Sunday, 30 September 2012


Some pieces of writing are so powerful, so right, so full of air-punchingly 'YES!'.

I warn you now not to read Christopher Hitchens', "God Is Not Great" in public because people will think you're strange when you shout out and punch the air!

And I warn you now not to read this piece by Ayaan Hirsi Ali entitled "How (and Why) I Became an Infidel". She wrote it especially for Christopher Hitchens' book, "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer".

First a little background on Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Born in Somalia she witnessed first hand female genital mutilation, clerical cruelty, and religion-inspired barbarism. After escaping to Holland she watched as her colleague Theo Van Gogh was murdered by Islamic extremists for satirizing Islamic repression of women and was told she was to be their next victim. She had initially believed that Islam could be reformed but soon realised that it's 'faith' itself which is the problem.

When I finally admitted to myself that I was an unbeliever, it was because I simply couldn’t pretend any longer that I believed. Leaving Allah was a long and painful process for me, and I tried to resist it for as long as I could. All my life I had wanted to be a good daughter of my clan, and that meant above all that I should be a good Muslim woman, who had learned to submit to God — which in practice meant the rule of my brother, my father, and later my husband.

When I was a child, I had a child’s revulsion against injustice. I could not understand why Allah, if he were truly merciful and all-powerful, would tolerate and indeed require that I stand behind my brother at prayer and obey his whims, or that the courts should consider my statements to be inherently less valid than his. But shame and obedience had been drilled into me from my earliest years. I obeyed my parents, my clan, and my religious teachers, and I felt ashamed that by my questioning I seemed to be betraying them.

As I became a teenager, my rebellion grew. It was not yet a revolt against Islam. Who was I to contest Allah? But I did feel constricted by my family and our Somali clan, where family honor was the overriding value, and seemed principally to reside in the control, sale, and transfer of girls’ virginity. Reading Western books—even trashy romance novels—gave me a vision of an astounding alternative universe where girls had choices.

Still, I struggled to conform. I voluntarily robed in a black hijab that covered my body from head to toe. I tried to pray five times a day and to obey the countless strictures of the Koran and the Hidith. I did so mostly because I was afraid of Hell. The Koran lists Hell’s torments in vivid detail: sores, boiling water, peeling skin, burning flesh, dissolving bowels. An everlasting fire burns you forever for as your flesh chars and your juices boil, you form a new skin. Every preacher I encountered hammered more mesmerizing details onto his nightmarish tableau. It was genuinely terrifying.

Ultimately, I think, it was books, and boys, that saved me. No matter how hard I tried to submit to Allah’s will, I still felt desire — sexual desire, urgent and real, which even the vision of Hellfire could not suppress. It made me ashamed to feel that way, but when my father told me he was marrying me off to a stranger, I realized that I could not accept being locked forever into the bed of a man who left me cold.

I escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many benevolent Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies — Allah’s societies — were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

It was at university that I gradually lost my faith. The ideas and the facts that I encountered there were thrilling and powerful, but they also clashed horribly with the vision of the world with which I had grown up. At first, when the cognitive dissonance became too strong, I would try to shove these issues to the back of my mind. The ideas of Spinoza and Freud, Darwin and Locke and Mill, were indisputably true, but so was the Koran; and I vowed to one day resolve these differences. In the meantime, I could not make myself stop reading. I knew the argument was a weak one, but I told myself that Allah is in favor of knowledge.

The pleasures and anonymity of life in the clan-less West were almost as beguiling as the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. Quite soon after I arrived in Holland, I replaced my Muslim dress with jeans. I avoided socializing with other Somalis first, and then with other Muslims — they preached to me about fear of the Hereafter and warned that I was damned. Years later, I drank my first glass of wine and had a boyfriend. No bolt of Hellfire burned me; chaos did not ensue. To pacify my mind, I adopted an attitude of “negotiating” with Allah: I told myself these were small sins, which hurt no one; surely God would not mind too much.

Then the Twin Towers were toppled in the name of Allah and his prophet, and I felt that I must choose sides. Osama bin Laden’s justification of the attacks was more consistent with the content of the Koran and the Sunna than the chorus of Muslim officials and Western wishful thinkers who denied every link between the bloodshed and Islam. Did I, as a Muslim, support bin Laden’s act of “worship”? Did I feel it was what God commanded? And if not, was I a Muslim?

I picked up a book — The Atheist Manifesto by Herman Philipse, who later became a great friend. I began reading it, marvelling at the clarity and naughtiness of its author. But I really didn’t have to. Just looking at it, just wanting to read it—that already meant I doubted. Before I’d read four pages, I realized that I had left Allah behind years ago. I was an atheist. An apostate. An infidel. I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, “I don’t believe in God.”

I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

In the next few months, I began going to museums. I needed to see ruins and mummies and old dead people, to look at the reality of the bones and to absorb the realization that, when I die, I will become just a bunch of bones. Some of them were five hundred million years old, I noted; if it took Allah longer than that to raise the dead, the prospect of his retribution for my lifetime of enjoyment seemed distinctly less plausible.

I was on a psychological mission to accept living without a God, which means accepting that I give my life its own meaning. I was looking for a deeper sense of morality. In Islam you are Allah’s slave; you submit, which means that ideally you are devoid of personal will. You are not a free individual. You behave well because you fear Hell, which is really a form of blackmail — you have no personal ethic.

Now I told myself that we, as human individuals, are our own guides to good and evil. We must think for ourselves; we are responsible for our own morality. I arrived at the conclusion that I couldn’t be honest with others unless I was honest with myself. I wanted to comply with the goals of religion — which are to be a better and more generous person — without suppressing my will and forcing it to obey an intricate and inhumanly detailed web of rules. I had lied many times in my life, but now, I told myself, that was over: I had had enough of lying.

After I wrote my memoir, Infidel (published in the United States in 2007), I did a book tour in the United States. I found that interviewers from the Heart-land often asked if I had considered adopting the message of Jesus Christ. The idea seems to be that I should shop for a better, more humane religion than Islam, rather than taking refuge in unbelief. A religion of talking serpents and heavenly gardens? I usually respond that I suffer from hayfever. The Christian take on Hellfire seems less dramatic than the Muslim vision, which I grew up with, but Christian magical thinking appeals to me no more than my grandmother’s angels and djinns.

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali - How (and Why) I Became an Infidel
From Hitchens, Christopher (2007-12-10).
The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (pp. 477-480).
Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

copyright © 2007 by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


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  1. Thanks for posting, great story.

  2. I remember the first time I read this in Hitchens' The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, I highlighted the line,"The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism." Because I realized that this was what made me different from those I had grown up with. The criteria that I used in attempting find what I "must" have been missing in reading the Bible as a young atheist was that it had to correspond to what I knew to be fact: no cognitive dissonance. I allowed the evidence to be the determinant in my worldview. Now, I insist that the evidence be the authority in determining the truth, and I could not be more pleased with the results.

    The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism.

  3. Colin Connaughton28 January 2014 at 10:06

    It is an excellent piece, moving and interesting and informative.


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