Civil war, female genital mutilation, brutal beatings, an adolescence spent as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life living in four troubled, unstable countries ruled mainly by dictators -- this is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived through and describes in her memoir, "Infidel," released today.
An outspoken defender of women's rights in Islamic societies, Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and escaped an arranged marriage by immigrating to the Netherlands, where she tasted freedom for the first time.
"In 1992, my father arranged a marriage for me with a distant cousin of mine. I decided to take the train to Holland and ask for asylum," Hirsi Ali says.
Hirsi Ali flourished in her newfound country, even calling the day she rode the train there for the first time her birthday.
"July 24 is the day that I actually took the train from Germany to Holland and symbolically, I also took the train away from my clan and my family, away from a life planned for me to a life that I take in my own hands," Hirsi Ali explains. "That is what I mean by my birthday. It is the day that I decided to give shape to my own destiny for better or for worse."
In Defense of Women's Rights
Hirsi Ali served as a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. There, she worked on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of women in Dutch Muslim society.
In 2004, together with movie director Theo van Gogh, she produced "Submission," a controversial film about the oppression of women in conservative Islamic cultures. The airing of the 10-minute film -- which depicts Muslim women wearing transparent veils that exposed their naked bodies covered in verses from the Koran -- on Dutch television resulted in the killing of van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.
The film also brought Hirsi Ali a death threat, but she defied it, continuing as a member of Holland's legislature. Now, Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a U.S. think tank, where she researches the relationship between the West and Islam; women's rights in Islam; violence against women propagated by religious and cultural arguments; and Islam in Europe.
Despite a full plate of research, she worked on "Infidel." In it, Hirsi Ali tells her astounding life story, from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands to her current life living under armed guard in the West.
It's no surprise that Islam plays a large role in her book. And although Hirsi Ali helps others to recognize the problems in Islamic societies, she is quick to point out that Western culture is not a model, either.
"Human beings are equal but cultures are not equal," she says. "The culture of my parents and my grandparents has given me a lot of resilience but has limited me in my freedom. I have discovered in the Western culture that it is not perfect at all, but at least [it offers] the best of what we have in terms of freedoms and in terms of giving shape to your own destiny."
However, she adds poignantly, "Islam in its current form cannot coexist with Western democracy."
Hirsi Ali admits to losing faith in the religion that has caused her much strife.
"I don't consider myself a believing, practicing Muslim, but I do consider myself a product of that heritage and, therefore, obligated to question the moral framework of Islam."