Dark secrets

Feb 8th 2007
From The Economist print edition


Ayaan Hirsi Ali blames Islam for the miseries of the
Muslim world. Her new autobiography shows that life is
too complex for that

 SAY what you will about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she
fascinates. The Dutch-Somali politician, who has lived
under armed guard ever since a fatwa was issued
against her in 2004, is a chameleon of a woman. Just
11 years after she arrived in the Netherlands from
Africa, she rode into parliament on a wave of
anti-immigrant sentiment, only to leave again last
year, this time for America, after an uproar over lies
she had told to obtain asylum.

Even the title of her new autobiography reflects her
talent for reinvention. In the Netherlands, where Ms
Hirsi Ali got her start campaigning against the
oppression of Muslim women, the book has been
published under the title “My Freedom”. But in Britain
and in America, where she now has a fellowship at the
conservative American Enterprise Institute, it is
called “Infidel”. In it, she recounts how she and her
family made the cultural odyssey from nomadic to urban
life in Africa and how she eventually made the jump to
Europe and international celebrity as the world's most
famous critic of Islam.

 Read as a modern coming-of-age story set in Africa,
the book has a certain charm. Read as a key to the
thinking of a woman who aspires to be the Muslim
Voltaire, it is more problematic. The facts as Ms
Hirsi Ali tells them here do not fit well either with
some of the stories she has told in the past or with
her tendency in her political writing to ascribe most
of the troubles of the Muslim world to Islam.

Ms Hirsi Ali's father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was one of
the first Somalis to study overseas in Italy and
America. He met his future wife, Asha, when she signed
up for a literacy class he taught during Somalia's
springtime of independence in the 1960s. The family's
troubles began in 1969, the year Ms Hirsi Ali was
born. That was also the year that Mohammed Siad Barre,
a Somali army commander, seized power in a military
coup. Hirsi Magan was descended from the traditional
rulers of the Darod, Somalia's second biggest clan.
Siad Barre, who hailed from a lesser Darod family,
feared and resented Ms Hirsi Ali's father's family,
she says. In 1972, Siad Barre had Hirsi Magan put in
prison from which he escaped three years later and
fled the country. Not until 1978 was the family
reunited with him.

As a young woman, Ms Hirsi Ali's mother, Asha, does
not seem to have inhabited “the virgin's cage” that
the author claims imprisons Muslim women around the
world. At the age of 15, she travelled by herself to
Aden where she got a job cleaning house for a British
woman. Despite her adventurous spirit, in Yemen and
later in the Gulf she found herself drawn to the stern
Wahhabi version of Islam that would later clash with
the more relaxed interpretation of Islam favoured by
Ms Hirsi Ali's father and many other Somalis. She and
Hirsi Magan fell out not long after the family moved
to Kenya in 1980. Hirsi Magan left to join a group of
Somali opposition politicians in exile in Ethiopia and
did not return to his family for ten years.

Ms Hirsi Ali says her mother had no idea how to raise
her children in a foreign city. She frequently beat
Ayaan and her sister, Haweya. Although they and their
brother, Mahad, attended some of Nairobi's best
schools, Haweya and Mahad dropped out early on. Ms
Hirsi Ali herself meanwhile fell under the sway of the
Muslim Brotherhood.

Some of the best passages in the book concern this
part of her life. As a teenager, Ms Hirsi Ali chose to
wear the all-encompassing black Arab veil, which was
unusual in cosmopolitan Nairobi. “Weirdly, it made me
feel like an individual. It sent out a message of
superiority,” she writes. Even as she wore it, Ms
Hirsi Ali was drawn in other directions. She read
English novels and flirted with a boy. Young
immigrants of any religion growing up with traditional
parents in a modern society will recognise her
confusion: “I was living on several levels in my
brain. There was kissing Kennedy; there was clan
honour; and there was Sister Aziza and God.”

Ms Hirsi Ali sounds less frank when she tells the
convoluted story of how and why she came to seek
asylum at the age of 22 in the Netherlands. She has
admitted in the past to changing her name and her age,
and to concocting a story for the Dutch authorities
about running away from Somalia's civil war. (In fact
she left from Kenya, where she had had refugee status
for ten years.) She has since justified those lies by
saying that she feared another kind of persecution:
the vengeance of her clan after she ran away from an
arranged marriage.

However, last May a Dutch television documentary
suggested that while Ms Hirsi Ali did run away from a
marriage, her life was in no danger. The subsequent
uproar nearly cost Ms Hirsi Ali her Dutch citizenship,
which may be the reason why she is careful here to
re-state how much she feared her family when she first
arrived in the Netherlands. But the facts as she tells
them about the many chances she passed up to get out
of the marriage—how her father and his clan
disapproved of violence against women; how relatives
already in the Netherlands helped her to gain asylum;
and how her ex-husband peaceably agreed to a
divorce—hardly seem to bear her out.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not the first person to use false
pretences to try to find a better life in the West,
nor will she be the last. But the muddy account given
in this book of her so-called forced marriage becomes
more troubling when one considers that Ms Hirsi Ali
has built a career out of portraying herself as the
lifelong victim of fanatical Muslims.

Another, even more disturbing story concerns her
sister Haweya's sojourn in the Netherlands. In her
earlier book, “The Caged Virgin”, which came out last
year, Ms Hirsi Ali wrote that her sister came to the
Netherlands to avoid being “married off”. In
“Infidel”, however, she says Haweya came to recover
from an illicit affair with a married man that ended
in abortion. Ms Hirsi Ali helped Haweya make up
another fabricated story that gained her refugee
status, but the Netherlands offered her little
respite. After another affair and a further abortion,
Haweya was put into a psychiatric hospital. Back in
Nairobi, she died from a miscarriage brought on by an
episode of religious frenzy. “It was the worst news of
my life,” Ms Hirsi Ali writes.

Mental illness, abortion, failed marriages, illicit
affairs and differing interpretations of religion:
much as she tries, the kind of problems that Ms Hirsi
Ali describes in “Infidel” are all too human to be
blamed entirely on Islam. Her book shows that her
life, like those of other Muslims, is more complex
than many people in the West may have realised. But
the West's tendency to seek simplistic explanations is
a weakness that Ms Hirsi Ali also shows she has been
happy to exploit.

Critic of Islam finds new home in U.S.

By WILLIAM C. MANN, Associated Press Writer Sat Feb
10, 10:14 AM ET


WASHINGTON - As a child, Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled violence
in Somalia with her family. As an adult she fled Kenya
to escape an arranged marriage. She left her adopted
Holland after she was caught up in political turmoil
and had her life threatened.

Hirsi Ali joined the American Enterprise Institute
last September, after a sometimes stormy 14 years in
the Netherlands, where she was a member of parliament
and became a central figure in two events that jolted
the nation.

Next, a fight within Hirsi Ali‘s political party over
her Dutch citizenship brought down the government.

"I‘m an apostate. That‘s why the book is called
‘Infidel,‘" she said in a telephone interview from New

"We believe that she will bring an increase to the
level of anti-Muslim bias in this country that we saw
her bring to the situation in Europe," the council‘s
communications director, Ibrahim Hooper, said in an
interview Saturday. "Unfortunately her message is one
of bigotry, not one of mutual understanding."

"She‘s very original, a very courageous thinker, and
she has independence of mind," said Christina Hoff
Sommers, an institute fellow who specializes, among
other things, in feminism.

Many institute scholars have had a close relationship
with the Bush administration. Among its senior fellows
are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; John R.
Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations ;
and Lynne Cheney , wife of Vice President Dick Cheney

"I‘ve been accused of selling out," she said. "I‘ve
been told, ‘You‘re hanging the dirty laundry

She also describes a time when she was a teenager in
Kenya, a majority Christian country with many Muslim
Somali refugees, and a Quran teacher cracked her skull
after she challenged his insistence that students
write Quranic verses on wooden boards and memorize

She lied to be accepted as a refugee in Holland,
became a Dutch citizen, graduated from prestigious
Leiden University and won a seat in the Dutch
parliament for a party that was tough on immigration.
She became known as a firebrand.

That led to her collaboration with van Gogh on the
short television movie, "Submission." In 2004, a man
enraged by the movie shot van Gogh seven times and
slit his throat on an Amsterdam street, leaving the
note threatening Hirsi Ali.

Her lie when she entered the country — she used an
assumed name — caught up with her last year. By that
time her falsehood was widely known, even to her good
friend Rita Verdonk, the immigration minister. Because
of a notorious similar case in which Verdonk expelled
a young woman, she came under pressure to cancel Hirsi
Ali‘s citizenship. She did, and the six members of the
government‘s smallest coalition party resigned in
protest. The government fell, although Verdonk had
used a technicality to restore Hirsi Ali‘s Dutch

Considering van Gogh‘s death, and her continuing
outspokenness about Islam, Hirsi Ali said she no
longer can feel safe without bodyguards in the
presence of even moderate Muslims.

Unlike many world leaders, including Bush, who say
Muslim terrorists are distorting the peaceful Islamic
religion, Hirsi Ali said the terrorists in large part
have truth on their side: The violence is in the Quran
and the hadith, the traditions of the Prophet
Muhammad, she said.

Islam today, she said, "is not my grandmother‘s
amulet-wearing, superstitious sort of Islam that is
just comforting for the believer." Today‘s Islam sees
the world as its enemy, she said. "And you wage war
against your enemies."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations‘ Hooper
contends that she exaggerates to further her agenda.

"She is just one more Muslim-basher on the lecture
circuit," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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