The Un-Reluctant Fundamentalist
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: brave critic of Islam on the grounds of its illiberalism—and champion of illiberal means to “crush” it.
This past April, I was at a conference at Miami University in Ohio where Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the fantastically brave, inspiring, and completely maddening feminist opponent of Islam, was the keynote speaker. The security in the auditorium was airport-like, with metal detectors and swarms of stern men in headsets, because, as the world’s most outspoken Muslim apostate, Hirsi Ali lives under constant threat of assassination.
Onstage, despite the ever-present danger, she didn’t seem at all anxious or intimidated. She was funny, erudite, a little self-mocking, and transfixing as she spoke, seemingly extemporaneously, about her childhood in Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya; the daring flight from forced marriage that brought her to Holland; and her slow, painful shedding of her Muslim religion. Her sangfroid was particularly striking during the question-and-answer session, when several outraged young Muslim men lined up to challenge her, some of them barking Koranic verses at her in Arabic, which she coolly translated for the audience and then elaborated on. She stuck relentlessly to her message: Islam oppresses women. Secularism must be protected at all costs. Every person–particularly, every woman–must be the absolute master of her own life, body, and conscience, freed from the dictates of religion, family, or clan. She probably used the phrase “reproductive rights” a half-dozen times.
Watching her, it was easy to think that American liberals and feminists had made a serious error in letting this charismatic dissident be co-opted by the American right. Hirsi Ali is, after all, a champion of a great many cherished liberal values, yet she’s now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Her new book, Nomad, is dedicated to Chris DeMuth, AEI’s former president. It’s been truly dispiriting to see where she’s ended up.
She landed at AEI somewhat by accident, after her life in Holland had become untenable. In 2004, in one of the landmark Islamist outrages that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century, Theo Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali’s collaborator on a short film about Muslim women’s oppression, was murdered in the street in Amsterdam. His killer pinned a multi-page death threat against Hirsi Ali to Van Gogh’s chest. At the time, Hirsi Ali was a Dutch parliamentarian, but in 2006, in a disgraceful maneuver by a political rival, she was briefly stripped of her citizenship. Neighbors in her condo building had her evicted on the grounds that her presence there was a danger to everyone.
Hirsi Ali moved to the United States, but she needed a job. She met with officials at the Brookings Institution and the RAND Corporation, as well as Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and George Washington universities. “Everyone I met there was effusively polite, but I felt their support for me and my ideas was tentative,” she writes in Nomad. Brookings, she says, was particularly worried about offending Muslims and thus jeopardizing its programs in Qatar. Only AEI embraced her completely, and so she put aside misgivings about its conservatism and took a position there.
For the right-wing think tank, landing such a brilliant, cosmopolitan heroine was a coup. The American right often alleges that liberals, full of mushy-headed cultural relativism, can’t even bestir themselves to defend their own values against reactionary Islam. The liberal intellectual establishment’s rejection of Hirsi Ali appeared, at least on the surface, to bear this out.
That’s certainly what Paul Berman argues in his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. “A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist,” he writes of Hirsi Ali, asserting that the left’s failure to rally around her is evidence of deep intellectual corruption. Pointing to her liberal critics, particularly the writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, he says, “The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented–at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press.”
But there is a problem with this perspective. Hirsi Ali is, in many ways, immensely admirable. But she can also be reactionary, glib, and sloppy, and judging by Nomad–a painfully disappointing book–these tendencies have gotten worse since she joined AEI. Nomad brims with attacks on unrecognizable straw feminists, bizarre statements about the United States, and, strangest of all, a tendency to romanticize religions outside of Islam. Hirsi Ali remains, she says, an atheist, but she’s developed an odd admiration for the Catholic Church, which, she suggests, should try to civilize Muslims through conversion. There is in Nomad a new concern for private property and a shout-out to gun rights. She ladles praise on her AEI colleague Charles Murray, author, most famously, of The Bell Curve, which purported to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of black people.
Hirsi Ali attacks Islam in the name of liberalism, but she’s more than willing to jettison her liberalism for the sake of her anti-Islamism. Perhaps if she had found a home on the left, Hirsi Ali’s thinking would have developed in a different direction. One could blame liberals or feminists or mainstream intellectuals for letting her down, for driving her into the arms of the neoconservatives. But to do so is to condescend to a woman who has always taken responsibility for forging her own path.
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