The Strange Journey of Ayaan Hirsi Ali: From Devout Muslim to Outspoken "Feminist" Critic of Islam

The former "liberal" who becomes an outspoken right-winger has become an American political archetype. Ronald Reagan and David Horowiz are two prime examples of the breed.

They use the rhetorical tool of claiming to be just as caring and compassionate as their previous political incarnation, but the left's irrationality and hatred of (you pick it) the West, America, Christianity, capitalism, etc. caused them to wake up one morning and see the light. And having transformed from lefty caterpillar into a right-leaning butterfly, they present themselves as qualified to comment on liberalism's moral and intellectual failures.

Recently, a related version of this turncoat persona -- former Dutch Member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- has emerged: a "reformed" Muslim woman who favors crushing Islam under the boot of Western militarism. Once very devout in her Muslim beliefs, Ali has gained a great deal of media attention -- including horrific tales of her abuse at the hands of Muslim men -- and has transformed into an outspoken critic who bases her calls for the destruction of Islam on feminist and human rights principles.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a proud Somali woman raised in a devout Muslim family. She is poised to become the most recognizable face of naked Islamophobia in America. Expect to see her as a ubiquitous guest on cable news channels and frequent contributor of op-eds reinforcing the worst stereotypes about the Muslim world. She'll validate already disturbingly common narratives about the perfidy of Islam, and she'll tout the vast superiority of Western thinking in stark terms that would be shocking coming from a more traditional (read: white, Christian) right-wing commentator.

It's a criticism of Islam, coming from the left, which has the potential to unite the Islamophobic right with an increasingly vocal secular movement. It also provides cover for extremist views, bringing hateful rhetoric that's typically been confined to the margins into the mainstream and broadening the already frighteningly large constituency that exists in the U.S. for a series of "preventive" wars in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere.

She has been called an "enlightenment fundamentalist" in Europe and is a hated apostate in much of the Muslim world. She lives under a flurry of death threats and needs round-the-clock security.

Because she's an intelligent and articulate woman who has suffered horrific abuses in a Muslim family, her generalizations about the entire Islalmic world are imbued with an unwarranted authority. There's a real danger that people like Hirsi Ali -- the tiny percentage of the Muslim world who believe that Islam really is "the problem" will skew the debate about U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

Thank God for the Enlightenment

Hirsi Ali has become a darling of those who believe in the benevolence of Western hegemony; The Economist described her as a "cultural ideologue of the new right." But she's more than that; Hirsi Ali occupies a unique space in the political landscape. Her outspoken advocacy on feminist ethical issues -- roundly condemning "honor killings" and female circumcision -- has also made her a poster-girl for the aggressive brand of atheism typified by figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, all three of whom have held her life-story up as an example of the harms caused by religion in general, and Islam in particular. For them, she's a living testament to the idea that rational liberal interventionists in the post-Enlightenment West have a moral duty to wage a new crusade against the Muslim world. Harris and Salman Rushdie penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling Hirsi Ali a "unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists."

Neely Tucker wrote in the Washington Post that "Neoconservative, middle-aged white men … tend to swoon when she walks into the room." Hirsi Ali is indeed charming and articulate, possessed of a rare intelligence and gifted with exceptional language and political skills. But she's also an extremist, by any measure. She goes beyond others who embrace the idea of a "Clash of Civilizations" -- people like Tony Blankley and Michael Ledeen -- in her insistence that all of Islam is extreme. "There is no moderate Islam," she told Reason. There can only be peace between East and West, she said, "if Islam is defeated." When asked if she meant radical Islam, she replied: "No. Islam, period. Once it's defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It's very difficult to even talk about peace now. They're not interested in peace."

She calls the religion, with 1.3 billion adherents worldwide, a "death cult."

That's a popular claim in the post-9/11 era, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is no doubt set for life. Her long journey has taken her from Africa to Europe and now, finally, to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (she's currently working out of Holland because the Dutch government refused to pay for her body-guards in DC). As long as the concept of a broken and dysfunctional Muslim world is used to justify Western militarism in the Middle East and Central Asia, Hirsi Ali will have a cushy sinecure somewhere within the right-wing media establishment, ready to be rolled out as exhibit A in the case against whatever country is that day's enemy-du-jour and, perhaps more importantly, against anyone who views the Muslim world as anything other than a uniform bunch of blood-thirsty maniacs.

While Hirsi Ali is loved by some and loathed by others, what gets lost is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is as genuine in her beliefs as she is wrong on the facts. She suffered a cruel upbringing in a stringent Muslim household -- she describes the horrors of undergoing female genital mutilation at age five and claims she was forced into an arranged marriage in her teens (a claim her family and former husband dispute), so the issue is not whether she is sincere, but whether the victim of an abusive childhood should be viewed as an impartial and credible analyst. It's the equivalent of a Catholic choirboy who, having been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of pedophile priests, is asked for an impartial view of the church. That would never happen, but Hirsi Ali will be called upon to explain the dangers of Islam to an eager West as if she's a knowledgeable but detached observer. That's problematic in that she's a woman whose views are colored by an upbringing that is: A) anything but universal within Islam and B) in no way exclusive to that culture.

Who is Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a household name in Europe. Her story would seem far-fetched if it were fiction. Born in Somalia to a critic of the dictatorship of Siad Barré, her family fled when she was six -- first to Saudi Arabia and then to Ethiopia before finally settling in Kenya. There she attended a Saudi-funded religious school and was, in her words, "indoctrinated" into a traditionalist form of Islam. She recalls that she wore a hijab, supported the fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and had a knee-jerk hatred of Jews. Until, that is, she started reading Nancy Drew mysteries. Fascinated by a female character who operated freely in society, Hirsi Ali would later say that the stories played a major role in changing her attitudes towards the West.

From there, things get a bit sketchy. According to Ali, she was forced into a marriage with a distant cousin and was so repelled by the idea of having to submit to him sexually that she bolted for Europe, ultimately settling in Holland. The circumstances surrounding her application for asylum would become a controversy that would later bring down the Dutch government.

After arriving in Europe it was menial work for Hirsi Ali at first. She worked her way through college in the Netherlands, ending up with a master's in political science and a position with a think-tank linked to the center-left Dutch Labor Party. Hirsi Ali became a favorite in the European press, commenting on the nature of Islam and getting deeply involved in the Holland's immigration debates.

Like the right-wingers who lionize her, "everything changed" for Hirsi Ali on 9/11. The following year, she renounced Islam and became an aggressively outspoken atheist. A number of controversial statements about Islam, immigrants and multiculturalism put her on the outs with her party, and she was asked to jump to the right-wing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and run for Parliament. She won a seat, becoming the immigrant voice of a tough-on-immigration party.

In 2003, a discrimination complaint was filed against her (but not pursued) for saying that the prophet Muhammed was a pedophile. She had arrived. But it would be a film, and a brutal murder that followed its release, that would make Hirsi Ali one of the most recognizable personalities on the European political scene.

The film, written by Hirsi Ali, was Submission, an amateurish and clunky art flick whose attack on Islamic culture was overarching and anything but subtle. Like the Danish cartoons that would cause such controversy a few years later, the film, directed by Theo Van Gogh -- a distant relative of Vincent -- was an intentional provocation. Van Gogh was a close associate of Pym Fortuyn, a rabidly anti-immigrant right-wing politician who would later be assassinated by an animal rights fanatic, and his constant references to Muslims as "goat fuckers" had already outraged the Muslim community. In 2004, Van Gogh was riding his bicycle in Amsterdam when Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-born extremist of North-African descent slashed his throat and shot him eight times. A note addressed to Hirsi Ali was found on the body, and she went into hiding soon after.

She became a well-known and fiery critic of Islam, immigration policy, liberalism and the multiculturalism so integral to Dutch society. Hirsi Ali's transformation came at an opportune time; in the post-9/11 climate, the European Right has undergone a revival, and ideas that were once relegated to the fringe of European discourse -- the same ideas of cultural superiority and white supremacy that had fueled the continent's bloody colonial period and the rise of fascism in the early 20th century -- were coming to the fore once again.

Hirsi Ali was saying exactly what they wanted to hear. But the mis-matched pairing would not last; she was ousted by the VDD when it was revealed that she had lied on her application for asylum. Hirsi Ali hadn't come from refugee camps on the Somali border as she had claimed, but from Kenya, a country that was safe and stable and whose residents weren't eligible for asylum under Dutch law. She had lied about her age, her name and questions were raised about her motivations for leaving. Her family and husband denied that hers had been a forced marriage. Despite the fact that Hirsi Ali had come clean about all of those issues previously and they were considered to be matters of public knowledge, she was a member of a party that ran on a hard-line approach to immigration and called for sharp limits on asylum-seekers, and the contradiction became too great. She was forced to step down and her citizenship was temporarily revoked (but later restored by an act of Parliament). It was then that she headed for Washington and the American Enterprise Institute.

Entitled to her opinion, but wrong on the facts

Hirsi Ali's arguments about Islam and the West are essentialist in nature, and like all essentialist arguments, they're ahistorical and lacking in context. For her, Islamic radicals truly do "hate us for our freedom." She minimizes or denies the existence of the political, cultural, economic or other factors that fuel various conflicts in the Muslim world - for her, they all arise from Islam's demand that its followers yield themselves unquestioningly to its teachings. This, Hirsi Ali argues, separates it from other Abrahamic religions, and renders the Islamic world especially ripe for totalitarian systems of governance.

That narrative, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes her such a star in hawkish circles in Europe and the U.S.: Hirsi Ali consistently validates the inherent superiority of the West, morally and otherwise, and the perfidy of Islam, and for her, this dichotomy provides the analytic framework for much of what's going on in the world. Of the World Trade Center attacks, she told the Washington Post, "This was not just Islam, this was the core of Islam . . . [this was] not frustration, poverty, colonialism, or Israel: it was about religious belief, a one way ticket to Heaven." She says Islam is too "backward" to be "compatible with democracy."

On a fundamental level, these claims confuse correlation with causality. There is no doubt that many (but not all) predominantly Muslim countries have serious political and social problems, but there's no evidence of a direct relationship between those problems and Islam. The plain fact is that much of the Islamic world is plagued by poor governance -- little or no democracy, insufficient respect for human rights and the rule of law, and a failure of governments to address the needs of their citizens -- and those issues are in no way limited to the Islamic world. In fact, there are no problems in the Muslim world that are not also common in countries that are dominated by Christians, Hindus or any other religion and that share similar governance problems. That's especially true of countries with analogous political and economic circumstances. Across Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, countries that are not predominantly Muslim but which gained their independence from colonial rule in the last century and which rely on extractive industries (like many of the less functional states in the Middle East) face identical problems.

Speaking of terrorism specifically, research into what motivates suicide bombers shows that religion plays at most a minor role. The University of Chicago's Robert Pape studied every suicide attack committed world-wide over an almost 25-year period and concluded:


The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion…
Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.
Hirsi Ali also furthers the narrative of imminent threat -- the plainly ridiculous idea that the West -- dominant militarily, politically and economically -- is fighting for its very existence. She told the Evening Standard that in the UK, because of its liberal Western governance, "We risk a reverse takeover. In 50 years, a majority Muslim society could democratically vote for Sharia law, and then what you face is that Britain will slowly start to look like Saudi Arabia. Women will be veiled, driven away from the public sphere, polygamy will be rife." "Islam," she says, "is the new fascism. Just like Nazism started with Hitler's vision, the Islamic vision is a caliphate - a society ruled by Sharia law - in which women who have sex before marriage are stoned to death, homosexuals are beaten, and apostates like me are killed." The only reason Western liberals are blind to the danger, according to Hirsi Ali, is because they are too wracked by "white guilt" to see the situation clearly.

That Islamic fundamentalists threaten to expand their reach to the West -- to take over -- is a theme echoed throughout the eliminationist right, in books like Mark Steyn's America Alone, Norman Podhoretz' World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism and Tony Blankley's The West's Last Chance: Winning the Clash of Civilizations. It's impossible to overstate how divorced from reality the idea is -- Muslims represent 4 percent of the European population and in many countries remain a disenfranchised, poorly-integrated minority -- but it persists nonetheless.

Women in Islam

The influence Hirsi Ali and like-minded "women of Islam" are likely to have on the discourse over East/ West relations is profound, and a great deal of that arises from their personal testimonial to the repression millions of women face in the Islamic world. It's impossible to disagree with her call for the emancipation of women from subservience -- sexual and otherwise.

The power of this argument for Western feminists and others on the left is undeniable. But Hirsi Ali's focus (at least publicly) is not about the plight of women; it's specifically on the plight of women in Islam, and here, again, the implication at least is that women don't face identical abuses in other cultures. The research shows that to be false; domestic violence by intimates is a phenomenon that cuts across all cultures and all socio-economic strata.

The role of women in Islamic societies is complex (and a fascinating topic for serious exploration), but unfortunately Western perceptions about the issue have only a tenuous connection with reality. Anne Mayer, a Wharton University legal scholar who's studied Western and Islamic law, wrote: "It is certainly a gross overgeneralization to say that an Islamic ethos correlates with a pattern of devaluing and mistreating women":
Western misunderstandings about the lives of women in the Muslim Middle East are legion. Westerners are still influenced by Orientalist stereotypes -- like harem-bound odalisques overseen by eunuchs who languidly await the summons of a lecherous Sheik. The assumption is made that a monolithic and exotic Islamic ethos pervades Muslim societies, shaping the attitudes of their inhabitants and setting them apart from the West.
So while we see an intense new interest in issues like "honor killings," on the Right these days, they are often discussed as distinct from similar acts of violence in the West. As Katha Pollitt put it, "the focus on Muslim women [on the Right] is entirely cynical--a clever quadruple play to simultaneously promote Euro-American cultural chauvinism, defuse antiwar sentiment, attack Middle Eastern studies departments as hotbeds of jihad and discredit American feminists as a bunch of princessy complainers."

The lack of seriousness in these circles is evident from the choice of issues that they ascribe to the Muslim world. Female genital mutilation, for example, is a custom practiced in sub-Saharan Africa and not in most of the Muslim world. In fact, it's practice predates Islam. The procedure, abhorrent to Western eyes, is practiced by Muslims, Christians and animists alike. A UN study on the practice concluded that "looking at religion independently, it is not possible to establish a general association" with the practice of female genital mutilation (PDF).

There's a similar picture with "honor killings." In 2000, the UN estimated that there were as many as 5,000 such murders worldwide; that same year 1,232 women were murdered by intimates in the U.S., a country with about one twentieth of the world's population. Honor killings are also committed by Christians (as reported here and here), but this fact is rarely pointed out in media accounts.

It's worth noting that Hirsi Ali's advocacy on the part of Muslim women appears to be far more welcome among conservative men in the West than it is by Muslim women themselves -- people one would assume would represent a natural audience for her views. The Washington Post's Neely Tucker wrote that "Muslim women of her complexion, whom she says she wants to rescue from Islamic oppression, tend to recoil" from her message. Neely quotes a report by Dutch author Ian Buruma about a screening of Submission for a group of abused Muslim women at a Dutch shelter:
When one of the women stressed her objections, Hirsi Ali dismissed her with a wave of her hand and, "So long, then."
"It was this wave, this gentle gesture of disdain, this almost aristocratic dismissal of a noisome inferior, that upset her critics more than anything," he writes.
In her review of Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin, Fareena Alam offered her take, from the perspective of a Muslim woman:
It's obviously what I've been waiting for all my life: a secular crusader - armed with Enlightenment philosophy, the stamp of the liberal establishment and the promise of sexual freedom - swooping into my harem and liberating me from my "ignorant", "uncritical", "dishonest" and "oppressed" Muslim existence. At least that is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks I've been waiting for. [The book claims to] unveil the sexual terrorism she says is inherent in Islam. In reality, it is a smash-and-grab aggregation of inconsistencies, platitudes and poor scholarship.
The Right's favorite liberal

Hirsi Ali claims that she, rather than her ostensibly more tolerant, multi-culturally-minded critics on the left, is the true liberal. She told New York Magazine, "I'm a liberal-not in the American sense, because Americans seem to refer to communists as liberals."

The political transformation that brought her from left to right is implied in her criticism of the West. It is the West's supposedly self-destructive tolerance of other, presumably inferior cultures that will ultimately spell its destruction unless hard-bitten anti-Muslim crusaders get their way. While she extolls the West's liberal values, it is those same values, according to Hirsi Ali, that puts Western Civilization in danger of being taken over by the hordes of fanatical Muslims who are just waiting for their opening. She told David Cohen that the "problem with liberals is that we believe other people are as reasonable and tolerant as we are":
How naive is the self-deception of the West to continue to talk of moderate Islam? We're trying to appease Islam, but we are headed for a terrible confrontation between fascist Islam and Right-wing fascists who will step in when liberals fail to do so.
On this issue, she's in perfect lock-step with the most hard-line of neoconservative thinkers. She told the New York Sun -- the house organ for the Jewish far-right -- that liberals "have lost the instinct to recognize that there can be such a thing as an enemy or a threat to freedom… [There is] a pacifist ideology that violence should never be used in any circumstances, and so we should talk and talk and talk." To Reason, she added: "I completely and utterly agree with John Bolton that talking to Iran is a sheer waste of time."

But her criticism goes beyond liberalism's supposed vulnerability to Muslim aggression; despite claiming a continuing affinity with the left, Hirsi Ali decries the welfare state and associates it directly with the Islamic 'menace' facing the West. "What we see in Europe," she says, "because of the welfare state, is government pretending to provide all sorts of services they shouldn't be providing." When asked why American Muslims appear to be better integrated than their European brethren, she replied: "America doesn't really have a welfare system. Mohammed Bouyeri had all day long to plot the murder of Theo van Gogh. American Muslims have to get a job."

Twisting the discourse

It's important to stress that Hirsi Ali and other Muslim women who have found a niche as vocal critics of Islam in the West -- people like Nonie Darwish, founder of "Arabs for Israel" -- have earned the right to their opinions by hard experience, and that while they may have significant incentives to share their views to the wider public, there's no reason to doubt that those views are heartfelt.

The problem is that while only a tiny minority of the Muslim world shares their opinions, they'll get an airing totally out of proportion to their prevalence. Hirsi Ali and others like her create an impression that there exists a significant sub-set of the Islamic community that shares her view that Islam is to blame for complex social and political problems, and that these people are waiting, helplessly, and looking to the West for rescue.

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