Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An Islamic Feminist Leaves Islam

By Belden, Dave | Tikkun, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview
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Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An Islamic Feminist Leaves Islam


Belden, Dave, Tikkun


I FIND THE CAREER OF SOMALI-DUTCH POLITICIAN Ayan Hirsi Ali arresting for two reasons. The first is her life story, now told in such eloquent yet matter-of-fact detail in her book Infidel. She reveals at first hand the love and misery, the bravery and cruelty of stressed-out cultures: Somali, Saudi, Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Dutch. It is a rare experience to read the authentic voice of any thoughtful young woman growing up in hard times. Here was a Somali girl born to parents in a marriage of love, her father a politician and her mother a beautiful poet. A happy start, but she underwent genital mutilation, exile with her family to various countries, abandonment by her father, severe beating by a religious thug, her mother's contempt, the fierce appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and the veil, and the opposite and distant dream of female choice discovered in Western romance novels. Then came the chance at age twenty-two, en route to an arranged marriage in Canada, to escape and to make her own life in Holland. And what a life, for she fought to learn Dutch and get herself an education in Western philosophy and politics and by age thirty-two had been elected a Member of Parliament. Her goal was to document and prevent the abuse of Muslim women in Holland. She came out publicly as an atheist. She wrote a movie for which the filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on the street by an Islamic radical. The killer knifed a death threat to Hirsi Ali into van Gogh's body. This is a eoming-of-age memoir to rewrite the genre. As gripping as any other I have read, this young woman's life cuts through the rationalizations of male powermongers and gives us the individual where we usually hear only generalizations.

The second arresting aspect of her story is that it is not the feminist world or the political Left that has taken up this woman's cause and given her shelter, but the Right. In exile from death threats and a bizarre attempt by the leader of her own party to withdraw her Dutch citizenship (which actually led to the fall of the government), Hirsi Ali went to America, where she now works for the American Enterprise Institute, a well known conservative think tank.

Have Left and Right turned upside down?

AT WHAT POINT DID CONSERVATIVES, WHO I SEEM TO RECALL USED TO OPPOSE feminism and support traditional religion, become the natural champion of a feminist atheist? Why has Hirsi Ali received dressings down from the Left for the anti-Islamic generalizations to which her own life brought her? The Left, which used to be so anti-religious, thinks she shouldn't come out as an atheist? One could be forgiven for thinking that the presence of Islam in Europe is turning politics upside down.

There are personal reasons for my own interest. At age twenty-one I spent a year in Ethiopia and Kenya. I had an education in stories of poverty, war, and idealism from young men, but never expected to hear their sisters' side of it. The African chapters Infidel give life to those mysterious and unreachable Muslim girls I glimpsed in the back rooms of their fathers' houses.

I too was raised in a puritanical religious movement, and had to laugh with Hirsi Ali when she objects to a westernized Ethiopian friend in Holland that she could not possibly show her legs or her hair, because if women all did that the men would go crazy with sexual passion and nothing in society would function! Her revelatory discovery at age twenty-two that in Holland the buses run to the minute despite the mini-skirted girls on the street reminded me of my discovery at the same age that many of the sexually loose people outside my religious movement were just as kind, if not actually kinder, than those in it. Fortunate are those who discover the hollowness of their culture's assumptions: though it may entail painful ruptures with beloved family and friends, it is the beginning of independent thought. But, in my case, revelations about the shaky foundations of my parents' theology and exclusivity had taken me to the Left.

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