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November 13: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It was on this date, November 13, 1969, that Somali-born American feminist and atheist activist, writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Mogadishu, Somalia. While her father, a leading figure in the Somalian Revolution, was in prison, Ayann’s grandmother had the 5-year-old young girl’s genitals ritually cut off in what is commonly called female genital mutilation or FGM.* The family emigrated to Nairobi, Kenya, where Ayaan attended the English-language Muslim Girls’ Secondary School, wore the hijab and sympathized with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses – but also was introduced to western ideas, including feminism. Claiming to be escaping an arranged marriage (or, alternatively, to be escaping a civil war in Somalia), she arrived in the Netherlands in 1992. However, some prevarication on her application for asylum triggered doubt about other unverified elements of her self-provided biography. Once safely in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali earned a degree in political science from Leiden University in 2000 and eventually came to speak six languages: English, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic (Ethiopian) and Dutch. There she became a member of the Dutch parliament.

Although dating her disenchantment with Islam from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., Hirsi Ali claims the final blow to her faith was her reading of The Atheist Manifesto (Atheistisch Manifest) by University of Leiden philosopher Herman Philipse. She declared herself an atheist in 2002: “I came to the conclusion [that] I do not believe in the existence of a god or in the hereafter.”† She began speaking and writing her own critiques of Islam, culminating in her 2002 book, De Zoontjesfabriek (The Son Factory). In 2004, the film Submission, written by Hirsi Ali and directed by Theo van Gogh was released, causing a stir in the Dutch Muslim community and elsewhere for its artistic portrayal of the abuse of women by forces of Muslim orthodoxy and for using a woman’s thinly veiled yet naked body as a canvas for Qu’ranic verses (4:34, 2:222, 24:2) giving men such misogynistic power over women. The title itself is a direct translation of the word “Islam.” The director was stabbed to death in the street by a Dutch Muslim fundamentalist on November 2, 2004. The murderer then affixed to the body with his knife a letter calling for the death of Hirsi Ali and a jihad (holy war) against kafir (unbelievers).

Hirsi Ali resigned from Parliament in 2006, after admitting that she had lied on her asylum application and published an autobiography, Infidel. The next year, Hirsi Ali became a permanent resident in the U.S. and a Fellow of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. That same year (2007), she created the AHA Foundation, based in New York, which serves to combat crimes against women and girls such as denial of education, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and honor killings. She says her “favorite liberal thinkers” are John Stuart Mill, Frederick Hayek and Karl Popper. Her political views tend to be conservative on economics, foreign policy, crime and immigration and liberal on drugs, abortion and homosexuality. About Islam, she is highly critical, as she says in her 2006 autobiography—

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more. … Islam was like a mental cage. At first, when you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment. It takes time for the bird to escape, even after someone has opened the doors to its cage. … By declaring our Prophet infallible and not permitting ourselves to question him, we Muslims had set up a static tyranny. The Prophet Muhammad attempted to legislate every aspect of life. By adhering to his rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims supressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we chose. We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert in the seventh century. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.

Her critics charge that Hirsi Ali has said that “Islam is a cult,” “there is no moderate Islam,” and that “we are at war with Islam,” and she has indeed said that Islam itself must be “defeated… 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” (Reason, 2007). Lately the author of Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations (2010), it was Ayann Hirsi Ali who said, “In a well-functioning democracy, the state constitution is considered more important than God's holy book, whichever holy book that may be, and God matters only in your private life.”‡

* FGM or female genital mutilation can take many forms – it is defined by the World Health Organization as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” – but in Ayaan’s case is not specifically detailed. The procedure did not prevent her from marrying right-wing British historian Niall Ferguson, or from giving birth to a son in 2011.
† BBC World Service radio interview, week of June 19, 2005.
‡ Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam,” 2006.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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