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Infidel, By Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press), 350 pages, $32

The author of this autobiography is one of the most remarkable and significant public figures of our time. Propelled to world fame by the murder of Theo van Gogh, with whom she made a short film, Submission, about the systematic abuse of women that is sanctioned by Islam, she has remained dignified, modest and above all stalwart in her views. She has no thirst for martyrdom, but will not retreat before the threats of those whose strongest intellectual argument is the slit throat.

She was born in Somalia, to a man who put politics above his family, who abandoned his wife and three children for long periods of time, and whose activities meant that the young Ayaan led an unsettled existence as a refugee in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, which she describes with such great clarity that even those completely unfamiliar with these countries will feel they have visited them and achieved an insight into how life is lived in them.

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At an early age, she was subjected to female circumcision. Growing up in an environment in which Islam was accepted unquestioningly as the basis of social structure, morality and politics, she herself fell for a time under the spell of Islamism. She did not even question Islam when a religious teacher fractured her skull in retaliation for a question that he thought was impertinent. There did not seem to be any other possible way of life.

But Hirsi Ali's natural curiosity and rebelliousness always resulted in mental reservations. (The desire to suppress such secret reservations is, in my opinion, one of the sources of fanaticism.) She asked herself such questions as why, if God is so merciful, his rules are so harsh and unforgiving? If all are created equal, why are women systematically accorded an inferior place in society? It began to dawn on her that some of the tenets of Islam might be a cover for the convenience of some at the expense of others, the bad example having been laid down by the Prophet himself.

Her journey toward what Muslims regards as apostasy -- and the test of the compatibility of Islam with freedom is a simple one, whether it will come to accept apostasy as perfectly normal and licit -- accelerated when her father arranged a marriage for her to a Somali living in Canada. This was regarded as a wonderful match for her by her "community," but having come into contact with a different tradition in Kenya, she could not accept that her own views should not be consulted in the matter of how she was to spend the rest of her life.

On her way to join her husband in Canada, she escaped to Holland from Frankfurt airport, and there claimed asylum. Having already learned Somali, Arabic, Amharic, Swahili and English, she set about with determination to learn Dutch, which she soon mastered sufficiently to undertake a degree in political science at Holland's best university. Unlike many of her compatriots who sought asylum in Holland, she did not regard her hosts with contempt: On the contrary, she saw Holland as a free and decent society, a vast improvement on any she had hitherto known.

She went to work for the Dutch Labour Party, which -- being both left wing and influenced by feminism -- might have been expected to sympathize with the terrible plight of many Muslim women in Holland (exactly paralleled, incidentally, by what I saw in medical practice in Britain). However, the liberal guilt of the Labour Party made it unable to move beyond multiculturalism, the shallow view that all cultural beliefs are compatible and none is better than any other. This is a view gratifying to those who hold it, for it assures them that they are open- and generous-minded, but it is a self-satisfaction bought at the price of the suffering of others, a suffering more intense than any other, short of famine and civil war, known to me.

Hirsi Ali moved to a more conservative party, the Liberals, and was elected a member of the Dutch Parliament. This feat alone was remarkable. By now, her outspoken views about Islam in relation to the suppression of intellectual freedom and the subjection of woman had made her so notorious that she required permanent protection from zealots; the film she made with van Gogh was the last straw.

Hirsi Ali, who now lives in the United States, has had a profound effect on modern Holland, and through Holland the rest of Europe and possibly North America, which is an astonishing fact about a recently arrived immigrant from a culture as alien to the Dutch as the Somali. Until quite recently, the Dutch lived in a kind of complacent bubble, as if they had solved all social problems, and nothing could ever again disturb the even tenor of their society. They prided themselves that theirs was a country in which nothing happened. The assassination of Pym Fortuyn, and then of Theo van Gogh, disabused them of this mental idyll: Underneath the calm and prosperous crust of Dutch society, there was red-hot magma waiting to emerge volcanically.

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I recently had the opportunity to witness Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak on the same platform as Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is often presented as the spokesman for moderate Islam in Europe. She spoke like a rapier, he like a perfumed ointment; she believed in truth, he in conciliation (at least until the upper hand has been achieved). She was vastly the more impressive.

Many readers will feel uncomfortable with her unequivocal belief in the superiority of Western societies over Islamic societies; though, of course, the ability to doubt without courting martyrdom is precisely one of the superiorities. Possibly, she will strike some as strident and uncompromising; but her life history as recounted in this book gives her good reason to be uncompromising. Had she been prepared to compromise, she would now be confined to someone or other's household, at best well-treated, at worst badly abused, but at any rate cabin'd, cribbed and confin'd. This is one of the most crucial documents of our time, and is absorbing and pleasurable to read.

British writer and retired physician Theodore Dalrymple is the author of, among other works, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass and Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses. For a time, he worked as a doctor and psychiatrist in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

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