Portrait of a 'heretical' lady

Putting her life on the line, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has rewritten the conception of a pious Muslim woman.

heretic book 88 298 (photo credit: )
heretic book 88 298
(photo credit: )
When the Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a pious 20-year-old Muslim who applauded the Iranian leader for putting a price on the apostate's head. "All I knew is that he had insulted the prophet, and anyone who insulted the prophet deserves to die," recalls Hirsi Ali. In 2003 - after she renounced her faith and entered the Dutch parliament - Hirsi Ali became known as the "Dutch Salman Rushdie" for the torrent of death threats she incited for her crusade against Islam. A few years ago, she met Rushdie in New York and apologized for once siding with the Islamists against him. He obviously accepted her olive branch, providing the cover endorsement for Hirsi Ali's new book of essays, The Caged Virgin. Hirsi Ali doesn't sound like an embattled activist over the phone. Her quiet, flute-y voice matches the fine-featured face which peers with calm resolve out of photos. But her language is the opposite of delicate. Hirsi Ali has called the Prophet Muhammad a "tyrant," a "pervert" and a "pedophile" for counting a nine-year-old among his nine wives. Running through The Caged Virgin is Hirsi Ali's conviction that Islam is inimical to individual rights because it calls for the individual's unquestioning submission to God. Hirsi Ali argues that Islam enforces an unyielding hierarchy - leading down from Allah, to the Prophet, to religious leaders and then fathers - which brooks no space for individual freedom. Hirsi Ali bats off the suggestion that this account could equally apply to other monotheistic religions, which demand obeisance to a single God. "Judaism and Christianity have gone through a long history of enlightenment and reflection," she says. "But the Islam that we see today tends towards the seventh century. Islamic reformists throughout the centuries have been harassed and exiled and killed." Her view of the Koran as a rubber stamp for violence against women - reducing Islamic women to caged virgins, denied sexual freedom and rights - provides no room for Muslim feminists, who believe that Islamic theology can be rescued from patriarchal custom. The Caged Virgin includes a Q + A with the writer Irshad Manji - a lesbian and a practicing Muslim - who calls for the teachings of the Koran to be extricated from the male-dominated cultures that abuse them. But Hirsi Ali disagrees. "Religion is an expression of culture, and Islam is an expression of desert Arab male culture. Being an atheist - believing that religion was created by man and not the other way round - we have to recognize that we can't separate the two." HIRSI ALI was born in Somalia in 1969, immediately prior to the military coup of Siad Barre, which vanquished the democratic hopes of the newly independent country. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a Colombia-educated dissident politician, forced into exile with his family after Barre's ascent. The family moved to Saudi Arabia, where Hirsi Ali was reared on myths about a global Jewish conspiracy. "When we opened the tap and no water came from it, our neighbors would say, 'The Jews have done it. They want to dehydrate us,'" she recalls. "When it rained, we got that from God's blessing. But if there were fires, if there were floods, if there were diseases, it was always caused by the evil Jews." The family received official warning to leave Saudi Arabia after the regime got wind of Magan Isse's insurgent activities. Hirsi Ali spent her youth moving between countries as political circumstances fluctuated - to Ethiopia, then Kenya, then back to Somalia and finally Kenya again. Magan Isse was determined to exempt his daughter from the tradition of ritualized female genital mutilation. So when Hirsi Ali was five, her grandmother arranged for the operation without her father's knowledge. "As a child it's something that you're proud of. You know that it happens to everyone else, and if it doesn't happen to you, you'll be isolated by the other kids," she says. Despite his distaste for female "circumcision," Magan Isse was proud to offer Hirsi Ali up for an arranged marriage 17 years later, when a distant cousin arrived from Canada looking for a wife. "In the Somali tradition, an arranged marriage is an honorable marriage. It's an obligation of the father to arrange marriage for his children." Before flying on to Canada to meet her new husband, Hirsi Ali was scheduled to spend a few days with relatives in Germany. Instead, once in Germany, she took a train to the Netherlands and sought refugee status. "I felt deep in my heart that whatever had happened - even if I had gone to Canada - I would have sabotaged the marriage." Why Holland? "Because it was next to Germany and the train could take me there," she explains. "I didn't know anything about Holland. I wanted to go to the UK, but I had to travel by air or by ship, and in both cases you have to show you have a legal visa." Hirsi Ali was granted asylum in three weeks - a length of time unheard of today. She learned Dutch while working in various unskilled jobs, before long becoming a translator in hospitals and shelters for battered women. Hirsi Ali was shocked to discover that the abuse of Islamic women remains rife in the West. She was similarly taken aback by the state's refusal to interfere with what they regarded as "cultural matters." Hirsi Ali says Muslims account for only 5.5 percent of the Netherlands' population, but make up over 50% of the women in Dutch refuges. COMPLETING a political science degree at Leiden University, Hirsi Ali became grounded in the Enlightenment thinkers who anchor her essays - Spinoza, Kant and Voltaire. "The years at university were the happiest times of my life. It was an environment where reason ruled. Everyone is civilized and kind and happy. It's just an environment where civilization reaches its peak." After graduating, Hirsi Ali became an immigration researcher at a think tank aligned with the left-of-center Labor Party. Two weeks into her stint, the September 11 attacks occurred, triggering her loss of faith. "I was pushed to think clearly about whether I was on Bin Laden's side or not. I started to think, 'Do I really believe in this God who demands blood and mayhem?'" In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Hirsi Ali became a sought-after media spokesperson on Muslim affairs. Asked on television for her response to the far-right politician Pim Fortuyn's description of Islam as a "backward religion," Hirsi Ali sent shock waves through the Labor Party by conceding his picture. She argued that the Dutch multiculturalist program was complicit in the abuse of women by allowing Muslim communities a great level of autonomy, while funding 700 Islamic schools, clubs and mosques. In short order, Hirsi Ali broke ranks with the left, shifting her allegiance to the center-right VVD Party. "It started with the emphasis that the Labor Party was putting on migrants as a group. It was, 'You want to discuss the rights of individual women who are abused, but the whole group of migrants must integrate and find jobs first. Then we will attend to the grievances of women,'" Hirsi Ali says. "The VVD Party, on the other hand, was stressing individual rights and obligations. It was much easier to defend that position than just to lie back and hope that one day the lives of all migrants would be okay and thereby that of women." Despite not having planned on a political career, Hirsi Ali became a parliamentary member in January 2003. "I was planning to be an academic. That's why I went to a think tank. But there's just a moment when you have to take part in politics if you feel that other people are not doing the right job. In 2002, I just thought everyone was blind to the situation of Muslim women, and I couldn't just stand on the sideline and start pointing out that everyone was getting it wrong. I thought I'd do it for four years. Within two years I had managed to convince everyone that there was something terribly wrong in Holland with the living conditions of Muslim women." The gay demagogue Pim Fortuyn - outraged by Muslim intolerance of homosexuals - was assassinated by a Dutch animal rights activist in May 2002. Then came the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, after his collaboration with Hirsi Ali on the short film Submission - the first of a series they planned to produce together. The film depicted four semi-naked Islamic women, half-clothed in traditional garb. The Koranic verses allegedly authorizing violence against women were written on their lacerated flesh, as they described the physical abuse they suffered from their husbands. Van Gogh was stabbed and shot by a young Moroccan-born jihadist while bicycling to work in Amsterdam. With his knife, the killer attached a letter to Van Gogh's corpse, assuring Hirsi Ali that she would be next. Ever since becoming a public figure, Hirsi Ali had round-the-clock police protection. She traveled in armor-plated cars and was always trailed by a party of bodyguards. But Van Gogh - who had used epithets such as "goat-fucker" and "pimp" to describe Muhammad since the early '90s - didn't believe that he needed police protection. "He said he didn't believe in the capabilities of the people who would be protecting him and he would be losing his privacy. He thought it was different in my case because I had become an apostate and there were so many examples of apostates being killed by Arab men." LAST YEAR, Hirsi Ali was hauled before court by an Islamic lobby group seeking to prevent her from making Submission: Part 2. They also called for certain passages from the Dutch edition of The Caged Virgin to be excised, claiming that they were causing psychological harm. "The court thought that the passages were taken out of context and the court had no power to prevent something from being made that hasn't been made yet. The judge also warned that I be careful what I say next time, but that had no legal significance." In May, Hirsi Ali was rounded on by a member of her own political party. Following "allegations" on a television program that she lied about her identity to win asylum in 1992, the Dutch immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, declared Hirsi Ali's passport invalid. At the urging of Dutch refugee workers, Hirsi Ali had claimed she was fleeing the civil war in Somalia rather than an arranged marriage. When claiming asylum, she also lied about her date of birth and changed her father's name, Magan, to Ali, in order to hide from her family - fabrications which she had long spoken publicly about. Verdonk retracted her decision after touching off a public uproar. But by then Hirsi Ali - who had already decided to leave politics - announced she was resigning from Parliament to take up a position at the American Enterprise Institute - a Washington-based neo-conservative think tank. "I had accomplished in Parliament what I wanted to do, which was put the suffering of Muslim women on the country's agenda," she says. "I wasn't planning a political career, so I'm going back to scholarship. For now, I'm only interested in writing and making the films, developing this tension between the Muslim and Western mind." On June 30, the Dutch cabinet resigned after the ruling coalition lost the support of a vital minor party, who demanded Verdonk's resignation. Next year, Hirsi Ali will start filming Submission: Part 2 - a project that the American Enterprise Institute has been fully supportive of. "I gave them a proposal, in which I mentioned how I was going to represent the Prophet Muhammad in New York and have him talk to a number of Western thinkers, and they said, 'No problem.'" She acknowledges the irony of being a feminist activist employed by an organization affiliated with the Republican Party. "It is ironic, but I talked to different think tanks and it was only the American Enterprise Institute that said, 'We welcome controversy.' I would have total intellectual freedom." The identities of her collaborators on Submission: Part 2 will remain anonymous. "After Van Gogh's death, I've learned a lesson, and that is, you have to make a film without putting the identity of the people out there. You have to be smarter than the killers."