It’s been nearly a decade since Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali denounced her Muslim faith in the aftermath of 9/11 and began inflaming the Islamic world with her incendiary public condemnations of the religion, and especially its treatment of women.
Since then, the former Dutch Parliament member and current American Enterprise Institute scholar’s rhetoric hasn’t cooled. If anything, Hirsi Ali has thrown more verbal fuel on the fire. She’s written three books, as well as a screenplay for a controversial 2004 documentary, “Submission,” that resulted in the grisly murder of the film’s director by an Islamic extremist. In 2005, she was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Hirsi Ali has also established a nonprofit foundation called AHA (her initials, as well as representing the notion of an “a-ha!” moment) that is dedicated to helping young Muslim women flee from lives under strict Islamic rule. Meanwhile, she continues to crisscross the globe making high-profile — and lucrative — speeches denouncing Islam. She’s gained legions of fans and more than a few indignant, mainstream critics who accuse her of the very intolerance for which she condemns fundamental Islamists.
“She’s just another Muslim basher on the lecture circuit,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Washington Post in 2007.
Novelist and screenwriter Roger L. Simon has a different view, having praised her as “one of the great positive figures of our time, a modern Joan of Arc who surpasses the original Joan in a moral sense and is at least her equal in pure guts.”
The white-hot glare of the media spotlight and presumably the death threats (which she says she can’t discuss) have faded some since the publication of her New York Times-bestselling book “Infidel” in 2007. However, the feminist intellectual’s condemnation of Islam definitely has not.
A self-described liberal who has been a scholar at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington since 2007, Hirsi Ali continues to characterize Islam as a violent, misogynistic religion that leads to far more problems than solutions in Muslim societies.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Diplomat, Hirsi Ali — at turns defiant and light-hearted — discussed her controversial views on Islam and what drives her to deliver her blunt message even in the face of bodily harm and possible death.
“To me, the lesson is to stand up to people that threaten you and not to stop, because if you do, they win,” she explained. “Then, they threaten the next person and the next person, and you create a situation where tyrants rule. I hate that! I don’t want to live like that. I’d rather compromise my freedom by living with security than by living in fear.”
For many who follow the intersection of religion, politics and foreign affairs, Hirsi Ali’s story is familiar. Born in Somalia 40 years ago, she was subjected to the still-widespread practice of genital mutilation as a 5-year-old girl — a traumatic experience that she says left her unable to walk for two weeks. When she was 8, Hirsi Ali’s family moved to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and finally settled in Kenya. Throughout her teens and into her 20s, Hirsi Ali maintained a solid standing in the Muslim community, regularly wearing a traditional hijab head covering and subscribing to more conservative strains of the Islamic faith.
But her subservience was deeply tested in the early 1990s, when her family pushed her toward an arranged marriage with a cousin whom she has described as a “bigot” and an “idiot.” During a family-coordinated trip to meet the cousin in Canada, Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands during a stop in Germany. She sought — and quickly gained — political asylum in Holland in 1992.
Hirsi Ali never looked back. Instead, the intelligent and charismatic young woman got a job as a translator at a refugee center, earned a master’s degree in political science, and began to deeply question the tenets of her Islamic faith.
Then 9/11 happened. Hirsi Ali recalled watching young Moroccan boys in Holland celebrating the slaughter on television. She decided then that she would turn her back on the religion forever. Hirsi Ali said she was also disillusioned that the very liberal society that had accepted her seemed blind to the fact that radicals were in their midst.
“Those young people were cheering because no one in that society had any idea they were infiltrated by radical Islamists who taught them it is righteous to kill an infidel,” she said.
Hirsi Ali got herself elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003 under the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and served for three years, using her political platform to highlight what she described as injustices and travesties perpetrated by the Muslim faith. She also condemned Holland’s permissive immigration policies, despite being a beneficiary of that permissiveness herself. At the end of 2005, having decided she would not stand for re-election, Hirsi Ali said she started “shopping around” for jobs, making extra effort for a position in the United States. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) responded immediately.
Even though she supports abortion rights, gay marriage and relaxed drug laws, Hirsi Ali said she’s encountered no friction at the conservative think tank.
“They love variety,” she said. “They told me that AEI is not a church. They don’t expect you to believe what everybody else believes and nobody believes the same thing. They want you to generate a debate that is current and related to American policy.”
Hirsi Ali has certainly delivered on that count. Her lectures provoke debate — and protest — wherever she goes and her op-eds in support of women’s right while blasting Islam continue to be published in the nation’s leading newspapers. She’s also waded into the debate over the revolution brewing in Egypt, advocating for a strict separation between religion and government as democracy tries to take hold in the Arab nation.
Her Feb. 3 op-ed in the New York Times titled “Get Ready for the Muslim Brotherhood” warns that the Islamic-based group — of which Hirsi Ali said she was a member in 1985 as a teenager in Kenya — will most likely win if democratic elections are held in Egypt.
“For Egypt and other Arab nations to escape the tragedy of either tyranny or Shariah [Islamic law], there has to be a third way that separates religion from politics while establishing a representative government, the rule of law, and conditions friendly to trade, investment and employment,” she wrote.
In The Diplomat interview, she encouraged President Obama to commit to the democratic process in Egypt, even with the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could seize power. But she also said that is not inevitable if the United States and Europe help foster and finance an alternative coalition.
“It’s up to the Egyptian people and the secular movements to put together a coalition that will stand up to the Muslim Brotherhood,” she argued. “I believe they can, and I think that’s where the U.S. and Europe should help them establish institutions and give the resources and everything they need to stand up to the Brotherhood.”
She also says she’s frustrated by commentators who suggest Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak can only be replaced by a governmental version of Islam’s strict Sharia law.
“Liberal organizations should tell the people over and over again why Sharia law is wrong for them,” she said, citing Iran as an example.
“For the first time in history we have a country in Iran that elected Sharia in 1979, and in 2009 there was a big movement that said no to Sharia in Iran,” she argued. “They’ve lived it, they’ve experienced it and they don’t want it.
“The only problem I see is that if secular people in Egypt start an anti-Sharia campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to accuse them of being anti-Islamic,” she continued. “They really must come up with a campaign that says yes to Islam and no to Sharia. Basically that is the separation of religion and politics.”
Is that possible in a predominantly Muslim nation?
“How do we assume it is not possible?” Hirsi Ali asked, her voice rising. “Of course it is possible! We’re intelligent people.”
Shifting to another subject recently in the news, Hirsi Ali explained why she made the decision in January not to proceed with a sequel to her inflammatory short documentary “Submission” — a film that focused on Islamic persecution of women and resulted in the murder of Dutch director Theo van Gogh in 2004 at the hands of a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim.
Hirsi Ali said she had hoped to do two sequels to “Submission,” one dealing with the Islamic treatment of homosexuals and another on religious minorities. She pulled the plug on both — at least for now – because she could not find a director who would agree to make the film anonymously. She added that the horror of van Gogh’s death (he was shot multiple times, nearly decapitated, and had a death threat to Hirsi Ali and others stabbed into his chest with a knife as the director left his home in Amsterdam) haunts her to this day.
“I feel guilty every time I think about it because I think if only I had been a little bit stronger and had put my foot down and insisted, ‘If you want to put your name on it, we’re not going to show it’,” she said. “I made a mistake. I can’t make that same mistake with other movie directors.”
Hirsi Ali explains that her opposition to Islam is not rooted in a belief that all women should completely renounce the religion — only the strict versions that leave them subjugated and uneducated.
“If you want to pray and fast and feel good about yourself and Islam is a source of spirituality, I don’t have any trouble with that,” she said. “But Islam as Sharia that dictates rules of how to live your life? No. If we emancipate Muslim women, and we complete their education, we allow them to choose their own mates with whom they want to share their lives, so that they have their sexual freedom and that they finish school, not just primary or secondary education, but take a vocation and finish so they are … employable, we wouldn’t have — we may have a small problem — but we wouldn’t have had as big a problem with Muslim immigrants [in Holland].”
Hirsi Ali said she was frustrated that liberal Dutch society, especially academics, didn’t see what she saw — an intolerant religion that encouraged violence at its fringes.
“You see that mostly in campuses, in the humanities,” she said of turning a blind eye to Islam’s less-tolerant tendencies. “People feel that all countries are the same and everything is interesting and enriching and nice and all religions are equal. That creates an environment where Muslim radicals like those in the Muslim Brotherhood can isolate young impressionable people and indoctrinate them with very empowering ideas. And the people in college who are the caretakers ignore this trend because they think, ‘Oh they are just experimenting and enriching.'”
In the United States, Hirsi Ali sees a distinct hypocrisy among liberal intellectuals who view conservative Christianity with open disdain — especially the religious right’s push for teaching creationism in schools — but then advocate for tolerance of Islam.
“Instead of creationism, talk to them about how Muslim Brotherhood members — radical Muslims — are establishing Muslim centers, Muslim schools, home schools, etc.,” she said. “From the liberal media all you see is excuses — they make excuses for this. They say, ‘It’s just their religion. We’ve got to respect their identity.’
“We never really talk about what if you are a Muslim child growing up in America and you’ve only been exposed to the ideas of the radicals. What is your life going to look like?”
Hirsi Ali said she would like to see Muslim schools banned because she believes they are breeding grounds for hate and violence.
“I think that Muslim schools are institutions of jihad,” she charged. “They are institutions of fascism. I think it is child abuse, and I think however much we want to feel good about our ourselves, we are not doing these young preschoolers, and elementary schoolers and secondary schoolers any favors.”
Of course, the notion of closing one variety of religious school and not others does not sit well with many in Western society.
“Every time I talk to politicians about Islamic schools, they say we can’t change them, it’s the law, we have a law and in our law we allow Christian schools and Jewish schools and therefore we have to allow Muslim schools,” she said. “But what if the Muslim school graduates turn out to be terrorists? No, it’s the Constitution, they say. Well, change the Constitution. We treat the Constitution like the Koran — as if you can’t change laws when you are confronted with new problems.”
Likening the U.S. Constitution to the Koran, however, is a bit of a stretch — as is the notion of changing it specifically to outlaw Muslim teachings in a nation founded on religious freedom and separation of church and state. Moreover, many experts argue that the general U.S. tolerance toward Muslims — compared to Europe, where anti-Muslim sentiment runs hotter — is why the majority of the population is for the most part integrated into mainstream U.S. society.
Hesham A. Hassaballa, a prominent American Muslim author and poet, thinks Hirsi Ali’s fervent opposition to Islam is misplaced.
“Ali is stinging and unrepentant in her criticism of what ails the Islamic world,” Hassaballa wrote in an essay posted on Beliefnet.com, a website devoted to spirituality. “Yet, she does not blame individual Muslims for this, but Islam itself.
“She is just the latest in a series of critics of Islam who generalize, stereotype, and mischaracterize the religion,” Hassaballa said.
Muslim feminist Asra Nomani, also a critic of Hirsi Ali, told Newsweek magazine: “I wish people had been nicer to her. But I don’t blame Islam. I blame really messed-up people who’ve used religion to justify their misogyny.”
Now an atheist, Hirsi Ali says she would like to see the more radical elements of Islam — those that would attempt to impose Sharia law on general societies — “defeated.” She is careful to clarify her position here.
“People should be allowed to pray — it is a source of spirituality,” she said. “It’s not my source of spirituality, but it provides a great deal of comfort to a great deal of people. But the boundary should be no harm to others. But in the political dimension of Islam — and I emphasize jihad, Sharia, caliphate — you see that impinges upon the freedom of other people. It’s destructive and it’s aggressive. It’s as simple as that.”
Frustrated by people who invoke God in arguments, Hirsi Ali called religion a “conversation killer.”
“I don’t know how you can argue with God — this invisible force out there who is supposed to be very powerful but who gets everything wrong,” she said, laughing.
These days, Hirsi Ali spends her time lecturing and nurturing her fledgling nonprofit, the AHA Foundation.
“We protect the rights of women from militant Islam and tribal customs,” she explained. “What we do is inform and create awareness. We have established a network of families and other communities where girls who run away from oppression can hide and they can be nurtured and supported.”
Hirsi Ali believes diplomacy is an important element in helping to moderate Islam.
“Diplomacy can help, and diplomats by nature obviously speak to other countries,” she said. “It’s necessary to remind our Muslim counterparts — but also our Chinese counterparts, Indian counterparts — that if they just invest in women, in girls’ education, and the freedom of girls to work, they can help.
“Imagine your son being brought up by an illiterate mother. Wouldn’t you want an educated mother to teach your sons? I would just try to convince them to send girls to school and give them the freedom to be who they want to be.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.