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.
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.