Posts Tagged ‘Ayaan Hirsi Ali’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: she’s changed her tune.

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

“Not entirely free.” (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

I met Ayaan Hirsi Ali at an undisclosed time and place a few months ago. My first question to her:

In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered. A death threat targeting you was pinned to his chest with a knife. What is life like under a fatwa?

I’m surrounded by men who carry guns and who tell me where I may and may not go, and what I may and may not do. So I’m not entirely free. That’s all I can say, for security reasons.

I’d written about her before, here and here . She is an edgy and provocative thinker. Not everyone will agree with everything she says, but she’s one of the few original, out-of-the-box thinkers we have on a range of subjects. Moreover, she is perhaps the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa. She fiercely denounces forced marriage, genital mutilation, and honor killings – one of the strongest voices on these subjects anywhere. In the West, however, the controversial Somalian activist has often been attacked for her powerful criticisms of radical Islam and Sharia law.

As a girl, she survived genital mutilation. As a woman, she fled Africa and became a member of the Dutch Parliament. She collaborated with Theo van Gogh on his film Submission, which slammed the treatment of women in Islam and led to the filmmaker’s assassination and a fatwa against her. In 2014, after a campaign denouncing her, Brandeis University revoked its honorary degree and invitation to speak. Undeterred, she wrote the bestsellers Nomad, Infidel, Heretic and The Caged Virgin, and this year’s monograph The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It (Hoover Institution Press).

When I first heard her speak in Palo Alto seven years ago, she was militantly atheistic, and said Islamic violence was inextricable from Islam itself. She’s changed her tune. Or perhaps changed key. She is now calling for religious reform and has joined forces with like-minded Muslims. Her goal? “To change people’s minds.”

My interview with her is now up at Stanford Magazine here. An excerpt:

Are we in any sense winning “the war on terrorism”?
No, because we’re not fighting it. We don’t even recognize we’re fighting an ideological war. Partly it is the arrogance. We think of radical Islam more as a nuisance. “Oh, it’s Al-Qaeda. OK, we’ll send some guys, then, and some drones. Whatever.”

Remember him…Theo van Gogh

One chapter in Heretic suggests addressing jihadi terrorism with an information campaign such as the West deployed during the Cold War. Eminent intellectuals, including Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers and Jacques Maritain, supported the dissemination in Eastern Europe of more than 10 million books and magazines.
And we never said our system was a moral equivalent with the Soviet system. Nor did we pretend that capitalism was a sort of salvation, a counter-Utopia. It wasn’t. By the way, Bertrand Russell had been attracted to the idea of communism until he saw it in practice.

As you pointed out, that effort operated at a fraction of the trillions we’ve spent on foreign wars.
One MOAB — the mother of all bombs — what did it cost? If they would give that to those of us who want to fight this war of the minds, it would be way more effective. And it’s more humane. It’s moral. You’re not killing people. The goal is to change people’s minds.

To take the Cold War analogy all the way, you have to discuss the philosophical legacy of Mohammed. Like Marxism, it includes a political theory. When Marxism was applied in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, China, parts of Africa, it was manifest for all to see. However eloquent Mr. Marx was in his idea of justice and equality on the ground, it led to gulags.

When Islamic law is applied as a blueprint for society, what is the outcome? You couldn’t wish for a better demonstration of that blueprint than ISIS. It applied the very letter of the law. When you use the state as a tool to make this from top down, to create this ideal Utopia, it’s anything but Utopic.

Remember him, too. A thousand lashes for a blogger.

You say that we celebrated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Václav Havel — and so we should celebrate Islamic reformers. Can you tell us about one or two of them? Who are the Voltaires of Islam?
There’s one here in the United States. His name is Faisal Al Mutar, and he’s from Iraq. I’ve listened to him on American campuses. He’s compelling, logically consistent, persuasive, and very funny.

His organization, Ideas Beyond Borders, reaches out to change minds. I don’t know what the future holds for him, but hey, if you’re looking for compelling people who reach thousands, maybe millions, he’s determined to do that. I pick him because he speaks Arabic and he’s working from the United States of America.

There’s another name we shouldn’t forget: Raif Badawi, [we wrote about him here] a young Saudi national. He blogged about the injustices in Saudi Arabia: the abuse of power, the concentration of power in the hands of the clergy. He argued for more secularization. He was sentenced to a thousand lashes. Fifty have been administered. He is being tortured, and he is diabetic and in frail health. Publicity is keeping him alive. If there’s one thing I could ask Donald Trump, it would be to free that young man.

Read the whole thing here.

Top global thinkers read Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules — For Now … and an odd blunder

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Archaeologist Morris digs for the secrets of the ages

Foreign Policy has published its Second Annual Top 100 Global Thinkers List — “a unique portrait of 2010’s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them” — and there are inevitably some surprises.

The one that pleased us most is that nestled in Niall Ferguson‘s recommended reading list of three books (Ferguson comes in at #80) —  Ian Morris‘s Why the West Rules — For Now.  We’ve written about Morris, the man who knows everything, here and here.

Other names mentioned in these pages appear on the list — Christopher Hitchens, Liu Xiaobo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Clay Shirky, David GrossmanAyaan Hirsi Ali made the cut, and so, ironically, did the man who has derided her — Ian Buruma finishes the list at #100.  (Tariq Ramadan follows immediately after at #62).  But what’s curious about her blurb is this bizarre understatement:

“The first time you heard about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was likely the story of a brave Muslim woman fleeing her forced marriage in Somalia to become an outspoken critic of Islam. But her flight didn’t stop there; after more than a decade living in the Netherlands, she left Europe and its painful debates over assimilation for more comfortable ground: conservative America.”

Well, no.  Not quite.  They neglect to mention that she fled Holland because a fatwa called for her death, her colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered, and the Netherlands not only failed to protect her, but turned on her, questioning her immigration status. Big difference.

Why did no one at Foreign Policy flag this boo boo?  I guess all the copy editors have been laid off.

Fear: “A simple fact of modern life”

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Pankaj Mishra discusses Ayaan Hirshi Ali‘s Nomad along with Paul Berman‘s Flight of the Intellectuals in the current New Yorker here.   Mishra puts some valuable context and nuance on both books — and nails the authors when their passion outweighs their argument.  Useful, since relatively few of us in the West know the Islamic figures Berman cites.  But it seems to me Mishra elegantly sidesteps Berman’s more central point, that while intellectuals rushed to defend Salman Rushdie in 1989, regardless of their opinion of his fiction, those similarly threatened today are increasingly isolated: “How times have changed! The Rushdies of today find themselves under criticism … During the Rushdie affair, liberals who called for courage were applauded.  Liberals from Muslim backgrounds were positively celebrated.”  Elsewhere:

“And so, Salman Rushdie has metastisized into an entire social class. … who survive only because of bodyguards and police investigations and because of their own precautions. This is unprecedented in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis.  Fear — mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology — has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life.”

Meanwhile, I like the New Yorker cover.  Before I got to the Table of Contents and learned its title is “Five Weeks Later…” I was anticipating it would be called “A Jury of Peers.”  I still like my title better.

Postscript: Paul Berman on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa”

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I came late to the table on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so it was fascinating to read Paul Berman’s 50-page defense of the woman he calls “the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa” in The Flight of the Intellectuals, published last month.  He recounts the charges that she is “strident,” “disdainful,” and “aggressive” — what?  Is this the same warm and effervescent woman I saw speaking Tuesday night?

Berman’s words:

“The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented … A sustained attack in the intellectual world on a persecuted liberal dissident from Africa, a campaign in the press that has managed to push the question of women’s rights systematically to the side, a campaign that has veered more than once into personal cruelty, a soft vendetta, but a visible one, presided over by the normally cautious and sincerely liberal editors of one distinguished and admired journal after another, applauded and faithfully imitated by a variety of other writers and journalists, such that, in some circles, the sustained attack has come to be accepted as a conventional wisdom — no, this could not have happened in the past, except on the extreme right…

How did this happen?  The equanimity on the part of some well-known Western intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the inability even to acknowledge that women’s rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism …”

He also quotes Pascal Bruckner: “A culture of courage is perhaps what is most lacking among today’s directors of conscience.”

Perhaps a culture of interest, too.  Hirsi Ali’s Bay Area appearances went completely unnoticed by the media. No press coverage that I can find, other than this lone blogger.  (Haven’t given up yet.  I’ll keep looking.)

“Their honor is between my legs”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

“You all know me — but I don’t know you!” she almost squealed.  She might have won over the crowd in that moment on Tuesday night, had she not already held them in the palm of her hand.  Hard, in that instant, to see her as a  fierce, unflagging critic of radical Islam and the target of a fatwa.

The Palo Alto audience had just been asked how many had read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel.  Almost all the hands in the sold-out Cubberley Community Theatre shot up instantly.

I kept mine down. Two weeks ago I had posted the Guardian profile of the author on my Facebook page; I’d only heard the name a few times before.  The joy of blog reporting:  suddenly I found myself sitting within 15 feet of her.

“I love San Francisco!  I love the food, I love the people!” she cooed appealingly.

Let’s face it, it helps to be beautiful (Timothy Garton Ash was trashed for saying so), as well as incorrigibly likable:  The willowy Somalian with the unforgettable face was wearing a fashionable gray sweater and black slacks with trendy wedge-heeled sandals.  And Garton Ash was right to a point: beauty and appeal distorts our consideration of a woman who,  in this case, needs to be taken very seriously on her own terms.

“I wanted to write papers full of footnotes and statistics.  Nobody was interested,” she recalled.  People wanted to know instead how she made the break from her past; they wanted to know, in particular, about the family she described in Infidel. How is her mother? “I don’t know. She’s in Kenya.  Get lost!”… “I’d say shut up about my mother.  I’ve just written a paper!”

“They’re interested in experiences.  Most people in the United States and Europe have not had those experiences.”  So she shared her story instead.

And wow, what a backstory:  She survived genital mutilation, escaped an arranged marriage with a much-older man, became an MP in Holland, and collaborated with Theo van Gogh on his film, Submission, about the treatment of women in Islam.  Since his assassination (a letter addressed to her was pinned to his chest when he was stabbed), she has been accompanied by bodyguards to protect her from a fatwa.  She is the author of a New York Times bestseller, with a second memoir just published.  She has been championed by Paul Berman; she has debated Timothy Garton Ash.

When her moderator, Susanne Pari, author of 1997’s The Fortune Catcher, soft-balled her a question about “the patriarchy,” Hirsi Ali balked.  “I don’t know if you can call it a patriarchy,” she said, since the women “not only participate in it, but impose it.”  Her grandmother had insisted on Hirsi Ali’s genital mutilation; in honor killings and punishments, “the first stage is a sister, mother, mother-in-law. ‘She dropped her headscarf,’ ‘She’s wearing makeup,’ ‘She’s seeing so-and-so.'”

Boys are victimized, too:  they are taught that “the male individual is not to be soft but be hard … his honor is between my legs.”

When asked about recent U.S. compromises on female mutilation, Hirsi Ali refused to take the bait, preferring to go to root causes:  “It all comes back to honor” and  “the conviction that the girl has to be a virgin on her wedding night.”

She decried the Western focus on “poverty, poverty, poverty — let’s get rid of the poverty.”  Poverty, she said, “is only the outcome of these convictions.”

“It lets men off the hook.”  She favors a paradigm shift in the culture, allowing women to “own their sexuality,” and encouraging men to “want a fellow human being in a relationship.”

Pari brought up the case of Faisal Shahzad, an apparently assimilated Muslim who turned to jihad with the attempted Times Square bombing — but Hirsi interrupted her comments about the possible cause being his job loss.

“I have a problem with that,” she said.  If we even “remotely entertain” the notion that “foreclosure and health care and normal adversity is an excuse to take away the life of another,” then “we are really going down,” she said.

“He has a freaking MBA!” she exploded.  “I know people who can’t read!”  Hirsi Ali denied that “the only therapy is to get an SUV and fill it with explosives.” Nor did she excuse Nidal Malik Hasan, who “gets to be a major in a voluntary army.”

“Why don’t we take these people at their word?  Why don’t we examine their convictions?”

Pari noted that, in her Iran-American childhood, there was only one mosque in the nation, in Washington D.C., and now there are thousands (“1150,” corrected Hirsi Ali). She took Hirsi Ali, a fellow atheist, to task for Infidel’s conclusion that the love and tolerance exhibited in much of Christianity might be a force to subdue Islam. “I was very naughty!” Hirsi Ali admitted with a chuckle.

Pari said the author’s idea “was disturbing to me, frankly…What were you thinking?”

“The superficial answer is, if every Muslim became Christian, I would live without bodyguards,” Hirsi Ali replied.

“This is a really hard interview,” admitted Pari.

I, for one, would have liked a paper as much as the stories, if not more.  As a mother (and a daughter) reading some of the tales, I saw enough stock issues  of parent-child estrangement in the book  to wonder how much was culture clash and how much was the intergenerational conflict that takes place everywhere.

Leafing through her newest book, Nomad, I liked as much the bits of the book that were blistering polemic against misogyny – in short, a paper.  She exhorts wet-noodle Western feminists who “manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group’s culture,” where a dread of offending  overcomes compassion and justice:

There are 13.5 million women in Saudi Arabia.  Imagine what it’s like to be a woman there: you are essentially under permanent house arrest.

There are 34 million women in Iran.  Imagine being a woman there: you may be married legally when you are nine; on the order of a judge, you may be lashed 99 times with a whip for committing adultery; then, on the order of a second judge, you may be sentenced five months later to death by stoning.  This is what happened to Zoreh and Azar Kabiri-niat in Shahryar, Iran, in 2007; after being flogged for “illicit relations” they were then tried again and found guilty of “committing adultery while married.” The punishment they were to receive for adultery was death by stoning. Their sentence was recently confirmed, on appeal.

There are 82.5 million women in Pakistan.  Imagine being a girl there: you grow up knowing that if you dishonor your family, if you refuse to marry the man chosen for you, or if someone thinks you have a boyfriend, you are likely to be beaten, ostracized, and killed, probably by your father or brother, who has the support of your entire immediate family.  You’re also liable to be jailed  …

Virginity is the obsession, the neurosis, of Islam.

As I began to feel my own reservations during the conversation, I continued to hear the audience groan, moan, and applaud their approval.  It was love fest.  The crowd was one.

It was, in short, a friendly mob.  I was grateful for my moments of alienation; they kept me from falling into the crowd emotion.  As Auden wrote:

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.

Only because of that can we say
all men are our brothers …

I wonder if Hirsi Ali will keep her intellectual independence, or whether her nonconformity is in part a byproduct of repeated dislocation. Many forces are trying to coopt or own her. In her writing, she longs for acceptance and a place of belonging after so much rejection. Will applause wear away this brilliant woman’s provocative edginesss?

Pari opens last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle review of Hirsi Ali’s new book with: “For the very few of us who have chosen atheism over Islam, the world is a dangerous place. Radical clerics call for our death and encourage our murder. It is the time of our Inquisition, and the urgent issue is how to extinguish these threats so that we, and others, may safely believe what we wish.”

But after listening to Ayaan, I’m not sure how much this is Pari’s opinion, and how much the author’s.

They both seemed to endorse religion to the extent that people don’t believe or practice it. But religions and beliefs have always evoked the most passionate side of man’s nature and engagement – and so has as much chance of turning man into a devil as an angel.  As another Enlightenment, or perhaps slightly pre-Enlightenment figure, Blaise Pascal, wrote:  L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête.

Perhaps the volatility, the unpredictability, of man’s passionate possibilities helped drive both women to the blinkered god of rationality. They embraced instead what Hirsi Ali terms “Enlightenment” values – ah, but the Enlightenment had a few passions of its own.  A good reading of the excesses of the Revolution should cure whatever nostalgia anyone has for the Enlightenment, and for what happens to man when he imagines he is relying on nothing but his or her own sweet reason.

There are other cures as well.  Christopher Hitchens is coming to town next month…