Who is Ayaan Hirsi Ali?


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has based her conclusions on her own and other Muslim women’s experiences of trauma and torture, forces us to confront uncomfortable facts. Brandeis’s treatment of Ali represents a troubling trend that limits freedom of speech on college and university campuses.

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On April 8, Brandeis University President Frederick Lawrence rescinded his plans to bestow upon Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree and have her address the graduating class of 2014. President Lawrence made this decision following his receipt, on April 6, of an open letter signed by eighty-seven Brandeis faculty members.

The faculty letter expressed shock and dismay over “virulently anti-Muslim public statements” that Hirsi Ali made in 2007. Hirsi Ali responded that her detractors quoted her selectively and out of context. The faculty letter states that honoring Hirsi Ali would send a message that forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honor killings are exclusive to Islam. However, Hirsi Ali has repeatedly written and said that these pathologies did not originate with Islam and are not unique to Islam. The faculty letter also makes the absurd claim that honoring Hirsi Ali would obscure the violence that exists “in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus.”

Yesterday, Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio published an article here at Public Discourse that echoed many of the themes in the faculty letter. Ibrahim-Lizzio claims that Hirsi Ali’s public statements exhibit a “harmful lack of nuance” and that she subscribes to a “clash of civilizations” ideology that “fosters an ethos of fear, mistrust, and confrontation.” She writes that Hirsi Ali claims that “Islam qua religion” promotes grotesque acts of violence. Because “civic freedoms come hand-in-hand with responsibilities,” Ibrahim-Lizzio writes, Hirsi Ali does not deserve a role at Brandeis’s graduation.

These statements obscure Hirsi Ali’s achievements as a public intellectual and as a human rights activist. They also represent a troubling trend to limit freedom of speech on college and university campuses.

The Caged Virgin

In The Caged Virgin, published in 2008, Ayaan Hirsi Ali shares her personal experiences as a Muslim woman. Ali was born in 1969 in Somalia, where she suffered genital mutilation at the age of five. Her family lived in exile in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia, and she learned to speak Somali, Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, and English. In Kenya, she was beaten so severely by her Qur’an teacher that he fractured her skull. At Qur’an school, Hirsi Ali remembers a classmate who was bullied mercilessly for being a girl with an intact clitoris. For a while, Hirsi Ali was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and she covered herself from head to foot in a black hijab. “It had a thrill to it,” she wrote. “It made me feel powerful.”

Hirsi Ali learned from her mother that Jews were her darkest enemy. In songs, children’s textbooks, and newspaper articles, Jews were routinely called pigs, donkeys, rats, and cockroaches. “Our religious tutors and the preachers in our mosques set aside extra time to pray for the destruction of Jews,” Hirsi Ali writes. Hirsi Ali writes about the relief that she felt when she finally met Jews and realized that they were ordinary people with their own rich and painful history.

When Hirsi Ali’s father ordered her to marry a distant cousin she had never met, she fled to the Netherlands, where she lived in refugee shelters and worked in factories. As an interpreter for Somali immigrants, Hirsi Ali took a Somali girl to a hospital for a gynecological exam. When the doctor looked between the girl’s legs, he shuddered in horror. The girl had no genitals at all, just a smooth panel of scar tissue between her legs. The excision was so extreme that the girl’s whole genitals had been scraped off and had become a hard band of dark skin. The doctor thought the girl had been burned.

Hirsi Ali went to college, studied political science, and was elected to the Dutch Parliament. In 2004, Hirsi Ali teamed up with Theo van Gogh, a descendant of Vincent van Gogh, to make Submission, a provocative short film that featured troubling verses from the Qur’an inscribed on the bodies of Muslim women.

On November 3, Theo van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan ancestry. Bouyeri slit van Gogh’s throat with a knife and pinned a five-page letter to van Gogh’s stomach with another knife. The letter accused Hirsi Ali of being a tool of Jews, Zionists, and Crusaders. It warned Hirsi Ali that she would be “smashed against the hard diamond of Islam.”

Following the murder, armed bodyguards shuffled Hirsi Ali from secret location to secret location, sometimes several times in one day. Eventually, she found refuge in the United States, and she now works for the American Enterprise Institute. In 2005, Time Magazine named Hirsi Ali as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2007, Hirsi Ali established the AHA Foundation, through which she campaigns against genital mutilation, forced marriage, and honor killings. According to Christopher Hitchens, “The three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali.”


Hirsi Ali renounced Islam following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. “Mohamed Atta was exactly my age,” Hirsi Ali writes in Infidel. “I felt as though I knew him.” At one point in her life, she could have committed the atrocities herself. “This was not just a band of frustrated Egyptian architects in Hamburg,” Hirsi Ali writes. “It had to do with belief [in the] Islam of the Medina Qur’an schools.” This was a turning point for Hirsi Ali. “A little shutter at the back of my mind” snapped opened, she wrote, “and it refused to close.” Hirsi Ali no longer believed that the Qur’an was the word of God. The Qur’an, Hirsi Ali wrote, “is a historical record, written by humans . . . And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events.”

Hirsi Ali recognizes that there is much that is good in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. “My life was enriched by the Qur’anic injunctions to be compassionate and show charity to others,” she writes. She acknowledges that there are versions of Islam that are tolerant and civil. She hopes someday Muslims will reform Islam by separating religion from politics and by taking a historical-critical approach to their sacred texts. She writes that “the West underwent a period of religious warfare and persecution, but then society freed itself from the grip of violent organized religion . . . The same process could occur among the millions of Muslims.”

What secular Muslims have failed to do, Hirsi Ali wrote in The New York Times,

is to come up with a message of opposition that says “yes” to Islam but “no” to Shariah—in other words, a campaign that emphasizes a separation of religion from politics. For Egypt and other Arab nations to escape the tragedy of either tyranny or Shariah, there has to be a third way that separates religion from politics while establishing a representative government, the rule of law, and conditions friendly to trade, investment and employment.

The theme of sexual repression and liberation runs through much of Hirsi Ali’s narrative. Hirsi Ali writes in Nomad:

Every Muslim girl knows that her value relies almost wholly on her hymen, the most essential part of her body, far more important than her brain or limbs. Once the hymen is broken, a girl is a thing used, broken, filthy, her filth contagious.

Voltaire, Spinoza, and Freud introduced Hirsi Ali to an alternative moral system. “Gradually I began to see that the way I had been brought up didn’t work,” Hirsi Ali writes in Infidel. “Excision of my genitals didn’t eliminate the human sex drive, and neither did the fear of hellfire.” Hirsi Ali believes that repression leads to hypocrisy, and it fails to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease.

Ibrahim-Lizzio’s article raises legitimate questions about the adequacy of Hirsi Ali’s analysis. Hirsi Ali tends to conflate Islam and Islamism, and her description of life under shari‘a is true of Somalia and Saudi Arabia but is not true in much of the Muslim world. Hirsi Ali tends to be skeptical of possibilities of reform within Islam, and she has too high a view of Enlightenment rationalism.

But Hirsi Ali, who has based her conclusions on her own and other Muslim women’s experiences of trauma and torture, also forces us to confront uncomfortable facts. Of the 136 countries ranked by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in 2013, the bottom ten are all Muslim-majority countries. No Muslim country ranks in the top thirty. As Nicholas Kristof writes, “Countries where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the workplace typically have large Muslim populations.”


The week before Hirsi Ali was disinvited to speak at the Brandeis commencement, the Universities of Illinois and Michigan canceled screenings of Honor Diaries following accusations that the film is “Islamophobic.” Honor Diaries won the St. Louis International Film Festival Interfaith Award and was an official selection at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film brings together nine women from different cultural backgrounds to discuss gender inequality, honor-based violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. The film features Hirsi Ali alongside Muslim, Christian, and Sikh women who are working together to combat the abuse of woman.

This year’s efforts to silence Hirsi Ali on college campuses follow a troubling trend on American college campuses to shut down academic freedom of expression. Two-thirds of American universities now have speech codes that ban speech and artwork that is offensive to minority groups. In 2012, Purdue University canceled a talk entitled “The Nazi Roots of Anti-Semitism” by Peggy Shapiro, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. In 2012, Harvard University canceled Professor Subramanian Swamy’s classes following an editorial that he wrote in an Indian newspaper in response to terrorist attacks in Bombay.

In 2009, Yale University Press removed all illustrations of Muhammad from a book on the Danish cartoon crisis, and it removed Gustave Doré’s nineteenth-century illustration of Muhammad from its edition of Dante’s Inferno. In 2009, St. Louis University blocked conservative writer David Horowitz from speaking on campus to the College Republicans. In 2007, Tufts University found a student newspaper guilty of harassment for publishing a satire of “Islamic Awareness Week.” If these colleges and universities applied the same rules to criticism of Christianity and Judaism that they apply to criticism of Islam, they would cease to exist.

Limits of free speech are especially vexing in environments like Brandeis, a school that routinely rewards expressions of contempt for Christianity, Judaism, Israel, and America. In 2006, for example, Brandeis University bestowed an honorary degree upon Tony Kushner, who called the creation of Israel as a Jewish state a mistake and who attacked Israel for ethnic cleansing and for causing “terrible peril in the world.” Tony Kushner’s views are well within the limits of what a university should tolerate. So are Hirsi Ali’s.

Ibrahim-Lizzio calls Lawrence’s decision to rescind his invitation to Hirsi Ali “necessary and responsible” because Hirsi Ali “fails to fulfill her responsibility to [criticize Islam] without resorting to sensationalism and overgeneralizations.” Ibrahim-Lizzio suggests that Hirsi Ali speak at Brandeis “at a future forum,” an event that Brandeis could control and monitor. All this betrays a principle that lies at the heart of liberal education. The post-Enlightenment university does not exist to respect religious beliefs. It exists to debate religious beliefs, especially those beliefs that thwart human rights.

When Hirsi Ali first came to the United States, she delivered a speech to a packed auditorium at Scripps College in Claremont, California. A woman cried out from the audience, “Who the hell gives you the right to talk about Islam?” An undergraduate yelled back, “The First Amendment.” It is a sorry commentary on American higher education that an undergraduate student is a more trustworthy guardian of the liberal tradition than a university president.

“Welcome to the twenty-first century American academy,” Bruce Bawer writes, “a pusillanimous mush of multicultural dogma and PC platitudes. In such an environment, the towering strength of an Ayaan Hirsi Ali . . . whose conscience and courage have impelled her to articulate [truth] at grave risk to her own life—is not only alien, but anathema.”

Robert D. Carle is a professor at The King’s College in Manhattan, where he teaches Christian and Muslim theology. He is an editor of Signs of Hope in the City and a contributor to SocietyHuman Rights Review, Public Discourse, Touchstone, and World.

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