Ayaan Hirsi Ali's life story is simply amazing. She was born into a powerful Somali clan and raised mostly in Kenya, where she was taught, like all Somali girls, to submit to God and men. She was battered by her mother and nearly killed by a religious teacher, who broke her skull when he bashed her head against a wall. When she was very young, her clitoris and labia were excised. In Infidel, the story of her life, she writes: "I heard it . . . like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat."
Those brutalities didn't turn her against Islam. Just the opposite: As a teenager, she became extremely devout. She struggled to be a good Muslim. What turned her against Islam was something else - the experience of the West. She fled Africa for the Netherlands, not to escape her faith but to escape an arranged marriage with a cousin from Toronto. And there she found a culture completely different from her own. "Society worked without reference to God and seemed to function perfectly," she writes. "This manmade system of government was so much more stable, peaceful, prosperous and happy than the supposedly God-devised systems I had been taught to respect."
Gradually, she shed her Islamic dress, and her religion, too. Today she is a non-believer living in America, which took her in after the Dutch - and death threats from Islamist extremists - drove her out. In person, she is calm, collected and arrestingly beautiful. But when she opens her mouth, she takes no prisoners. "Islam, even Islam in its non-violent form, violates the most basic freedoms of women. I am supposed to apologize for saying the prophet is a pervert and a tyrant. But that is apologizing for the truth."
No wonder Muslims loathe her. But certain liberal intellectuals don't care for her, either. At best, she is as absolutist as the zealots she denounces; at worst, she's an Islamophobe. British writer Timothy Garton Ash called her a "brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist" (and suggested her looks help explain the attention she attracts). Anglo-Dutch intellectual Ian Buruma has accused her of tarring the entire Muslim world with the same brush, and - even worse - naively painting the West as "a caricature of sweetness and light." The images of the Netherlands, he says, "could have been lifted from some patriotic Dutch children's book."
For the record, Ms. Hirsi Ali also describes Dutch society as class-ridden (in its own way) and xenophobic. But the virtues she discovered in Western society - the rule of law, the rights of the individual, freedom of expression - are not only for real but profound. People no longer kill each other over faith. They no longer think of life as being ordered by the will of God. Women are equal to men.
Few, if any, of these things are true in Islamic societies, where a dominant theme is the control of women's sexuality. Compared with, say, Afghanistan and most of Pakistan and the Middle East, the West is an earthly paradise of sweetness and light for women. Defenders of Islam contend that the flaws of Muslim societies are not inherent in Islam. Islam is, after all, the religion of peace. As one irate reader wrote The Globe, "Islam has never sanctioned abuse of women . . . The problems some Muslim women face in certain countries are a function of the prevailing cultural practices in those countries and have nothing to do with Islam."
But Ms. Hirsi Ali contends these problems are a function of Islam. As the Koran says: "Men are elevated above women, for God has placed them so by nature."
She is no fan of multiculturalism, either. "Colonization and slavery have created a sentiment of culpability in the West that leads people to adulate foreign traditions," she said in a recent interview. "This is a lazy, even racist attitude." The ideals of the Enlightenment, she believes, belong to the entire human race. "My argument is that Western liberal culture is superior to Islamic tribal group culture . . . If you want to feel guilty, feel guilty that you didn't bring John Stuart Mill and left us only with the Koran."
It's ironic that Western secularists who dismiss Christianity as a bunch of patriarchal superstitions are also among the most vigorous apologists for Islam. But Ms. Hirsi Ali's harshest critics are, no surprise, other Muslims. "Just another Muslim-basher on the lecture circuit," sniffed a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations. "Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women," wrote Lorraine Ali in Newsweek.
But one Muslim supporter, Necla Kelek, a German-Turkish activist, warns: "Political Islam is trying to establish apartheid of the sexes in free European societies."
By now, most people know the outlines of Ms. Hirsi Ali's story. After she arrived in the Netherlands, she learned Dutch (her fifth or sixth language), put herself through university, and became an outspoken politician. She went into hiding after her colleague, filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Dutch-born Muslim fanatic, and left the country last year amid a storm of controversy. She now lives in the United States and works for a conservative think tank.
But it's the descriptive detail that makes her journey so gripping. She tells her tale in crystal-clear English, without a shred of self-dramatization or self-pity. "I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation," she writes. "After making this voyage, I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values."
Now in her late 30s, Ms. Hirsi Ali is perhaps the most important feminist alive. If her beliefs make her a fundamentalist, then we need more like her.