The courageous, Somali-born exile has rattled the Western liberal elite through her criticism of Islam, her former faith
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is celebrated in many circles for her bravery, her incisive mind, her powers of expression, her determination and her extraordinary personal journey. Her acute sense of humour and her great sensitivity are attributes that have helped her to assimilate so successfully into a range of different situations and to deal with formidable difficulties she has met with on the way. The intellectual and physical courage she has shown in advancing the position of Muslim women in the West have made her into one of the most remarkable “public intellectuals” of our time: much quoted and admired but also much vilified.
Hers is the ultimate modern fairytale. Rags to riches are small beer compared to her leap “from desert to doyenne”. She came from the Somali desert to the US speaking circuit, via refugee safe houses in Kenya, immigration centres in Rotterdam and the women’s groups of Amsterdam for which she worked as a translator. She has been a refugee twice, the first time from Somalia and the second when she fled an arranged marriage imposed on her by her father and headed for Holland.
Her experiences and her reading led her to draw inferences about the political and intellectual stalemate in the Muslim world, which stirred up a wide-ranging debate in Holland and beyond about integration, immigration and Islam. She became a Dutch MP and made a controversial film, Submission, which led to the murder of her collaborator, Theo Van Gogh, in an Amsterdam street.
In some senses, she is the ultimate refugee, whose life has criss-crossed the larger ideological currents of our time. After fleeing communism, an arranged marriage and Islam, she has now left Holland and the multicultural mindset that made her life so controversial, precipitating the collapse of the Dutch government in 2006. Rita Verdonk, the Dutch immigration minister, had impulsively withdrawn her passport after watching a misleading documentary, which erroneously claimed Hirsi Ali had not admitted a lie on her original asylum application, thus precipitating a furore. Hirsi Ali had long ago decided that Dutch politics were too frustrating an arena in which to carry on her battle. Those who meet her are startled to find a kind, self-effacing and amusing person behind these high dramas.
However, Hirsi Ali has many influential and trenchant detractors. Among those who most need her, her voice goes largely unheard. This is partly because her message is dismissed before it even reaches them, distorted as it is through a barrage of opprobrium that is influenced by the belief that to criticise Islam is to criticise the oppressed. It is not just conservative Muslims who have been appalled by her criticism of Islam – she claims that it is the creed itself, not simply the extremist version, which is responsible for many of the problems in the Islamic world. It is also the Western liberal elite that is rattled by her argument.
While Hirsi Ali knew that she would face furious Muslim opposition once she came out openly as an atheist and critic of her former faith, she has been more surprised by liberals’ unease at her views. The commentator Ian Buruma, for example, disparaged her because she had no apparent following among Muslim women and because her unswerving determination reminded him of Margaret Thatcher. Others think that she is too provocative in sensitive times and that to criticise Islam in the way she does may act as a “recruiting sergeant” for extremists. Some of her remarks about the imposition of Islamic doctrine draw sharp intakes of breath among otherwise inquisitive listeners on university campuses. The truth is that Hirsi Ali provokes these reactions because what she says has become unsayable.
We have, in some ways, already caved in to terror because we are anxious about what extremists may say or do in response. The internal and frank discussion that Muslims may seek is thus stifled at the very outset. If the Home Secretary can ban Geert Wilders from Britain because of a film he made that claims Islam is violent, does it not follow she will decide to ban other critics of Islam on the grounds that they will upset the conservative Muslim majority?
It is clear that there are many Muslim women who do support Hirsi Ali and who have read her books and heaped praise on her for daring to speak as she has. So many experiences she wrote about echoed theirs. One wrote, “Reading your book, it felt good to know that…I was not alone in this type of mental torment.” Knowing that they would be killed or cast out by their families were they to talk as she does, they ask for absolute anonymity, but they applaud her for speaking out.
She met some Somali women in London recently who were amazed that she was not the incendiary, angry provocateur they had been anticipating. That Muslim women do not openly champion her is an indication merely of how those oppressed by the “oppressed” find it difficult to speak. This is a state of affairs for which the liberal retreat from supporting open, sincere debate within Islam bears some blame.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s fearless inquiry is the hallmark of a spirit that should not be underestimated in an age that desperately needs her.