I recently finished reading Infidel, the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is a former Muslim who became an atheist. In reading this book, I found that she was someone I could relate to but also someone whose life was very different from my own. She came to the attention of the world thanks to the Streisand effect. She and Theo van Gogh made a film together called Submission, part 1, which was openly defiant and critical of Islam. She wrote it, and he directed it. Not long after it came out, both of them were receiving death threats. He didn’t take the death threats very seriously, having been receiving death threats for 15 years, and he ended up being murdered by a Muslim over this film. Murdering someone for his beliefs is an abominable thing to do, and one of the problems with Islam is that it encourages this behavior. Although the murder stopped part 2 from being made, the aftermath of this was that Ayaan Hirsi Ali become much better known, and she has remained a vocal critic of Islam for over ten years. When you kill critics of your beliefs, it ultimately works toward discrediting your beliefs.
I highly recommend this book for the story it tells of how she moved from Islam to atheism. If you’re from the west, like I am, this book is valuable for its insight into a culture that is wholly different from your own. If you’re of the opinion that all cultures are equal and multiculturalism is a laudable goal, this book may lead you to think differently. Without going into too much detail, one of the formative experiences in her life was discovering how superior western civilization was to the societies she had grown up in. I’ll now go into comparing and contrasting her life with my own, but I’ll put that in a spoiler box in case you would rather learn the details of her life as she relates them in her book.
As a teenager, she took Islam very seriously, and she sought to understand it, not just to memorize the Qur’an by rote. Likewise, I took Christianity very seriously when I was younger, and I wanted to understand it, not just memorize Bible verses by rote. But the Islam she grew up with was very different from the Christianity I grew up with. I was able to turn away from Christianity at a younger age, because I lived in a secular society that left me free to figure things out for myself. Before she turned away from Islam, she lived under communism in Somalia, under sharia in Saudi Arabia, and under a more secular government in Kenya, she helped Somali refuges get into Kenya, she fled to Holland1 to escape an arranged marriage she wasn’t interested in, lived there for ten years, worked as a Somali/Dutch translator, which gave her a front two seat to how Islam affected the lives of many other Somali women, and finally turned away from Islam after the events of 9/11 made her more seriously think about how her values aligned with those of Islam. I’m a few years older than her, but, by contrast, I had given up Christianity over a decade and a half earlier. I don’t attribute this to being smarter than her but to the pressures on her to remain Muslim. In at least one respect, she is smarter than me. She has been able to learn multiple languages. Besides her native Somali, she has learned Swahili, English, and Dutch, whereas I am not fluent in any language but English. Although she did know Christians and atheists while growing up in Kenya, her Somali community was Muslim, and besides going to a secular school, she received instruction in Islam. One of her teachers was particularly overzealous. He was a bad teacher, one who insisted on learning by rote, who drove Ayaan and her sister to lock themselves in the bathroom to avoid his lessons. After he went away, and Ayaan had left the bathroom, he came back and nearly beat her to death. For a long time, she was critical of how Muslims behaved rather than critical of Islam itself. She thought that if women should cover themselves to avoid inciting lust in men, men should also cover themselves to avoid inciting lust in women. The other Muslims laughed at her for this idea. When she moved back to Somalia for a while, she hung out with other youth who were very serious about Islam, and she dated an Imam who repulsed her by trying to kiss her after preaching against sexuality outside of marriage. At this time, she thought the problem was with him rather than with Islam, leading her to break up with him. Having learned what arranged marriages were like for young women she knew, she routinely turned down proposals, using the excuse that her father wasn’t around. But when her father eventually turned back up and tried to arrange a marriage for her to a Canadian Somali, she took the opportunity to become a refuge in Europe. She had to stop in Germany before getting the papers she needed to travel to Canada, and from there she visited a refuge she knew in Holland, formulated the idea of fleeing to England, where she already knew the language, but eventually learned that it would be easier to become a refuge in Holland. Before becoming an atheist, she became a secular Muslim. Before rejecting Islam, she had come to the conclusion that Holland was much better governed than the countries she had previously lived in, and she wanted to study political science to understand why. In time, particularly after 9/11, she realized that her secular values were not compatible with Islam, and she switched from being a secular Muslim critic of bad Muslim behavior to being an atheist critic of Islam. Not long after this, she made the film Submission, part 1 with Theo van Gogh, which drew the ire of Muslims around the world, Theo van Gogh was murdered for this, and she started living with armed guards who would regularly move her around and keep her protected.
One difference between her rejection of Islam and mine of Christianity is that hers was rooted more in values, and mine was rooted more in evidence and reason. Her transition from Islam involved developing a different set of values than her Islamic culture had been teaching her. When 9/11 happened, she was confronted with the question of whether the actions of Al Qaeda were supported by the Qur’an. Osama Bin Laden had been quoting the Qur’an in favor of his position, and Ali looked up the verses he was citing and found that he wasn’t simply perverting a peaceful religion for his own agenda. She used to think that her humane, secular values could be supported by a correct understanding of Islam, but she came to understand this wasn’t the case. Her humane, secular values were at odds with those of Islam, and she had to choose between them. For myself, I found that the idea of eternal damnation in hell didn’t fit with my values, but in terms of how Christians normally conducted themselves, I never had any serious clash with Christian values. My behavior isn’t too different from that of the typical Christian, and I often find Christians, particularly the more liberal Christians, expressing values I agree with. My departure from Christianity focused more on the lack of evidence for Christianity. I found contradictions in the Bible, which implied that it wasn’t the word of God, and when I further investigated the evidence for Christianity, I found it lacking. My present opinion is that Christianity is a mythological system that evolved from various sources, including Judaism, Egyptian religion, and Greek philosophy, and that religion in general has been a product of cultural evolution rather than of divine revelation. As an ethicist, I do take positions on values, but differences in value have not been the main substance of my disagreement with Christianity.