Courageous and Controversial: The Somali Dutch Activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The Somali-Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an atheist activist and writer who is perhaps best known for her critical views of Islam. Beryl Belsky of The Writer's Drawer takes a look at the controversial writer's past.
In her article 'Raised on Hatred,' published in The New York Times, on January 17, 2013, Ayaan Hirsi Ali refers to remarks made by Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi some three years ago, in which he encouraged his followers to 'nurse our children and our grandchildren' on hatred for Jews and Zionists. Shortly afterward, Morsi, then leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, labelled Jews 'bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians,' 'warmongers' and 'descendants of apes and pigs.'
Contrary to what is commonly believed in the West, says Ali, such views are common among Arabs and Muslims, and she herself was raised on them as a child. Moreover, Jews and Zionists continue to be publicly demonized throughout the Middle East (including in the occupied Palestinian territories and the Gaza Strip), in the mainstream media, in school textbooks, in mosques, and by political leaders. With the rise of Islamism in the wake of the 'Arab Spring' and intensified calls for the end of peace with Israel in Egypt and Jordan, Ali calls on secular movements in these countries to 'to start a counter-education in tolerance.'
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been described as 'the world’s most famous critic of Islam' – and her journey to that status could be described as no less than amazing. Born in Somalia in 1969, her grandmother took advantage of her father’s imprisonment for dissident views and circumcised the five-year-old girl, against his wishes. After her father’s escape from prison, the family settled in Kenya, where Ali the schoolgirl became a devotee of the strict Saudi Arabian interpretations of Islam. She wore a hijab, sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood and supported the fatwa issued in 1989 by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini against British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.
The circumstances surrounding her pursuit and receipt of political asylum in the Netherlands in 1992 are somewhat unclear. Apparently, she lied about some personal details in her application, including her name and the manner in which she had arrived in the Netherlands. Ali’s defense was that she was genuinely escaping a forced marriage. All this blew up some 14 years later when she was already a public figure. In the meantime, during her studies at Leiden University, she gradually became disenchanted with Islam, feelings that were reinforced by the 9/11 attacks in the US. In 2002, she renounced Islam altogether and declared herself an atheist. As she began developing and publicizing her critique of Islam and Islamic culture, she started to receive death threats and had to seek state protection.
From then on she became a highly controversial figure. Standing as a candidate for the Dutch Parliament (as a member of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), she spoke out against the abuse of Muslim women and girls, which, she said, contributed to their isolation and oppression. She is so vehement in her criticism that in 2003 she labeled the Prophet Muhammad a pervert because he consummated his marriage with his wife (whom he married, at the age of 52, when she was six) when she was nine years old.
After her election to parliament, Ali joined forces with the Dutch film director and columnist Theo van Gogh to produce the movie Submission, which criticized the treatment of women in Islamic society. Van Gogh was subsequently assassinated in November 2004 for making the film; a fatwa had already been issued against Ali prior to his murder.
In 2006 Ali was forced to resign from parliament, following the furor over revelations of lies in her 1992 application for asylum. After a prolonged investigation and debates, it was decided to allow her to keep her citizenship. In the meantime she took up a position with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Currently, she is a fellow at the Belfer Center’s Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her autobiography Infidel was published in 2006, first in Dutch (as My Freedom), and a year later, in English. Among her other publications are The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam (2002-3), and Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations (2010). In 2007 she founded the AHA Foundation, based in New York. Its goal is to combat crimes against women and girls such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honor killings.
Despite the continuous threats to her life, Ali continues to make her views forcefully known. And while she is embraced by the conservative right, liberal/left-wing media, such as the London Guardian and The New York Times, attacked her for being 'almost narcissistically provocative' and “feeding religious bigotry,” respectively, in her book Nomad. She, in turn, has accused liberals and left-wingers of not standing up to the threat from radical Islam. When asked whether she didn't find living with a bodyguard more restrictive than wearing a veil, she replied: 'It's different. One protects my freedom, the other takes it away.'
Whether you agree with Ali's views or find them overly provocative, you cannot but admire her fierce struggle for the rights of women, and for her outspoken defense of causes which may not be considered "politically correct."
By Beryl Belsky
Beryl Belsky is a graduate in East Asian Studies from the Australian National University and currently works as an academic editor at Tel Aviv University. She originally published this article as a blog post at her creative writing site The Writer's Drawer.
Originally Published in The Writers Drawer.