Ali, Ayaan Hirsi

views updated

Ayaan Hirsi Ali



Somali-born politician and women's rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali emerged as one of the most controversial figures in her adopted homeland, the Netherlands, soon after the events of 9/11. Born a Muslim, Hirsi settled in the Netherlands after fleeing an arranged marriage in Africa in the 1990s. Within a few years she had mastered the Dutch language, published books critical of Islam, and had been elected to parliament. As an author, activist, and legislator, she challenged European countries that serve as home for some 20 million Muslims to end the discrimination against women that the religion's tenets permit. "I confront the European elite's self-image as tolerant," she asserted to New York Times Magazine writer Christopher Caldwell, "while under their noses women are living like slaves."

Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969. Her given name was originally Ayaan Hirsi Magan, but she changed it to avoid detection when she sought asylum in the Netherlands. Her father had been educated at Columbia University in New York, but had returned to Somalia. Her family was Sunni Muslim of Somalia's Darod clan, and her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, had taken Ali's mother as his second wife, according to Islamic custom. Isse was in jail at the time of her birth because of his opposition to Mohammed Siad Barre, the Marxist dictator who came to power the year that Ali was born. The family was eventually forced to flee the country, settling first in Saudi Arabia, and then Ethiopia and finally Kenya, where they lived for ten years.

Swayed by Devout Muslim Teacher

The Isse family trod a line between traditional Somali Muslim beliefs and a Western-oriented liberalism. Both Ali and her sister underwent ritual circumcisions at the age of five, without their father's permission, when their grandmother took them to have the genital-mutilation procedures performed that were standard practice in this part of Africa. In Kenya, Ali attended the Muslim Girls' Secondary School in Nairobi, where the example set by a new teacher—an extremely devout Shiite woman who had been trained in Iran—became a profound influence on her as a teenager. Prior to this, Ali and her friends had been nominally pious, but the teacher's devotion to Islam's stricter tenets made a deep impression on them. "Gradually we were covering ourselves," she recalled in the interview with Caldwell for the New York Times Magazine. "We were not taking part in sports, we were not laughing anymore, we were not visiting each other anymore. We were praying five times a day. We were reading the Koran."

Ali even began wearing the hijab, the garment that covers nearly all parts of a woman except for her face and hands. Her devotion to Islamic custom was not entirely fixed, however, for she was stunned when her father informed her in 1992 that a marriage had been arranged for her, to a Somali-Canadian cousin she had never met. Ali spoke with her intended, and was disturbed by his plans for her to become mother to at least six sons. She refused to attend the marriage ceremony in Kenya—her actual presence was a mere formality, anyway, and unnecessary for the union to be deemed valid—and then departed for Germany in the company of another cousin, who served as her chaperone.

The layover in Germany, en route to Canada, was done to complete Ali's immigration paperwork, but she managed to elude her guardian and boarded a train. She thought she might go to England, because she knew the language well enough from her schooldays in Nairobi, Kenya, but did not realize how far away it was. She debarked in the Netherlands instead, and applied for political asylum. At the time, she claimed she was coming from Somalia, which had erupted into civil war thanks to Barre's rule. She gave authorities a different name—that of her grandfather Ali, instead of Magan—in order to elude her family, who were searching for her.

Earned Political Science Degree

Ali was fortunate to arrive in the Netherlands at a time when it had a relatively open immigration policy, and she was granted permission to remain in the country permanently. She spent several months living at an asylum center, and her first job was as a janitor at a juice factory in a town that was home to a large number of Moroccan immigrants. After a stint at a biscuit factory, she took a secretarial course, but found more suitable work as a translator for immigration and social-service agencies. In the course of that job, she encountered many other Muslim immigrant women like herself, who had fled arranged marriages or abusive husbands. Ali was shocked to learn that such practices continued even among insular Muslim communities in Europe. About one-tenth of Dutch population of 16 million were non-Western immigrants and their children.

Ali first became active in Dutch politics when she joined the Dutch Labor Party, a left-leaning organization that supported many of the multiculturalist ideals for which the Netherlands had become known. In 1995 she began studying political science at Leiden University, and her choice of major was inspired by what she had encountered in the last few years as an exile. "I wanted to understand why," she told Alexander Linklater in the Guardian, "everything worked in this country, and why you could walk undisturbed through the streets at night, and why there was no corruption, and why on the other side of the world there was so much corruption and so much conflict." During this period, she stopped wearing the head scarf that many Muslim women wore, began socializing with non-Muslims, and even began to drink alcohol, which Islam forbids.

After Ali earned her degree, she worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative for a time before joining a policy institute affiliated with the Labor Party as a researcher. She began the job in September of 2001, just a week before Islamic fundamentalists hijacked four American airliners on 9/11. Thinking back to her own experience at school, when she came under the influence of her teacher, she conceded the fanaticism of the hijackers was understandable, and that Islamic extremists were a natural byproduct of the faith. She began speaking out, and quickly became a fixture on Dutch television panel discussions and in newspaper articles as a Muslim woman who opposed many of the fundamental tenets of the faith.

At a Glance …

Born Ayaan Hirsi Magan, November 13, 1969, in Mogadishu, Somalia; daughter of Hirsi Magan Isse (a politician and former rebel army leader). Education: Leiden University, BA, political science, c. 2001. Politics: Dutch People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Religion: Atheist.

Career: Netherlands, cleaning woman and biscuit-factory production worker, 1992; immigration and social-service agencies, translator, 1990s; pharmaceutical sales representative, GlaxoSmithKline, 2001; Dutch Labor Party policy institute, researcher, 2001–03; author, 2002–; Tweede Kamer (lower house of Dutch parliament), member of parliament, 2003 (forced to resign seat, 2006); American Enterprise Institute, fellow, 2006–.

Awards: Time, 100 most influential people, 2005; Reader's Digest, European of the Year, 2006; American Jewish Committee, Moral Courage Award, 2006.

Addresses: Office—c/o American Enterprise Institute, 1150 Seventeenth St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.

In a policy paper she wrote for her job, Ali argued that the liberal Dutch immigration policies needed to end, and that Muslims could not and would not integrate into their European communities because the very idea of integration was at odds with their belief system. She also wrote that the mosques and separate schools the Dutch government had funded over the years in a policy of accommodation had instead become breeding grounds for radical fundamentalists not unlike the 9/11 hijackers. Such statements worried some in the Dutch left, who heard warnings from Ali that echoed the right-wing elements in the country. One of those right-wing politicians was Pim Fortuyn, who had called Islam a backward religion; when Ali was asked by the media if she agreed with his opinion, she replied that if certain criteria were used to judge Islam, Fortuyn's statement could be construed as a fact, not an opinion. (Fortuyn was murdered in May of 2002 by an animal-rights activist.)

Target of Death Threats

Ali's first book, De Zoontjesfabriek ("The Son Factory") was published in 2002. It laid out the reasons for Islam's treatment of women, and condemned it in strong terms. Ali also claimed publicly that while she considered herself Muslim in identity, she did not believe in God. In Islam, this is considered apostasy, an offense punishable by death, and she began to receive death threats. That same year, she defected from Labor Party to VVD, or Dutch Liberal Party. Despite its "liberal" tag, the VVD was a more center-right party, committed to free-market reforms, and its leader, Frits Bolkestein, had already gained a degree of notoriety for asserting that the generous religious and cultural freedoms granted to Dutch Muslims could soon undermine society entirely. Bolkestein pointed to statistical evidence predicting that by the year 2010, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague will have Muslim majorities, and could theoretically elect radical Islamic fundamentalists to office.

Ali was elected to the lower house of the Dutch parliament in January of 2003 on the VVD ticket. One of her first major efforts was a new bill that would toughen enforcement against genital mutilation, which is technically illegal in the Netherlands. Ending the practice had proved problematic in part, she told a writer for London's Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Olga Craig, "because the Netherlands has always adopted the policy of encouraging multiculturalism, the country has ended up with a Muslim enclave that has isolated itself and lives by its own laws." She also mentioned honor killings, some of which have occurred inside Muslim communities in European cities. The term refers to the murder of a girl or a woman who has been the victim of sexual abuse, as some cultures believe the victim brings shame upon her family. The fact that such killings still occurred in twenty-first century Europe merely proved, Ali said, that the Neth-erlands's experiment in multiculturalism "has gone terribly wrong. The answer is not to bend over backwards to accommodate a culture that advocates the degradation of women … but to ensure that the Muslim men who perpetrate such barbarity are brought to Dutch justice."

During her first year in office, Ali met Theo van Gogh, a well-known filmmaker in the country. Van Gogh was an outspoken critic of all organized religions, and after the 2004 publication of Ali's second book, The Cage of Virgins, the two decided to collaborate on a short film that featured a four fictional portrayals of Muslim women who were victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, brothers, or husbands. Daringly, the Koranic verses on which the acts were based were written on the actresses' bodies, and visible through the transparent garments they wore. The 11-minute film, Submission, was shown on Dutch television and caused furor inside the Muslim community, and van Gogh was murdered in November of 2004. Left on his corpse was a five-page letter addressed to Ali predicting "you will break yourself to pieces on Islam," according to the Guardian.

Forced into Exile Again

A 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan man was arrested for van Gogh's murder, which had kicked off a wave of violence across the country. Already under police protection, Ali was forced to go into hiding, and then spent some weeks in the United States. She returned to the Netherlands in mid-January 2005, and managed to carry on her political duties despite living in an undisclosed location. In early 2006, Dutch television broadcast an investigative report that claimed Ali had lied about her birthplace, and had not been forced into an arranged marriage. Its major point was that her asylum application stated that she was coming from Somalia, though she had spent the preceding ten years in Kenya. Ali had made known the facts of her flight and arrival in the Netherlands in many interviews over the years, but the country's minister for immigration, Rita Verdonk, decided to formally rescind her Dutch citizenship. Ali was forced to resign her seat in parliament, and the move touched off another round of intense political debate in the country. Verdonk's act was widely viewed as a political ploy to boost her own chances in a coming challenge for the VVD leader-ship—and with it a shot at becoming the next prime minister—which she ultimately lost.

Ali remained entitled to permanent residency in the Netherlands, but announced she would be leaving for a fellowship at Washington, D.C.'s American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Her outspoken views on Islam in the modern world would never abate, though she worried future collaborations would prove deadly for others. "I don't want somebody else to be murdered," she told Linklater in the Guardian interview. "But if I stop doing what I'm doing, it will be like another murder." Her warm reception in America may be foretold by Time magazine naming Ali to its list of 2005's 100 most influential people.

Selected writings

De Zoontjesfabriek ("The Son Factory"), 2002.
The Cage of Virgins, 2004.
Submission (screenplay), 2004.
The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman's Cry for Reason, Free Press, 2006.


Guardian (London, England), May 17, 2005, p. 2.

Economist, March 31, 2005.

Independent (London, England), May 30, 2005, p. 23.

International Herald Tribune, May 24, 2006, p. 1.

New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2005.

Observer (London, England), May 21, 2006, p. 29, p. 40.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), September 5, 2004.


"Profile: Aayan Hirsi Ali," BBC News, (August 21, 2006).

About this article

Ali, Ayaan Hirsi

Updated About content Print Article