Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Feminism's freedom fighter

IslamCrime, Law and JusticeJuvenile DelinquencyHuman RightsFootballPoliticsEconomic Policy

For five years she's lived under the threat of death from Islamic radicals, and in those five years, she has become an acclaimed and provocative author on matters about Islam and the West. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a Somali Muslim family and eventually made her way to the Netherlands as a refugee.

There she wrote a screenplay for a short film about women's treatment under Islam. Just over two months after it aired, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated. A letter threatening Ali's life has meant she has lived under guard ever since -- most recently thanks to a fund set up by private donors.

Controversy follows her: In 2006, she resigned from the Netherlands parliament under fire for lying on her asylum papers; the complex charges and countercharges precipitated a Dutch political upheaval.

She now works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which is headquartered in Washington. She established her AHA foundation to defend the rights of women in the West against militant Islam. Her autobiography, "Infidel: My Life," which detailed her own genital mutilation in Somalia, was a bestseller, and her next book, "Nomad," is to be published in February.

What did you think of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to Africa?

I am always very happy when the United States shows interest in Africa, even if it's symbolic, and hers was largely symbolic. I think that Hillary Clinton will continue State Department aid to Africa. But many African countries are faced with the expansion of radical Islam, [which] will mean that the United States is going to be faced with a new national security question. Wahhabi money is in Africa. They're building mosques very fast. They're introducing Sharia. It's a grass-roots movement, and I didn't see anybody talking about that.

When it comes to women in Africa, is the U.S. using too many of its values or too few?

There is too much apologizing for what freedom means. In Africa, you're told, "Oh, this is our custom -- polygamy is our custom, female genital mutilation is our custom, these are our values." Then you have the Americans and the Europeans being very shy and saying, "Oh, I'm really sorry, it's your custom."

Your own grandmother oversaw your genital mutilation when you were 5, even though your father opposed it.

That's why I keep hammering on principle. My grandmother was convinced she was doing something right. She was brainwashed. She was doing it out of love. She had done it to all her daughters; it was done to her, to her grandmother. She didn't know it was possible not to be, as she called it, "cleansed." Yes, education helps, but it had everything to do with the conviction that what she was doing was right.

Will any country ever go to war for rights and women's safety?

It looks like it will not happen. But I am very, very optimistic -- not about going to war but about human beings changing their minds. You'll remember how communism was stigmatized. The big problem is [how] to define the protection of women's rights as the problem of the 21st century. If the world does that, [women's inequality] will become like the eradication of apartheid -- people will insist that it's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong, and that's when change happens.

What changes people?

I'll give you an example. The Sudanese woman who decided to wear trousers, and when the world rallied to her support, she doesn't get the lashes. It is this kind of unbending persistence. Human trafficking -- girls kidnapped and then forced into prostitution -- that is economic exploitation. That can be eradicated by going after the traffickers, by providing education and eradicating poverty. Where women are put in veils, where their genitals are cut, where there's "honor killing," where half the population may not go outside without a male guardian -- that cannot be dealt with only by talking about poverty. You have to tackle those principles.

I've asked other feminists this question: Why are women's rights always the ones up for negotiation?

Yes, isn't that interesting? Women are mainly oppressed by their own fathers, their own brothers, their own mothers-in-law, their grandmothers, so it's the most intimate kind of oppression. Another thing: Western feminism still defines the white man as the oppressor, but right now it's the brown man, the black man, the yellow man. When you tell them, "Stop oppressing your women," they'll tell you, "Don't impose your culture on me." It would have been fantastic if, when [President] Obama went to Cairo, he [had said], "We have taught the white man that bigotry is bad and he has given it up, at least most of it. Now bigotry is committed in the name of the black man, the brown man, the yellow man, whatever color."

Do you make a distinction between mainstream and radical Islam?

I refuse to do that because one gives birth to the other. You are born into mainstream Islam. You are taught: Do not question the prophet; everything in the Koran is true. And then the radicals come and they expand on that, they build on that. So it is up to so-called mainstream Islam to tackle the radical element. [Mainstream Muslims] have to question the infallibility of the prophet Muhammad. They have to quit teaching children and young people that everything in the Koran is true and has to be taken seriously.

You can see it in the Christian world. You have pockets of very radical Christians who refuse to change. But most Christians have decided to reform, to introduce new ways of looking at [the Bible] and to allow freedom of thought and speech. So if people move away from the radical ideas, they're not killed, they're not beheaded.

You'll be eligible for U.S. citizenship in about three years. How do people here regard their citizenship compared with citizens of other countries?

I think the American situation is much healthier than the European situation. America has the advantage that when you become a citizen, you pledge loyalty to a Constitution that's about ideas and not about ethnicity. Because of that, Americans do not feel shy about teaching new Americans why citizenship is important, why patriotism is important, pride about the Founding Fathers. That's an easier sell than taking pride in the history of France, for instance.

One guiding value here is tolerance. You're concerned about Americans tolerating the wrong things.

To be a community of free people, you have to defend that freedom tooth and nail, and for this country to remain vital, you have to understand that freedom is a very, very vulnerable institution. It's something you have to keep defending, and the only way to achieve that is intolerance of intolerance.

Are American Muslims different from European Muslims?

I see one big difference, and that is economic. Most Muslims who come to the United States had a higher level of education than Muslims going to Europe, and a higher level of income. That is changing now because of resettlement [of more Muslims in the U.S.]. The United States is not a welfare state. American Muslims have to have a job. European [nations] are welfare states so you have a lot of poor people who depend on the state for their survival. That makes it very attractive for radicals. I hope that American Muslims are different. But that does not make America immune to radical Islam.

At the Sun Valley Writers' Conference, I heard Iranian American author Firoozeh Dumas challenge you on your point that, in Islam, the subjugation of women is a religious mandate, not a cultural one.

She stood up to say that none of the things that I was talking about had anything to do with Islam, that I was simply projecting my personal experiences on[to] Islam. That's a question that always upsets me. I simply gave her the facts, the evidence, the arguments. I said Sharia law is Islamic law; it's derived from the Koran. We see everywhere that it is applied [to] how women are treated. Firoozeh Dumas represents an enlightened, educated, modern, cosmopolitan woman -- most people with a Christian background who are on that level of development no longer defend Christianity in the same way that those who are born into Islam still defend it.

Do you regard yourself as an atheist?

Did God create man, or did man create God? I belong to the group who say man created God. I am comfortable to live without an outer force telling me what to do. I'd rather believe in human beings.

Where do you put yourself politically?

My politics are what the Americans call libertarian and the Europeans call classic liberalist. [Here] the word "liberal" is hijacked by people who only care about collectivism. But then libertarian also implies you don't care about communities. I am a radical individual freedom fighter or defender of individual freedom. I'm a universalist; I think these freedoms and rights are universal.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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