Few figures on the intellectual scene today are as controversial or as compelling as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A Somali-born author, speaker, activist, and former politician, Ali, 45, became a hijab-wearing radical Islamist as a teenager in Kenya, then a liberal atheist as an immigrant in the Netherlands; the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 led her to a final break with faith. She became a member of parliament who championed the rights of women and girls in immigrant Muslim communities, drawing both applause and ire with her forceful statements about the role of traditional Islam in their oppression. That theme was at the center of the 2004 short film Submission, on which she worked with gadfly filmmaker Theo Van Gogh—and which led to Van Gogh’s murder by a Muslim man and a death threat against Ali. She lives under heightened security to this day.
In 2006, Ali was beset by charges that she falsified some personal information on her Dutch asylum application, raising questions about the validity of her citizenship. (While she admits misstating her birth name and date, she has vigorously defended her claim that she was fleeing a forced marriage—disputed by some members of her family—and produced evidence to back it up.) Amid the scandal, Ali immigrated to the United States, where she became a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, and later at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In her books, articles, and public appearances, she has remained an outspoken critic of Islamic radicalism and particularly its disastrous effects on women. Yet even those who admired much of what she had to say were often taken aback by her habit of making sweeping generalizations about all Islam. “Violence is inherent in Islam—it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” she told The London Evening Standard in 2007. In a Reason magazine interview the same year, she appeared to explicitly reject the idea of moderate Islam as an answer to the problem of radical Islam.
Last year, Ali found herself in the middle of a new controversy when Brandeis University canceled her planned speech at a commencement event and rescinded her honorary degree after complaints from faculty, students, and off-campus Muslim groups. The disinvitation sparked a heated debate about “political correctness” in academia and the conflict between freedom of speech and group sensitivities. Never one to shy away from battles, Ali has also made a foray into America’s gender wars: Last November, in a speech before the right-of-center Independent Women’s Forum, she declared that feminism in the West has “won” and that feminists were wasting their victory on “trivial bullshit”—but also chided her hosts for suggesting that feminism should be discarded altogether. She is the founder of her own women’s rights group, The AHA Foundation, whose mission is to fight honor violence in the United States and “elevate the status of women and girls globally.”
Now, Ali’s just-published latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, takes a surprising turn: As the subtitle makes clear, she argues for a reformation and modernization that will bring Islam into the 21st century. On her book tour in New York, she met with The Daily Beast to discuss the evolution in her thinking and the reasons for it, her thoughts about the current state of Islam and its relationship with the West, about women’s and minority rights in the United States, and about her hopes for the future.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Beast: It’s almost a year since you were embroiled in a controversy at Brandeis, where you were invited to speak at the commencement and then disinvited because some people felt that you had made comments that were offensive to Muslims. Looking back at that controversy today, how do you think it was handled by everyone?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I’m glad you mentioned that it has been almost a year. I was working on the book, and I remember thinking: Here comes Boko Haram, they kidnapped 276 girls in the name of Islam, they have the Quran and it is sandwiched between two AK-47s, at the same time that this little Brandeis thing is in our news. There’s a woman called Meriam Ibrahim from the Sudan, and the government of Sudan condemns her to death because she married a Christian man and in Sudan, the law is that if you leave the religion of Islam, you are condemned to death. And it goes on and on, and the Islamic State [of Iraq and Syria] comes about, and by September of 2014 we’re back in Iraq saying that we’re going to destroy and chase to the gates of Hell the Islamic State.
What seemed to be a small controversy in a place called Brandeis, a Jewish university—it has these enormous geopolitical consequences. And this is a message to the people, the faculty and the students of Brandeis, but also to the other liberals who think that the best way to protect Muslims is to protect them from critical thinking. The answer is: No, actually, the best way to protect Muslims is to give them room to think critically about Islam, to reform it. And that’s the subject of this book.
Do you think there is such a thing as Islamophobia? The term is often used to mean not just criticism of Islam, but bigotry toward Muslims as a group and as individuals. Do you think this is a problem?
You know what? Bigotry exists. People are racist. I grew up in a racist household. My mom used to look down on Kenyan people and call them slaves. It’s almost human nature to be racist. When it comes to “Islamophobia,” I think the individual who has given the most comprehensive answer and analysis is Asra Nomani in a January 16 article for The Washington Post. She [talks about the] “honor brigade” [a loosely knit network of bloggers and activists who criticize slights against Islam]. She tells you the genesis of how this “Islamophobia” term was invented, how it was kept afloat, but most disastrously, how it’s used to keep people silent. Right now, the country of Sweden has stood up for human rights, and Saudi Arabia is accusing Sweden of Islamophobia. Saudi Arabia is actually beheading people for sorcery, flogging women. And they dare call Sweden Islamophobic. It’s a country that has no churches, no synagogues, that persecutes fellow Muslims on grounds of being Shiites. It’s just amazing. That’s how “Islamophobia” is used.
Some say that critics of Islam don’t make enough of a distinction between extreme forms of Islam and more moderate forms that exist in places like Turkey, where we don’t find these rampant abuses, or in Bosnia where there’s a moderate Muslim community. Do you think there should be more of a distinction made between these different forms?
I say that there is one Islam at this moment that is unreformed and that is centered around [the] Quran, the prophet Mohammed, and Islamic jurisprudence. So, if you take Islam as a set of beliefs, a set of ideas, there is one Islam. Of course there is Sunni Islam and there is Shia and all these other distinctions. But I do choose to make a distinction between different types of Muslims [and] the way they approach that doctrine. There’s the Medina Muslims, the ones who take the Quran and Mohammed’s example literally and also put the emphasis on his time in Medina, which is different from his time in Mecca. And then I find the Mecca Muslims, who are struggling to live in the modern world and somehow reconcile their beliefs with modernity. And the most important group, the dissidents of Islam, who are trying to reform the religion from within. I’m calling, instead of us siding with the people who just want to shut debate down, like the honor brigade, let us side with the reformers.
Is your new book a departure from your previous ones, in terms of your view of Islam? You mention that you are “re-engaging” with Islam.
Yes, it is, because when I wrote my last book, [Nomad], in 2010, the Arab Spring had not occurred yet. I hadn’t witnessed, as we all have, these large numbers of Arabic Muslims who are demonstrating against sharia law. First of all, they demonstrated against the despot of the day; some of these countries managed to topple them, other fell into anarchy. But what’s interesting about countries like Tunisia, Egypt, even Saudi Arabia—and most profoundly, Iran—we have large numbers of [people who say] that they want to be Muslims, they want Islam, but they don’t want to live under sharia law. In 2010, I hadn’t seen that, or I hadn’t seen enough of it.
Are there scholars you find especially interesting who are critically engaging Islam?
I do; I refer to them in the book, and in my class at Harvard I used to teach about them. Those people are little known. As far back as [the 1920s], Ali Abdel Raziq in Egypt said—he said it much more politely than I do—the caliphate thing is nonsense and we need to abolish it, and he says Islam is a religion, not a state. I also mention Mahmoud Mohammed Taha of Sudan, who started this whole idea that we need to emphasize Mecca more than Medina—very inspiring. And then in the appendix I mention scholars, some of them are clerics, some are autodidacts, some actually have studied Islamic theologians—but these are all people I’ve chosen to mention because, unlike what we’ve seen in the past, sticking their heads in the sand and embracing denial, they are embracing change.
What about Muslim feminists?
I see Muslim women who are demonstrating and fighting for their rights. Each woman’s condition is different. If you are in Saudi Arabia, you’re fighting for the right to drive. If you are in Egypt, the biggest problem you have is sexual harassment. In other countries, they are fighting polygamy. In Afghanistan—the last incident, I have nightmares thinking about it. A mob of men lynching a woman—unbelievable. They say it’s because she burned the Quran. She did not. But even if she did, would it be justified? What is so heartening, and so different from 2010, is this energy of powerful, wonderful women who go out and say, “Enough is enough,” and expressing their outrage. It gives me a great deal of hope.
Are there people in the Muslim community who have been willing to engage with you, more than before?
Yes, it’s very interesting. Ten years ago, I was a pariah. And now, I have Muslims who are saying, “I don’t necessarily agree with every word you say”—which they don’t have to—“but you’re one of us, you’re brave, a reformation is needed.” I’m giving you an example: Maajid Nawaz, because he’s very prominent. The last time I debated him three years ago, here in New York, we were debating on Intelligence Squared, “Islam is a religion of peace” and he was saying, Islam is a religion of peace, and I was saying, No, Islam unreformed is not a religion of peace. Today he is saying, like me, Islam needs a reformation; but unlike me, he is still a Muslim. And along with him is a cleric, Usama Hassan, who has endorsed this book. He doesn’t agree with me, but he says, “This discussion is absolutely necessary. It’s important, it’s urgent, let’s have it.” So there is a shift, and beyond individuals who are just talking. Look at the president of Egypt [Abdel Fattah el-Sisi]. I think ISIS is forcing a lot of people who are Muslims into opposition. [El-Sisi] says we need a revolution in religion. That goes much farther than I’m going. I’m saying reform; he’s saying revolution. But it’s ultimately going to be a revolution in religion, he’s right.
So you’re very hopeful about what’s happening right now.
I just want to remind the free world that there was a time when they were not free—Europeans and Americans were not free. There was a time when Christian theology and Jewish theology was used to commit atrocious acts. Remember the witch hunts, remember the Protestants. I think Americans associate religion with something positive. In Europe, Protestants were killing other Protestants, Catholics were killing Protestants, Protestants were killing Catholics, just as the Sunni and the Shia are doing now. That is now in the history books. I look forward to a time when atrocities committed in the name of Islam will be in history books and museums and movies, but not happening to real people in real time.
The point you just made actually ties into an issue that has often come up in debates on Islam. There are critics of Islam who say that it’s fundamentally different from other religions and maybe cannot be reformed the way Christianity and Judaism, for instance, have been reformed. Some people feel that you fall into that category as well. Is this a change in your views, or do you think your earlier statements were misunderstood?
Again, I want to point you to Asra’s piece on the honor brigade. It is the honor brigades that make these statements. Rational people understand that if you start to question a religion and the clergymen, people feel threatened and they start throwing out accusations of blasphemy. There will always be people who want change and people who don’t want change. Today within Islam, that’s just the case. Those who want change get threatened. So forget about me, think about the man in Saudi Arabia who is sentenced to a thousand lashes because he put up a website where he is demanding that his society adapt to modernity, that they respect women’s rights, that they respect individual rights. That’s why we in the West really do need to side with the people like him and not with the honor brigades. So far we are allied with the honor brigades. Either we try to mollify them, or they’re our allies, like Saudi Arabia.
Changing the subject for a moment, you have also voiced some unorthodox opinions on the subject of women’s issues in the United States—
Listen, this is what I have to say on women’s issues in the United States. We are so blessed as women to live in the United States. The best place to be a woman in the world is in the U.S. The best place to be black in the world is in the U.S. Is it perfect? No. Are we confronted with threats? Yes. But it’s the perfect place to fight [them] off. Because in the U.S., we have—besides the law—the majority of the population who accept that we, as women, have absolutely equal rights to men. The best place to be black in the world is here. I cannot imagine what it is like to be a black man living in Saudi Arabia, in Iran—even where the majority of people are black, like Africa. I cannot imagine a better place to be gay than in the U.S. I know that all European countries have accepted gay marriage and here in the U.S. we’re still struggling to accept that. On the other hand, when the jihadists in Europe attack gays in the streets, the governments don’t protect them. The best place to be Jewish in the world, besides the state of Israel, is in the U.S. The best place to be Christian is in the U.S. I don’t know anything else to say in the U.S. I know we’re in an election cycle and I’m supposed to take sides, but I’m not going to.
You’ve had some reactions from Western feminists to your statements about Islam that you’ve found a bit disconcerting.
We are seeing that Western feminists are shy about pointing out the misogyny that’s committed in the name of the religion of Islam, because they feel we can’t impose our ethnocentric or Eurocentric or American-centric ways. If you read the [faculty] letter at Brandeis, that’s the core of it. Which is—don’t be ridiculous. It doesn’t matter where you are as an individual human being; freedom is freedom. Nobody likes to be oppressed. Human rights are universal. Individual rights are universal. This is the message to American feminists and other Western feminists: the best thing to share is the outcome of the emancipation.
There’s an argument, which I’m sure you’ve heard, that Western women face their own forms of oppression, which are different but may be just as bad, or almost as bad—
Like what? Who does the dishes at home? That’s what it boils down to: How can we balance work-life. Of course that’s challenging. But can you imagine how far we’ve come from the points when women weren’t allowed to get out of the house, couldn’t be in public, couldn’t take public office, weren’t allowed to vote, couldn’t own their own bank accounts. Even the money they inherited wasn’t theirs, it was for the male guardians to look after. And now, [it’s], “Who loads the dishes in the dishwasher, who does the unloading?” And I think it’s still very important; I have massive fights with my husband about who does what at home. But that is more on the micro level, and it’s a luxury. And I don’t think that the government can do anything about that. What kind of law are you going to pass that says who does the dishes, who does the diapers, who looks after the children, who’s going to work and whose career is going to go up or down?
One women’s issue that you write about and work on is honor violence. Do you think it’s less of a problem in the United States than in some immigrant communities in Europe?
It is a huge issue, and we see—at my foundation, the AHA Foundation—more and more girls and young women coming to us with the exact same problems that we’ve been seeing in Europe. The minute they reach puberty, they are stopped from going to school, their movements are controlled. There are honor killings and there is honor violence. Honor violence is when you’re not allowed to get out of the house. When you have a boyfriend, you’re beaten until you give him up. You’re over 18 years old and your parents don’t allow you to go to college; they get someone from the country of origin and force you to marry that person, and if you speak against it you are threatened with death. I don’t think the story of honor killings and honor violence in the United States has yet been told. And that’s because of the honor brigade. Because every time you start talking about these things, you get these people clamping down on everything—[slams hand] on the press, on the government—saying it’s not Islamic, or it’s Islamophobic even to discuss it, or that you’re racist if you talk about honor violence. Unbelievable.
Once again, you get an argument from some Western feminists who will say that it’s not that substantially different from domestic violence and sexual assault, which also happens in our society, so it’s unfair to single out [Muslim cultures].
What’s feminist about a woman who makes a statement like that? A person who makes that statement is basically saying, let’s change the subject, there’s nothing wrong. And so they are completely letting down that victim who cannot speak for herself, who is voiceless, who has to deal with the entire family, male and female, who are silencing her. It’s for those of us who have the platforms and the voice, and can articulate what’s going on, to talk about it. And the woman who sits there on her faculty saying, “Oh, yeah, this and that”—what’s so feminist about it, honestly?
Presumably, they would say that we should take all violence against women more seriously, whether it’s honor violence or not.
They can chitchat as much as they like, but they shouldn’t call themselves feminists. The feminist project was a struggle for the rights of women. And now we have those equal rights by law, and most of us are enjoying it and most of us are able to take advantage of it. But we have a large immigrant community—and, by the way, not only Muslim—who are being denied these rights here in the United States. Let’s not silence it.
You’re giving the keynote speech at the American Atheists National Convention [on April 3]. Are you going to talk about Islam primarily?
I am. And I think I have the same message as I have for feminists and for other groups who are addressing various issues in the world we live in today. For atheists, it’s: You address the issues of organized religion and atrocities committed in the name of organized religion. And I want them to focus on Islam today, because it’s in the name of Islam that most lives are taken, that most subjection, most intolerance is spread around the world. So for my fellow atheists, it’s a matter of: Listen, it’s one thing to protest about Christmas trees on December 25, but it’s quite another to witness fellow human beings in cages and burned alive, and women taken as slaves, again, in the names of this religion. So it’s very much a matter of organizing our priorities.
There’s a view in the United States that atheists can be overly intolerant toward nonviolent expressions of religion in public life—Christmas crèches and other religious displays on public property. Do you think atheists can be too aggressive on these issues?
This is so unfair. For centuries—centuries—quite honestly, it’s in the name of religion that people’s rights are violated, and atheists are finally getting together and reacting to that. If we just look at facts, I don’t think we need to fear atheist intolerance. The biggest threat to human rights is religious intolerance, not atheist intolerance.
Do you think there is prejudice against atheists in the United States? You see surveys, for instance, in which most people would not vote for a politician who is not religious.
There is that kind of intolerance. But as an atheist, I don’t fear that I’m going to be killed in the U.S. by believers who can’t tolerate my atheism. Whereas in my own family, my own religion, the community I was born into, when I said, “You know, I really don’t think I believe in life after death, and this Mohammed guy, I don’t believe in everything he said,” it was like, “Death unto you.” There is a massive difference. Same thing with the feminists. Listen, if you’re not allowed into a golf club, that doesn’t sit well with me, but if I were to prioritize, I would say: This girl, she’s just been denied her right to school, she’s just been forced into marriage, she’s just been genitally mutilated. That’s the sort of thing that we need to be, as women, signing up against—and as atheists. And by the way, the LGBT community—I think it’s awesome, and it’s taken some great steps. But in the name of Islam, gay men, or men who are accused of being gay, are put on the roofs of buildings and thrown down by a mob shouting “Allahu akbar!” doing this in the name of their faith. And it’s time that the gay community stood up to this. HIV is no longer the biggest killer of the gay community; it’s [violence] in the name of Islam, and no one’s talking about it.
Getting back to feminist issues, there has been a lot of controversy recently about sexism in the atheist community. Have you been following that?
Sexism in the atheist community? [laughs] I haven’t been paying attention to that. What’s so sexist about us?
There have been allegations of sexual harassment at atheist events and of these problems not being taken seriously enough—
But is the person who’s committing these acts doing it in the name of atheism, or is it just a horrid person?
That’s an important point—we need to make a distinction between individual people behaving badly, and institutional support for bad acts.
Yes. In organized religion, very good people, law-abiding, well-intentioned, read the Quran where it says “flog and kill.” And they also say, “Allah told me to do so.” You have young people now going to join the Islamic States and you scratch your head wondering “Why are they doing that?” and the evidence that they’re giving us is that “Allah wills it.” If an atheist person behaves badly, he’s not saying it’s because of his atheism; it’s just bad behavior.
Speaking of young people joining radical Islamic groups, what are we to make of the young women who join [ISIS]? It seems particularly baffling.
The example that they’re following—the wives of the prophet, the rightly guided Muslim women back when Mohammed was alive, actually took part in war and made themselves available to the jihadists, sexually and otherwise. That’s what these young women are doing and they’re driven by their religion primarily. Of course psychologically we understand that some of them may be thrill seekers, or may be confused. But these are all side issues. The primary drive is because they believe in this; they think there’s life after death and they’ll be rewarded when they get there. They want to be martyred as quickly as possible. These are religious convictions.
We just have time for one more question. Of the reactions that you’ve had to your work, either in the West or in the Islamic world, which did you find most frustrating and most encouraging?
Frustrating—I honestly think, it’s my fellow liberals. I’m a liberal; I believe in women’s rights, gay rights, these different emancipations—black emancipation, women’s emancipation, all of these outcomes. The most frustrating thing is when my fellow liberals say: Let’s just change the subject. That’s so frustrating. I find heartening now that more and more fellow liberals are moving in the right direction, and more and more Muslims are calling for change—maybe not exactly in the same words that I use, but they desire the same outcome. I’ve had an email exchange with Asra Nomani, a believing and practicing Muslim; Majid Nawaz, Irshad Manji, Zuhdi Jasser—that list is getting bigger every day. Ten years ago I thought, “Oh, we’re only a handful”—and now we’re too many to count, which is great.