Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a woman equally scorned by some Muslims and secularists in Holland. Her new book, an autobiography with the clever title “Infidel” will confirm many of their prejudices.
Born in Somalia, she made it to Holland as a young woman after escaping the marital plans her family was hatching on her behalf. She claims they wanted to marry her off to a distant relative in Canada. The family deny this arranged marriage story, but in the intervening years it’s become part of the Hirsi Ali legend.
Despite many hardships she took full advantage of the opportunities Holland had to offer. She attended the University of Leiden and eventually earned a master’s degree in political science.
Her renunciation of Islam was in part motivated by the extremist language of Osama bin Laden. After 9/11 she was shocked by the rhetoric the al Qaeda leader was using and further dismayed to discover that some of what he had to say could be found in the Qu’ran.
Her rejection of Islam though wasn’t simply a reaction to jihadism. She was deeply influenced by The Atheist Manifesto, a work by the Dutch philosopher Herman Philipse, and after renouncing Islam, she became an atheist.
Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament, and worked as an MP for the Party of Freedom and Democracy. One of the reasons she got into politics was because she was determined to resist the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam in Holland. As a child she had been subjected to the ordeal of genital cutting, and she was appalled to discover that some Muslim immigrants living in Holland continued to cut young girls.
Her fame however was largely due to her collaboration with the film maker Theo van Gogh. She wrote the script and provided voice-over for the highly controversial “Submission” – a film that is critical of the treatment of women in Islamic society.
The film caused so much controversy, there were threats on Van Gogh’s life. On November 2, 2004, he was stabbed to death on a street in Amsterdam. His attacker, Mohammed Bouyeri, attached a piece of paper to Van Gogh’s body with a knife. The message it contained included a threat on the life of Hirsi Ali.
After this event she became a marked woman and was obliged to abide by security constraints.
The really interesting aspect to the Hirsi Ali story, is the opposition she ran up against in Holland when she tried to defend the rights of abused women in Dutch Muslim communities. She offended those who view multiculturalism in terms of community and who consider it incorrect to interfere in the cultural life of individual members. Even a number of Dutch feminists, who one supposes care deeply about the mistreatment of women, were unwilling to support her position.
Strange as it may seem, not a few Dutch liberals were also rather shocked by the eagerness with which Hirsi Ali embraced Western values and lifestyle. For some this almost seemed unbecoming – as though it violated an unspoken protocol associated with multicultural correctness.
If she had presented herself as a “progressive” Muslim, they would probably have been a lot more receptive to her concerns. What offended them was the brazen way in which she embraced secular society and cast aside her Islamic identity.
The social issues in the Muslim community that Hirsi Ali was attempting to address, mattered less than what she had become. She seemed less a concerned immigrant, than a defector pointing an accusing finger. When she became the target of Islamists, there were some who even whispered that she had brought it upon herself.
As a consequence of defending the individual over the tyranny of the group, Hirsi Ali was herself targeted. She was targeted by two kinds of Dutch fundamentalists. The extremists of Islam, and also the extremists of a secular elite wed to their doctrine of multiculturalism.
To both groups, a bold individualist like Hirsi Ali presents an obscure threat… a woman who is walking too tall.