Un-Veiled

The controversial critic of Islam retraces her road to enlightenment

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the self-proclaimed herald of radical Islam's dangers. A member of Dutch Parliament who challenged multiculturalists to face the threat of Islam, she is perhaps Europe's most controversial figure in decades. The film she wrote, Submission, got its director, Theo van Gogh, murdered in cold blood. Last fall, she started a job at a conservative think tank, Washington's American Enterprise Institute. That and her new memoir, Infidel, have launched her into the fray of American politics. Will she inspire the same wrath here as in Europe?

Born in Somalia in 1969, Ayaan Hirsi Magan was the child of a warlord conspiring against Somalia's dictator, Siad Barre. The family lived in exile in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. As a girl, her clitoris was sliced out in the practice commonly known as female genital mutilation. Caught between the strictures of Islam and a hunger for debate, she grew increasingly conflicted during adolescence. She sought camaraderie in the "Muslim Brotherhood" (a fundamentalist community), covering her limbs, hair, and skin.

Then, while in her early twenties, Hirsi Ali was sent to Canada, via Germany, to marry a stranger. Germany was her first impression of the West, and she was spellbound by the clean buildings and order. "Everyone around me seemed so sure of where they were going," she writes. Women showed skin freely ; buses arrived on time, everything worked perfectly. The allure of the West dovetailed with the feeling of betrayal over her arranged marriage by her father. When she sought out a relative in Holland in whom to confide, she discovered it was easy to apply for asylum there and got it.

Into the fray: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Patricia Steur/Retna
Into the fray: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Her rise through Dutch society was swift: After odd jobs and a political science degree, Hirsi Ali joined a liberal think tank. The same week, the world changed: It was September 2001. The debate over the terror attacks in the U.S. reignited her inner conflict over religion. Her willingness to confront Islam got her elected to Dutch Parliament—where she switched to a more conservative party. Rather than observe caution over alienating newly arrived Muslim immigrants, she urged Holland and the West to speak openly to Muslims, draw lines, and give courage to young women. She describes Dutch liberals then as "blinded by multiculturalism, overwhelmed by the imperative to be sensitive and respectful of immigrant culture, defending the moral relativists." She insisted that Holland begin to count the number of honor killings, a practice in which Muslim women are killed for getting pregnant outside of wedlock or otherwise shaming the family.

This version of Hirsi Ali—the strident pragmatist—has had the greatest impact, and seems most (for lack of a better word) useful. But it is the Ali of East vs. West, of us/them dualisms who became such a controversial, and critics say dangerous, figure in Holland. Especially when she branched out into art. "Political speeches are fine," she writes of the urge to make a short film, "but it's time now for satire, for art, for movies and books." Ali wrote and conceived Submission Part 1, a movie in which effigies of Muslim women brandished nude flesh covered in misogynist verses of the Koran. The film led to the shocking murder of director Theo van Gogh.

Critics have wondered how much the incendiary images played into the hands of extremists, while Ali insists all this is evidence the debate needs a jump start; it's too easy for Muslims to kill rather than talk. She believes that Islam is too radical, and needs to go through its enlightenment.

Yet Hirsi Ali herself is not unaware of the danger in her position: "If I had been killed in those immediate few days, Holland could perhaps even have gone up in flames as citizens took up arms against each other—what all governments fear could happen." Is she acknowledging here that there may be a place for caution, that only a fool walks into a beehive swinging sticks without a mask? Not quite—and this is where she is most perplexing, and brave. The book is her self-proclaimed journey "from faith to reason." But with the zeal of a new convert ("I'm not going to apologize for the truth." ) and the single-mindedness of a true believer ("I was a one-issue politician, I decided. I am still." ) she leaves behind questions she doesn't seem to have time to unravel.

Hirsi Ali is certain that Islam causes terror, period. Though she emphasizes the science in her political-science training, she fails to seriously examine what role economic elements play in this situation. She comes off as brave, righteous, and determined where she might be more curious. "Among immigrants [in Holland], unemployment is highest for Moroccans and Turks, the largest Muslim groups, although their average level of skills is roughly the same as all the other immigrant populations." Could racism play into this even a little? Presumably not: She doesn't even ask.

Despite this, Hirsi Ali is a startling figure, blunt and brave, and her riveting memoir deserves a wide readership. Liberal readers may learn from her that the threat of Islamic terrorism is every bit as grave and real as the most vocal have claimed; conservatives may learn how not to make it worse. Everyone else gets a thrilling story.

 
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