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Ayaan Hirsi Ali a Somali-Dutch feminist and atheist activist, says death threats she received after she criticized Islam have, paradoxically, led her to live life more fully.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a message for Western governments – Canada's included – that think they will curb extremist terrorism by tightening legal limits on expression: You are only making the problem worse.

"I'm a free-speech fundamentalist. There should be no censorship," says the Somali-born anti-Islam campaigner. "You want things out in the open so you know what you're fighting against. All these hate-speech laws are counterproductive.

"You're creating the conditions for getting more lone wolves, because there will be less chatter to follow them. … More and more lone wolves will succeed in their homicidal actions. Instead of censorship, let's challenge the ideas of the extremists."

Her idea for challenging the extremists is itself extreme: She is calling for nothing less than a complete overhaul of Islam, as laid out in her new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. Six hundred years ago, Martin Luther needed 95 theses to change the world. Ms. Hirsi Ali is calling for only five – but are they whoppers.

A decade under threat

There are not many public figures in the world as polarizing as Ms. Hirsi Ali. Witness the security guards who patrol the halls and stand watch in the Toronto hotel room where she's talking about her latest book. They have been a presence in her life since she was threatened with death in her adopted home, the Netherlands, for her role in making Submission, a 2004 movie about the treatment of women in Islam. Two months after the film's release, director Theo van Gogh was murdered by a fundamentalist: A note pinned by a knife to his body threatened the same fate for Ms. Hirsi Ali.

That note did nothing to silence her. Heretic is the latest of four autobiographical works that trace Ms. Hirsi Ali's disaffection with Islam, the religion of her youth. Members of the left scorn her for inciting intolerance toward Muslims; some practitioners of her former religion denounce her as an apostate. Her new book is unlikely to soothe either of those camps. Soothing is not her goal, however, considering that she writes, "Islam is not a religion of peace," and "the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam."

Nor is she likely to provide comfort with her five radical conditions for the overhaul of Islam, which she calls "a third way … between apostasy and atrocity." She says that Muslims need to rethink the conduct of Mohammed and understand that the Koran is not the literal word of God; abolish the supremacy of the afterlife over this one; denounce sharia law and jihad; and no longer enforce behaviour based on sacred texts ("commanding right and forbidding wrong").

It's a rather big ask, and perhaps an impertinent one – after all, this self-described free-speech advocate is telling people how to practice their faith. A few years ago, Ms. Hirsi Ali would not even have suggested it; as an "atheist humanist," she considered Islam incapable of reform. Then the Arab Spring gave her hope that a new hint of questioning, an anti-authoritarian spirit, had begun.

Even though much of the promise of five years ago has curdled, Ms. Hirsi Ali sees the evidence of reform in unlikely corners. "In Bangladesh, in Tunisia, in Saudi Arabia, people are blogging away … The umbrella of heretics is getting bigger, and it's a considerable minority." (Also a threatened one: Two days after our interview, secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered in a machete attack on the streets of Sylhet, Bangladesh – a country in which two other bloggers writing on similar topics had already been killed this year.)

The problem, Ms. Hirsi Ali acknowledges, is that the bloggers' challenging of orthodoxy is drowned out by the war cries of Islamic State and its fellow fundamentalists. But even as IS wins the message war, and shapes foreign policy, Ms. Hirsi Ali insists it is causing a backlash among moderate Muslims: "This reformation is bloody. It's early days and it's very bloody. What the Islamic State is doing is saying, 'Let's follow Islam at its most pure,' and people are revolting at that. People who don't go along with them are being killed."

The pages of Heretic are not filled with moderate Muslims. Instead, it's a parade of honour killings, extremist clerics and war-crazed jihadis. Researchers into extremism have identified various reasons for radicalization, but she attributes the crimes of people like Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau to Islamist ideology, and discounts any other factors.

"I'm not convinced by people saying, 'This bad guy just converted to Islam the other day.' Somebody must have preached to him. You don't gain a conviction like that overnight. People who want us to focus on the criminal history of the jihadi in question want to draw us away from the proselytization – the Islamic schools, the Islamic seminaries, the mosques."

She is confounded when Western intellectuals fail to condemn extremist violence. That some will not even stand up for the murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo is "a metric of our decadence, our own failure to not recognize the value of the right to offend." The failure, she says, is in presenting an alternate narrative for the would-be extremists' passions: The message that should be promoted is liberalism's promise of individual freedom and self-determination.

Ms. Hirsi Ali is in a unique position to understand liberalism's struggles to balance competing requirements and injuries. Here is a former fundamentalist, who grew up in a pious household in Mecca and Nairobi, subjected to genital mutilation and threatened with arranged marriage, who fled to the West and became a politician in the Netherlands. (Controversy over some of the claims she made on her asylum application rocked the country a decade after she became a public figure there.)

As a campaigner for women's rights, she should have natural allies on the left, but her outspokenness on Islam has made her, instead, a target of distrust for progressives (her most inflammatory quotes, which she has said were taken out of context, include calling Islam "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death"). Last year, a coalition of academics and Muslim groups convinced Brandeis University to revoke an honorary degree it had planned to give her.

Hounded at Harvard

Even at Harvard, where she teaches a seminar on Islam and politics, students come to her class and try to drown her out. A group of them, arguing that she incited racism and Islamophobia, reported her to the university's diversity officer. The official was "very sweet," she says, and dismissed the claims against her. But she sees them as part of a larger trend toward silencing dissenting voices on campus: "Young people are supposed to go to university to learn how to think," she says, "not what to think."

The omnipresence of the security guards, and her unwillingness to talk about security arrangements, suggests different and more personal tensions in Ms. Hirsi Ali's life. After moving to the United States in 2006, she married British historian Niall Ferguson, and they have a young son. She has taught him, when asked "what are you?" to respond: "I'm an American."

She admits, in her book, to being "genuinely afraid," but that did not stop her writing it. Heretic is being translated into Farsi, Dari, Urdu and Arabic, and there are plans to make it available for free download in those languages, so that people can read her call for change in privacy and safety.

"The reformation is going to come from the bottom up," she says. " It's going to be the heretics of Islam who will lead this change."

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