Absolute Infidel: The Evolution of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Among the many Muslim and ex-Muslim women currently commenting on Islam, particularly in regard to women’s issues, humanists are probably most familiar with four: Taslima Nasrin, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Though these women come from distinctly different backgrounds, all are vilified by Muslim extremists and live to varying degrees in fear for their lives, and all have left Islam (except Manji, the Canadian feminist, author, and activist, who regards herself as a devout Muslim while making no apologies for her lesbian sexual orientation).

Hirsi Ali, however, is surely the most talked about and controversial of the four, having authored a critically praised and widely read book, Infidel (2007), describing her remarkable personal journey. A major factor contributing to her notoriety is the uncompromising and seemingly fearless manner in which she speaks her mind, evoking a wide range of reactions: from adulation to loathing among her non-Muslim readers and mostly resentment and anger among Muslims.

One of the more unusual aspects of her career, described in detail in Infidel, has been its political side, which in the highly charged atmosphere of the early twenty-first century has perhaps inevitably had strong overtones reaching well beyond her personal life. Since September 2006 she has been a resident fellow of the powerful American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, a fact that can’t be ignored in interpreting her current mindset.



Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969 as Ayaan Hirsi Magan. Her father, Western-educated Hirsi Magan Isse, a leader of his tribe and of the opposition Salvation Democratic Front, was imprisoned when she was two-years-old. Against her mother’s wishes he insisted that their daughters receive an education. He was also adamantly opposed to female genital mutilation, a tribal practice common in sub-Saharan Africa, but while he was in prison her grandmother had the extremely traumatic procedure performed on five-year-old Ayaan and her younger sister Haweya.

A year later her father escaped from prison, and her extended family began a series of moves: to Saudi Arabia (three years), Ethiopia (about a year), and Kenya (twelve years, with an interlude of several months in Somalia). Her father lived with the family at the beginning and the end of this period, but much of the time he was away.

Throughout most of this exile Hirsi Ali experienced the strict Saudi form of Islam. She and her sister attended girls’ schools. She also studied the Quran under male tutors at home or in outside classes. One tutor was sent away when she and her sister refused to give the book their attention, but he later returned and attacked her, beating her and hitting her head against a wall, causing a skull fracture that she believes nearly killed her.

Much later Hirsi Ali fell in with a youth group espousing the views of Egyptian writers Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Sayyid Qutb (now often called the father of radical Islam). She was inspired and enthralled with their ideas about “true Islam.” From the beginning, however, she experienced doubts, especially when the subject was the different roles of men and women. She began to find the rhetoric predictable and less inspiring, and the teachings inconsistent. Still, at nineteen she strongly approved of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of February 14, 1989, against Salman Rushdie, thinking that if he had insulted the Prophet he deserved to die.

All along, her adolescence was further complicated by a series of threatening attractions to males–her brother’s friends and her religious teachers and group leaders. She was especially disturbed when one of these wanted to kiss her while at the same time publicly preaching abstinence. She rejected another promising suitor when he turned out to be an atheist.



In 1992 Hirsi Ali’s father promised her in marriage to a distant relative living in Canada. She was to go from Kenya to Canada via Germany, where she would visit relatives. At first she reluctantly went along. But while in Germany on July 24, she escaped the arranged marriage on an impulse by taking a train to the Netherlands, doing so under the ruse of visiting another relative. She sought and was granted political asylum there and received a residence permit. To keep her family from finding her, she gave the surname by which she is now known: Hirsi Ali.

But because forced marriage was insufficient grounds for refugee status in the Netherlands, she also claimed she had fled persecution in Somalia. The false information she gave on both these counts would later haunt her, though she confided the facts to those who knew her.

Hirsi Ali held various low-level jobs while learning Dutch and studying social work, skills she later used as an independent Somali-Dutch interpreter/translator for a variety of social agencies, including the National Migration Service. Working in this capacity from 1995 to 2001, she was horrified to learn, repeatedly, that Somali cultural practices like wife beating, female genital mutilation, and honor killings existed in the Netherlands.

In September 2000 she earned a master’s degree in political science from the distinguished University of Leiden. For the next several months she tried several different jobs without much satisfaction. Then in June 2001 Hirsi Ali was “thrilled” to be offered a job as a fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, the think tank of the Dutch Labor (social democratic) Party. Her first assignment was to investigate why many Muslim immigrants failed to be integrated into Dutch society and the threat this posed to the country’s welfare state.



Hirsi Ali was just eight days into her job with the foundation when the events of September 11, 2001, unfolded. She and her colleagues gathered in horror around a television to watch coverage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. After seeing Muslim children on television celebrating the tragedy, and checking Osama bin Laden’s justification of those attacks with citations of verses from the Quran and sayings of Muhammad, she became convinced that bin Laden’s claims were true. That is, she began to believe that Islam itself was responsible for those attacks. Moreover, the complacent response of the Dutch and their misunderstanding of Islam profoundly disturbed her.

During the following period of transition and introspection, Hirsi Ali’s research with the foundation began to convince her that Dutch multiculturalism, which created separate “pillars” or immigrant communities organized by culture or religion, made immigrants feel like members of a separate group rather than citizens of the nation. It became clear to her that this system let Muslim immigrants practice Muslim traditions–even some that contradicted Dutch law, in a way that most Dutch citizens would never tolerate among themselves. In short, the cultural relativists were endangering their own societies while Muslims, especially Muslim women, became victims of their own cultures.

During that year Hirsi Ali began to accept every opportunity to express her opinions in articles and on television. What she had to say about Islam and its treatment of women and about multiculturalism as practiced in Dutch society gained her the approval and admiration of some and the hatred of others. A few in the latter group made threats against her, requiring her to avoid being seen publicly and to travel with bodyguards.

In 2002 she read The Atheist Manifesto by Leiden philosopher Herman Philipse, given to her years before by her Dutch boyfriend. It deeply influenced her, giving her strength not only to denounce Islam but to acknowledge her disbelief in God.

Later that year Hirsi Ali switched from the Labor Party to the more conservative VVD Party (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, also known as the Liberal Party), and was persuaded to run for Parliament on the VVD ticket. The VVD’s primary mission is to staunchly defend the free market, advocating minimal government regulation. It views the government’s chief function as providing security. Its focus was made clear to her early on when an elder of the party quizzed her: “Why do you want to be with us? We’re entrepreneurs. What do you know about business?” She was ready for him, giving a long answer culminating in the sentence, “The oppression of women in Holland is against the philosophy of your party.” Accepted by the VVD, she won her seat.



Hirsi Ali entered the lower house of the Dutch parliament on January 30, 2003. After this she became even more publicly critical of Islam and Islamic culture. In the process of leaving the faith she had come to regard Islam as a monolith–to think of it as unchanged since the time of the Prophet Mohammed, although she knew very little about its complex developmental history; and to conflate all forms of Islam practiced everywhere, though she had little knowledge of its actual diversity in the lives of individual Muslims in quite different subcultures. Finally, she had come to believe that wherever Islam is practiced it should be held responsible for any mistreatment of women.

The next three-and-a-half years were filled with a series of marked highs and lows. During 2004 she saw the publication in Dutch of her collected essays, lectures, and autobiographical accounts of her experiences as a translator, in which she forcefully expounded her militant atheism and her criticisms of the position of women in Islam. She also collaborated with well-known Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a short film she had written called Submission (the translation of the word “Islam”). In it, Quranic verses they saw as especially oppressive to women were written on the bodies of women wearing transparent clothing. As expected, the film, broadcast on Dutch television on August 29, 2004, infuriated the Muslim population and both filmmakers were threatened with death.

She had by now already been under the protection of bodyguards for two years, but van Gogh refused any protection. On November 2, 2004, in broad daylight, he was brutally murdered on an Amsterdam street. He was shot and stabbed, the knife left pinning a letter to his chest addressed to Hirsi Ali, threatening her and all other nonbelievers. She immediately went into hiding. The murderer was later apprehended and turned out to be a Moroccan Muslim immigrant. The death of van Gogh led Hirsi Ali into prolonged self-recrimination and perpetual fear for her life.

Still, during this same period she was honored by a long string of awards. One, in particular, on April 18, 2005, was her inclusion in Time magazine’s list of the year’s 100 most influential people in the world. The category was “Leaders and Revolutionaries,” and her profile was written by Irshad Manji. Seemingly undaunted, she prepared an English translation of her 2004 book, entitled The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam (2006).

She also came under close scrutiny by the Dutch government, ostensibly because of the false statements she had made when she first arrived. Thus on May 16, 2006, her Dutch citizenship was revoked and she resigned from Parliament. But a month later, after a fierce debate in Parliament, her citizenship was reinstated. She decided to retain it, and on the same day accepted an invitation from Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, to become a research fellow there, beginning in September. She moved to the United States along with a team of bodyguards assigned to her by the Dutch government.



The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ideological cousin of the Dutch VVD Party, was founded in 1943. Its stated mission is “to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism–limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.” Always conservative and business-oriented, its policies since 1986 have been closely identified with DeMuth, who became its president after serving in the White House under Presidents Richard Nixon (1969-70) and Ronald Reagan (1981-84), where his principal areas of expertise were in law and economics as applied to health, the environment, and especially government regulation. His 1995 book, The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol, was published by AEI Press. (The neoconservative movement and Kristol, its principal founder, have been closely associated with the Institute since the movement began.)

With the marked rise of the neoconservatives during the administration of George W. Bush, AEI has become even more influential. According to Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, it was DeMuth who was asked to assemble an elite group of a dozen experts, including Professor Bernard Lewis, on November 29, 2001, for a weekend of discussion to produce a strategic report on the Middle East. The report, called “Delta of Terrorism,” concluded that a war was going on within Islam, and that the most vulnerable and menacing threat was Saddam Hussein. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s representative in the group said, “We’re facing a two-generation war. And start with Iraq.” In short, it was these experts who made the definitive argument for the invasion of Iraq.

On March 20, 2007, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was well established as an AEI fellow when the Irving Kristol Lecture was delivered by Bernard Lewis, for whom she has expressed great admiration. On this occasion Professor Lewis was speaking on a topic close to her heart, “Europe and Islam.” His theme was appropriately grave: “In the eyes of a fanatical and resolute minority of Muslims, the third wave of the attack on Europe has begun,” the first attack having dated “from the very beginning of Islam.”

This exemplifies the heady neoconservative environment Hirsi Ali joined in her desire to concentrate her thoughts in a scholarly milieu upon the nuances of Islamic history. But her stay in the United States was abruptly cut short when the Dutch government announced that it would no longer be responsible for her security if she remained here. On October 1, 2007, Hirsi Ali returned to the Netherlands. It seemed to be the government’s intention for her to live there indefinitely under guard in a secret location, but she evidently thought otherwise, fighting publicly for the matter to be resolved to her satisfaction. Clearly she would be satisfied only with full government financing of her security together with complete freedom of her speech and mobility. As recently as November 21, the outcome remained uncertain.



It’s worth asking: what effect, if any, has Hirsi Ali’s brief time at AEI had on the development of her ideas?
She has been interviewed many times in the past year. By far the most informative interview she has given was an extensive and at times challenging exchange with Dutch-born journalist Rogier van Bakel in the November 2007 issue of the Libertarian magazine Reason. She began by saying that, in spite of an initial aversion to the AEI (because she “thought they would be religious”), she finally chose it because they were “enthusiastic about” her, and none of the other Washington institutions she visited seemed to offer a good match. (One of those she mentioned was Georgetown University, where it has been reliably reported that most of the Muslim and non-Muslim women in one class studying Islam had expressed offense at some of her anti-Islamic views.) “[At AEI] I have complete freedom of thought, freedom of expression,” Hirsi Ali added. “No one here imposed their religion on me, and I don’t impose my atheism on them.”

When asked, “Do you see eye to eye with high-profile AEI hawks such as former Bush speechwriter David Frum and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton?” she replied, “Most of the time I do. For instance, I completely and utterly agree with John Bolton that talking to Iran is a sheer waste of time.”

The following exchange was particularly revealing:

Q: Do you think Islam could bring about [desirable] social and political changes?

A: Only if Islam is defeated.

Q: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

A: No. Islam, period.

Q: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?

A: I think that we are at war with Islam..you crush your enemy.

Q: Militarily?

A: In all forms.

Q: Are we really heading toward anything so ominous?

A: I think that’s where we’re heading.

Asked to respond to the comment that “we are not at war with Islam,” she offered, without answering directly, “There is no moderate Islam.”

Q: So when even..Daniel Pipes says, “Radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution,” he’s wrong?

A: He’s wrong. Sorry about that.



Hirsi Ali and her writings have many merits. Millions of people around the world celebrate her liberation from the hardships and horrors of her childhood years and rejoice in her emancipation into an intellectually more fulfilled adult woman. Beyond this, she wants to share her joy with others, wants to teach them what she has learned, and hopes that they will become as free as she is.

Though she has won universal approval for her eagerness to help other individuals who have suffered human rights abuses, a storm of controversy has arisen over her criticism of certain morally and legally relativistic forms of multiculturalism. These practices are stoutly defended by many who may consider themselves social liberals, not only in the Netherlands but elsewhere in Europe, on the grounds that they are “respectful of other cultures.” But as Hirsi Ali correctly points out, such an argument ignores fundamental principles of human rights. No matter how they may be rationalized by their supporters, when laws and customs turn a blind eye to human rights abuses if and only if they occur in the context of minority communities, they inevitably injure some members of these communities. What may ultimately be even worse is that they tend, apartheid-like, to prevent genuine integration of both the injured individuals and the communities into the larger society. They are perhaps best understood as racist vestiges of colonialism, motivated more by a desire for low-cost labor (“guest workers”) than by sympathy or understanding for the workers, their families, or their cultures.

So far so good. But the methods she has chosen for achieving her desirable goals, and the results they would be likely to achieve if widely adopted, are another matter. Her approach is poorly informed about the past and present of Islam, ineffectual at best, mainly counter-productive, and at worst potentially catastrophic in its consequences. It is here, too, that the influences of her principal intellectual environments since 2003–the VVD Party in the Netherlands and the American Enterprise Institute in the United States–taken as a whole, have clearly discouraged her development as a well-balanced defender of human rights and security.

Hirsi Ali’s prior experience of Islam was confined to her youthful and often painful life in Africa: the tribal variety in Somalia, the strict Wahhabi version in Saudi Arabia, and in Kenya the Islamist political formulations of the Muslim Brothers and even more radical Sayyid Qutb–all followed by her intense contact with mainly African (e.g., Somali and Moroccan) immigrant women who had suffered abuse in the Netherlands. She knew little about the complex history of Islam in other times and other places.

With this background she was much too quick to accept Osama bin Laden’s novel revolutionary interpretations of the Quran as “truth.” She didn’t acknowledge that such tribal practices as female genital mutilation and “honor killings” were contrary to Islamic (Sharia) law. She didn’t sympathize with Muslim women who told her that her insulting and inaccurate generalizations about Islam were harmful to their own efforts to reform Islam and improve the position of women. She wasn’t impressed by Muslim women who said that they had loving relationships with their own husbands, and that Islam wasn’t a problem for them. She didn’t recognize the efforts of “progressive” and secular Muslims to introduce reforms or “renew” Islam to make it more compatible with democracy and human rights. Perhaps most importantly, she didn’t take into account the predictable loss of trust that her complete rejection of Islam and embrace of atheism would create among those whose lives and relationships were centered on Islam.

Now, after a year in the United States, when she appears to favor “war against Islam” unconditionally, readers may ask what she might actually mean by this. In further refusing to acknowledge the existence of such an entity as “moderate Islam” and thereby positioning herself to the right of right-wing author Daniel Pipes, who has far better knowledge of the history of Islam, she ends up in a tiny minority of ultra-right, anti-Islamic commentators on these fundamental issues. Incidentally, these extreme conclusions go far beyond any of her published statements before her year with the American Enterprise Institute.

But there is a better way. Hirsi Ali has sometimes characterized allusions to moderate, benign, and peaceful forms of Islam as “wishful thinking.” In the light of Islamic history and prospects for the future, “hopeful” would seem a better word. More importantly, if solutions to the current impasse between radical Islam and modern society are to be found, it will be necessary for people of good will to work toward building a world where the beneficent features of Islam are encouraged to grow, naturally and spontaneously, and the noxious, destructive interpretations of Islam allowed to languish.

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