A tempered Ayaan Hirsi Ali preaches Muslim integration in the Age of Trump
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Somali-born author and activist best known for her outspoken and sometimes-incendiary critique of Islam.
Throughout four books, she has compared Islam with Nazism, described it as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” and suggested that well-meaning Muslims “pick another God.”
Her overblown rhetoric has gotten her into trouble on more than one occasion — but that was before overblown rhetoric could pave a path to the White House. Based on her statements, Hirsi Ali could easily fit in with the next administration’s anti-Islamist foreign policy. But at age 47, she’s recently begun softening her critique, publicly distinguishing Islamic culture, with its 1,400 years of tradition, from political Islam, the fuel of extremists.
Given her intellectual evolution, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d agree with Donald Trump’s rhetorical jihad on Muslims — including calls for a nationwide Muslim registry and a ban on Muslim immigration. So when she visited Los Angeles last week to speak at the women’s-only salon series Inher Circle, founded and curated by philanthropist Beth Friedman, I thought I’d ask her.
“If I look at just the Islamic statements [Trump] made during the campaign, he’s someone who knows that something is up,” Hirsi Ali said to the room of 100 women who paid $135 each to hear her speak at The Peninsula. But then she digressed into a prolix answer that belied her accord with the president-elect.
“If he had said, ‘Let’s ban all Hindus until we figure out what is going on,’ I think everyone would have thought, ‘What’s up with the Hindus?’
“After 9/11, I think we should be very specific about making a distinction between Islam and Muslims. I take the position that not all Muslims are violent or misogynistic; I think in fact that the majority of Muslims are like all other people — many are peace-loving and many suffer because of Sharia law. And it’s crucial that we understand this diversity — those who are advancing an agenda that is hostile to our way of life, [those] who are on the fence, and [those] who are risking their lives to reform Islam from within,” she said. “If we fail to make that distinction, then we are lost. Then we get into a place where we start to make really bad policy mistakes.”
Behold, the woman who has called for Islam to reform its views has modeled moderation by reforming her own. This is to her credit; a capacity for critical thinking that enables even critical self-reflection is disabling to critics who accuse her of being radical herself. And it’s no secret Hirsi Ali was declared persona non grata by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labeled her an “anti-Muslim extremist,” which caused considerable backlash of its own. Is a staunch critic of Islam necessarily anti-Muslim?
“I grew up in a Muslim household, and I have the common sense to say I can distinguish between those who mean harm, those who don’t, and those who are in between,” she said. “President [Barack] Obama, and before him President [George W.] Bush, stood before us on world platforms and said, ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ Excuse my language, but that’s bull—-. It is not bigoted to say that that is bull—-.”
So she hasn’t softened entirely. But one expects a devoted fearlessness from a woman whose biography tested her will at every turn. Having spent her childhood crisscrossing between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, Hirsi Ali was thoroughly indoctrinated into the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Shortly after she was born, her political activist father was imprisoned for opposing the ruling government in Somalia. While he fulfilled his prison sentence, Hirsi Ali’s grandmother defied his wishes and arranged for 5-year-old Hirsi Ali to undergo female genital mutilation.
By the time she was a teenager, Hirsi Ali had adopted a lifestyle in compliance with the strictest dictates of the Quran. But the final straw was when she was forced into marriage with a cousin in Canada. “If I went to Canada, I would then live as the wife of that man, I would have children with him and I would be forever miserable just like my mother was miserable, just like all the women around me were miserable.”
On her way there, she seized the opportunity to escape the Sharia shackles of her youth, skipped her connection in Germany and took a train to the Netherlands where she was granted political asylum.
What if a Muslim ban had prevented her from the liberation she relishes now?
“I have been in the place where I had to knock on the door of a free country and say, ‘Please let me in,’ ” she said, responding to a question from former CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin. “And as soon as I was let in, I started to adapt.”
Hirsi Ali differentiated, however, between different kinds of immigrants — those who adapt, those who are ambivalent about integration and “fanatics” who want to impose their way of life on their host country. Not everyone uses their new freedom to fight for the rights of others as she has for oppressed women, “but the minimum is that you adjust.”
“One has to remember that whatever [immigration] policy is applied, it’s applied to human beings. It changes lives — it’s men, it’s women, it’s children, it’s families.”
I asked her privately if, now that she has a free life in America, she fears what the next administration might bring. “Trump isn’t regime change,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You know what keeps me up at night? [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.”
Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal