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review: memoir

Ayaan Hirsi AliThe Associated Press

All men are created equal, perhaps, but they do not by any means lead lives of equal interest. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is still only in her later 30s, has already ensured her place in history and is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable people in the world.

Her linguistic abilities alone would be more than enough to satisfy most people: Having learned Somali (her native tongue), English, Amharic, Arabic and Swahili, she learned Dutch sufficiently well in a couple of years to be able to stand for the Dutch parliament.

But, of course, it is her public and uncompromising repudiation of Islam for which she is best known. The brutal murder of Theo van Gogh, with whom she had made a brief film denouncing the treatment of women in Islam, brought her to world fame. In this book, which one might describe as a philosophical memoir, she describes and explains her intellectual journey from pious, veiled Muslim woman to proselytizer for the European Enlightenment view of the world.

She was born into a society in which family or clan honour and shame were the principal guides to conduct, and in which deviation from the way things had supposedly always been done was regarded with horror and repressed with violence. As the circumstances of Somalia changed because of the inevitable intrusion of the modern world, however, Somali society was completely unable to adapt in a constructive way. The author succinctly describes the fate of her gifted brother, a fate that I saw many times repeated among my young male Muslim patients struggling to adapt to a non-Muslim world:

"This is the tragedy of the tribal Muslim man, and especially the first-born son: the overblown expectations, the ruinous vanity, the unstable sense of self that relies on the oppression of one group of people - women - to maintain the other group's self-image. Instead of learning from experience, instead of working, Mahad [her brother]engaged in a variety of defence mechanisms involving arrogance, self-delusion and scapegoating. His problems were always somebody else's fault."

Hirsi Ali's insistence, based on her own family experience, her experience as a translator for social services in the Netherlands and her logical reflection on those experiences, that a profound change in the relations between the sexes is the key to Muslim integration into Western society is, in my view, absolutely correct. For many young Muslim men in the West, a powerful appeal of Islam is the sanction that it gives to their domination of women. This domination provides them an ex officio source of self-satisfaction that discourages further effort, and simultaneously deprives their society of the talents of women. The natural result is material and intellectual failure by comparison with other religious groups; and disappointment leads to morbid hypersensitivity to criticism, insensate rage and the blaming of others.

Of course, one has to distinguish between Islam and Muslims. It is hardly to be expected that 1.5 billion people exhibit precisely the same pattern of family life that is inimical to success in the modern world; I have known many Muslim families that did not. But Hirsi Ali is adamant that the source of the problem is in Islamic doctrine, and not in cultural accretions, as is sometimes claimed.

Like 19th-century French thinker Ernest Renan, she believes that the greatest service that can be done for a Muslim is to free him from the hold his religion has over his mind. She believes that the Koran should be openly, freely and publicly subjected to the kind of historical and philological scholarship that has long been practised on the Bible.

Of course, we know perfectly well where such criticism would lead: to a decline in, if not a collapse of, the faith, in the same way that Christianity in Europe has collapsed. That is why they ensure that scholars who do not believe that the Koran is the unmediated word of God, but rather a post-facto concoction like the Bible, must work in the shadows, and will not allow the free dissemination of their work in Muslim countries. The hold of Islam in the modern world is thus strong but potentially brittle.

Unfortunately, from a combination of fear and self-hatred, many in the West are unwilling to make the distinction between a respect for the right of people to practise a religion within the law, and an exaggerated respect for the religion itself. Ayaan Hirsi Ali rightfully pours scorn on the fellow travellers of obscurantism.

As perhaps is only to be expected, she speaks of the Enlightenment with the zeal of the convert. Her ideal is a society in which every person reflects seriously on her conduct and is free to make her own decisions. But this creates problems where people are free but do not reflect seriously; in any case, since it is clear that limits on behaviour have to be placed somewhere, antecedent to many individual decisions, the Enlightenment ideal that she espouses is rather too simple as an answer to the problems of human existence.

Still, if anyone has the right to speak from experience about the benefits brought by the Enlightenment, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has, because she has lived in both pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment societies. She does so with both modesty and great eloquence. At the very least, her book will help us to put our discontents into perspective.

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired British prison doctor and psychiatrist, and a writer and cultural critic. His most recent book is The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.