Say what you will about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she fascinates. The Dutch-Somali politician, who has lived under armed guard ever since a fatwa was issued against her in 2004, is a chameleon of a woman. Just 11 years after she arrived in the Netherlands from Africa, she rode into parliament on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, only to leave again last year, this time for America, after an uproar over lies she had told to obtain asylum.
Even the title of her new autobiography reflects her talent for reinvention. In the Netherlands, where Ms Hirsi Ali got her start campaigning against the oppression of Muslim women, the book has been published under the title "My Freedom". But in Britain and in America, where she now has a fellowship at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, it is called "Infidel". In it, she recounts how she and her family made the cultural odyssey from nomadic to urban life in Africa and how she eventually made the jump to Europe and international celebrity as the world's most famous critic of Islam.
Read as a modern coming-of-age story set in Africa, the book has a certain charm. Read as a key to the thinking of a woman who aspires to be the Muslim Voltaire, it is more problematic. The facts as Ms Hirsi Ali tells them here do not fit well either with some of the stories she has told in the past or with her tendency in her political writing to ascribe most of the troubles of the Muslim world to Islam. . .
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not the first person to use false pretences to try to find a better life in the West, nor will she be the last. But the muddy account given in this book of her so-called forced marriage becomes more troubling when one considers that Ms Hirsi Ali has built a career out of portraying herself as the lifelong victim of fanatical Muslims.
Another, even more disturbing story concerns her sister Haweya's sojourn in the Netherlands. In her earlier book, "The Caged Virgin", which came out last year, Ms Hirsi Ali wrote that her sister came to the Netherlands to avoid being "married off". In "Infidel", however, she says Haweya came to recover from an illicit affair with a married man that ended in abortion. Ms Hirsi Ali helped Haweya make up another fabricated story that gained her refugee status, but the Netherlands offered her little respite. After another affair and a further abortion, Haweya was put into a psychiatric hospital. Back in Nairobi, she died from a miscarriage brought on by an episode of religious frenzy. "It was the worst news of my life," Ms Hirsi Ali writes.
Mental illness, abortion, failed marriages, illicit affairs and differing interpretations of religion: much as she tries, the kind of problems that Ms Hirsi Ali describes in "Infidel" are all too human to be blamed entirely on Islam. Her book shows that her life, like those of other Muslims, is more complex than many people in the West may have realised. But the West's tendency to seek simplistic explanations is a weakness that Ms Hirsi Ali also shows she has been happy to exploit.