Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 40, might still be living in hiding but she remains as radical a critic of Islam as ever.
Author of the memoir Infidel, Dutch writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC. Staying under a pseudonym at her Jaipur hotel, absent from the festival programme and moving with a bodyguard, Ali chatted easily during the discreet interview that was tightly scheduled a day in advance. Excerpts:
Do you keep any hope from the moderate wing of Islam?
We have to make a separation between Islam and Muslims. Muslims as humans and individuals are obviously capable of changing their minds. I was born a Muslim and I’m no longer a Muslim. But Islamic theology – Islam means submission to the Allah – if you compare that theology to western liberal thought, you’ll find very quickly that they’re not only incompatible but very hostile to one another. I find hope in individual Muslim men and women, and especially young children. Instead of educating children in the theology of Islam, it’s much better to educate them in the values of the Enlightenment.
Do you feel you must repudiate Islam drastically to be able to take a firm public stand against it?
I think values clash. You have to take a very clear position. It doesn’t have to be a radical position, but it should be a clear position. My journey of coming out of Islam simply demonstrates that it is possible for a Muslim individual to change his or her mind. And I have to make it very clear, and in the language of the Enlightenment, in accessible language – this is the moral framework my parents gave me, here’s why I left it, and here’s the new moral framework that I’ve adopted. If you get too woolly about it, the message gets lost. And that benefits only the fundamentalists, because they are very clear in their standpoint and in spreading Islam – they tell you this is halaal, this is haraam, this is forbidden, you should pray five times a day, you should combat the infidels, and if they don’t convert willingly then kill them or avoid them. There are all sorts of stages for apostates. This is how you should treat women and gay people. They are very explicit about what Islam tells you to do. And you can’t take drones and shoot ideas out of people’s heads. What you can do is take a very clear position and explain to people why those [other] values are wrong and their consequences, which are clear today.
Do you see the spread of Islam as a problem?
I see it today as the greatest problem in history. Even if people don’t resort to terror and violence, still it’s a closing of the Muslim mind. A closing of the human mind. Because Islam doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. You follow a man who tells you this is halaal and this is haraam. Islam also persuades you to invest in the hereafter, in life after death. I think that’s bad for people in general, even if they don’t become violent. The question that was posed in the first panel [at the JLF called Conspiracy, that I missed] and I couldn’t answer, I wanted to say – it’s much better to come with a theology of life, a theology that helps you invest in life here on earth. And if you want to know why the Muslim world is lagging behind [the rest], it’s because of this investment in the hereafter.
Why is the burqa such a contemporary problem today?
When the veil is discussed in the West, unfortunately the discussion is limited to the piece of textile. Should you cover your hair or your eyes, etc. That’s unfortunate, because we shouldn’t talk so much about how big this piece is, and what kind is worn in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, but we should talk about what it stands for. The veil stands for the idea that the woman’s body is seductive – it arouses the man. And if that happens, men cannot control their sexuality – and so the best way to help men control their sexuality is to cover women. If we talk about that, then I think the women who now wear and flaunt it will have to ask themselves the following question – is it [for] me to protect a man from his own sexuality, or should he learn to control his desires and urges? Now, empirically, we’ve seen in India, China, the West, men are capable of controlling their urges – and so that makes the burqa redundant.
A second reason, and this is why you see articulate, well-educated, verbal women wearing the burqa is that it’s an expression of a political view. This political view is that Islam is a political theory, it’s the best theory, and sharia law should be implemented. It’s like covering yourself with a flag, it’s one big demonstration. And so when it’s about political reasons, then you should address the political matter of discussing sharia law.
What’s the link with Islam that targets individuals like you or Rushdie? 9/11 was a while ago but we still discuss it constantly. What has changed?
The people who disagreed with Samuel Huntington about a clash of civilisations didn’t win the argument, but they won office and policy. You see it from when Salman Rushdie was threatened – by defining that as an isolated incident, by disassociating it from civilisation – it’s Khomeini, he’s a radical, it’s just Iran and only Rushdie and we’ll just deal with it and the problem will go away. Increasingly, Huntington’s thesis is becoming more and more plausible.
The Dutch stopping my security was to show Muslims in Holland – we are on your side. It’s a gesture of appeasement, with the intent behind it that that’s the way to pacify radical Islam. Give them aid, appease them, abstain from criticising their religion, let them build their mosques, let them have their way, and pretty soon they’ll see that we’re good, they’ll see things our way. And nine years after 9/11, we’re seeing quite the opposite is happening. The more aid that’s given to Pakistan, for instance, the more it disintegrates, the more radical it becomes – in fact, those monies are used to radicalise, and to continue what according to Islamists is their value system – they believe in it, it’s a conviction [about] their civilisation.
Next year, a decade after 9/11, this is my prediction – people will go back and say Samuel Huntington was right. I think there’s going to be a paradigm shift very soon.
Do you believe in the clash of civilisations?
Yes. Huntington’s hypothesis, as far as it relates to Islam, has been chillingly accurate.
How do you compare Europe’s appeasement of Muslims to the situation in America?
The difference is that income and education levels of American Muslims are higher on average than those in Europe. But still, there is a trend of radicalisation and jihadisation in the US, manifesting itself in the number of Islamic centres that are being built. Saudi Arabia and Gulf states like the Emirates and Kuwait are putting a lot of money into campuses to propagate the idea that Islam is peace, at one with the West, etc. Meanwhile, they’re using those campuses to radicalise young, highly educated and potentially high-income students into the most radical, most Wahabist version of Islam.
Within radical Islam there’re two groups. One believes in violent means. Someone like Tariq Ramadan believes in gradualism – achieving your goals through democratic means, using freedoms to get rid of freedoms. I think that al Qaeda will continue to use violence, and that is Islam’s suicide. When you have more and more [such things] – like the Nigerian who filled his underwear with explosives – that’s going to wake Americans and Europeans up. And I hope it wakes them up not only to the al Qaeda-like violence, but also to the gradualists.
Would you like to settle again in Europe?
No. I’ll go back on visits and books tours, but I’ve settled in the United States. I feel safer there. I’m also tired. I’ve been a nomad all my life (laughs). I’m tired of moving from one place to the next. I’m 40 years old. It’s just good to have a home base, and when it comes to maximum freedom and security and finding a balance between those, and a job I love with an organisation that’s really been wonderful to me, then I have it all.