Apart from the melt-away bodyguard who points her to the restaurant's entrance, little about Ayaan Hirsi Ali reveals that she is a woman facing death threats all day long. At 37, slim, and beautiful, she seems at ease letting the world see her at a window table, where she relaxes in warming winter rays and fusses like a mother over how little her lunch companion eats.
WORLD met Hirsi Ali on a cold February afternoon in Washington's Penn Quarter in the midst of her juggling many press interviews-from Vogue to National Public Radio-about her new autobiography, Infidel (Free Press, 2007). In Western eyes, this Somali girl in pearl earrings is both heroine and curiosity-a self-described nonbeliever with much to say about religion, a political conservative with feminist angst.
The devout-Muslim-turned-atheist is a familiar face in Europe. Now a U.S. resident and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, her outspoken criticism of Islam-how it treats women, smothers free speech, and creates insoluble immigrants in Europe and America-is something of a sensation. Pundits who know what's ailing the Muslim world are practically a dime a dozen; survivors who live to tell about it are perhaps one in a million.
"I think I've solved that problem, when people ask me, 'What's your religion?'" she says, smiling. "I say I'm an infidel."
Hirsi Ali's life personifies the struggle of the West with Islam. The Somali-born daughter of a clan leader escaped an arranged marriage, found refuge in the Netherlands, and became a member of parliament. Her fame grew in the West in 2004 after a documentary she wrote for filmmaker Theo Van Gogh resulted in Van Gogh's death at the hands of a Muslim extremist.
The 10-minute film, called Submission, features a woman in a translucent veil challenging Allah. She narrates the stories of four others in view: a woman flogged for fornication, a girl raped by her uncle, a wife beaten by her husband, and another forced into marriage. "Faith to you, submission to you, feels like self-betrayal," the woman says at the end.
Furious at the provocative piece, a Moroccan man shot Van Gogh as he cycled to work, slit his throat with one butcher knife, and used another to stab a death threat to the filmmaker's chest made out to Hirsi Ali.
According to police reports, Van Gogh reportedly told his murderer, "Can't we talk about this?"
"It was so Dutch, so sweet and innocent," mused Hirsi Ali in Infidel. "He couldn't see that his killer was caught in a wholly different worldview. Nothing Theo could have said would have made a difference."
But his death threw the Netherlands into social turmoil, as the pliant Dutch saw radical Islam threatening within their borders. Hirsi Ali found herself-ironically-"caged," a term she had so often used to explain Islam's treatment of women. Already watched by bodyguards for two years by that time, she found herself enclosed even further. She spent the next 2 1/2 months alone with guards, having scant contact with even friends or colleagues.
Even in seclusion, the West had given her more freedom to think, move, and speak than most of the Muslim world. She recognized that if she voiced her same apostate opinions in Saudi Arabia, for example, she would not survive the "next 48 hours."
Regarding death threats, she said, "People say I have an inshallah attitude," meaning "if God wills it" in Arabic. "I can fall off the stairs and hit my head. I can get hit by a car."
Hirsi Ali was not always so defiant about Islam, or so independent. She spent her early childhood in pastoral northern Somalia, where her grandmother, armed with a switch, made her memorize her ancestors from an 800-year genealogy.
At age 5, like nearly all Somali girls, a circumciser "purified" her. Using scissors, he snipped off her clitoris and inner labia, then sewed her outer labia shut with a blunt needle-all without anesthetic-leaving a small hole for menstruation and urination. When he was finished, he cut the thread with his teeth. "A woman alone is like a piece of sheep fat in the sun," her grandmother warned. "Everything will come and feed on that fat . . . until there is nothing left but a smear of grease."
Hirsi Ali's father, Hirsi Magan Isse, is a Columbia-educated anthropologist who helped lead the rebel Somali Salvation Democratic Front. Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre imprisoned him. Hirsi Magan moved his family to Kenya, but soon abandoned them to handouts from friends as he chased the cause.
Hirsi Magan was never a strict Muslim, but his wife had observed a purer Arab Islam in Yemen as a young woman. In Nairobi she sent Hirsi Ali to a Muslim girls' school. There came Sister Aziza, a warm, friendly teacher who did not shout like the others or force her girls to pray five times a day or wear a veil. Instead, she discussed inner struggle, how Allah said covered women would not arouse men and cause fitna, complete mayhem.
Hirsi Ali was captivated. A tailor made her a toe-swishing zippered black cloak, which she wore to school with a headscarf so only her face and hands showed. "It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim," she writes in her new book. "All those other children with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites."
The shift pleased Hirsi Ali's mother, but the "deeper" rules were still hard to keep. Hirsi Ali wanted to be independent, like the characters in the Western novels she read: Huckleberry Finn and Wuthering Heights from the Kenyan school curriculum, trashy romance novels from her classmates.
Life at home, too, was often unbearable without her father: As the oldest daughter and under savage maternal beatings, Hirsi Ali slaved at household chores and struggled to finish homework. Her older brother, Mahad, grew shiftless; her younger sister, Haweya, partied.
At that time a corrupt government ruled Kenya, and the extremist Muslim Brotherhood won new hearers among Muslims living there with its focus on supporting charities and adhering to a pure Islamic path. One teacher preached that men could beat their wives for disobeying, and recited the hadith, one of Muhammad's sayings, indicating that wives had to be sexually available "even on the saddle of a camel."
At that Hirsi Ali, then 17, rose shakily in the classroom to say the teachings meant that men and women were not really equal, then, as the Quran taught. "You may not question Allah's word!" the teacher shouted. "His mind is hidden." On another occasion the class laughed when she suggested women might find uncovered men tempting. With each challenge, the rote, unthinking obedience Islam demanded repelled her more and more.
By 22, Hirsi Ali's father had returned, and he soon arranged her marriage to a clansman from Canada. She refused, but the Islamic ceremony did not even require her to be there, so her father married her, anyway. She was to join her new husband in Canada, but instead Hirsi Ali absconded. On her way to Canada, she decided to claim asylum in the Netherlands, a reputedly easy country to enter. Having known only social chaos and despotism in the four countries she knew as a child-Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia-she was stunned by Holland's punctual buses and polite policemen.
Her first home, a refugee center, brought her a first taste of a welfare state. It was a compound of hedge-rowed bungalows with a tennis court and swimming pool. Her room and health care were free and a cafeteria dinner came every evening at 5:30. Hirsi Ali could not understand why the authorities were so benevolent, or why strangers would help her.
Still, she knew a forced marriage was not enough to win asylum. So she crafted a patchwork lie based on the experiences of Somali refugees she knew in Kenya. She also used her grandfather's name, Hirsi Ali, instead of her maiden name Hirsi Magan, so her family would not find her.
Hirsi Ali quickly learned Dutch, working as a refugee translator, and took factory jobs. Slowly she shed her long clothes, starting with a headscarf. Men did not notice her uncovered hair. No fitna. No chaos. She wore jeans, rode a bicycle, and began studying political science.
But clan elders soon found Hirsi Ali and held council. They let her divorce her husband. But at a high price: Both they and her family disowned her. Her father cursed her to hell. Her sister, Haweya, came to live with her after having an abortion, but spiraled into mental illness and eventually died.
Through all this, Hirsi Ali worked and pondered, developing conservative political ideas. She saw that Muslims did not adapt to European life, and welfare checks made them idle. They lived in bubbles, convinced that Islam was superior. Muslim women continued to be treated as inferiors, families ordering female circumcision for their daughters, or beating and killing them if they had boyfriends. European multiculturalism, which Hirsi Ali calls "the stupidest idea you could ever adopt," perpetuated these cruelties by allowing immigrants to live separate-not assimilated-lives.
When she decided to run for office, she had to admit she had lied to stay in Holland. For fabricating her way into the country, the Netherlands stripped away her Dutch citizenship last year, but by then she already had decided to move to the United States. Here she said she discovered that American Muslims are better integrated, but she warns that radical Islamists have infiltrated universities, advocacy groups, and the justice system. Islamists in the United States are wealthier than their European counterparts, too.
She says she recognized many potential "Mohamed Attas," a reference to the lead hijacker on 9/11, a middle-class Saudi. "America contains more of these than Europe" she told WORLD. "The Saudis are here. There are no Saudis in Holland. . . . America is the No. 1 enemy. Here is the long-term agenda."
Islamic or Shariah law in many Muslim countries restricts women. In Saudi Arabia, a woman's court testimony is worth half of a man's. A Saudi woman cannot move publicly without a male guardian and escort. A court-ordered divorce at a woman's request is rare, but husbands who tire of their wives can obtain divorces simply by saying "I divorce you" three times.
Until last year, Pakistan's Islamic law required a rape victim to produce four male witnesses to corroborate her story. Changes came because Mukhtaran Mai, a once-illiterate woman who was gang-raped in 2002, lobbied hard with other activists. But women who fight Islam's injustices within Muslim countries soon hit their head against tribal culture, Hirsi Ali says.
"You never get to the point of taking an idea to its logical consequences," Hirsi Ali said. At best, a woman's family and community will disown her. At worst, she will face a violent backlash and perhaps death. Hirsi Ali last spoke to her father in 2004, before the release of Submission. You may challenge abuses of women, he told her then, but do not make it about Islam.
Hirsi Ali carefully explains that the lines blur between Islam and cultural practice, as in female genital mutilation. "It's not in the Quran, it's not in the Hadith," Hirsi Ali said. But, "Islam puts a lot of emphasis on the virginity of a girl. Sewing the labia of a girl is a practical way to ensure virginity. Imams refuse to renounce it because it serves a purpose."
Hirsi Ali's BlackBerry has been buzzing throughout the interview. She pulls on a heavily padded black coat that dwarfs her waifish figure. This time, though, she is not hiding herself from male eyes, not worried about causing mayhem. It's just cold outside.
- Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, Random House, March 2003
- Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat, Free Press, May 2007
- The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith by Irshad Manji, St. Martin's Press, January 2004
- Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror by Nonie Darwish, Sentinel HC, November 2006
- My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban-A Young Woman's Story by Latifa, Miramax Books, March 2002
- Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom by Sulima and Hala and Batya Swift Yasgur, Wiley, September 2002
- Rage Against the Veil: The Courageous Life and Death of an Islamic Dissident by Parvin Darabi and Romin P. Thomson, Prometheus Books, February 1999
Sources: http://www.epl.org/library/bibliographies/islamic.html and www.amazon.com
Hall of inflamers
Women journalists and dissidents who have fallen foul of Islam
April 2000: Iran imprisons lawyer Mehrangiz Kar as well as publisher Shahla Lahiji after they participated in an academic Berlin conference discussing reform in Iran.
June 2003: Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, 54, is arrested for photographing the relatives of detainees outside Tehran's Evin prison. Tortured, raped, and beaten, she dies shortly after while in custody.
February 2004: Nigerian Amina Lawal, who had been sentenced to death by stoning after the 31-year-old conceived a child out of wedlock, is freed by the Shariah Court of Appeal.
April 2004: Sumi Khan, a Bangladesh reporter for the Daily Samakal, is beaten and stabbed by three assailants after she wrote about the ties of politicians and religious organizations to attacks on minority groups.
April 2004: Rania al-Baz, a Saudi Arabian TV broadcaster, is severely beaten by her husband for talking on the phone. She uses the incident to draw attention to the plight of women in her country.
November 2004: Iranian journalist Fereshteh Ghazi is arrested after she publishes articles on women's rights.
November 2004: Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, the Iranian editor-in-chief of Farzaneh, is arrested under vague charges of "spreading lies" and having "relations with foreigners."
March 2005: Derya Aksakal of Turkey is detained by three masked men who question her about her political activities. They threaten her with rape and subject her to a mock execution before releasing her.
July 2006: Kurdish journalist Ayfer Serçe is killed by the Iranian army in Keleres after she went to the region to investigate the suicides of Kurdish women.
January 2007: Sanaa Al Aji, a Moroccan journalist, is put on trial for allegedly defaming Islam in an article published in the magazine Nichane.
February 2007: Zahra Kamalfar, an Iranian dissident seeking asylum in Canada, and her two children are trapped in Moscow's airport after living there for more than eight months. Kamalfar, whose husband disappeared in Iran and is presumed dead, escaped Iran with her children after she was imprisoned for taking part in a pro-democracy rally. They were en route to Canada when their fake passports were detected.
-compiled by Kristin Chapman