Born Muslim in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, fleeing to the Netherlands at the age of 22 to escape an arranged marriage. Ten years later, she was elected to the Dutch parliament. A prominent feminist and critic of Islam, she received numerous death threats when she renounced her faith following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2004, Theo van Gogh, the director of a short film she wrote protesting Islam’s treatment of women, was murdered in Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist who threatened that she would be next. Since 2007, the bestselling author of Infidel, a memoir, has lived in the U.S., where she is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. In her new book, Nomad, Hirsi Ali writes about her struggle to assimilate into Western society and proposes remedies to help other immigrants resist the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism.
Q: Are you, after eight years with a security detail, inured to death threats? It’s hard to imagine you could continue to function if you felt constant fear.
A: It’s not a great way of leading your life, but like everything else, you get used to it. Presidents, members of royal families, diplomats—anybody who’s subjected to live under a security protocol does function. And I’m not the only one [with a fatwa]. There’s a whole class of people who live this way. I think, look, they can kill me physically—or I could die of a heart attack or whatever. Life is short. What they cannot kill are my ideas. The fact my books have been published and are out there—there are limits to silencing.
Q: Journalists frequently comment on your courage. Is “brave” how you think of yourself?
A: No. I think of all of us as being potential victims of the jihadist threat. I mean, look at the Times Square attack that was foiled. If it had succeeded, and on that Saturday night you were going to the theatre, you would’ve been injured if not killed. It’s not a question of who’s brave and who’s not, it’s an attack we all are under. Every time you take a train, step into your car, walk into the shopping mall, go to the airport—every single time, something could happen. That’s how terrorism works.
Q: You view the West as being at war not only with terrorists but with Islam itself. Who do you think will win?
A: The West will be victorious because the ideas of life are just far superior to the ideas of death. The question is what price we want to pay to win. How many people should die before victory? How much money and resources should we spend? We’re just not being effective now because we are being nice and avoiding the subject of Islam. We need to talk about Islam, about what’s in the Quran. The debate right now among Westerners is very defensive; all people want to prove is that they’re not Islamophobes.
Q: Consequently, according to Paul Berman in his new book The Flight of the Intellectuals, you’ve received “dreadful treatment” from, and have been trivialized by, the intelligentsia. Do you agree?
A: He’s addressing a debate within liberalism. He is, just like me and I think many others, surprised—and that’s an understatement—that some liberals choose to defend ideas that are very illiberal and choose to look away from practices that are even more illiberal. Why are they excusing radical Islam? That fascinates Berman and it also fascinates me, what the presence of Islam does to the liberal psyche in the West.
Q: What does Islam do to the liberal psyche?
A: Confuses it. The liberal psyche wants to protect minorities, to apologize for imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and the appalling treatment of black people during the civil rights movement. At the same time, they want to continue to defend the rights of individuals. They’ve convinced themselves that the best way to do that in general is to defend the cultures that are non-white. But what they forget, and what they’re being confronted with, is that non-white cultures contain misogynistic, collectivist, tribal, gay-unfriendly and female-hostile traditions. And so they’re confused: on the one hand, they’re looking at minorities as groups they need to save and speak up for, and on the other hand, they’re confronted with the ideas and practices of individuals within those minorities that are very undemocratic and appalling, really.
Q: You believe there is no such thing as moderate Islam. If that’s true, why do so many Muslims in the West say they’re horrified by violence perpetrated in the name of Islam?
A: I haven’t heard anybody say they’re horrified. Just to compare, many Americans, Canadians and Europeans protested the war on Iraq; they gathered themselves, they sent lots of emails, there was a lot of activism, they marched against this war. I haven’t seen that kind of thing from Muslims saying, “We’re against the numerous terrorist attacks all over the world carried out in the name of Islam.” No marches, no organizations, nothing. There are individuals, like Irshad Manji, like me, born into Islam, who stand up and say, “Hey, we don’t like this.” But we haven’t seen any kind of institutionalized protest by Muslims. That is the big question mark: are Muslims silent because they agree with the terrorist attacks? Or because they don’t know how to express themselves?
Q: One of your arguments in Nomad is that European countries have enabled homegrown jihadists by not insisting Muslims assimilate. I assume you support the proposed burka bans in Belgium and France?
A: I think to demand to cover your face in a public place in an era of terrorism is preposterous. For the French government, and other governments, to say, “You can wear whatever you like, but we would like to see your face”—I think that’s reasonable. I’m not talking about the face covering as a manifestation of religion, just in terms of safety. Every time I go through an airport I have to remove my shoes, my belt, my coat. After the attempted underwear bombing in the name of Islam, we have to go through a machine that scans us. So for someone to come around from that religion and say, “I demand that I cover myself”—it’s unreal.
Q: Are Muslims in North America better assimilated than in Europe?
A: Yes and no. Economically and in terms of education, yes. But I haven’t seen any hard data to prove that Canadian and American Muslims are more patriotic than Dutch and German Muslims.
Q: Do you think Barack Obama has moved the U.S. forward in terms of engaging constructively with Muslim countries?
A: Muslim populations and countries don’t like us any more than they did under Bush. In Obama’s administration so far, there have been more terrorist attempts than under eight years of the Bush administration, not including the 9/11 attack. The problem is clearly growing. The argument of, “Okay, they do this because they are poor”—that doesn’t apply anymore. In Western democracies, the young men wanting to kill themselves and kill others to get to the Muslim paradise are middle-class, well-educated and have the potential for a good future. The argument that Muslims are persecuted in North America is also not true. Muslims want to be in North America; they get jobs, they can have businesses and live wherever they want. If you just look at that argument empirically, you see that Muslims lead a life that is free and they can do whatever they want. As you go through these arguments, you see it’s not really about which administration is in the White House, it’s about convictions, not just the convictions of individuals but of states like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, which have, as their constitution, the Quran.
Q: One of your more startling arguments in Nomad is that Christian churches should proselytize in immigrant communities to try to convert Muslims.
A: Look at the amount of money Saudi Arabia spends on coming into Muslim communities in America and Europe, building schools and also taking leaders and training them in Mecca and Medina, then replanting them. It’s surprising that no other group of people is targeting the same communities. If you look at Western civilization, at the institutions [and movements] that were engaged in changing people’s hearts and minds—the Christian Church, humanists, feminists—they are doing next to nothing in these Muslim communities. When I was in Holland [recently], I heard about a Christian mission that had been proselytizing in Morocco. The government kicked them out and sent them back to Holland. I thought, “You don’t have to stop proselytizing—just go to the Muslim community in Amsterdam west and carry on there.” But of course there, they’re not only going to face the radical Muslims as opponents, they’re also going to face the multicultural opponents, saying they’re not supposed to be telling people to leave their religion.
Q: So how would they do it?
A: Next to every mosque, build a Christian centre, an enlightenment centre, a feminist centre. There are tons of websites, financed with Saudi money, promoting Wahabism. We need to set up our own websites—Christian, feminist, humanist—trying to target the same people, saying, we have an alternative moral framework to Islam. We have better ideas.
Q: But you also argue that children are indoctrinated very early in Islam. How would you even get them to listen to such a message?
A: They only get indoctrinated if they go to Muslim schools. I would, if I had the power, abolish Muslim schools. Children born to Muslim parents in North America or anywhere else in the West would get Islamic teachings at home, which is fine. But when they go to school, they would get the regular education that’s going to enable them to be absorbed into our society and become law-abiding, well-established citizens.
Q: In a multicultural and democratic society, how could we ban Muslim schools?
A: It depends how we weigh this problem of jihadism and terrorism. If we think it’s a chronic disease we have to live with, and I think that is actually the dominant opinion, people will take more trouble to look at what is going on in these schools and abolish them. If we think of these children as kids who, when they finish school, will be hostile to our society, then I can compile a whole host of arguments why they can and should be abolished.
Q: Let me ask a question you once posed. You said, “Western civilization is a celebration of life—everybody’s life, even your enemy’s life. So how can you be true to that morality and at the same time defend yourself against a very powerful enemy that seeks to destroy you?”
A: That is the big question for the open society today. We want to be distinct from closed societies, have less authoritarianism, allow people to make their own choices. And what we’re seeing now is that as far as that applies to an Islamic subset of society, there are other factors at work that are frightening. To have a whole generation of people just indoctrinated with this jidhadist mentality and for us to do nothing about it, and then every time there’s a terrorist attack, we panic—it’s not viable.