October 21, 2015

Women of Doubt: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a whirlwind of controversy

Quick note. I'm breaking format in two ways on this: one, I'm dividing it up into different sections, and two, I got most of the background from Wikipedia. I figure y'all will let that slide, since it presented a pretty balanced view of Hirsi Ali, and also because this is a blog and not an academic paper.

You've been warned.


source: Wikipedia
To say Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure is, perhaps, an understatement. She's faced a wide array of criticisms, from people outspokenly denouncing her as Islamophobic to proclaiming her a fraud to death threats.

A lot of the controversy can be summed up like this quote from Virginia Gorlinski, writing for Britannica online, who said Hirsi Ali is:

Somali-born Dutch activist, writer, and politician best known for her contention that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Western democratic values, especially those upholding the rights of women.4

That's an oversimplification, but when Britannica packs that much controversy into a single sentence...you know the subject you're reading about is interesting, to say the least.

And that, I hope we can all agree on: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an outspoken atheist and feminist, and she's an interesting figure to learn about.

Early Life

Ayaan Hirsi Magan was born on November 12, 1969, in Magadishu, Somalia.1, 4

Her father was, like Hirsi Ali, an interesting figure:

Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a political dissident who spent several years in jail. When he escaped into self-imposed exile in the mid-1970s, his family followed him from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, then briefly to Ethiopia, before settling in Kenya, where Ayaan spent most of her youth.4

This was in 1977. Sometime in 1974 or 75--there's no official date, but Hirsi Ali was 5 years old at the time--her grandmother had a traditional genital mutilation performed on the girl, despite the fact that her father, then imprisoned prior to their exile, was opposed to the procedure. 1

While in Kenya, Hirsi Ali attended the Muslim Girls' Secondary School, where a teacher influenced her Islamic views to have more Saudi flair, which was slightly more conservative at the time than what was prominent in the region. Indeed, Hirsi Ali grew to sympathize with the views of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, even going so far as to wear a hijab although it too wasn't the custom in their area at the time. When the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie was pronounced, the teenage Hirsi Ali agreed with the decision. 1

Leaving Kenya & Islam

What comes next in Hirsi Ali's life is part of the controversy surrounding her and a fact frequently cited by her critics and rebuffed in various ways by her proponents.

Brittannica says:

In 1992 Ayaan was married—against her will—to a distant cousin. While en route to join him in Canada, she fled to the Netherlands, where she applied successfully for political asylum; during the process she changed her name to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and adjusted her birth date to make it difficult for her family to find her.4

Hirsi Ali's family has, as we will see later, refuted this claim.

If you're looking for the truth, I don't know it. We have someone who did experience what most of us would agree is fundamentally traumatic and terrible abuse in the form of female genital mutilation, making a claim, that is then refuted by her family. I don't know the answer. I tend to err on the side of believing people when they claim to be victims of abuse, so that biases me to accept Hirsi Ali's story more readily.

In the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali worked a variety of jobs, but work as a translator at a Rotterdam refugee center deeply affected her. 1

Reporter Jason Burke said:

where she worked first as a cleaner and then as a translator at a refugee centre in Rotterdam - an experience that marked her deeply, according to one friend interviewed by The Observer. A victim herself of female circumcision, Hirsi Ali was shocked by the male repression of immigrant women living in one of the most developed and tolerant societies in the world. 7

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard says that it was during this time that "[Hirsi Ali] saw at first hand the inconsistencies between liberal, Western society and tribal, Muslim cultures."5

Whether you agree with the characterization or not, it's clear that her time as a translator impacted Hirsi Ali greatly.

She was also reportedly greatly affected by the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Hirsi Ali has said that after seeing Osama bin Laden cite passages from the Qu'ran to justify the violence, she too retreated to her Qu'ran and hadiths to follow his sources. It was during this process that she shifted to seeing the Qu'ran as relative, a historical record and book like any other. 1

In 2002, she came out as an atheist.1

Political career

In 2003, Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch Parliament's lower house, but she would resign in 2006 after concerns were raised regarding her Dutch citizenship and asylum application.

During her time in Parliament, "Hirsi Ali became an increasingly controversial figure, championing immigration reform while also fighting for the rights of Muslim women." 4     Even as a legislator, Hirsi Ali did not back off from controversial claims about Islam, including a comment that said that by Western standards, the prophet Muhammed was a pedophile, which resulted in a religious discrimination complaint being filed against her on April 24, 2003. 1

The citizenship crisis was grounded in the same documentary that Hirsi Ali critics continue to cite to undermine her credibility on all fronts:

In May 2006 the TV programme Zembla reported that Hirsi Ali had given false information about her name, her age, and her country of residence when originally applying for asylum. In her asylum application, she had claimed to be fleeing a forced marriage, but the Zembla coverage featured interviews with her family, who denied that claim. The program alleged that, contrary to Hirsi Ali's claims of having fled a Somali war zone, the MP had been living comfortably in upper middle-class conditions safely in Kenya with her family for at least 12 years before she sought refugee status in the Netherlands in 1992.1

As I said before, I can't speak to the truth of some of these claims. Some of them, Hirsi Ali has owned herself, including the fact that she misrepresented her name and country of residence on the application; however, the number of times that I saw that admission misrepresented as an admission that Hirsi Ali created all of the events, including the forced marriage, leaves me a little skeptical--Hirsi Ali has never recanted the story of her marriage, and the only sources for the claim that she was not forced to marry are her family and former husband, who presumably have vested interests in refuting the idea. That means we have parties on both sides with a stake in each story they are telling. For Hirsi Ali, the biggest part of her draw is her narrative. For her family, there are, I assume, benefits to the world at large not believing you forced your daughter to marry. That makes it hard to suss out the truth, in my opinion.

Following this controversy, Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands:

Although she ultimately retained her Dutch citizenship, Hirsi Ali moved to the United States in the wake of the controversy. In Washington, D.C., she was welcomed as a resident fellow by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research, a conservativethink [sic] tank, where she continued to study the relationship between Islam and the West and to condemn culturally and religiously rationalized violence against women. Within five years of her arrival in the United States, she published two more books, which address these issues through poignant accounts of the abuse and adversity she experienced as a Somali Muslim female, as an apostate, and as an internationally prominent critic of Islam. Like her earlier book, Infidel (2007) and Nomad (2010) became best sellers. In 2007 she established the Philadelphia-based Ayaan Hirsi Ali (AHA) Foundation to help protect women in the West against militant Islam.4 

Criticisms of Islam

Another huge understatement: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a critic of Islam.

Shocking, I know. In 2004, Ayaan Hirsi Ali worked with filmaker Theo van Gogh on Submission, "a jarring, incendiary film depicting Islam as a religion that sanctions the abuse of women."4

Weeks after the film aired, van Gogh was shot eight times. His throat was then cut, and he was nearly decapitated, before his attacker pinned a letter to the body with a small knife. The letter was a death threat to Hirsi Ali. 1,4 Reportedly, Van Gogh's mother told Hirsi Ali to continue the work at the filmmaker's funeral. 1

In some ways, Hirsi Ali's criticisms seem to be involving. You can see this in some of her public statements over the years.

A summary of her views in 2007:

 In a 2007 article in Reason magazine, Hirsi Ali said that Islam, the religion, must be defeated and that "we are at war with Islam. And there's no middle ground in wars." She said, "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...There comes a moment when you crush your enemy." She reiterated her position that the problem it isn't just a few "rotten apples" in the Islamic community but "I’m saying it’s the entire basket." She stated that the majority of Muslims aren't "moderates" and they must radically alter their religion.1

However, in 2015:

Hirsi Ali speaking in April 2015, on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program said,
"It's wrong for Western leaders like (Prime Minister of Australia) Tony Abbott to say the actions of the Islamic State aren't about religion. I want to say to him 'please don't say such things in public because it's just not true.' You're letting down all the individuals who are reformers within Islam who are asking the right questions that will ultimately bring about change."1 

Make no mistake: She's still taking a very hardline take on the subject. Hirsi Ali wrote in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News:

It is time to drop the euphemisms and verbal contortions. A battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win. 6


This year, Ayaan Hirsi Ali released her latest work, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. Some have criticized Ali for mentioning in this book that she believes Islam needs a Martin Luther. These critics have cited Luther's anti-semitic views, and it's true, the guy was all around pretty awful, in my opinion. But I do think the analogy that Hirsi Ali draws is larger than the particulars that people get bogged down in: it is important for us to let Muslims determine the future of Islam. That's a sentiment that I whole-heartedly agree with--there's no way that we, as outsiders, can determine the course of a religion. It's up to the folks within that religion.

Heretic has met with mixed reviews. The New York Times wrote:

In “Heretic,” Hirsi Ali forgoes autobiography for the most part in favor of an extended argument. But she has trouble making anyone else’s religious history — even that of Muhammad himself, whose life story she recounts — as dramatic as she has made her own. And she loses the reader’s trust with overblown rhetoric. ... She tries to warn Americans about their naïveté in the face of encroaching Islamic influences, maintaining that officials and journalists, out of cultural sensitivity, sometimes play down the honor killings that occur in the West. 2

While The Economist said:

Unfortunately, very few Muslims will accept Ms Hirsi Ali’s full-blown argument, which insists that Islam must change in at least five important ways. A moderate Muslim might be open to discussion of four of her suggestions if the question were framed sensitively. Muslims, she says, must stop prioritising the afterlife over this life; they must “shackle sharia” and respect secular law; they must abandon the idea of telling others, including non-Muslims, how to behave, dress or drink; and they must abandon holy war. However, her biggest proposal is a show-stopper: she wants her old co-religionists to “ensure that Muhammad and the Koran are open to interpretation and criticism”. 3

My Thoughts

It's hard for me to take a stance on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, because I haven't read her books. I haven't heard her story in her own words.

I do agree with some of the points she makes regarding an Islamic reformation. I don't think that the strategies we have taken for dealing with Islamic extremism have been particularly helpful--indeed, I think they greatly exacerbate the problem by continuing to marginalize both citizens and immigrants who adhere to the religion. Reform has to come from within, and I believe that Muslim communities around the world already regularly take steps to promote a peaceful vision of their religion. It's just not newsworthy to say, "These Muslims committed no terrorist acts today." In a way, it's sad that in order to be newsworthy, it often seems a story has to be awful. Indeed, the only positive story I can remember seeing recently featuring Muslims was a group of Muslims that raised an incredible amount of funds to help rebuild black churches that had burned in my state--and I honestly don't know if that made national news or only our regional sources.

I also agree that it perturbs me when people state that religion cannot be a cause for violence. It's not just Muslims that we face this idea with, either; Christian extremists who burn down abortion clinics or murder abortion doctors or beat up gay couples aren't decried as, well, Christian extremists, even though without those beliefs, can we reasonably say that the actions would have occurred? I promise, though, I'm not one of those folks who say, "Well, religion is the only cause, and without religion..." No. That's not accurate either. Rather, we're all a complex interplay of the different aspects of our identities. In that context, I think it's incredibly to look at social, political, economic, and yes, religious factors motivating violence.

I also see the points of her opponents, though I disagree with silencing her because too often we find it easy to silence people who come from marginalized group, and as an immigrant woman of color from a minority faith background, Hirsi Ali definitely fits that bill. Rather than silencing her, I would love to see critics engage with Hirsi Ali, and I would hope that she would respectfully engage as well. In the marketplace of ideas, it's debate and discussion that allow us to grow and evolve our own perceptions and beliefs, and without a free exchange, there's simply no way to encourage that marketplace to function rightly.

All in all, I decided to feature Hirsi Ali despite the controversy because I am above all committed to that idea of free exchange. And also, because she's most certainly a Woman of Doubt.


2. Dominus, Susan. "Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 'Heretic'". The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/books/review/ayaan-hirsi-alis-heretic.html?_r=1> Accessed October 21, 2015

3. "Reforming Islam: Thoughts on its Future". The Economist. <http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21648627-controversial-new-book-says-islam-must-change-five-important-areas-thoughts-its> Accessed October 21, 2015

4. Gorlinski, Virginia. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Britannica. <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Ayaan-Hirsi-Ali> Accessed October 21, 2015.

5. "Ayaan Hirsi Ali." Belfer Center. <http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/experts/2635/ayaan_hirsi_ali.html> Accessed October 21, 2015

6. Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. "Why the United States Should Back Islam's Reformation." Dallas Morning News. <http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/25659/ayaan_hirsi_ali.html?breadcrumb=%2Fexperts%2F2635%2Fayaan_hirsi_ali> Accessed October 21, 2015

7. Burke, Jason. "Secrets and lies that doomed a radical liberal." The Guardian. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/may/21/jasonburke.theobserver> Accessed October 21, 2015

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