The Meaning of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

For the record: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a comet in the sky of public intellectuals. She is a modern-day Thomas Paine, a passionate, deeply informed advocate for reason, freedom and human dignity. In her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, she also shows herself to be a Clausewitz in the struggle against religious violence, zeroing in on the very centers of gravity that sustain the most dangerous version of the world’s most backward-looking faith.

My usual style of persuasion is to throw out an intriguing hook, present some appealing evidence, perhaps cite the thoughts of Great Ones, and only after this warmup, get to the main point. So why do I come charging straight at the battlements today?

Because there is nonsense to be dispelled. A growing chorus of Hirsi Ali’s critics label her as vain, amateurish, reckless, and culturally insensitive. In due course I will reject all these accusations. But first I must admit I had put off reading her books for several years precisely because I had drifted toward this same dismissive attitude. I sensed the frisson around her personality hid a lack of substance.

How wrong I was. Hiris Ali is a penetrating social critic and a clear-eyed champion of conscience of the highest order. Her latest book, Heretic, is a manifesto of enlightened common sense that echoes, in many ways,  Thomas Paine’s eponymous essay, not least in its force and clarity.


Born in Somalia, raised as a strict Muslim in in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the political, dogmatic Muslim Brotherhood as a teen. But disappointed by conservative Islam’s refusal to answer (or even acknowledge) internal criticism, Hirsi Ali’s faith began to flag in her late teens.  In 1992, when she was 21 years old, she fled to The Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. After learning the Dutch language in record time, Hirsi Ali won asylum, earned two college degrees, and was elected to the Dutch National Parliament. All that in not much more time than it takes to say it. She was a very quick study.

Hirsi Ali’s fast rise to the top of the Dutch cultural elite was fueled by her passion for the political culture she found in her new homeland. She was transfixed by the secular state’s legitimacy and power to protect individual rights and freedoms.  In her new country, people asked for good governance and got it. And they left God conspicuously out of the equation.

Coming from a culture that promoted rote obedience to Islamic law and accepted poverty, violent death and the subjugation of women with abject passivity, Hirsi Ali was transformed by the life-affirming existence she found in The Netherlands. In Heretic she recalls how surprised she was, in her early days as a Dutch immigrant, when nightfall routinely announced a hush of peace and calm sociability rather than outbreaks of wrath and violence.

Hirsi Ali made enemies just as fast as she climbed the rungs of Dutch society. Turkish and Moroccan immigrants who had led unintegrated, second-class lives in The Netherlands for decades resented her success and outspokenness. She pandered to the natives, they said, she found shortcuts to high status, she became an idol of the feminist cause, and so on.

Hirsi Ali also made deadlier enemies. In 2004 she collaborated with controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (a descendant of the painter) on Submission, a film that featured scenes of Koranic verses projected onto the bodies of abused women. In November of that year, Muhammed Bouyeri, a young Islamic extremist, murdered Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a knife to skewer a note onto the filmmaker‘s dying body. The note said Bouyeri and his fellow Islamists were coming after Hirsi Ali too. Submission was an act of blasphemy, they said,for which the penalty was death.

For years Hirsi Ali had been a vocal critic of Islam’s role in enabling violence against women, but the death threat dramatically raised the stakes of the debate she stirred. The government of The Netherlands protected Hirsi Ali with special security measures until 2006, when a right-leaning nationalist party won its way into a new government coalition. In an act of get-tough political theater, the new interior minister ran Hirsi Ali out of The Netherlands based on a technicality that nullified her 1992 asylum application.

The cheap stunt was the first sign that it was not just reactionary extremists who disliked Hirsi Ali, but even members of the cultural elite she had so recently, and improbably, joined. Many European liberals objected to her direct style of criticizing Islam, saying it unnecessarily stirred up trouble. Exhibit A was Van Gogh’s dead body. European elites liked freedom in the abstract, it turned out, but they were clearly afraid of a muscular liberal narrative that might upset the (clearly fragile) multicultural balance. That balance, they seemed to believe, was the main thing keeping extremists sulking quietly in back rooms and obscure mosques rather than knifing artists and other blaspheming intellectuals on the street.

The liberal elite also accused Hirsi Ali of missing the nuances of “Islamic” violence. When you look at the socio-economic factors behind “jihadist” terrorism, they lectured, there was really nothing essentially Islamic about it. (George Packer wrote this trenchant analysis of the paradigm case of this debate, on social delinquency in France’s banlieus.) Besides, many Muslim commentators objected, Hirsi Ali was not an Islamic scholar. What qualification did she have to comment?

The ideological ground softened up, some critics began to aim their darts straight at Hirsi Ali’s character, calling her a self-serving attention hog. In the media frenzy after Van Gogh’s murder, a Dutch imam dismissed Hirsi Ali’s critiques of Islam with the laziest of slanders: she was “hypnotized by all the attention. I feel sorry for her.” Yes, of course, the poor, misguided thing had forsaken her homeland and family, beautifully mastered two foreign languages, been elected to high office, attracted death threats by confronting a murderous ideology, and authored several (now five) exquisite books documenting her journey, all in a tawdry attempt to become a star. The scams some people will pull!

In 2006 Hirsi Ali emigrated to the United States. Her reception has been a triumph but one sporadically dogged by ideological farce.  As a fellow of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Hirsi Ali leads seminars on Islam, politics and violence. This appointment is a fitting apogee for one who has risen so deservedly to the top of the realm of public intellectuals. Hirsi Ali could ask for no higher puplit for her message and deserves no lower one.

But she has brought both her classes of adversaries with her. One was to be expected. Hirsi Ali recounts in Heretic how Muslim men in her seminars routinely rise to their feet to “correct” her opinions, with all the presumptive self-assurance that conservative Islam endows the male gender. Dogmatic Muslims of both sexes try to shout her down or openly refuse to read her reading list, declaring its contents non-Koranic and therefore wrong by default. Whatever you think of Hirsi Ali’s critique of Islam, you cannot doubt that it is touching a real nerve somewhere in the community of believers.

Discouragingly, the chorus of the faux-enlightened elite has also followed Hirsi Ali to America. In just one instance of elitist mischief among many, Hirsi Ali was uninvited to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University in April 2014, because, university officials said, her critique of Islam clashed with their core values. “I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—” Hirsi Ali wrote, “but by some Western liberals as well.” One’s head droops in shame to think this happens in the land of Jefferson.

Heretic is the culmination of Hirsi Ali’s critique of Islam, begun in her other books. Although her particular complaint is against the odiousness of jihad and sharia—desired only by an extremist minority—she singles out ordinary, pious, non-violent Muslims as her target audience. In this sense, Heretic is indeed a critique of all of Islam, not just its most barbarous subgroups, and is therefore a book very ambitious in scope. (Thomas Paine’s repudiation of the divine right of kings in 1776 was likewise a pushing against an entire political culture that seemed deeply unjust but nowhere near teetering, a point I will come back to.)

Hirsi Ali’s analysis in Heretic is crystalline. The world populace of Muslims, she says, can be usefully divided into three groups: (1) fundamentalist, violence-prone reactionaries who envision a strong public role for religious law; (2) ordinary, peaceful Muslims who are content to keep their faith a matter of private devotion; and (3) reformers—believers or former believers who seek to take Islam into the 21st century by assimilating the first group with the second. The goal of Hirsi Ali’s Islamic reformation is to denude the faith of any claims to violence-wielding public authority. Jews did it, Christians did it, Hirsi Ali argues, and Muslims can do it too.

The brilliance of Hirsi Ali’s appeal to the Christian Reformation consists partly in this placement of the social burden of Islamic reform on Muslims. Although non-Muslims are too often the target of Islamic extremist violence today, they cannot bear the main responsibility for decommissioning it. Muslims themselves will have to do away with jihad and the idea of a sharia state. Hirsi Ali appears to assess U.S. counterterrorism operations as a miserable and largely ineffective sideshow to the real war, which is about ideational change. U.S. drones are killing only the tiniest fraction of extremists; meanwhile the extreme ideology marches on, bringing in more than enough recruits to keep holy war going indefinitely.

Writing out a clear explication of what will have to be undone in mainstream Islam is where Hirsi Ali breaks ground. Although she lacks the advanced sociological training of some of her elite critics (a fact they visit often, and happily), she succeeds in doing something crucial but which elites tend to shun: placing unimpeachable facts on display for the consideration of her target audience and drawing a compelling political moral. (Again, a parallel with Thomas Paine: he wrote his pamphlets not to win academic arguments but to move the masses.)

When one examines Christianity’s retreat from coercive violence, Hirsi Ali writes, certain causal factors pop straight out as the ones that mobilized reform. Textual and historical analysis of the Bible eroded claims that it was the inerrant word of God. Economic prosperity in Europe led people to prioritize well-being in the here and now over the abstract hope for a luxurious afterlife. Literature induced Christians to imagine what it was like to be tortured for their faith (or lack thereof). Science overturned basic metaphysical claims implied in scripture or enforced by the church, such as the geocentric model of the universe. Under the broad advances of enlightenment, Christians quietly stopped believing several outlandish things they had earlier professed, noisily and often violently.

Hirsi Ali, by the way, is in very good scholarly company up to this point in her analysis. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker characterizes the threat to social peace posed by most religions’ articles of faith with these words:

“A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.”

But without objective standards of evidence by which to adjudicate our clashing beliefs, Pinker concludes, we resort to the raw exercise of power—physical violence. When Muhammed Bouyeri shot, stabbed and slashed Theo Van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, he was standing up to an accute offense against the “dignity, standing and power” of Islam, or at least his version of it.

The list of Isamic beliefs today that still actuate violence, Hirsi Ali points out, are exactly the kinds of things that Christians stopped believing in modern Europe. No one in Christian Europe has believed for a very long time that it is permissable to kill someone for mocking their faith, or, for example, that conversion to the faith under torture is genuinely preferable to allowing a heretic to follow his conscience to hell. The last time a blasphemer was stoned to death in Europe was in the 17th century.

Certainly no one can envision how the forces of social change will have to act to roll back Islam’s dangerous and outdated dogmas. But a key step is to draw up a clear list of offenders—the ideas that keep Islam stuck in the adolescence of what historians call the civilizing process. Without fundamental reform of these things, Hirsi Ali argues, Islam will continue to menace its practitioners and neighbors with the chronic threat of violence and repression.

Taking their cues from Christianity, Hirsi Ali argues, Muslims must learn to repudiate five core beliefs:

  1. the status oft he Qur’an as the last and immutable word of God and the infallibility of Muhammed as the last divinely inspired messenger;
  2. Islam’s emphasis on the afterlife over the here-and-now;
  3. the claims of sharia tob e a comprehensive system of law governing both the spiritual and temporl realms;
  4. the obligation on ordinary Muslims to command right and forbid wrong;
  5. the concept of jihad, or holy war.

Hirsi Ali’s thinking on this matter is essentially Clausewitzian. The famous Prussian war theorist wrote that the first job of the general is to identify those things that an enemy cannot do without, the indispensable sources of his power. Then you go after them. It’s the only way to win a war.

These days Clausewitz is criticized for his limited vision, for only going so far as defining war in the abstract. He didn’t venture any deep thoughts on how to win particular wars. The analysis of how would have to wait on other thinkers, such as Jomini.

In a way, a similar criticism applies to Hirsi Ali’s Heretic, and in a way, it doesn’t matter. It’s true that once Hirsi Ali has identified the centers of gravity of reactionary Islam, she only makes a gesture at what do about them. In the last part of the book she identifies a broad, leading role for Muslim reformers as the next generation’s thought leaders. But she is no Jomini herself; she doesn’t point convincingly to any particular strategy for pacifying and privatizing Islam.

This sort of move is one of the reasons Hirsi Ali’s critics sometimes describe her as reckless—one to set off sparks she knows full well could ignite a firestorm. It is clear, however, from the collection of all her thoughts on growing up Muslim, becoming radicalized, and leaving the faith for secular enlightenment, that she is speaking out as a duty of conscience, not to start fights. From this perspective, the criticism of her incompletenes in Heretic is irrelevant. The Clausewitzian task Hirsi Ali accomplishes is enough. And besides, as an atheist, she lacks the in-group credibility an Islamic Jomini would need. She points out very clearly in the book that the vanguard of change will have to be filled out by Muslims.

I cannot leave my review without two asides. First, I highly recommend Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin as an in-depth meditation on a theme she only glances off in Heretic—conservative Islam’s prurient (I would say sadistic) obsession with male access to sex. From Mohammed’s injunction that a wife must be receptive to sex “even on the back of a camel,” to the now well-known belief inculcated in suicide terrorists that they will attain a harem of 72 virgins in paradise, Islam presents the lurid sexual subjugation of women too consistently as a desireable article of faith.

To the chorus of predictable objections that the sex talk is all allegorical, and increasingly marginalized by the actual empowerment of Muslim women, Hiris Ali proffers the stark reminder that “actual” female empowerment still has a very long way to go in the Muslim world, and that the ideological fight is well worth keeping up when its objective is to abolish the very idea that sexual predation can thrive in the doctrinal heart of a major religion.

Second, I feel compelled to say something against a particularly ugly slander against Hirsi Ali and her book by—surprise!—a credentialed member of the intellctual elite. In a review of Heretic in Time, Carla Power wrote:
“In a book that reads like a home-made intellectual bomb – a cobbling together of the most vicious examples from Muslim societies – she argues, among other things, that Muslims should rethink the status of Muhammad as infallible and question whether the Quran is truly the word of God.”

In the first place, this is a cowardly abdication of the right to free speech. By calling Heretic a bomb, Power clearly implies it is an instrument of violence rather than one of persuasive argumentation. This taking of the extremists’ side—justifying a verbal taboo because words can cause mortal offense—is to give up the idea that individuals may freely speak their conscience. At one time, I feel certain we believed that’s what our country was for. Or should we have shelved the Declaration of Independence because it was “an intellectual bomb”? (Which it was, on Power‘s slanted definition.)

The term “homemade” is obviously meant to pull rank intellectually. An autodidact with only a master’s degree, Hirsi Ali clearly lacks the insight and academic credentials to write a real book, Powers insinuates. One senses in this attack, which does nothing to hide its venom, an echo of the jealousy that has dogged Hirsi Ali at every rung of the ladder she has climbed since leaving Somalia. Her detractors all seem to believe she should have just hunkered down and stayed quiet.

Not staying quiet

I will be the first to say that anyone who tries to draw conclusions—social, historical, or philosophical—about Islam or any other social phenomenon—must avail themselves of objective evidence and the best scholarly methods. But (much of) the academic world’s reflexive dismissal of Hirsi Ali as an amateur who generalizes too freely from her own case is, I believe, primarily an elitist refusal to engage her ideas based on their political incorrectness.

To assemble a chorus of scholars who respect Hirsi Ali’s work would belabor the point, but I would like to point out one. A.C. Grayling, one of this century’s most rigorous, accomplished and humane philosophers said of Heretic:

“Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of the outstanding figures of our time. She is a luminous example of enlightenment and courage . . . . Her experience and how she has transcended it shows the way to far better possibilities for human flourishing. Her autobiography is an education and an inspiration: it should be required reading for everyone everywhere.”

Nothing about bombs, cobbling, or lacking scholarly weight. Obviously a battle of ideas cannot be won through competing book blurbs, but I think Grayling’s words help correct a slanted impression one can too easily get of Hirsi Ali’s books (especially Heretic) if you simply Google them.  (I also cannot help but think Power, whose book on Islam sells at a fraction of Hirsi Ali’s more “explosive” output is at least slightly jealous.)

For my part, I can put a name to Hirsi Ali’s greatness, which I’ve been invoking all along: Thomas Paine. I believe that Hirsi Ali, Like Paine before her, has positioned herself through hard intellectual labor and deep personal conviction to help overturn a whole political culture defined by the network of socially reprobate forces it sustains. This was Paine’s project as well, and he carried it off in much the ame style Hiri Ali has grown into. His open repudiation of monarchism, big government, and the religious superstition on which those ideas were based was clearly a project that helped turn the tide permanently in favor of liberal democracy. It was not a one-man job, of course, but anyone who doubts Paine was at the very front of the fight—invoking plain arguments and explosive ideas—needs to go back and re-read Common Sense and The Age of Reason.

Paine, whose formal education ended when he was 13, also got himself into an argument with the political elite of his time, over how hard to push for political change. It culminated in a showdown with the arch conservative Edmund Burke. Burke tried to pull rank on Paine by erecting a tower of overpowering erudition in his Reflections on the French Revolution. The details of the ensuing battle make for a story too long and too absorbing to tell here. (Christopher Hitchens provides an excellent precis.) At the end of his combative career, Paine was marginalized and alienated by the elite, mainly for going too far in attacking the religious foundation of illiberalism. Only six people attended his funeral.

History, though, has a funny way of rebalancing the scales of justice, and today Paine is seen quite rightly as a major enlightement figure in America. In the end, his camp won the fight over the proper role of religion in politics—none. Religious faith was, and is, a fine thing to carry on in private, but it no longer plays a serious role in statecraft, in large part thanks to the writings of Paine, the amateur political philsopher.

I think Hirsi Ali has the same virtues going for her as Paine did, and she is haunted by a similar vision. She perceives an entire political culture as too morally bankrupt to survive rational scrutiny, and she senses a growing demand for change among those the culture harms most.  I will not hazard a guess about whether she will win or lose, but I am rooting for her and I think everyone else should too. Whatever she does next, she should not hunker down and stay quiet.


3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

  1. An absolutely, brilliantly-written review of Heretic and its suppoting topics. This post is rich with outstanding analogies. I still need to read Heretic but have read three other pieces, with Caged Virgin being my least favorite. Here is my link to my review of it:


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