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Journey of the mind

The awakening of a passionate advocate, critic

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, 353 pp., illustrated, $26

First, some basic facts about Ayaan Hirsi Ali as America becomes acquainted with her. Born in 1969 in Somalia, she was schooled mostly in Kenya, and unwillingly on her way to Canada to meet a husband selected by her father, diverted to the Netherlands, where she received refugee status. She learned Dutch, worked as an interpreter for the social services, and earned a degree in political science from the esteemed university in Leiden. She became a researcher for the governing Labor Party but after 9/11 found herself solicited by the Liberals (a party of free-market conservatives), and after elections in 2003 became a member of Parliament.

In this position she continued advocating for Muslim women in the Netherlands who, within their families and closed immigrant communities , often suffer greatly: from isolation, beatings, sometimes even "honor" killings. By this time she had rejected Islam -- which, as she describes in her memoir, "Infidel," took some doing -- and become perhaps the most controversial figure in the country, all the more so once her collaborator Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker and provocateur, was murdered on an Amsterdam street in November 2004 by a young Dutch Muslim. They had worked together on a short TV film called "Submission," in which an actress, bearing verses of the Koran on her skin, recounts domestic abuse from men and asks Allah, why?

Since then Hirsi Ali has lived under heavy guard: sure to be murdered otherwise. She has also left Parliament, and indeed the Netherlands, after a final controversy that involved her losing her citizenship and then, after an uproar, regaining it, all because (as she has always acknowledged) she lied on her refugee application. Her book tells the story; now she is with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

It is of course an astonishing life, and that is just the last 15 years in the West. The 20 years before provide their own fascination -- and compose over half her book -- as Hirsi Ali recounts her childhood and adolescence in the grim, clan-ridden violence of Somalia and later another kind of hopeless exile, in Saudi Arabia and Kenya, raised mostly by her mother, as her father was jailed under Somalia's then-dictator Siad Barre.

Hirsi Ali, as an apostate, has no contact with them, and a sister who followed her to Holland became mentally ill and died; but her book, in a moving gesture, is dedicated to all of them -- also her brother and grandmother. Her love for them, particularly her father, is genuine and generous, now sorrowful. But she has left them behind; as becomes clear to those who have heard and now read Hirsi Ali, her head is never ruled by her heart.

It is hard sometimes to know why Hirsi Ali engenders such abuse. Of course, attacking Islam and the prophet Mohammed does not help; but her pronouncements are delivered only in the spirit of purest reason. Books emancipated her, from the freedoms of the romance novels she read in Kenya to the strict rationalists or Enlightenment figures of her university education: Spinoza, Voltaire, etc.

"I felt so lucky that I didn't have to think of all this by myself," she says of this enormous heritage painstakingly acquired. Because she has been persuaded, she expects reason similarly to lead others from faith , which is not a promising manner for engaging the religiously devout. Her icy rationality resists multiple causes and complex combinations; the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, were not motivated by frustration with America's foreign policy : " It was about belief." Well, yes, but why not frustration too? Her process of elimination: The hijackers were neither poor nor Palestinians, and never mentioned Palestine in letters. The only remaining possibility: pure Islamic belief, a totalitarian system.

As a national politician, she fails to understand people "who apparently approved of everything I said but nonetheless wouldn't dream of voting for the Liberal Party." But if they believe the economy, and the welfare state's historic protections, matter more than immigration and integration (they may be misguided), they won't vote Liberal no matter how appealing her person.

A revealing moment in "Infidel" is when she discusses the single broadcast of "Submission." She had been invited to appear on a program whose guests normally share clips from sports or children's programs or documentaries that nostalgic Dutch viewers will identify with , but "having no shared Dutch experience to speak of," Hirsi Ali requested that they screen her film. Remarks like this help explain the attraction of the United States as the next stage of her migrant's journey. Furthermore, as a "one-issue politician" she had become disenchanted with the Dutch system, where "social democracy is grounded in the rights of groups of people, not individuals."

"By the time I turned ten," Hirsi Ali writes, "I had lived through three different political systems, all of them failures." Before she is 40, there is a fourth -- Western European social democracy, which, although primarily a triumph, has left her unfulfilled. It is hard to believe she will find her one issue, individual rights, to be entirely preserved and enhanced in American-style democracy.

What will she make of the most religious society in the West, and the frequent religiosity of American politics? She suggests her mission is still with Islam and downtrodden Muslims, but those Muslims are farther away in America than they were in the Netherlands, and even there, she could no longer engage with them because she had alienated them so. For her to remain effective, she must figure out, from her Washington think tank, new ways to make them listen.

Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University.