In Other Words
Mijn vrijheid: de autobiografie (My Freedom: The Autobiography) By Ayaan Hirsi Ali 448 pages, Amsterdam: Augustus, 2006 (in Dutch) De orkaan Ayaan (Ayaan the Tornado) By Sara Berkeljon and Hans Wansink 172 pages, Amsterdam: Augustus, 2006 (in Dutch) The global conflict between the West and Islamism is being shaped by ideas — big, lofty ideas ...
Mijn vrijheid: de autobiografie
(My Freedom: The Autobiography)
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
448 pages, Amsterdam: Augustus, 2006 (in Dutch)
De orkaan Ayaan
(Ayaan the Tornado)
By Sara Berkeljon and Hans Wansink
172 pages, Amsterdam: Augustus, 2006 (in Dutch)
The global conflict between the West and Islamism is being shaped by ideas — big, lofty ideas and fervent religious beliefs. Ultimately, though, like every war of ideas that has come before it, the struggle is one fought by people. To understand the nature of this conflict, we must look to the inside stories of the people on the front lines of the battle.
People like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One of the most outspoken and controversial critics of Islam, her story is well known. She made headlines for years as a Dutch parliamentarian with African roots, a Muslim upbringing, and a message of contempt for a religion that she believes to be fundamentally at odds with the values of a radical enlightenment. Born and raised in a religious tradition which, in her view, came into its own with the attacks of 9/11, the 37-year-old global nomad forged experiences in countries like Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia into a political agenda that earned her a steady flow of death threats, even in a political environment as pluralistic as multicultural Netherlands.
But how did this daughter of Somalia bridge the thousand years of distance between the Iron Age into which she was born and the thoroughly modern existence that landed her at Time magazine’s annual dinner as one of the 100 most influential people of 2005? Her new memoir, Mijn vrijheid: de autobiografie (My Freedom: The Autobiography), published in Dutch in September and due out in English in February, is the gripping and at times moving story of the road she traveled to become the political candidate she was in January 2003. It’s an eloquent example of hardship, perseverance, and spectacular social mobility (as late as the early 1990s, she was a cleaning lady in a Dutch factory). But, above all, it’s an intellectual adventure, from obedience and submission to the Islamic faith (including a personal approval of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie), to stretching and then trespassing religious rules, and finally to an entirely new, secular persuasion. When Ayaan took leave of Allah in May 2002, she describes feeling "relieved." Instead of being doomed, this decision, she writes, only brought enlightenment.
Hirsi Ali’s memoir is not only an unsurpassed description of the conflict between Islamic orthodoxy and modernity and the subsequent slip into apostasy, but also an illuminating analysis by an amazed and sometimes amused outsider of the paralyzing prejudices that characterize many parts of contemporary Europe. Although she may have discovered enlightenment through the painful process of turning her back on her family, her clan, her country, and her religion, Hirsi Ali also found enemies on her way to the forefront of the European defense of modernity. In September 2001, she was still a Muslim and working for the think tank of the Dutch Labor Party. After 9/11, she realized that Islam could have turned her into another Mohamed Atta, as her faith played a similarly overwhelming role in her life. "This is Islam," she told her fellow party members (who, of course, were shocked by her remark). The conflict between Islam and the West, she concluded, was essentially a cultural and religious one.
Her mission from that day on was clear, as she recounts. She had ventured into the modern world, from the Islamic faith to Western reason, from the world of female circumcision and arranged marriages to the world of sexual emancipation and freedom. And she would try to make clear to the Dutch that they should not needlessly prolong the same transition for other Muslims by regarding their culture as "a respectable way of life." At that point, and especially after making the short movie Submission with director Theo van Gogh (who would be murdered by a Muslim extremist in November 2004), a clash between Hirsi Ali and Muslims, Dutch relativists, even the Dutch political system of consensus-management was inevitable.
In January 2003, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament as a member of the free-market liberals of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and felt she had reached the ideal platform to embark upon her newly found mission. Firmly determined to be a single-issue politician, she focused her attention on what she saw as the subordinate position of women within Islam. Just three years later, in May 2006, Hirsi Ali’s political career abruptly ended when she resigned from parliament as a result of a complicated story that turned on legal technicalities. To obtain political asylum in the Netherlands 14 years earlier, she had given misleading information to Dutch authorities. Both to make her movements harder for her family to trace and to increase her odds of winning refugee status, she changed her name, date of birth, and country of origin. Just as an internal leadership election in her party was coming to a head, a prominent television program highlighted Hirsi Ali’s omission. A fellow party member, the right-wing hard-liner Rita Verdonk (who happened to be minister of Immigration and Integration), threatened to withdraw her passport. An uproar ensued. After a series of dramatic all-night debates in parliament, Hirsi Ali resigned but kept her Dutch passport.
My Freedom hardly touches upon her three boisterous years in Dutch politics, much less the lasting impact of her political career in the Netherlands. That has been left to De orkaan Ayaan (Ayaan the Tornado), which two Dutch journalists wrote at Hirsi Ali’s suggestion and with access to her personal archives. Both journalists work for a left-wing newspaper, but they treat their subject fairly. Unlike the new autobiography, Ayaan the Tornado tackles one question that’s often lost amid the controversy over her public image: Has she succeeded? In the Netherlands, she’s seen as impatient, provocative, and polarizing (attributes that, in the consensus-oriented country, are not a compliment). The Labor mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, for example, praises Hirsi Ali’s activities that support suppressed Muslim women, but he reproaches her for rousing popular feeling against Islam. Many Dutch commentators maintain that Hirsi Ali has made a lot of noise but failed as an effective activist.
Ayaan the Tornado shows that this is a false impression. Thirteen of the 15 motions she submitted as a member of parliament — including asking for money for the victims of genital mutilation and introducing measures to fight domestic violence — were accepted. Her merits in placing these items high on the political agenda are increasingly acknowledged, especially by fieldworkers in women’s shelters. At the same time, Hirsi Ali is given credit for keeping the debate on multiculturalism sharp and inevitable.
If Hirsi Ali failed, though, it was a failure of public relations, not policy. In this book, she is quoted as saying that her polarizing persona had become an obstacle in the debate over the integration of Muslims into mainstream society. But when you consider that she performed her mission in a society accustomed to political correctness, in a political faction that was highly critical of her, next to neighbors who appealed to a judge to force her out of her safe house because they felt uncomfortable living next to an individual under threat from Islamic radicals, it’s hard to conclude that this explanation is anything but a polite rationalization. It’s a gesture of almost unwarranted loyalty to the society that gave her freedom.
Having escaped from the cage of Islamic premodern traditions, Hirsi Ali ended up in a cage of surveillance, as continuous death threats led to a permanent, intense security detail around her, the likes of which the Netherlands had never seen before. Which is part of the reason she decided to move to the United States. In September, Hirsi Ali became a fellow at Washington’s conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). For an intellectual activist like Hirsi Ali, a fellowship at AEI is likely to be a much better platform than the dull narrow-mindedness of Dutch political life. While there, she hopes to find more time to think, which will likely include an answer to the question of why some liberal democracies are so reluctant to uphold their own values.