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Why white people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali

ayaan_hirsi_aliShe’s one of Islam’s harshest critics, and – as her recent talk at the Sydney Opera House showed – even otherwise politically correct western liberals lap up her rhetoric. But author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s own fundamentalism makes her arguments against her former religion less persuasive, writes Katrina Fox.


Muslim schools should be banned in western societies because they are breeding grounds for indoctrinating young people to view the west as the infidel. Islam is imbued with violence. Condemning Islam isn’t bigoted, racist or Islamophobic and anyone who says otherwise is a victim of “ridiculous” political correctness.

These were some of the sentiments espoused by author Ayaan Hirsi Ali at her recent talk at the Sydney Opera House and in her latest book, Nomad, which she was here to promote. Nomad is a follow-up to her bestselling memoir Infidel.

In Infidel Hirsi Ali writes about her childhood in Somalia (where her clitoris and inner labia were cut off), Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya; and her escape to the Netherlands where she applied for political asylum. It’s here that she collaborated on the short film Submission with Theo Van Gogh that exposed the subjugation of Muslim women. Van Gogh was murdered by radical Islamists who issued Hirsi Ali with death threats, forcing her into hiding.

Nomad continues Hirsi Ali’s journey – this time to the US where she takes up a job with conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute – and is relentless in its harsh criticism of the world’s fastest-growing religion.

It’s an understatement to say Hirsi Ali is divisive. For some people she’s a heroine: a brave feminist activist who survived and speaks out against female genital mutilation (FGM) and the sub-ordination of women in Islamic cultures. For others, she’s a narrow-minded bigot scarred by her own experiences who has been seduced by right-wing westerners to become a popular mouthpiece for their racist agendas.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

When I first read Infidel about a year ago, I fell firmly into the former category. How could you not feel admiration for a woman who rejected a life of “powerlessness and enslavement” and at the age of 23 left her family in search of freedom?

How could you not be inspired by a woman who risked her life to condemn the horrendous abuse of young girls whose clitorises are sliced off and their vaginas sewn shut in the name of cultural practice?

How could you not applaud a woman who collaborated on a film exposing the subjugation of Muslim women? And who still continued to speak out even after Islamic fundamentalists murdered the filmmaker and threatened to kill her?

But on another level, Hirsi Ali’s words confirmed my negative perceptions of Islam, which had been drilled into me from an early age. I was adopted as a baby and brought up in London by a white couple. My birth mother was an Anglo white woman, and my birth father was Persian – and a Muslim. Whenever I did anything wrong as a child, my adoptive mother called me a “filthy little Arab” and told me to “go back where you came from”.

I was 13 in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution happened and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power from the western-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The television news coverage of the events had as a backdrop the voices of my mum and dad swearing at the “bloody mad Arabs”.

Unsurprisingly I internalised my parents’ racism. Throughout my teens and into my 20s whenever anyone asked me about my ethnic heritage, I’d say I was half-Spanish or Italian. When a Middle-Eastern man approached me at a bus stop in Trafalgar Square one evening in the late 1980s and said, “You’re Iranian”, I vehemently denied it.

Over the years I read bestsellers and articles detailing the appalling treatment of women and girls in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The more I read, the less I wanted to be associated with anything to do with ‘Iran’. In essence I was ashamed of and embarrassed by my cultural heritage.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve acknowledged my ethnic background, but even now I still refer to being part Persian rather than Iranian, because I (not necessarily correctly) associate the former with exoticism and glamour and the latter with repression and inequality.

But as a 40-something writer and activist, I know I no longer have the excuse of clinging to one-sided beliefs based on emotional triggers and parental influence. I’ve started to read less sensationalistic and more nuanced books and articles, such as Iranian-Australian Sara Haghdoosti’s thought-provoking piece on the wearing of burquas and her follow-up article refuting arguments in favour of burqua bans; and Isobel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet, which profiles women living in the Muslim world who are making change through education and creating opportunities for girls in their local communities.

Yet I still wanted to go and hear Hirsi Ali speak. Perhaps out of curiosity. Or, if I’m honest, maybe because part of me still wanted my worst fears about Islam confirmed after all – and who better to do it than a former Muslim woman from a tribal clan who’s experienced and observed some of the worst abuses carried out on girls and women?

The audience at the sold-out event at Sydney Opera House was predominantly white (or at least white-skinned), with not a burqua or headscarf in sight – telling in itself. Hirsi Ali was interviewed by the ABC’s Monica Attard. It started out benignly enough, with Hirsi Ali talking about her childhood and decision to seek asylum in the west.

When she moved on to critique Islam’s requirement of unwavering adherence to the will of Allah without questioning or critical thinking, its governing of sexuality by honour and shame, and the abuse of young girls through FGM, I found myself nodding in agreement.

But alarm bells started to go off when, asked by an audience member about the moves to ban the burqua in Europe, she said: “If I were a law maker I would make it my priority to ban Muslim schools rather than the burqua.”

When challenged on how she could justify banning Muslim schools and not other faith-based schools, she replied:

“We know how bad Muslim schools are for assimilating Muslims into society. The point of Christianity is enlightenment. If we apply the argument of cultural legitimacy, it is ok to allow Jewish or Christian schools while banning Muslim schools because Islam is a very different religion. We should ban Muslim schools because they are grooming people to reject the values of the country they are now living in. Muslim kids are isolated in Muslim schools and it’s not fair to isolate them. Also there is a worldwide jihad movement that targets vulnerable kids. Judeo-Christian schools are not targeted this way. A ban on Muslim schools is in the interests of the kids and society.”

Her comments elicited a large round of enthusiastic applause. And if the people sitting at my table were anything to go by, audience members were not uneducated rednecks or right-wing conservatives, but liberal, left-leaning folk who would proudly reel off their support for equality and social justice in most other contexts.

And that’s when my epiphany happened. Where once I would have been clapping vigorously along, pleased to have my long-held assumptions confirmed by ‘someone who knows’ and who ‘you can’t really argue with’, I felt sick.

Now, I’m no fan of religion – of any kind. But Hirsi Ali’s simultaneous condemnation of Islam and obvious admiration of Christianity was disturbing. As with any religion or ideology, it’s how it’s practised that impacts on people’s lives and on society.

Many of Hirsi Ali’s criticisms of Islam could be applied to fundamentalist Christianity: unwavering adherence to the Bible and the control of women’s sexuality. Even FGM has a western parallel in the state-sanctioned, legal, non-consensual mutilation of intersex children’s genitals to force them to conform to a male/female sex binary – something that rarely warrants an outcry in mainstream media or from feminist activists. If Christian fundamentalists such as Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church had their way, our society would look very different in terms of women’s and queer rights, to name just two.

Of course in no way am I saying that we should not pay attention to and speak out against the abuses endured by so many women and girls in the Muslim world. Nor am I saying we should not be critical of radical, fundamentalist Islam – as Mona Siddiqui points out in her review of Nomad in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, there are many Muslims who fear radical Islam. But vilifying an entire religion or people who follow that religion is not the way to create a harmonious society – as history as shown time and again.

The irony is that while Hirsi Ali is (rightly) applauded for her courage in fighting for and finding personal freedom, she now denies others such rights. In unleashing her wrath on Islamic fundamentalism, she has (perhaps unwittingly) become a fundamentalist herself.

It doesn’t help that she has achieved celebrity status, because once a person reaches a certain level of fame for their ideas, they are then invested in sticking with them for their own economic survival. It’s a rare academic, writer or thinker who is willing to take the risk of losing their career and/or income by doing an about-turn.

So, perhaps it’s down to publishers to champion other writers with as much vigour as they do Hirsi Ali; to publish and promote the hell out of the work of Muslim feminists working on the ground in their local communities to educate and effect change; to bring the female activists such as those featured in Coleman’s book to international writers’ festivals and posh venues like the Sydney Opera House.

I’d certainly buy a ticket. What about you?

Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, issued under a Creative Commons Licence.

SEE ALSO: Protesting the mosque


-2 #14 steve 2015-02-25 04:17
I think you are making her argument of banning muslim schools that are orthodox into a false analogy of banning other schools in other countries. Not all other schools are orthodox in pluralistic countries. Going to a christian or a baptist school in the west is a choice not an obligation and you can disagree with their teachings without all hell breaking loose like in the muslim world. Muslim schools in the u.s. at least are as Ali states and breeding grounds for indoctrination into a continuation of children into the same ways and beliefs that you have applauded her for rejecting. Its the way muslim schools go about their business that she is trully rejecting not that children go to school.
+1 #13 FOWSIYA SHIKHOW 2012-01-19 05:38
Dear Katrina Fox
You are right about Ayaan Hirsi, but I think you yourself have a long journey to go. Even though i am surprised that someone like you who have access to knowledge and to air-plain is still in dark at the age you are now. I have doubt you will catch up but i hope you do.
From a Somali girl. peace love.
0 #12 Zain 2011-08-01 11:06
It amazes me how ignorant people really are ? If you do a little research on Ms Ali (really Ayaan Hirsi Megane) you will see
that she is a fraud ... There is a documentary about her lies Ayaan Hirsi Ali the true story (40min) her father is a politician she grew up in a big home and there was no forced marriage .Wake up and stop being intellectually lazy
"Sold out sydney opera house"...... LOL :D
+1 #11 Susan 2011-01-22 20:51
Hi Katrina, Thank you so much for this article! Hope you haven't had too much hate male. Like you I am quite horrified by the way everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali says against Islam and Muslims is lapped up by "people like me". To me, not only is her logic flawed through most of her book, but she says a lot of nonsense, clever dangerous nonsense because it confirms people's prejudices. I watched her interview at the Opera House on line, and in regard to that comment about banning Muslim schools, I thought she was as surprised as I was that she received so much applause. She got away with bigotry and lack of real analysis in front of such an audience! I am a bit obsessed about her because some women who are close friends or people I respect and admire are Muslims. (I worked in the Middle East for a couple of years.) Last week, an interview with her was repeated on Radio National, and once again I just couldn't believe she wasn't challenged! Yesterday, I started writing a play about the various responses to her "propaganda war on Islam". Now that I have read your article, I will aim high. Sydney Opera House here I come! Cheers, Susan :-)
-2 #10 Phillip 2010-11-11 17:48
"The audience at the sold-out event at Sydney Opera House was predominantly white (or at least white-skinned), with not a burqua or headscarf in sight – telling in itself."

Perhaps what this should tell you is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali's audience are not the only ones who don't want their comforting certainties challenged.
-1 #9 Roger Shouse 2010-10-16 23:48
The woman is brilliant and has Islam pegged completely. This article is fueled by white liberal guilt.
0 #8 CanNurse 2010-09-13 12:22
Thank you for this article, Katrina. I have been very uncomfortable with Hirsi Ali since I first read her. She does not seem to actually know much about the actual teachings of Islam, but only those cultural negative practises that she escaped. She doesn't seem to have taken the time to learn or to analyze the differences between cultural and religious dogma, or to understand how much of which of these applied to her own story. She grossly misrepresents the Islam of everyday modern Islam & is becoming a tool, in a sad way, for the far right of the political spectrum. I really am sorry that she has achieved such media fame. In my opinion, it hasn't been helpful to the larger dialogue and certainly has not been healthy to her. She does Muslim women, Islam, and the western audiences she addresses a great disservice.
-2 #7 F 2010-08-22 20:03
This woman obviously has some psychological problems. She is clearly lacking full understanding of Islam. I personally think she is attention seeker.
-1 #6 jamal 2010-08-21 14:53
one thing that comes out clearly whenever ayan hirsi is mentioned is her zero knowledge on islam. this woman is only trying to survive and make a living by all means. apparently she happens to be the courageous woman among the over 900million muslim women.

the funny part of the whole drama is how people ( white folks) waste their money on her. just interview people who know her from childhood and get to who she really is. she is nothing but a scavenger by ALL MEANS. her story is worth nothing.
0 #5 Dede 2010-08-07 16:20
@Iftikhar Ahmad

I read the Cambridge study with which your referenced and it seems that you did not. This was the conclusion in which the authors drew:

''Although it was claimed that single-sex classes had a positive impact on achievement, this was difficult to identify from an analysis of quantitative data of students’ examination performances from year to year with the exception of Case Study 3; even here
it was acknowledged that single-sex classes were one strategy within a holistic approach to issues of achievement and that it was difficult to isolate the impact of single-sex classes in themselves on the achievement of boys and girls. In some respects, it is clear that the jury remains out on the effectiveness of single-sex classes in terms of raising achievement.''

That being said, I think you should re-evaluate your statement.

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