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'Enlightenment Fundamentalist' Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on Reforming Islam


As a little girl in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was subjected by a grandmother to the traditional practice of female genital mutilation. The daughter of a dissident Somali politician, she spent much of her childhood in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. When her family forced her into an unwanted marriage in 1992, Ayaan Hirsi Ali ran away to the Netherlands, where she claimed asylum. She spoke out against Muslim radicalism following the 9/11 terror attacks, and was elected to the Dutch parliament. It was the beginning of a life as an activist and author that has resulted in death threats and fatwahs sworn against her by fundamentalist Muslim clerics.

In 2004, the broadcast in Holland of the short film, Submission, criticizing the treatment of women in traditional Islam, led to the murder of Dutch director Theo Van Gogh. The Islamic radical who killed Van Gogh left a note pinned to his body with a knife that named the writer of the film, Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as his next intended victim.

Ali was then a member of the Dutch parliament and a critic of fundamentalist Islam, whose books include The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. After repeated death threats, Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch parliament last year, and moved to the United States. She spoke to VOA recently, explaining how the 9/11 terror attacks led her to become what she calls a Muslim atheist.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “My response was, this is done in my faith, and my faith is Islam. And I thought I don’t agree with it, and I got into a conflict of conscience. Do I agree with what is done in the name of the Koran, because that is what bin Laden and Mohammed Atta quoted? Do I agree with my God, or do I disagree? And if I disagree, I know I’m earning Hell. So I had to work that out first.

Reporter: But many Muslims responded to 9/11 by saying, ‘They did it in the name of the Koran, but they were wrong, this is not Islam.’

Well, they were wrong, and the act of killing people indiscriminately is wrong, we agree on all that. But the quotations from the Koran are in there. And my approach is that it doesn’t change anything if you close your eyes to the facts. And we can only prevent other young people from subscribing to the wrong quotations from the Koran, if we accept that those urges towards violence and domination are in the Koran, and try to reform that, and change that. That’s my approach.

However, rather than reform it, you found that you were no longer a believer at all?

I decided -- and it’s a private decision, I am not propagating atheism – but I decided that I do not believe in the existence of a hell and a heaven and a hereafter. Because, honestly, I realized that was the biggest fear I had to face when I got into this conflict of conscience. In order to be in a good place in the hereafter, to go to heaven, I did not dare challenge God. And what I did was, I decided to challenge what is written in the Koran, by saying, I do not wish to be part of a killing spree. I do not wish to be a part of domination. I want to live and I want others to live, and I love life and I love life on earth. So that is something I relinquished for myself, but I do not propagate that every Muslim become an atheist.

You’ve been very critical though of Islam, and even of the Prophet.

Yes, the Prophet Mohammed says he is an example to us throughout, not only in the seventh and eighth centuries, but in the 21st century. Humanity has moved on. We can use the Prophet Mohammed as an example in all the things that I think are morally sound, such as hospitality, such as being kind to the poor and the elderly. But I do not want to follow the Prophet Mohammed as an example when he says, kill the unbelievers, ambush them and take their property. Disobedient wives should be beaten. When he divides the world into believers and unbelievers, I do not want to follow the Prophet Mohammed in that sort of morality.

So you wouldn’t take everything that he says literally, but rather metaphorically…

You can take it metaphorically. You can also say, I’m going to see some of his conduct, such as marrying a nine-year-old child, in the context of the morality of the 7th century in that part of the world. We’ve moved on now. We can say, we’re not going to judge the Prophet Mohammed’s morality in hindsight, but we’re not going to follow that morality. And if you look at all the Arab countries, the Muslim countries, where little girls are married off to older men, they all justify it as ‘that’s the way the Prophet did it, and I am following in the example of the Prophet.’

And yet many good people who are Muslims somehow are able to reconcile that, maybe by simply not thinking about the literal fact of a marriage to a nine-year-old. And it would be very painful to them to hear you criticize the person whom they revere more than anything.

I understand that. But let’s empathize with a nine-year-old child living in Saudi Arabia, or in Jordan, or in Sudan, who is being raped night-in, night-out, by someone who is 20 or 30 years older than she is, and that man justifies his act in the name of the Prophet. I do not want to insult or offend fellow Muslims. I just want to say, if we want to change inhuman practices practiced in the name of our faith, then the only way to go about it is to say, we will look at those who are suffering. And it is the young woman who is being raped, it is the Jewish minorities who are being oppressed, or the Christian minorities.

We want to stand up for our own rights here, in countries where Christians and non-Muslims are a majority. And we are succeeding in that. But when you look at Muslim countries, Arab Muslim countries, look at the way they treat minorities. And that’s all done in the name of our faith. I’m just asking for equal moral standards. Let’s judge ourselves as we judge others

How did you come to write the screenplay for Submission, which led to the death of your director?

Theo Van Gogh. I was challenged that the Koran says only wonderful things about women. And I was brought up with the Koran, so I know exactly what the Koran says, and I could find those particular verses in which, for example, God tells husbands, ‘When you fear misconduct, warn your wives, leave them alone in bed, and beat them.’ And there were Imams in Spain and in France and in Holland and in England who were preaching from the mosques and who were saying beat disobedient wives. And so I took verses like those and had them written on women’s bodies, actresses, who then depicted the image of a woman who was beaten, one who was raped.

And that was to show, this is what it looks like. To you it’s a holy verse, but when it’s carried out, this is what it looks like. And the man who killed Theo Van Gogh, killed him because he thought the verse was so holy, these were such holy verses, and so great and so elevated – and they were written on a surface so low: women. And that was such an insult to God and to the Koran, that the man who directed and who made this should be killed. When we talk about a clash of civilizations – it’s not a clash of civilizations. It’s this clash. It’s a clash of values. And it’s this sort of mindset, that says a holy text is far more important than a human life – that I fight.”

See part two of VOA’s interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali