In 1992, Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced by her family into an unwanted marriage. On her way to live with her new husband in Canada, she claimed political asylum in the Netherlands, and settled there, working as a cleaning lady, and later as an interpreter for asylum claimants and battered immigrant women. She also earned a master's degree in political science.
Following the 9/11 terror attacks, she wrote and spoke out against Islamic radicalism, and was elected to the Dutch parliament. Her screenplay for the film Submission portrayed the domestic abuse of women sanctioned by holy verses from the Koran. After the film was broadcast on Netherlands television in 2004, an Islamic radical assassinated the movie's director Theo Van Gogh, leaving a note behind that said Ayaan Hirsi Ali was next.
(This is part two of an exclusive interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. See part one of the VOA interview)
At a press conference last February, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then still a member of the Dutch parliament, spoke out to defend the publication of the Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed. "I am here to defend the right to offend,” she said. “Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures from the cartoon affair. These intellectuals live off free speech, but they accept censorship.” She went on to attack the European politicians, including the prime minister of her own government, who did not resist what she said were the demands of tyrannical regimes that the cartoons be suppressed.
It was a characteristic statement from a woman who calls herself an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” whose greatest devotion is to free thought and free speech, and for whom death threats seem only a spur to speak out again. She sat down for an interview with VOA on a recent trip to New York:
Reporter: Do you think a progressive Islam is the formative stages now?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “Islam, like any other faith, will go through a process of evolution. Right now I think it is in the middle of that evolution. There’s a lot of havoc and a lot of change and violence going on within the house of Islam. The problem is that, unlike [in] Christianity, there is no authority and no hierarchy that will say now we have evolved to the next stage. So, I don’t know how we are going to solve the problem of organization.
But what makes me optimistic is, for example, since 9/11, the number of books that have been published on Islam, either by Muslims or non-Muslims, exceeds in number published on Islam ever since the year 900. With that kind of intellectual agitation, I am optimistic that Islam will evolve into something more humane.
If every Muslim who feels as you do spoke out, wouldn't it be instant civil war? I mean, there's no way that every government in the world could provide protection to every moderate progressive Muslim who spoke out.
You are to a degree right. Social change, when it's sudden and revolutionary, comes with a lot of violence. But the change can also be gradual. And I am speaking, operating, in a context where there is the rule of law, and where people do not necessarily have to face immediate violence. I know if I were saying what I say in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia -- that's a completely different reality. I understand that.
But I'm saying we have to start somewhere. And in this global world where we live with the Internet and information technology, and what we say now reaches millions of people, I still think there are many fellow Muslims who live here, who think like me, who can and should speak out, who will not face as much danger as their brothers and sisters in the countries where there is no freedom of expression.
You've said you wish that Bush and Blair, rather than talking about spreading democracy, would think in terms of spreading freedom of expression and Enlightenment values, rationality. Can you explain what you mean by that?
I think that democracy is a product of a recognition that the human individual is free, and I mean free not only physically unchained, but also mentally unchained. And if you protect the freedom of expression, then I can come to you and convince you, persuade you, without using violence, what I think is important. And then we can form a movement, form a party, and the other group can form an opposition, and that way, democracy comes about.
It seems that you came to your change of mind and heart really because of what is happening to women, and how you see women's situation under Islam -- and also sexual mores. I know you are also a supporter of gay rights.
Yes, I am a supporter of individual rights, and that includes gay rights. It's not only Muslim women. I know about the treatment of women in China, where they have a one-child policy, and that de facto has led to getting rid of little girls. I know that in India women who belong to a lower caste are treated terribly, and that's justified in the name of their own culture and their own faith. I've seen and listened to Africans who are not Muslims who practice genital mutilation, for example. So it's not only Islam. But what you see is that, except for Western culture, that all these other cultures seem to celebrate the mistreatment and the abuse of women, and justify it in the name of their culture, or take it for granted. And that needs to change.
Do you feel hopeful that radical Islam can be stemmed or do you see it as kind of inexorable, and that we will be living with terror, and that you will spend the rest of your life under a fatwah?
I am spending the rest of my life under a fatwah. Unfortunately, I will not see the fruits of my labor and activism. I think it's going to be something for the next generation. But look at people like Martin Luther King. It's the generation after him that's enjoying the fruits of his struggle. And I today enjoy, in a different way, the fruits of other people in the past who had struggled for the rights of women, for racial equality, and for the rights of individuals in general. And I think we just need to pass that on.
You think that Islam should get rid of the idea of Hell. Why is that so important?
Because I think the most important barrier, when it comes to a conflict of conscience between the believing Muslim and the Scriptures, is always hell. It's the threat of hell. I've spoken to thousands of Muslims who are compassionate people who do not want to kill. They do not want to become the enemies of unbelievers, or see unbelievers as enemies, non-Muslims as enemies. But there is always the barrier, the threat of hell. If you disobey God, then you go to Hell. So what do you choose, the convenience of having an unbeliever as your friend today on earth, or suffering eternal hell? So I think we have to address the dogma of hell, the dogma of the hereafter.
Do you regret at all that you've turned your life into something that you really can't control entirely? Do you wish that you could lead a private life again, and not be in danger?
I wish that, but I also knew when I got involved in this that -- it's like the woman who decided to sit down in the bus [Rosa Parks, during the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States]. You have to live with the consequences of remaining seated. And I have to remain -- I have to live with the consequences of standing up."
Last year, Ayaan Hirsi Ali left the Dutch parliament, and moved to the United States, where she is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Still under 24-hour police protection, she is now working on the second part of Submission, which will focus on Islam and the issue of homosexual rights. Her autobiography, Infidel: The Story of My Enlightenment, is published in the United States by the Free Press.