Her 2006 book, “Infidel,” detailed her childhood in the self-destructing nation of Somalia and her subsequent flight to the Netherlands at the age of 21 to escape an arranged marriage to an older man she despised. The book also told in harrowing detail of her genital mutilation at the age of five, a tribal rite conducted without anesthesia at the command of her grandmother.
“Infidel” also detailed her rejection of the Islamic faith after 9/11 as an intolerant religion in the grip of extremists who often treat women as virtual slaves. A global bestseller, the book catapulted Hirsi Ali onto the world stage as an intellectual freedom fighter and a champion of women’s rights.
Hirsi Ali has been forced to live under police protection from Muslim extremists since 2004 as the result of writing a script and doing the voiceover for a documentary called “Submission,” produced by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The film depicted the abuse suffered by Muslim women, creating an uproar in Holland’s Islamic community. Van Gogh was shot to death on the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim fanatic and a death threat against Hirsi Ali was pinned to his body with a knife.
Despite having served as a member of the Dutch Parliament, Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding, moving from place to place to escape assassins and harassment. Eventually, she moved to the United States where she and her husband live today at an undisclosed location, still under guard.
She detailed her experience on the run and her reconciliation of sorts with her family in her 2010 follow-up book, “Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.”
A writer for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Hirsi Ali is also the founder and president of the AHA Foundation, “created to protect women and girls in the U.S. against political Islam and harmful tribal customs that violate U.S. law and international conventions.”
She is the guest of the National Writers Series this Thursday, Oct. 11 at the City Opera House in Traverse City, with former U.S. Diplomat Jack Segal interviewing her onstage.
NE: How do you like living in the United States compared to where you’ve been? (Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands.)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I’m enjoying it very much. I love it here and have lived here since 2006.
NE: Are you getting protection living here now?
Hirsi Ali: Yes, I’m getting protection, but one of the most important things I’ve been instructed to do is never to talk about protection. I listen to my security team and intelligence team and they feel that I need to be protected.
NE: Are you actually living under a fatwa (a religious decree of death), or is it a threat from Muslim extremists in general?
Hirsi Ali: It’s a general threat from Muslim extremists.
NE: Is that hard on you? Is it psychologically difficult to live that way?
Hirsi Ali: You get used to it. I’ve been living with a security team since 2002. That’s a long time, but you just make the calculation that it’s best to be careful. But I live a busy life and don’t feel that I’m deprived of anything, really.
NE: How is your work going with the AHA Foundation?
Hirsi Ali: When I came to the U.S. the question was, I’m not a politician here, so what would I do? And I said, “Look, these atrocities against women - forced marriage, child brides, honor killings and female genital mutilation - these are practices that take place in America and we should do something about it. This should be brought to the public’s knowledge and to the available agencies.
We are working with John Jay College for Criminal Justice and are still in the process of investigating the problem.
Just to give you an example, there was a woman killed in Arizona by her stepfather (for not adhering to Muslim customs). There was a woman stabbed by her father in Georgia. There were two young girls, 17 and 18 years old, shot by their father, a taxi driver who is still at large. The examples are spread all over the country.
NE: Were these cases similar to the so-called ‘honor’ killings in the Muslim countries?
Hirsi Ali: It’s the same motivation. In each case the perpetrator claimed that his honor was violated with something un-Islamic and he was compelled to kill. And that motivation is something a lot of American law enforcement officers and agencies that should have come to the rescue of these women are very unfamiliar with. They say, “That’s something that happens in other countries - that’s not something that happens in the U.S.” Our job is to educate them as to why this type of domestic violence is grounded in culture and religion.
Take the drunken man who comes home and beats up his wife - that man knows he’s doing something wrong and the victim knows he’s doing something wrong, and no one in their circle of family and friends supports him. But with the honor killings, it’s always the victim’s fault and the family, friends and community say, ‘What has she done wrong?’ That’s how the acts of violence against her are justified.
NE: In your case, your grandmother was involved in your mutilation as a child (a tradition which cuts out a girl’s clitoris as a sexual deterrent). Do you think that women in some sense are facilitating violence in the Muslim community?
Hirsi Ali: Yes, this is a cultural system. It’s a mindset that is shared by both men and women.
As young girls from the time we’re brought up, we’re taught to believe this is the right way of doing things. And in many cases it’s the women who enforce the female genital mutilation; it’s the mother who goes to her husband and says “It’s time to marry off our daughter’ because she’s getting to the teenage years.
Sometimes it’s the sisters and the female cousins who report to the menfolk that one of them has been seen doing things she shouldn’t be doing. Women are as involved and trapped in this mindset as the men.
NE: Is correcting this an education process for women as well as men?
Hirsi Ali: It’s an education process, but even more so an enlightening process. I hope that women who survive this will adopt a new way of thinking about morality and chastity and about a woman’s position, and in general about appreciating human life and not taking it.
NE: In your book, “Nomad,” you wrote about getting reconciled a bit with your family. Are you still in touch with your family?
Hirsi Ali: My father passed away; I’m in touch with my mother.
NE: Do they understand your beliefs, or are they so deeply involved in their culture that it’s hard for them to accept what you’re doing?
Hirsi Ali: It’s extremely hard for them to accept what I’m doing, and in fact they haven’t accepted it. But you know, I think over time I’m optimistic about change coming to the Muslim mindset. There’s always one generation that has to break with the past, and over time things will get better. I will not subject my child to the upbringing I got, so when I say the long view, that’s what I mean.
NE: Do you think the current outrage in the Muslim lands over this film about Muhammad goes beyond religion? Could it be that the protesters are just poverty-stricken without much to do?
Hirsi Ali: No one disputes that in these 20 Muslim countries where there are protests the poverty levels are very, very high. That’s why there is what I call a ‘rent a mob’ - it’s easy to go and start a riot. Part of it has to do with their circumstances, having little or nothing to live on.
But if you take a closer look, you see that the political leadership of these Muslim countries - the religious leadership - a bunch of these imams and muftis immediately responded by saying “behead and kill and riot.” So it’s the political and spiritual leadership that encouraged, or I should say, did not discourage the response to the perceived insults to the Prophet or the Koran.
NE: How should we in the West respond to these protests?
Hirsi Ali: I think that we should make it very clear that we’re not prepared to limit freedom of speech, which in the United States is enshrined in the First Amendment.
We have to make it clear to the leadership of the Muslim world that we’re not going to amend the First Amendment - that’s not negotiable.
NE: I was watching an interview with you on the BBC and the interviewer gave the impression that there should be laws against poking fun at religions. That seemed a rather odd thing for a journalist to say. Are Europeans more inclined to censor the news and criticism of Islam?
Hirsi Ali: I think a lot of Europeans bought into this idea. I remember 24 years ago when Salman Rushdie’s book (“The Satanic Verses”) was banned and people responded in a crazy way - and I admit that I responded in a crazy way too - that people said, “Give the Muslims what they want and the problems will go away.”
But if you look at the volume of satire (in the world) and take the number of satires directed at Muslim and Islamic icons, you’ll find that it’s minimal compared to the satire directed at Christianity and Judaism. So, even over the past 24 years, if you appease and accommodate and do what the extremist Muslim groups want us to do, then that doesn’t buy you stability, understanding and tolerance - it just doesn’t.
So I think we need to communicate that these ideals of free speech and our freedoms are the basis of our society and we’re not going to negotiate those.
I know a lot of journalists and even politicians who see the riots and think of criticism as hate speech, and that’s how they want to qualify it. That’s just what the extremists want - they want legislation to punish people who criticize religion, and not all religions, but just Islam.
I also think the political and spiritual leadership on the other side in the Muslim countries should be questioned about the ongoing massacre and persecution of Christians going on in Iraq and Egypt. In Pakistan they have so-called blasphemy laws which abuse Christians and non-Muslims. Our leadership should say (to the Islamic nations) that we’re not going to to negotiate our freedoms, but you need to protect the minorities in your own country: the religious minorities, women and homosexuals in your own territories whose rights are violated every day in the name of your religion.
NE: Do you think that many Muslim people feel trapped by their religion and the threat of being accused of apostasy (abandonment of faith - often punishable by death) or blasphemy?
Hirsi Ali: Yes, a lot of Muslims are absolutely trapped, and if they had a choice they would choose a different lifestyle. I see people coming from Iran where they have a Sharia government, some of the young people would prefer to live pretty much as we do in the West and not observe these religious obligations. But they don’t have that choice, because whether it’s government-imposed or from family members or members of their community, the level of intolerance in Islam has gone way up.
An Evening with Ayaan Hirsi Ali will be held at the TC Opera House this Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m., with advance tickets $15 and $20 at the door. See http://www.cityoperahouse.org for details.