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Ayaan Hirsi Ali - no stranger to controversy

By Shakira Hussein - posted Friday, 25 June 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is, to say the very least, no stranger to controversy. Her memoir, Infidel, chronicles her upbringing in Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya and her migration to The Netherlands, where she studied political science and entered public life as an outspoken critic of Islam.

Outrage over her film Submission culminated in the murder of her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, by a Muslim youth who left a death threat addressed to her impaled on his victim's corpse. She resigned as a conservative member of the Dutch parliament after a television documentary pointed out that she had not fled directly from war-torn Somalia, as she had claimed in her asylum application, but from Kenya, where she had lived for many years.

She countered that she had indeed been fleeing: not from a war zone, but from her family's determination to force her into marriage. She was briefly threatened with the loss of her Dutch citizenship, then departed for the US, where she joined the American Enterprise Institute.


In Nomad, Hirsi Ali brings her story up to date and expands her reflections on religion and politics. While the “clash” (as she sees it) between Islam and the Enlightenment remains her focus, her discussion ranges across issues such as multiculturalism, feminism, tribalism, modernity, welfare, education and racism.

In Nomad, Hirsi Ali again uses her family as a starting point, replying to readers who had asked whether the experiences she had used as the basis for her critique of Islam in Infidel were representative of Muslim families in general. She writes that reconnecting with her family underlined her belief that her family's dysfunction was indeed “typical”. Moreover, “the dysfunctional Muslim family constitutes a threat to the very fabric of Western life”.

Infidel describes Hirsi Ali's experience of her immediate family. In Nomad, she also relates the lives of her much younger half-sister and cousins, known to her only through phone calls and second or third-hand family gossip. She fills in the blanks by imagining what they “must have” thought. Based on a single childhood meeting and a series of phone calls, she deduces that her half-sister's failure to take advantage of educational opportunities available to her in Britain is due to her fear of breaking free of her role as a good Muslim woman.

Hirsi Ali's cousin tells her the story of another female relative, who had failed to inform her caring Irish boyfriend that she had tested positive for HIV. Hirsi Ali deduces that the young woman's sexually repressive religious values put her in denial of her engagement in premarital sex (though she had been sufficiently alert to take the test).

Hirsi Ali has telepathic insight into the boyfriend as well: “She's a Muslim girl, she wears a headscarf, she condemns any sort of sexual activity before marriage, so she must be a virgin.” His naivety intersects with his girlfriend's Islamic sexual repression, with tragic results: the couple fail to practice safe sex, and he too becomes infected.

Infidel contains harsh judgments of members of Hirsi Ali's family, but it focuses on her older relatives, whose rank in the family hierarchy gave them authority over her. Her readiness to make rulings on the lives of younger relatives with whom she has had little direct contact seems less well founded, and leaves an unpleasant taste.


She identifies Osama bin Laden as the force who propelled her into declaring herself an infidel. After 9-11, she found al-Qaida's murder of innocents was consistent with Koran. On this issue, bin Laden the jihadist and Hirsi Ali the infidel are in agreement: there is only one Islam, bin Laden's Islam, and Muslims who reject this are either disingenuous or deluded. For Hirsi Ali, there is no clear boundary separating Muslim extremists from moderates. The agents of radicalisation need only awaken the mindset that is inculcated in “almost all” Muslims from early childhood. This is both empirically untrue and strategically dangerous. Hirsi Ali asserts her belief that “Muslim minds can be opened”, if only because the demands of religious observance can become so time-consuming. However, an open mind must first accept that the Islam of Osama bin Laden is the one true Islam, and then search for an alternative belief system. This approach renders Muslims who reject bin Laden part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. And Western attempts to build bridges with such Muslims
are dangerously naïve.

Hirsi Ali identifies the feminist movement and Christian churches as two forces that could do more to combat the “common enemy” of Islamism.

Feminists, she asserts, have begun to “define white men as the ultimate and only oppressors”. She calls on Western feminists to band together to liberate their Muslim sisters, but damsels in distress do not generally welcome a rescue that proclaims the superiority of the rescuers' culture or religion. Since Hirsi Ali believes that feminism and Islam are inherently incompatible, she dismisses Muslim and Western feminists who work together as an irrelevant distraction.

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First published in The Australian in June 2010.

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About the Author

Shakira Hussein is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne specialising in Muslim women, gendered violence and racism.

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