Infidel: The Story of My Enlightenment by Ayaan Hirsi Ali Free Press, HK$187 Ayaan Hirsi Ali's memoir, Infidel, is, in every respect, as much a biography as it is an extended commentary on what she regards as the inevitable clash of Islamic and western values. It traces Hirsi Ali's journey from her beginnings as a near-destitute Somalian girl to her time as a member of the Dutch parliament (a remarkable story in its own right), but also from a young woman whose life's ambition was to become a baari or obedient wife, to a public figure and intellectual who made her name as one of the world's most pointed critics of Islamic culture and an advocate for Muslim women's rights. Infidel begins in the capital Mogadishu where Hirsi Ali was born the daughter of a revolutionary politician who sought to overthrow the government of Siad Barre, the dictator who was to rule Somalia for 22 years. From the outset it's clear that Hirsi Ali's memoir is intended to foreshadow her ultimate rejection of the Islamic faith. With an unremitting sense of detail she chronicles her upbringing - from her gruesome experience of circumcision to her grandmother's teachings on the nobility and necessity of female servitude - which fuelled her criticisms of Islamic culture. But this memoir is more than a catalogue of grievances deftly interwoven into the story of Hirsi Ali's own life, and it makes for a suspenseful tale. Her father's revolutionary activities prompted the family to move to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and later Kenya, where the author's internal struggle with Islam intensified as she considered the hypocrisy of the treatment of women in Islamic societies after a brief flirtation with the global Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Forced into an unwanted marriage to a distant Canadian cousin, Hirsi Ali's anger transformed into rebellion as she deserted her family by claiming asylum in the Netherlands en route to her new husband's home, fabricating details on her application in the process. Overcome with admiration for a western government committed to previously alien concepts such as the rule of law and the welfare state, Hirsi Ali's conversion was complete when she finally repudiated Islam, viewing it as little more than a convenient structure for oppressing women. Her views led to an unlikely career in Dutch politics. She was successfully elected to federal parliament on a platform of immigration reform and raising awareness of the plight of women in the Netherlands' sizeable migrant community. As a parliamentarian she became an object of international fascination and gained access to an audience that was widely receptive to her criticisms, which were becoming steadily more pointed - in one of the first interviews published after she took office she called the Prophet Mohammed a pervert. It was also as a parliamentarian that Hirsi Ali found a willing collaborator in Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. She worked with him on the film Submission, about the subordinate role of women in Muslim communities, for which van Gogh was brutally murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamic fanatic. The murderer left a note at the scene of the crime - pinned through van Gogh's chest - warning Hirsi Ali that she was the next target. Hirsi Ali spent months in hiding only to re-emerge to the news that she was to be expelled from parliament (and very nearly the Netherlands) for lying on her application for refugee status. Infidel is a powerful contribution to the debate on the status of women within Islam. Hirsi Ali's understated description of her own subjugation interspersed with her critique of Islam will undoubtedly cement her status as the west's boldest and most popular critic of the culture. What Infidel fails to do is convincingly make the association between Islam and female subordination: is Islam alone to blame for so many of the oppressive traditions such as genital mutilation, domestic violence and the litany of other abusive practices Hirsi Ali criticises? None is endorsed by the Koran (their Islamic proponents typically draw their authority from 'hadith' or less authoritative interpretations of the Prophet's teachings) and all have a long history of tribal practice that predates Islamic influence. The western societies Hirsi Ali idealises were also founded on religious teachings that could be interpreted as mandates for oppressing women. (After all, St Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church's greatest theologian, described women as 'defective and misbegotten'.) What is it, then, that makes Islamic society so different?