Ayaan Hirsi Ali is persona non grata in many Muslim circles. Fiercely independent and with little concern for the sensibilities of others, she is not afraid to take Muslims out of their comfort zone.
The writer, award-winning human rights activist and former politician openly states that she is an ex-Muslim, and that she does not believe in any divine figure.
Given the suffering she went through as a child in war-torn Somalia and through genital mutilation, I cannot help but admire her to some extent. Suffering generates its own reverence.
Many Muslims have attacked Ayaan for her ignorance of Islam as well as for her links with far-right groups in the Netherlands - which gave her political asylum and where she became a member of Parliament - and now in the United States. She certainly has become a darling of cultural warriors who are fond of her “insider” critique and “exposure” of aspects of Islam and Muslim cultures which Muslims allegedly try to hide.
Whatever one may think of her leaving Islam, Ayaan’s knowledge of the Muslim societies she condemns is certainly lacking. I discovered this during a robust 45-minute discussion with her on June 5 in Sydney. Our discussion covered political, social, cultural and theological issues.
Ayaan was in Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Although she was chief guest, many in the writers’ establishment were sceptical of her. After being exposed as an immigration fraud (she had used the word “fraud” to describe her asylum application during an interview with Dutch journalist), she left the Netherlands in disgrace.
Some years back, a number of Australian writers’ festivals had made a huge issue of Norma Khoury, the author of Forbidden Love, a book dealing with the “honour killing” of her Jordanian Muslim friend Dalia. Norma claimed to be in hiding in Queensland, allegedly fearing for her life from Dalia’s family members. Her book became a huge bestseller and was used by cultural warriors to attack Muslim cultures and to reinforce the stereotype of violence in Muslim families. Norma was regarded as an untouchable figure in Australia.
However, taking enormous personal risks and following an 18-month investigation in three countries, then literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Malcolm Knox declared her a literary fraud. The writing establishment and her publishers ended up with egg on their faces. It’s little wonder so many have been cautious about embracing Ayaan.
Doubts about claims
I must say I have my own doubts about her claims. I reviewed her book The Caged Virgin for The Australian in October 2006. The book is a collection of speeches and articles delivered and written mainly during her period as a member of the Dutch Parliament.
In May last year, following the broadcast of an investigative program on Dutch TV, Ayaan admitted to telling lies about her migration status. The Dutch journalists exposed her as a serial liar who made numerous claims about her family, her past, the countries in which she lived and the circumstances of her allegedly forced marriage.
Those revelations led to Ayaan resigning from Parliament and the downfall of the conservative Dutch government. To many of her Dutch former supporters, she was a hypocrite who happily campaigned for other asylum seekers to be forcibly removed for telling less significant untruths than the ones she told.
It’s unclear whether Ayaan will last very long in the lap of conservatives in America, where she is attached to a think-tank. I have many doubts about her knowledge of her ancestral faith, but I have no doubt about her ability to speak her mind. Her views on abortion and creation science will not sit well with an American conservative establishment that builds its support base on conservative protestant Christians.
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