Somali activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali is both respected and despised, it just depends on who is doing the judging. Classical liberals make note of her audacity and intellectual rigor while the Islamic world accuses her of spreading hate and intolerance. Having personally suffered the wages of fundamentalism, she is quite willing to take on the costs that come with maintaining a critical and categorical worldview.
Her calm manner of speaking and neat appearance make the sarcasm she expresses herself with surprising, and her responses far from politically correct have a rare profoundness to them. Hirsi Ali’s personal story has been told in several autobiographical books: Infidel (2007), Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations (2010), and Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015), where she talks about her childhood in Africa and her subsequent escape to the Netherlands.
Currently, she is one of Islam’s foremost critics, condemning practices such as female genital mutilation, which was done to her at the tender age of five at the behest of her grandmother.
Almost 50 years ago, Ayaan was born into the “Darod” Islamic clan in Somalia. Her father was an important figure in the opposition to dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s government, which led to the family fleeing the country, first to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, and finally Kenya. Ayaan learned English in one of the schools she attended, which let her dive into Western thought, but in tandem, she went through an adolescent phase where she strictly adhered to the teachings of the Quran. During that time, she was sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and wore a hijab in accordance with Islam’s strict dress codes.
Facing a forced marriage with a distant cousin in Canada, Ayaan—then just 20-years old, took advantage of a layover in Germany and fled to the Netherlands, where she applied for political asylum. There she studied political science at the University of Leiden, and worked in translation and social work. Hirsi Ali left Islam behind her permanently, became an apostate, and started publishing tough-minded opinion columns that made references to her old religion—which earned her death threats.
She also got involved with the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, and was elected to parliament as a member of said party in January of 2003. The next year she worked with Theo van Gogh on a short film about the oppression of women under Islam. The film caused not just polemics and threats: Van Gogh was murdered that same year by an Islamic extremist—and a threat against Ayaan was carved into his body. From then on, the Islamic world considered her a public enemy, and ever since she has traveled with a professional security detail. In 2006, a Dutch official accused her of having obtained citizenship under false pretenses, which launched a media firestorm. In light of that, Hirsi Ali decided to resign from her position in parliament and move to the United States to work for the think-tank American Enterprise Institute.
She founded the AHA Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York dedicated to women’s rights. Today, she spends most of her time in California, where she lives with her husband, English historian Niall Ferguson, and their two children. She travels as well, giving talks and publishing articles, which are often the source of controversy. Ayaan Hirsi Ali goes all around the world with a pair of bodyguards, paid for out of her own pocket, but still broadcasts a courage that seems immune to any and every threat.
“#MeToo would be effective if it talked about the real suffering of normal women instead of worrying about the superficial formalities of how men and women relate to one another. How can you dictate from afar how a man and a woman interact? Every situation is different and unique and contextual.”
This past January she was in Chile, having been invited to give a talk organized by La Otra Mirada. Among other things, the ex-politician visited La Moneda Palace to meet with First Lady Cecilia Morel, and had breakfast with Richard Dawkins, scientist, noted evolutionary biologist, diehard enemy of all religions, and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. During the latter, Hirsi Ali, an atheist as well and a feminist too, discussed how political correctness and hypersensitivity—she used the term, “feely people”—are hindering the legitimate exchange of ideas with accusations of “racism”, “discrimination”, or, as in her case, “Islamophobia”. In contrast, Hirsi Ali, who is both passionate and placid, does not traffic in euphemisms.
Is there such a thing as “Islamic feminism” or is that combination of words a contradiction in terms?
Let’s start by asking ourselves the meaning of the word “feminism”. As I understand it, it’s the principle that men and women are equal before the law, and obviously that does not guarantee equality of outcomes, but it does mean equality of opportunities. You can be a Muslim man or woman and strive for gender equality, but if you adhere to Sharia, or Islamic law, there is an important contradiction. From my perspective, it’s feminism or Sharia.
Nevertheless, some Islamic feminists maintain that the idea of gender equality can be found within the Quran.
The Quran is very clear about this. If you read it—with your eyes wide open—in chapter four, verse 34, it plainly states that it is a man’s duty to earn a living and a woman’s duty to be totally submissive. “But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance—advise them; forsake them in bed; and, strike them.” Does that sound like belief in equality? When it comes to divorce, the Quran maintains that a man can divorce his wife just by saying so outloud three times, and he can have up to three wives. Meanwhile, for a woman to get a divorce she must take the matter to court and prove that her husband is impotent, infertile, or is not taking care of her. The testimony of a woman under oath has half the legal value as that of a man, and so on. The religious doctrine is very clear about women’s inferiority before the law. Now, if these women want to uphold the Quran as the book of their religion, and at the same time try and improve their standing in society, that is still a good thing. But from an academic perspective it is not accurate to say that the Quran protects women’s rights whatsoever.
In regards to the debates in Europe about religious liberty and the use of Islamic garments such as the burqa and the “burkini”, how can a respect for multiculturalism and human rights coexist?
I think that if you want to protect human rights, you cannot abide cultures and traditions that violate them. You have to think about the basis behind the practice. Consider the example of the burqa or “burkini”: if a man sees a female body, he might become aroused, lose control of himself, and attack the woman. So the only way to protect women is to cover them, not to cover the men, nor to teach them to behave and be civilized. In some extreme cases it’s not even enough to cover the women’s bodies, they must also be confined to their homes. If you think about it like that, I think that as a woman you should feel angry and offended. And you’re going to demand that it is men who should be educated and taught respect, and not women who should have their freedom of movement restricted. If the goal of feminism to to achieve gender equality, any norm that accommodates Sharia is not headed towards that goal. It’s a waste of time denying it, much better to contest it.
What do you think of those that maintain that this bleeding-heart feminism has been used to mask xenophobia and racism?
I’d don’t buy it. I’ve lived in Europe and I know people who say that they don’t want to see women become second-class citizens, and I believe them. In the Netherlands I saw teachers and social workers, who were in no way xenophobic, but who had to deal with the domestic violence coming out of Islamic homes. They had to tend to women who had been beaten by their husbands for having “Westernized” too much, and children who underwent severe punishments. I have also seen some girls pressure others into using a hijab, and adults whose job it is minimize those kinds of pressures get labeled xenophobic. That’s a twisting of reality and it is very unjust. I do not deny that xenophobia exists, but when you look at the places where the extreme right has grown, you notice that they are places where there’s no concern for the rights of Muslim women, or any women. They live in their own small and xenophobic worlds, and they don’t participate in that kind of debate, nor do they have anything to do with the case for gender equality.
You are a great defender of the values of Western Civilization. Why do you think there are so many young people, many of them born in Europe, who are willing to carry out terrorist attacks in the name of Allah? Where does that discontent come from?
I do not think those people are discontented, I think they have been indoctrinated. Europeans societies have let indoctrination flourish, such as in the case of Dawah, which is the proselytizing of Islam. People from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have been allowed to come in and set-up Islamic centers, schools, and madrasas. So then you have a subsequent generation that feels a bit disaffected, and they are manipulated and indoctrinated into rejecting Western values, and adopting Islamic ideals instead.
Does the success these extremist cells have had suggest that there must be some kind of societal crisis going on?
In an open society, it is understood that independent citizens can manage their own lives with minimal state intervention. Some immigrants, or their children, are a large part of those who don’t finish school. If you quit school it’s going to be hard to find and keep a job, so many young people in Europe don’t feel that they belong to the societies their parents fled, but they also don’t feel that they are a part of the societies they live in, due to socio-cultural factors. So these Islamic fundamentalists show up and give the young these terrible ideas. That’s the situation in France, Germany, the Low Countries, and Sweden, where there are entire communities that are physically in the country, but for all intents and purposes, their minds and their beliefs are somewhere else.
That’s how it is. That was the case with the November 2015 Paris attacks, which left 130 people dead. When the perpetrators of the attack were identified, each fit the profile of individuals who have been born and raised in Europe, didn’t finish school, felt that they didn’t belong, and who, one way or another, were found by Islamic radicals, or vice versa. So they started wanting to kill members of their own society. Europe is still trying to fight against this reality, but there is a taboo.
This fight is not just a matter for the police, but is a question of education as well, right?
Exactly. Governments handle it like a security issue, something to be dealt with through police, guardsmen, and vigilance. But that’s reactive, and the idea is how to stop these kids and teenagers from getting indoctrinated.
The Contemporary Islamic World
Do you feel offended when you’re dubbed an “Islamophobe”?
No, because I completely understand its intent: “We want you to stop criticizing Islam, and to that end, we’ll make it so that people who hear you think of you as an extremist.” A “phobia” is an irrational fear, ergo, a message derived from a phobia must be irrational. The message is: “Either stop delivering the message, or people will stop listening, or both.” It hasn’t worked with me, but it has with others, it has silenced critics, it has served to invalidate them, or to take away their audience.
How do you grapple with your past? Do you still practice any of your family’s teachings?
Yes, a few. I’ve lived in the West since 1992, but I grew up in a culture where you obeyed and respected your elders unquestioningly. I still value that. For example, I listen to my mother-in-law, and not because I don’t have a choice in the matter, but because I value her experience. I respect my elders.
Islam, in addition to being a religion, is a political ideology. You’ve asserted as much innumerable times. Could the reforms you suggest be carried out in the political realm without imposing upon the religious realm?
The word “Islam” literally means “submission”. You can submit to the will of Allah religiously, which is what Muhammad sought by praying five times a day and the various rituals that any religion might have. But there’s a political side, which is a philosophy and a theoretical framework that covers how societies should be structured—and I oppose that, I oppose Islamic Law. In the here and now, that’s the status of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and to a less extent, Pakistan.
Where people are judged not just for their crimes, but for their sins as well.
Exactly, they’re theocracies. I think it’s hard for people to understand that just as we would never tolerate a theocracy established in the name of Christianity, we should never tolerate theocracies that violate human rights and liberties in the name of Islam.
All the same, you’re optimistic about the possibility of reform. Do you think it’s possible to separate political power from religion?
Since I believe that religions are created by humans, I think that if you can conceive of something, you should also be able to modify and update it. There are Muslims who want to preserve religious aspects of Islam because they find them useful in their quest for spiritual meaning, but in a political setting, it’s necessary to keep in mind the historical context, and everything that does not apply to our contemporary way of life. I’m optimistic about there being more reform-minded Muslims today than there were ten years ago.
And in fifty years?
I don’t know, but let me say that within Islam there are many differences of opinion and tensions. There are those who want to modernize Islam in order to make it a more human and tolerant religion, and one that’s friendlier to women. But there are also Muslims in Medina who want to go back to the 7th century, such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other radicalized groups. In this battle there are governments like that of Saudi Arabia, that try to institute some changes, but are ultimately stuck at certain point in history.
There are 1.5 billion Muslims that five times a day stop to pray in the direction of Mecca, that’s how powerful Saudi Arabia is. As such, if they change, it would have an enormous impact on the rest of the Islamic world. They have dedicated so much money to funding and promoting radical groups that if they just stopped that subsidization, that alone would represent a serious change. They have kept their women subjugated since time immemorial, and if they freed them, that too would be a very substantive change. You put all that together and you wonder, “What are the Saudis doing right now?” You see a young prince with popular support who is introducing modernizations, such as letting women work and drive, and allowing foreign investments to reach the country. If that carries the day, in a perfect world, I think that in 50 years things will be a lot better in the Muslim world.
How strong is the trend towards greater openness?
In Indonesia, which is the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, there are internal debates about all of this, and I think that the side that is for modernization is stronger. Indonesian society—though not the government—does not feel represented by Islamic law. They say, “We’re not like that”. I see positive changes from that end. But there are still countries such as Saudi Arabia that have entire regions under the yoke of Sharia Law, where homosexuals are killed and women accused of infidelity are stoned to death.
Iran is another very interesting country. The government is an Islamic Republic, but the majority of the country does not want to submit to Sharia. They are Muslims in the more spiritual sense. There has also been an economic downturn there; when President Obama made the Iran deal, the economy got better, but now with the new geopolitical order, and the termination of that deal, the money is running out and opposition is rising. I’m not sure what would be better, and I don’t want to inject myself into internal politics, but the people of Iran reject Sharia Law, they have lived under it since 1979, and they do not like it.
Red Carpet Feminism
You have strong opinions when it comes to immigration, and you have said that sometimes different values cannot coexist. Now that you live in the United States, what position do you take relative to the immigration policies of Donald Trump?
First, let’s talk about immigration on its own, about people who come from poor countries. I think the immigration debate we have now, is basically about poor countries—both in the United States and here in Chile. It’s not about who is president, but about the huge number of people trying to come into, and get set-up in, another country. If computer engineers from India reach the United States to work on software, that doesn’t generate any controversy.
But when it’s a lot of people who come from a poor country and they impose upon the education system, the healthcare system, transform neighborhoods, and sometimes, not always but sometimes, a certain number of immigrants deal drugs and practice human trafficking—that creates big problems. From my point of view, the debate about immigration in the United States was sane, because it’s a society that sees itself as a nation of immigrants, so there wasn’t a problem. But now there’s a totally unproductive discussion and that saddens me. I look to Europe too and think that this is one of the biggest question of the 21st century.
“In Asia, modern technology is used to determine the sex of babies in gestation, and the females are aborted. So it’s a matter of life and death. There is still forced marriage, genital mutilation, child marriage, and human suffering in Muslim countries. Shouldn’t feminism be worried about that?”
Here in Chile, it has been debated whether immigration is a human right.
I think we have to limit human rights to what they already are, the more we expand the concept, the more it will lose meaning. If we look at the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I think we have to stick to that, because when we make everything into a human right, we make it so that nothing is a human right.
Last year the #MeToo movement changed what we consider appropriate when it comes to the treatment of women. Some of these changes can be criticized, as French feminists have done, but at the same time, there is no explicit criticism of the treatment of women in Muslim and east Asian countries. Do you think this is a kind of frivolous, or “red carpet” feminism?
(laughs) “Red carpet feminism”, I like the concept. Absolutely. I don’t think #MeToo was caused by any profound reflection on the lived experience of the lives of everyday women. For example, in the United States, there was concern over the nomination of a judge. The #MeToo people and some feminists attacked this man over something he did in high school, but every day there are young teenagers being raped in schools, along with plenty of other atrocities. There was a story in the Washington Post that talked about a young woman in Texas: she knew who her attackers were, she reported them, there was evidence against them, and still nothing happened. For me, #MeToo would be effective if it talked about the real suffering of normal women instead of worrying about the superficial formalities of how men and women relate to one another. How can you dictate from afar how a man and a woman interact? Every situation is different and unique and contextual. I think #MeToo started as a legitimate whistleblow about how men behave at work, and it became something that is no longer about women.
For you, what would a truly dedicated feminism look like?
We need to talk about what other cultures do to women. In Asia, modern technology is used to determine the sex of babies in gestation, and the females are aborted. So it’s a matter of life and death. There is still forced marriage, genital mutilation, child marriage, and human suffering in Muslim countries. Shouldn’t feminism be worried about that? It like how during the French Revolution Marie Antoinette suggested that those without bread should eat cake. That’s what #MeToo does. It’s so red carpet!