Ayaan Hirsi Ali travels with security ever since a Muslim radical murdered the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam and vowed she would be next. Her views on women’s rights are anathema to Islamic fundamentalists.
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, Hirsi Ali is now based in Washington, where she is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. The Netherlands, where she was a member of the Dutch Parliament, proved to be an unenthusiastic guarantor of her safety.
I spoke with Hirsi Ali at Bloomberg headquarters in New York about her new book, “Nomad,” which describes the consequences of a life in which she “wandered rootless” and publicly disavowed Islam.
Zimmer: Why are so many young Muslim men susceptible to Islamic radicalism?
Hirsi Ali: I’m not implying that all Muslims are terrorists or dangerous or bad and cruel to women. Fortunately, most Muslims are not. But we see an increasing number of people who are finding in Islamic scripture justifications for cruel behavior toward women.
Increasingly, we also see a number of individuals who find justifications for killing other people by identifying the U.S. and other countries as enemy countries open for war. That is something unfortunately that is inherent in Islam and Islamic scripture.
In the Book
Zimmer: In the Koran itself?
Hirsi Ali: Well, I can’t say that it’s the Koran that causes a husband to beat his wife, 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.”
The imam in the mosque is reminding and actually telling a lot of men who do not even know what’s in the Koran, “Did you know that you have a right to discipline your wife?” I think it’s time we started talking about the rightfulness and wrongfulness of the moral framework that Mohammad left behind, and that’s taboo.
Zimmer: Is the problem that there is no tolerance for anyone who questions Islam?
Hirsi Ali: There are individual Muslims who want to reform the faith and the way it’s practiced, but those people have always been labeled heretics, apostates and have been persecuted.
I try to explain in my book that the silent Muslim majority have a hard time condemning fellow Muslims who are violent because they feel they can’t criticize the Koran. When I was growing up as a Muslim, we were all indoctrinated with the idea the prophet Mohammad is infallible, he can do no harm, he has done no harm, he was a pure man. He’s out of bounds and that’s the predicament.
I became estranged from my family as a result of my questioning of Islam, and my plea to not let scripture prevail over human rights. I believe things will change and I am inspired, encouraged by the evolution that Christians have gone through, that Jews have gone through.
I believe Muslims can do the same thing. And the first step is by teaching young children, both boys and girls, to learn the skill and the art of self-reflection. Don’t just swallow something because an authority figure tells you this is the truth.
Zimmer: You say Western countries need to take action. What kind of action do you mean?
Hirsi Ali: We need to compose an alternative message and compete with the agents of radical Islam for the hearts and minds of young Muslims. Offer an alternative theology -- give them a concept of God that is friendly and tolerant.
I don’t believe in God. Atheists should get together and compose a message of enlightenment and say let’s replace a belief system that is not only outdated and primitive but also very violent, with something new and humanistic and tolerant. The way to do it is to compete.
“Nomad” is published by the Free Press (277 pages, $27).
(Carole Zimmer is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)