Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Neokohn: Islamic civilization has an imperialist history of its own

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a human rights activist and a writer, who talked to Neokohn about her latest book Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, she discussed the identity crisis of the West, and talked about her own journey from the Muslim Brotherhood to humanism. An interview. 

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Some of our readers may not know your story. Could you tell them about your journey up to this point?

I was born in Somalia, and grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia and Kenya. My father, who was a leading figure opposed to the rule of Somali dictator Siad Barré, lived mostly in exile. In my youth, I fell under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Salman Rushdie controversy was in the news, for instance, I felt Rushdie deserved to die for insulting the Prophet and Islam. I was for several years an Islamist.

My father was kind to me and in many ways more a humanist in some of his interpretations of Islam, but in keeping with tribal custom at the time, he arranged to give me in marriage to a distant cousin who lived in Canada. I did not accept the marriage, did not want to marry this man, but could not talk my father out of it.

I was supposed to fly from Kenya to Canada, where I was supposed to live with my arranged husband for the rest of my life. His vision of me was that I would bear him six sons. I had a different view of my future, and of my future husband. On the flight to Canada, there was a stopover in Frankfurt. From there, I went to Düsseldorf, and Bonn. From Bonn, I took a train to Amsterdam and ended up asking for asylum in the Netherlands, to get out of this arranged marriage. Ultimately, my clan (tribe) tracked me down at the asylum center, pressured me to revert course, and at a tribal meeting I had to ask for formal permission to annul the marriage which—thank goodness—was granted by tribal elders.

In the Netherlands, I took courses in political philosophy and history. I began thinking quite a lot about skepticism, faith, the nature of revelation, and ultimately left Islam. I was impressed by how tidy and orderly the Netherlands was, and by equitable gender norms. When my departure from Islam became public knowledge, and after I began criticizing Islam after the 9/11 attacks, I began receiving death threats, and these would intensify later on.

I was elected to the Dutch Parliament for the Dutch classical-liberal VVD Party and served as an MP from 2003 to 2006. While I was an MP, I asked for the government’s attention in addressing forced marriages, honor violence, and female genital mutilation as urgent but neglected public policy issues.

I also wrote the script for the movie Submission, which was directed by the late Theo van Gogh. The film sought to highlight the mistreatment of Muslim women in closed communities in the name of Islam. Theo was killed by an Islamist in 2004 for directing the film.

Since Theo’s murder, I have lived with security non-stop. I moved to the United States in 2006. Today, I analyze public policy with regard to Islamism for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where I am a Research Fellow. I also founded the AHA Foundation, which combats female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings.

You have been debating Islam, for almost two decades. Has it become harder to talk about Islam, has the conversation changed in any way?

It is now two decades after 9/11, and nearly 17 years since Theo van Gogh was assassinated in Amsterdam.

In most Western countries, the limits of what can, and of what cannot, be said, are becoming ever more narrow. This is true for Islam, Islamism, but also for many other controversial topics. People’s careers are at serious risk in universities, think-tanks, or government bodies if individuals go against the prevailing orthodoxy, including the challenge of Islamism.

Specifically on the subject of Islamism, the main mistake of policymakers in Western countries has been to view Islamism as a challenge only if its adherents use violent tactics.

Several years ago I wrote a booklet, The Challenge of Dawa, in which I urged policymakers to change course and recognize the need to rebuff Islamist ideology, to fight the war of ideas, and not just focus on acts of violence.  

The number of „outreach” mistakes to Islamists by the U.S. government since 2001 has been serious, in particular to groups and associations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its general ideology. These groups present a „non-violent” facade that hides a deep opposition to the principles of the open society.

In European countries, the policy towards Islamist groups depends on the country in question and on the government in place. Some European intelligence agencies and elected leaders are well-aware of the challenge posed by ostensibly non-violent Islamists to the principles of the open society. Others pursue an „ostrich” policy. And, as Elham Manea has demonstrated in her recent book on Islamism, some politicians cynically seek the votes of Islamists, even though they recognize this is not a sustainable strategy for the open society. When two value systems are in deep conflict, neutrality is not possible: the open society must prevail.

In the US and Western Europe it is very easy to criticize or even to hate Christianity and Judaism. Yet Islam seems to be untouchable. Why do you think that is?

With regard to Islam, one risk is the well-known, steady threat of physical violence emanating from Islamist circles: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by the rogue Iranian regime, the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the assassination of the French teacher, Samuel Paty, etc. Islamists do not need to kill that many people to get the point across: people become risk-averse and cautious after a small number of high-profile liquidations.

The second factor is professional risk, which we have already touched upon: in many cases, candidly discussing Islamism in a Western country will gravely hurt someone’s career. Only when circumstances are exceptionally grave, as they are in France at the moment, do candid discussions about the real nature of the challenge of Islamism take place.

The third involves what one might call the exotic temptation for some intellectuals, and some on the left, especially the woke left in the U.S. Many of the woke dwell excessively on the historical faults of Western civilization, without however appreciating its many virtues.

To such individuals, the world of Islamic civilization offers a type of exotic escape for the mind, a blank slate untainted by the historical sin of European imperialism onto which they project their hopes and aspirations. The problem is that Islamic civilization has an imperialist history of its own, rarely discussed these days.

An ahistorical approach that measures Western civilization against utopian standards but morally absolves all other civilizations is a poor method of historical analysis. One cannot measure history by using two, or three, or four different standards. If we are willing to look critically at Western civilization, it is no use infantilizing other civilizations—of only holding the West to the highest of high standards. Pascal Bruckner has written about this as well, using the term „the masochism of the West”.

In your latest book Prey, you touch on many issues that are taboo in Europe. Even here in Hungary, if somebody writes about sexual violence committed by immigrants, they are accused of being far-right bigots. So what made you write this book?

I have thought for many years of the importance of women in the public sphere, in public spaces, and on the streets, but it was the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve (2015-2016) and the unacceptable response of the Mayor at the time that persuaded me I should write clearly about this subject.

In many societies around the world, whether it be on the basis of tribal gender roles or on Islamist assumptions about the role of the woman, there is the notion that women simply do not belong in the public sphere. In such societies, the public sphere is treacherous for women. When a type of sexual assault happens in such societies, it is the fault of the woman: she should not have been in public, or she should have worn a more extensive facial covering, „Where was her guardian?” etc. It is taken for granted that women should not really be in public.

When I first moved to the Netherlands, I marveled at women in jeans riding their bicycles in broad daylight without male guardians.

To Islamists, this type of behavior would lead to social chaos, „fitna”, as men’s passions ran wild, but I saw no such chaos. To the contrary: the Netherlands in the early 1990s was an orderly, tidy society. This experience made me think that there was a different way of living in a society—men and women—on the basis of civilized behavior, rather than by forcibly confining women, behind a burqa, or in a house. This open way of men and women living together is now increasingly in jeopardy. I have received many statements from women who are terrified of speaking about their lived experience, for fear of being accused of xenophobia or worse.

The attempts by Islamists to remove women from the public sphere—to confine them as much as possible, in a physical sense, to their residence—I deeply resent. I view it as unacceptable.

What I tried to do in Prey was issue a wake-up call: in the context of mass migration to Western countries of individuals with very different norms about the interaction between men and women, we cannot assume that women’s existence in  the public sphere will continue as it has up to the present moment. A counter-push is needed to ensure women can maintain the rights they have painstakingly acquired over many centuries.

Regressive norms from more tribal or Islamist cultures with regard to women should not be accepted under the guise of „multiculturalism.” The right of women to be fully present in the public sphere is too important for that.

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In your book you write about how Western feminists care more about „microaggressions” than about working-class women (both immigrants and locals) who are attacked or harassed by migrants. Why do you think that is?

The „macro” challenges facing women the world—the challenge of Shariah law to women in Iran, in Afghanistan, female genital mutilations, ’honor’ killings, forced marriages, and sex-selective abortions in China—these are tough challenges. These human rights violations also make it clear that human misdeeds are not confined to Western civilization.

In contrast, the people who ruminate over „microaggressions” find that they can often bully their targets into a type of submission or professional pariah status, often in a white-collar professional environment. Professors, writers, comedians, corporate employees are at high risk of being accused of „microaggressions”, not infrequently by a kind of social media pile-on.

The definition of what a „microaggression” is, is constantly shifting : this gives activists tremendous power to wield against their next target. A professor never knows what might end his or her career tomorrow: many people are always on guard. I’m sure J.K. Rowling, a prominent author, did not anticipate she would be subject to such protracted abuse for defending the rights of biological, natal women.

Now, with regard to your question: the issue of working-class women (both immigrants and locals) who face a declining safety situation due to the behavior of certain male migrants and their general views of women. This brings us to the conflict between multiculturalism and universal women’s rights. This conceptual tension is extremely painful for many feminists in the West. The multiculturalists, so far, have really prevailed, especially among the woke.

Those who defend universal women’s rights are often branded as a type of modern imperialists, or guilty of a kind of flag-waving.

A book such as Juliette Minces’ The House of Obedience, published in the early 1980s, that pleads for universal women’s rights over multiculturalist exceptions, could maybe offer today’s young women’s rights activists a different perspective. There is also Susan Okin’s Is Multiculturalism bad for women?

Phyllis Chesler has written about the tension between multiculturalist assumptions and women’s rights, partly on the basis of her own experience living in Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1960s as a married woman.

In Prey, I wrote as clearly as I could about the challenges facing the Western world, Europe in particular. Unless there is a change in mindset and policies, I do fear for the future of women’s rights in Europe. The issue has to be discussed openly: that is the first step towards improvement.

What do you say to those, who say ” the problem is not Islam” the problem is „toxic masculinity”?

I favor reforming Islam and stopping toxic masculinity. It is the definition of what constitutes „toxic” masculinity by some feminists that gives me pause. What some call „toxic” masculinity, such as men being bold, courageous, even chivalrous (holding the door open), I call healthy masculinity.

In her work, my friend Christina Hoff Sommers once quoted the scholar Camille Paglia as saying that „Construction is male poetry”. There is something to this. Healthy masculinity is good for a society: not all masculinity is toxic. Some people, however, feel that any masculinity is toxic and dangerous. But what makes men men is not , in my view, toxic.

Harrassing women, dominating women, demeaning women, viewing women as tools, these are indeed toxic, but I do not view them as part of masculinity rightly understood.

Some activists today deny that there are any real differences between men and women; and that any distinctions that exist between men and women are the result of a type of discrimination. I do not subscribe to that view.

Men and women are, on the whole, different. In free societies, the professional choices of men and women, on average, also tend to be somewhat different. A healthy society needs both men and women, and men and women need each other. It’s important for men and women to treat each other with respect, and to allow the other to flourish in society.

With regard to Islam, I direct my attention to orthodox Shariah—so far, there is really only orthodox Shariah, there is not yet a type of reform or reformed Shariah.

The principle of male guardianship, marriage and child custody rules, the infantilization of women, polygamy, and expectations of the spouse that are enshrined in the legal code—I disagree with all of these. If you read a typical Shariah manual, such as Reliance of the Traveller, you can see that its teachings are not compatible with equal rights for women. The only reasonable conclusion is that serious reforms are needed.

Do you think Islam can be reformed in a way that is compatible with Western, Liberal values? Do you see hope for this?

The challenge of reforming Islam is the task that must be completed in the 21st century. I do see hopeful signs. There is a revolution in communication, for one. There are many young Muslims living in Western countries, seeking an ethical framework, uncomfortable with Islamism.

Today, Muslim reformers and young Muslims uncomfortable with Islamism can draw upon the work of earlier reformers, such as Ali Abdel Raziq, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, Nasr Abu Zayd, and also upon the work of contemporary reformers such as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. An-Na’im wrote an article a couple of years ago in which he argued that unless Shariah is reformed and the ideology of Islamism addressed, groups such as ISIS would simply continue to pop up. I think he is correct in that regard.

There are also intellectuals, such as Professor Elham Manea (in Switzerland) who are not religious reformers per se, but who analyze the challenge of Islamism so clearly that they are making an important contribution to the broader cause of reform in Islam.

In my book Heretic, I propose my own set of reforms to Islam that are needed. It is crucial that reformers recognize that many parts of Shariah reflect the tribal and cultural norms of 7th century Arabia, and that these cultural norms were context-dependent.

Part of the success of any reform effort will depend on the extent to which reformers and reformist Muslims receive adequate protection from Islamists. Ex-Muslims constitute another category that should not be overlooked. Islamists use death threats against ex-Muslims and reformers as a tool of social control, and partly to dissuade calls for reform. A lot of what Islamists do relies on force, control, coercion and threats, even if they are not jihadists per se.

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Europe and the United States seem to have lost their identity. How can the West integrate Muslims who have a strong identity, when the West is losing its own?

If every political leader in the West spent just one week carefully thinking about this question, we would be in a much better position to address the challenge of mass migration. The question you asked is perhaps the most important question facing the West, namely: what is its identity?

The question is so controversial that in many American universities and think-tanks, to ask this question in public in 2021 can only be considered a type of revolutionary intellectual act.

The woke appear to insist that only the West is not allowed to have any historical identity, that only the (white) West is guilty of grave historical crimes. This is a misreading of history, a misunderstanding of history.

A French author, Jean-Marie Rouart, recently made the argument that integrating newcomers from different backgrounds might be more feasible if one did not insist that the West is totally secular, or laique in the French republican sense, and that newcomers somehow have to integrate into this pure secularism. Instead, Rouart argues that the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West serves as a source of historical and civilizational wealth, a richness from which newcomers can draw, without forcing any religious views on them. I interpret Rouart as saying: newcomers need to realize the West is not just a system with a high material standard of living, but a civilization that is the repository of an immense wealth of values, much more than just secularism. Certainly, there is a separation of the religious and the political in the West, which is important, but that is not all of the West, and immigrants have to understand this. I do think he might be on to something, although he is arguing as a person of faith.

As an atheist, I view Western civilization as consisting of multiple layers, of which the Judeo-Christian civilizational inheritance is an important one. The legacy of the ancient Greeks and Romans is another. There are multiple layers.

Part of the answer to your question might be giving young people in the West, and newcomers as well, an appreciation of the history of ideas, of the different layers that make up Western civilization. This civilization, without denying mistakes that have occurred, has nonetheless brought forth unsurpassed ethical, moral and economic innovations and accomplishments, such as the abolition of slavery, the non-arbitrary rule of law, freedom of conscience.

Without being aware of this complex and rich heritage, I am not sure how newcomers can assimilate. No one can be expected to assimilate into total self-loathing or nihilism. If Western self-loathing is offered, newcomers might choose Islamism instead, which is in many cases more accessible to them.

Many Western thinkers (including Douglas Murray) talk about how the loss of religious belief created a hole in society. You have lost your Muslim religion. What is your solution to the God-shaped hole?

The question you ask would be viewed as scandalous and uncouth by many in the American professional elite, so any discussion of it is a fraught undertaking.

First, I am not a person who is fanatical about her atheism, or even fanatically certain about her athetism. I am wary of fanatics of all kinds: I prefer to associate with people who tend to be modest and cautious about what they know, whether they believe in a higher power or not.

Over the years, I have become more skeptical myself in an epistemic sense. My atheism is a skeptical one: I do not believe in God, but I recognize that reasonable people might believe differently. I also do not view all „religion” as some kind of oppressive force: it depends on the context and on the teachings. It also depends on a „right of exit”: does the individual have the right to disagree with, and to leave a religious community, without being attacked or killed?

To answer your question more conceretely: I seek to locate my own moral framework within the sum total of Western civilization, going back to ancient Greece. I am drawn to the humanism that began in 14th and 15th century Italy. I recognize that belief in God has been an extremely important part of Western civilization, but there are other components: besides civic humanism, the Enlightenment is one. Although this might sound vague, it’s not nihilism.

I value the rights that stable States are able to provide citizens in Western countries: the rule of law as it exists in the West—not perfect, but certainly decent—effectively replaces the tribal feuds and the constant danger and unpredictability that marks the life of people in many parts of the world.

This is one reason why the increased „tribalization” of the United States—as the woke seek to sort individuals in groups of oppression—worries me. The rule of law has to be based on individual conduct; the same with morality and ethics. The valorization of the individual under the rule of law, the granting of freedom of conscience and religion to the individual, these are great achievements of Western civilization, regardless of whether one believes in God or not.

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