Controversial Dutch Somali feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has sacrificed her life for the freedom to speak out. As a vehement critic of Islam, the religion she used to adhere to, Hirsi Ali provoked a storm of anger among Muslims around the world for her forthright views, including the claim that Islam is a “backward religion” and her open condemnation of the prophet Mohammed. In 2004 Hirsi Ali wrote the script for Submission, a ten minute film by Dutch director Theo Van Gogh which told the story of violence against women in Islamic society and how the Koran is used to justify it. As a result of the film’s broadcast on Dutch television, Van Gogh was brutally murdered and Hirsi Ali’s own life was under threat, forcing her to live under the constant protection of the Dutch security services. Since becoming a permanent resident of the United States, Hirsi Ali has been forced to personally finance her own protection.
Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia and raised a devout Muslim. In 1992, she was married off by her father in a ceremony which she refused to attend and fled to the Netherlands where she won asylum, and eventually citizenship. After earning a degree in political science she served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament for three years becoming an active critic of Islam, an advocate for women’s rights and a leader in the campaign to reform Islam. She was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2005 and last year she published her best-selling memoir Infidel.
Here, Hirsi Ali talks exclusively to Clutch about her life and gives us a unique insight in to what it’s like to swap one form of ‘prison’ – in her eyes, Islam – for another, enforced confinement.
Clutch: Why did you decide to become an atheist? Do you not think religion has any role to play in life / anything to offer?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Many people need religion, and I say that without any kind of condescension or scorn. I myself was once very religious. So I do understand the concept of religious belief. If it helps you to be a good person, and to develop ethical behavior and charity; if it gives comfort; then religion is good for you. If, however, religion is forced on others – including children – that, I believe, is wrong.
Clutch: As a self-confessed ex-Muslim do you find anything in the religion that’s worth holding on to?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Islam requires Muslims to perform acts of charity for others. It encourages hospitality, kindness, and good behavior towards the elderly, towards your parents, and to the vulnerable. But we don’t actually require Islam – or any other religion – to reach those conclusions.
Clutch: In your autobiography Infidel you say that having abandoned Islam you’ve “moved from the world of faith to the world of reason.” Are the two necessarily incompatible?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Reason, in the sense that I’m employing it, is the pure exercise of intellectual judgment to make clear and fair deductions from factual data. Religion is based on what is called a “leap of faith” – belief in the supernatural, rather than facts based on reality. Religion is the belief in the invisible. In that sense, the two are absolutely incompatible.
Clutch: Can feminism and Islam ever be reconciled?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: No. Feminism is based on the premise that men and women have equal rights. It assumes that women own their own sexuality and promotes equal pay for equal jobs. In Islam a woman’s husband has the right to beat her when she cannot beat him; she must be veiled and confined when he is not; her testimony worth half of a man’s; a man can he marry four wives but a woman must marry only one husband. Why should I inherit half what my brother does, and why do I need a male guardian, whom I must obey, from birth to death, if men don’t need a female guardian? Why do I not own my own body; and why does a man own my body as well as his own? Putting Islam and feminism in one basket and hoping they can somehow become compatible is like putting Mein Kampf and the American Constitution in a bowl, shoving it in the oven, and hoping it will somehow mesh into one harmonious pudding. It’s just not going to happen.
Clutch: What impact did 9/11 have on your thinking?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Before 9/11, I thought I was still a Muslim. I tried to ignore all the dissonance that I clearly sensed between Islam and modern life and values. 9/11 forced me to deal with my questions. Was 9/11 truly an expression of Islamic ideas? I found that it was. Could I then continue to think of myself as a Muslim? I could not. 9/11 was a terrible wakeup call for me, as for so many others.
Clutch: What’s your relationship with your family like?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I have, sadly, no relationship with my family.
Clutch: You seem to have swapped one ‘prison’ – Islam – for another – enforced isolation due to your speaking out. Has it been worth the sacrifice?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: My life under Islam can in no way be compared to the life I lead now. Living under protection, in Europe or America, is still a life of freedom. It’s not like spending life with a husband you haven’t chosen. It’s not like being a chattel, a kind of domestic animal – and a mindless one, because you are also, largely, deprived of education, as well as of choice.
Clutch: You’ve been accused of being deliberately provocative. How far is that statement true?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: It doesn’t take much to provoke the adherents of a religion that tolerates no criticism whatsoever. Everyone who believes in critical persuasion as a vehicle for change, and applies that to Islam, will by definition provoke.
Clutch: Your film Submission came at a time of increasing racial and religious tension in Holland. Did you consider the furore and political impact that the film would create while you were making it?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Yes I considered it. But Theo van Gogh and I gave priority to the women who were beaten, and veiled by force, and confined, and coerced into marriage, and the victims of incest who are then punished in the name of honor. We gave priority to the victims of Islam, over and above the sensibilities of Muslim fanatics.
Clutch: The assassination of your friend, the director Theo Van Gogh, was a cruel tragedy. At the time you were quoted as saying that you had no regrets about making the film. In hindsight, have your views on this changed?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I wish Theo were alive. In hindsight, I wish I had managed to persuade him to take his name off the film. But he didn’t want to hide his name. He felt proud of that film. I don’t regret making Submission. I think more films like Submission should be made.
Clutch: How do you reconcile the views of your party VVD on immigration with the fact that were it not for liberal immigration laws you wouldn’t have been granted asylum yourself?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I made a deal with the VVD. In politics, you cannot agree with everything about a political party. My priority was integration and the assimilation of women’s rights in the Muslim community. They respected my position as a minority member.
Clutch: What prompted you to formally enter politics (as an MP)? Is that the best way of effecting change?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: At that particular time, yes, I think it was. I was prompted to enter politics and campaign as a member of parliament by Neelie Kroes, who is now the European Community Commissioner for Competition, and the former deputy Prime Minister and VVD party leader, Gerrit Zalm. And they were right. In the three and a half years that I was in parliament, I think things really did change for Muslim women in Holland.
Clutch: You’ve been lauded for your courage and bravery. You continue to live under tight security. How much of an ‘ordinary’ life do you lead? What do you like to do on a day-to-day basis to relax?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I can’t talk too much about the details of my life, because that compromises my security. But I assure you that I lead a life as close to normal as possible. For relaxation, I read, I swim, I bask in the sun, I hang out with friends.
Clutch: What’s the purpose of the Foundation for Freedom of Expression? Why should people support it?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The purpose is to draw attention to the strategies employed by radical Islamists and moral relativists to silence people who criticize Islam. Anyone who knows that Islam is a dire threat to Western values — to women’s rights and gay rights, and the right to exercise one’s conscience and leave Islam if one wishes — should support the Foundation’s goals.
Clutch: How has life been for you in the United States?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I love America. I am a cheerleader for American values. There are flaws in this society, of course, but I cannot think of a society whose values are more humane or which is more free and more committed to life, to choice, to liberty.
Clutch: What are your plans for the future?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I intend to keep writing. I intend to keep speaking, and living, and laughing. I intend to lead a life as close to normal as possible.
Clutch: What does freedom mean to you?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Freedom is life. It’s choice. It’s choosing to shape your own life as you wish it, and bearing responsibility for the consequences.
Clutch: What would you like your legacy to be?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I would like my legacy to be “She who dared to ask questions”. She who dared to find out what lies beyond the Koran. I would like to inspire other Muslim men and women to ask the questions I have asked. Is the moral framework which Mohamed left for us worth following? I have my own answers to that, but I don’t presume to force them on others. I would just like them to ask the same questions.
Clutch: Any regrets?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: No. I am happy with my life. I regret that Theo died, but I don’t regret the choices I’ve made.
For more information on Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Infidel please visit www.ayaanhirsiali.org