Cover Story

'A piece of sheep fat in the sun'

Islamic dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived the low life apportioned to Muslim women. Now she describes it in a new bestselling autobiography and an interview with WORLD

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

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.

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"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.

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