Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a slender, courteous, soft-spoken and stunning woman, with high Somali cheekbones that make her outrageously photogenic. As the West's foremost critic of Islam, she attracts controversy like a magnet. A few years ago, she spoke in Canada to denounce the Ontario government's ridiculous plan to introduce sharia law. This week, she's back to promote her new book, Nomad, which has already hit the bestseller lists.
"The American edition has a subtitle - 'A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations,' " she explains in fluent, slightly accented English. "Nomad" refers to her illiterate grandmother, who helped raise her, and also to her own journey from a harsh, religious, clan-based culture to the secular, individualistic, modern culture of the post-Enlightment. Her wanderings didn't end there. In the Netherlands, her adoptive country, she lived under constant threat of death for publicly renouncing her faith, and Dutch officials eventually declared her too hot to handle. So she fled again, to the United States, where she still lives under threat of death. Quite a bio for someone who's only 40.
Ms. Hirsi Ali's admirers call her the bravest woman of our time. Critics (and they are legion) dismiss her as naive, simplistic, a dupe of the neo-cons, "a willing darling for Western chauvinists" and a convert to the cult of "Randian individualism." New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristoff attacked her for "feeding religious bigotry" and ignoring Islam's good side, such as its tradition of "warm hospitality toward guests, especially Christians and Jews."
"Maybe he was drunk when he wrote that," she speculates. Warm hospitality does not exactly capture the feeling toward Jews in such places as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, or toward Christians in places like Nigeria. For that matter, Muslims don't always feel warm hospitality toward each other (Sunni versus Shia, the firebombing of Ahmadi mosques in Pakistan, etc.). By her reckoning, the death toll of Muslims killed by other Muslims amounts to around 2,000 in recent months. "I want to see the other face of Islam," she says. "But first I'd have to dig through all the bodies."
Why are so many liberal intellectuals, social democrats and feminists so silent on the more noxious features of Islam - the fierce intolerance toward unbelievers, the repression of individual freedom, the routine abuse of children, the misogyny, the forced subservience of women? "It's the seduction of totalitarianism," she says. In her view, Western defenders of Islam are the intellectual heirs of those highly intelligent men and women who used to heap praise on Comrade Stalin. "It's a blind spot that left-wing intellectuals have always had."
Ms. Hirsi Ali's own history is a horrifying study in female subjugation. Her grandmother and mother hit her often. At 5, she was held down, screaming, as her genitals were mutilated. (She has nothing but contempt for feminists who urge us to understand this brutal practice in its cultural context.) She was regularly beaten by her brother, the enforcer of family morals. After being married off by her father to a Toronto cousin she had never met, she escaped to the Netherlands.
"The subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West," she writes. "It is a subjection committed by the closest kin in the most intimate place, the home, and it is sanctioned by the greatest figure in the imagination of Muslims: Allah himself."
But wait. We are constantly assured that nowhere in the Koran is wife-beating authorized.
"I can't say that it's the Koran that causes a husband to beat his wife," she says. "But when I was a translator in Holland and we condemned some men for beating their wives, they would pull out the Koran and say, 'Look here, Chapter 4, Verse 34, gives me a reason, and in fact even obligates me, to beat my wife if she's disobedient.' " Of course, there are individual Muslims who want to reform the faith and the way it's practised. "But those people have always been labelled heretics and apostates and have been persecuted."
Nomad is, in part, a brilliant introduction to the dynamics of Muslim families in the West. It explains how girls are cowed and shamed into submission, and how boys grow up confused. They are easy marks for the propaganda of well-funded jihadists, who offer them a meaning, a purpose, and a sense of identity. Ms. Hirsi Ali has met plenty of these young men and women on university campuses. "They start displaying what I think of as al-Qaeda chatter," she says. "Israel is the small Satan, and America is the big one. They defend sharia law."
So what can secular society do? "We need to offer an alternative sense of morality," she says. How about Christianity - a mild, good-natured, evolved version of Christianity, one that welcomes arguments and questions? This strikes me as an odd suggestion, coming as it does from a committed atheist. But Ms. Hirsi Ali does have a point. Young people long for causes bigger than themselves. It's not enough to counter the certainties of radical Islam with the hedonism of the West and a blithe "whatever."
Ms. Hirsi Ali is a compelling writer who is neither strident nor shrill. Her life story is a triumph of the human spirit. It's fashionable to write her off as a simpleton who reduces all of Islam to a caricature. And yet, all she's asking is that the Koran be openly, freely and publicly subjected to the kind of scholarship the Bible gets. It would also be nice if she did not have to fear for her life. After all, no one wants to kill Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens for denouncing Christianity. Even apostates of Islam deserve equal treatment.