as my mother says, but rather about day to day living. She tells me stories about those years that are amusing as well as disturbing. They didn’t speak the language, which made it so hard to get around, whether to sign the kids up for school or to ask where they can buy groceries. The worst part was being taken advantage of at work, especially in factories. A lot of the people my mother and father arrived with – from different parts of Europe – were highly-skilled in construction or sewing and so on. My father, for example was a cabinet maker; he also built houses in Greece before his arrival; even had his own workers. My mother was a pattern maker, which was supposed to be a high-paying position back in the early days of their arrival. And yet, most of the newly-arrived were taken advantage of; either not paid what they should have, or made to work more than necessary; no over-time! And let’s not forget about the bigotry. They were immigrants, after all, right? So they were talked down to or treated rudely or treated unfairly by employees, neighbours, citizens. They didn’t know the laws, the language, where they could go for help, so it was easy for them to be taken advantage of. In fact, because schools were divided by religions, we weren’t allowed to enroll in some of them.

    Anyhow, the point I’m trying to make is that this is a problem that has existed for a long time and continues to go on. My parents were marginalized 50 years ago, so they chose to stick together with their own kind. To find friends. To find help. To find understanding. And most of all, to find acceptance. 50 years later and nothing much has changed. It’s sad.

    I was once part of a group that consisted of women volunteering their time to better their community. We were all from different backgrounds; some newly-arrived, some a few generations of citizenship, some just a couple of generations here. The newly-arrived were no different than anyone else in that group; all they wanted was to find their place in this country. And yet, one day when we put together a small party with the community center’s workers, I heard a few girls whisper “What are THEY doing here?” As if, for whatever reason, the immigrant women didn’t warrant a place amongst the rest of us ‘real Canadians’. I can’t tell you how disgusted I was. This is not to say that there aren’t wonderful people in our country; there are. It’s just that we still have a lot of work to do.

    Great post! It brought my parents and their beginnings in Canada to mind. This is exactly how they lived. And how they were treated.

    On a lighter note, I love the cat pics! Don’t you just love cats? They have such character.

  • admin

    What an awesome comment! It’s fascinating to learn of your parents’ journey, and to see how little some things have changed.

    As someone with some roots to the immigrant community I hear similar stories a lot. Many of my friends’ parents came over as farmers others as skilled workers, some as engineers and doctors. All of them had to learn an entire new way to live, and it’s often the small things that trip up newcomers, not the big ones. There are many tragicomic stories of people going for a swim in the water reservoir and getting arrested because they didn’t know that was not allowed, or the embarrassment of not knowing how to navigate a salad bar. It’s the smallest details that add up and end up as the proverbial straw that push immigrants into segregation.

    Employees still take advantage of immigrant workers who are predominantly seen as janitorial staff, gas station staff and factory workers. That would be fine as a temporary measure, allowing them to earn a wage while learning the language and taking say ONE exam to allow them to enter their profession for which they have qualifications in, but to keep them there is unfortunate both for them and for us as a country.

    I don’t even know what to say about your volunteer experience, just shake my head. No wonder those women will likely not see Canada as a friendly place, and keep more to their ‘own’ community as time goes on, becoming alienated not just from us, but from their own kids who have to learn to fit it and become more different than their parents.

    And yes, cats rock – especially in pots. 🙂

  • I have not heard of this book but it sounds like an important read.

    OK…those pictures made me giggle out loud!

  • admin

    It’s an excellent book, inadvertent farmer, I enjoyed it thoroughly, both as food for thought and as a fascinating novel. Since we live in countries that were literally built by immigrants, and currently have troops in the middle east, it’s a very relevant book.

    Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • I’ve heard about this book and have been wanting to read it. Thanks for your post on it. So many good books, so little time!!

  • admin

    I know how you feel, although at the rate I read, I’m frantically trying to get them all!

  • I’ve seen it in the stores and was wondering how it was. Thanks for the review!

    Cute kitty!

  • admin

    Hi Teena,

    Totally worth it! You read a lot, so definitely add it to the list. Kitty says meow. 🙂

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