Cover Story

'A piece of sheep fat in the sun'

"'A piece of sheep fat in the sun'" Continued...

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

Hirsi Magan was never a strict Muslim, but his wife had observed a purer Arab Islam in Yemen as a young woman. In Nairobi she sent Hirsi Ali to a Muslim girls' school. There came Sister Aziza, a warm, friendly teacher who did not shout like the others or force her girls to pray five times a day or wear a veil. Instead, she discussed inner struggle, how Allah said covered women would not arouse men and cause fitna, complete mayhem.

Hirsi Ali was captivated. A tailor made her a toe-swishing zippered black cloak, which she wore to school with a headscarf so only her face and hands showed. "It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim," she writes in her new book. "All those other children with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites."

The shift pleased Hirsi Ali's mother, but the "deeper" rules were still hard to keep. Hirsi Ali wanted to be independent, like the characters in the Western novels she read: Huckleberry Finn and Wuthering Heights from the Kenyan school curriculum, trashy romance novels from her classmates.

Life at home, too, was often unbearable without her father: As the oldest daughter and under savage maternal beatings, Hirsi Ali slaved at household chores and struggled to finish homework. Her older brother, Mahad, grew shiftless; her younger sister, Haweya, partied.

At that time a corrupt government ruled Kenya, and the extremist Muslim Brotherhood won new hearers among Muslims living there with its focus on supporting charities and adhering to a pure Islamic path. One teacher preached that men could beat their wives for disobeying, and recited the hadith, one of Muhammad's sayings, indicating that wives had to be sexually available "even on the saddle of a camel."

At that Hirsi Ali, then 17, rose shakily in the classroom to say the teachings meant that men and women were not really equal, then, as the Quran taught. "You may not question Allah's word!" the teacher shouted. "His mind is hidden." On another occasion the class laughed when she suggested women might find uncovered men tempting. With each challenge, the rote, unthinking obedience Islam demanded repelled her more and more.

By 22, Hirsi Ali's father had returned, and he soon arranged her marriage to a clansman from Canada. She refused, but the Islamic ceremony did not even require her to be there, so her father married her, anyway. She was to join her new husband in Canada, but instead Hirsi Ali absconded. On her way to Canada, she decided to claim asylum in the Netherlands, a reputedly easy country to enter. Having known only social chaos and despotism in the four countries she knew as a child-Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia-she was stunned by Holland's punctual buses and polite policemen.

Her first home, a refugee center, brought her a first taste of a welfare state. It was a compound of hedge-rowed bungalows with a tennis court and swimming pool. Her room and health care were free and a cafeteria dinner came every evening at 5:30. Hirsi Ali could not understand why the authorities were so benevolent, or why strangers would help her.

Still, she knew a forced marriage was not enough to win asylum. So she crafted a patchwork lie based on the experiences of Somali refugees she knew in Kenya. She also used her grandfather's name, Hirsi Ali, instead of her maiden name Hirsi Magan, so her family would not find her.

Hirsi Ali quickly learned Dutch, working as a refugee translator, and took factory jobs. Slowly she shed her long clothes, starting with a headscarf. Men did not notice her uncovered hair. No fitna. No chaos. She wore jeans, rode a bicycle, and began studying political science.

But clan elders soon found Hirsi Ali and held council. They let her divorce her husband. But at a high price: Both they and her family disowned her. Her father cursed her to hell. Her sister, Haweya, came to live with her after having an abortion, but spiraled into mental illness and eventually died.

Through all this, Hirsi Ali worked and pondered, developing conservative political ideas. She saw that Muslims did not adapt to European life, and welfare checks made them idle. They lived in bubbles, convinced that Islam was superior. Muslim women continued to be treated as inferiors, families ordering female circumcision for their daughters, or beating and killing them if they had boyfriends. European multiculturalism, which Hirsi Ali calls "the stupidest idea you could ever adopt," perpetuated these cruelties by allowing immigrants to live separate-not assimilated-lives.

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