The Curious Case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Among immigrants aspiring to brave futures in the land of the free, few are as publicly controversial or as mobile as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In her most recent appearance on the Colbert Report, Stephen asked her if she left Islam and became a Christian. Her answer to the first, “yes.” Her answer to the second, “No…I prefer John Locke to Jesus Christ. I prefer John Stuart Mill to Jesus Christ…I (ha ha) prefer Jon Stewart to Jesus Christ.” And yet, in her 2010 memoir, Nomad, Ali commends…Jesus Christ? Here’s a little background.

As a child, Hirsi Ali lived in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Kenya. As a young woman, she fled an arranged marriage, seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Eleven years later, she was a Dutch Member of Parliament. By 2004, Hirsi Ali feared for her life after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, whose killer stabbed a letter threatening her with death into Van Gogh’s chest. Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali were co-creators of the film Submission, Part 1, dramatizing a series of monologues portraying Muslim women who pour out heartfelt pains to God.

Following Van Gogh’s death, Hirsi Ali was stripped of her Dutch citizenship, then later received it back. She traveled from safe house to safe house under security surveillance costing annually the equivalent of millions of dollars. Under the watchful supervision of bodyguards she entered America, where at first she felt rootless and lost: “To be a nomad, always wandering, had always sounded romantic. In practice, to be homeless and living out of a suitcase was a little foretaste of hell.”

Hirsi Ali’s first memoir, Infidel (in Dutch, Mijn Vrijheid, “My Freedom”) was written with assistance from an anonymous ghostwriter and published in the United States in 2007. It became an international bestseller. Ali also published an essay collection in 2006 (expanded in 2008), The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. Now we have Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations. Nomad is partly a sequel to Infidel. Both carry endorsements or forwards by “New Atheists” Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

Infidel chronicles Hirsi Ali’s journey to atheism. But while Nomad continues to convey some of the disdain for religious faith that animated her first book, it falls short of pervasive disregard for belief in God—not least by extolling construed “moderate Christians” who allegedly, “do not take every word in the Bible to be the word of God. They don’t seek to actively live exactly as Jesus Christ and his disciples did. They are actually critical of the Bible, which they read in their own language and have revised several times. There are parts they deem inspirational and parts they deem no longer relevant.”

Ali also depicts her family as destitute, devout, oppressed by the strictures of Islam, and incessantly begging her to return to the faith. Her now deceased father, whom she refers to as “Abeh” (Somali for “papa” or “daddy”), tells her, “You must remember, Ayaan, that our health and our lives are in the hands of Allah. I am on my way to the hereafter. My dear child, what I want you to do is read just one chapter of the Quran. Laa-uqsim Bi-yawmi-il-qiyaama,” about resurrection day. Hirsi Ali dedicates Nomad to a “surrogate Abeh—a friend, a mentor, a guide to American Life—with respect and love.”

Much ink has been spilled and digitalized denouncing and defending Hirsi Ali. That she is a divisive figure is meticulously documented. Debate about her proposals is valuable. But this review is not about her accuracy, tact, or political activism. It is about her challenges to people of faith, and from a Christian perspective, discerning another “Abeh” (or “Abba,” Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6) whispering through the pages of Nomad.

If memory serves correctly, I have heard several interviews in which Hirsi Ali characterized Christianity as like every other religion in peddling magical thinking, miracles, myths such as stories about dying and rising gods, and Freudian wishful thinking of a Big Mama or Big Daddy in the sky. Reading Infidel and the script for Submission, Part 1, one sometimes encounters muted versions of the devilish deity shrieking through the pages of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. But at the same time, one hears holy discontent, authentic cries for justice, and sincere bewilderment at God akin to prayers by biblical sufferers like Naomi, Hannah, the Psalmist, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Job, and Jesus as he hung on the cross.

To the extent Hirsi Ali mourns injustice and works to alleviate suffering, she walks “in the path of the prophets,” as conciliatory eastern Patriarch Timothy I once described the Muslim prophet Muhammad to Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi. Correspondingly, wherever she cares for the downtrodden and gives voice to the voiceless, she is “not far from the kingdom of God,” as Jesus said of a wise interlocutor in Mark 12:34…(Finish reading this Nomad review in Books & Culture here).

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

26 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

  1. An important note: Hirsi Ali does say “So long as we atheists and classical liberals have no effective programs of our own to defeat the spread of radical Islam, we should work with enlightened Christians who are willing to devise some.”

    That makes it clear that the IDEAL situation would be robust secular liberal alternatives to both Islam and Christianity. That sort of powerful alternative is precisely what I’m trying to create at my new website,

    It’s perfectly possible to create secular alternatives that avoid the potential pitfalls of Islam and Christianity both, and I feel that the time is ripe for such new ventures.

    1. The only effective way to “defeat the spread of radical Islam” (and Judaism and Christianity) is not through atheistic secularism, nor through “classical liberalism”; but only by returning to the original Revelations taught by Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jesus and Mohammed. In particular, their Teaching that the Doctrine of “resurrection” is a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’.

      But that Doctrine is precisely what the religious ‘authorities’ will NOT allow to be discussed; that Doctrine is precisely what the mainstream, the ‘alternative’ and the Internet media will NOT allow to be discussed–Wikipedia, for example, NOT allowing the discussion of such a Doctrine on its page on “resurrection”.

      And, until the censorship of this Truth STOPS, there will be NO effective way to defeat the spread of the radical monotheistic fundamentalisms.

  2. Thanks for commenting, James, though I note Hirsi Ali does commend (both in Nomad and elsewhere) Judaism and Christianity as spiritual alternatives / sources of religion / spirituality for those who desire meaning for this aspect of their life (see particularly my link to the rest of my Books and Culture Review).

    I’m also curious – what do you think might be some pitfalls or occupational hazards of humanism, and how ought they be addressed in theory and practice? Or, is humanism (nearly) inerrant?

  3. Thanks for this piece, Ben. I struggle with Ali. A lot. Almost every one of my Muslim women friends do as well. She is very much like Nonie Darwish – they both do more damage to Muslim women, than help the cause. The fact is that most Muslim women (well, most women in general), who suffer oppression due so because it is cultural – religion is misued as a political vehicle to oppress under the guise of religion. Ali and Darwish do nothing to educate the public and in my opinion are not women we should be reading to understand the Muslim women’s plight. Their stories are interesting, but, they do not represent what oppressed women are going through on this planet.

  4. Thanks for sharing your struggle, Karen. I’ve read all three of Ali’s books and both of Darwish’s, and definitely have points of disagreement, but I worry about knee jerk dismissals by friends and colleagues.

    In a Feminism and Islam course I took with Leila Ahmed at Harvard, I think no other writer received more visceral reactions from both Muslim and non-Muslim students than Hirsi Ali. I have not perceived the same kind of near unanimous vilification toward critics of Judaism or Christianity. Also, are Hirsi Ali and Darwish not entitled to voice their experiences and try to work against factors that apparently contributed to their suffering, even factors related to religion or Islam? Or, is Islam off-limits for critique?

  5. Sorry for the delay in responding – I’m struggling through mono at the moment! Ben, you ask an interesting question: “what do you think might be some pitfalls or occupational hazards of humanism, and how ought they be addressed in theory and practice?”

    I think the main problem with Humanism is a certain lack of willingness to make demands on its adherents. It is too often defined by its lack of faith rather than by its commitment to certain ethical values. The concern for human agency and abhorrence of despotism (particularly despotism of the mind) leads Humanists to be very wary of building the sorts of strong communities which can lead to moral action. I think this is a big problem, because it leads Humanism to have far less impact on the world than it otherwise might.

    Karen: You say “The fact is that most Muslim women (well, most women in general), who suffer oppression do so because it is cultural – religion is misued as a political vehicle to oppress under the guise of religion.”

    This strikes me as a difficult position to support. Culture and religion can hardly be separated: religion is one of the most significant influences on the culture of any nation or group of people, and if you compare the treatment and position of women in majority Muslim countries and in more secular nations… Well, the case basically makes itself.

  6. Hi James,

    I understand what you are saying, and in fact, you are correct in that correlation. However, there are certain practices that stem from cultural practices that are practiced under the guise of religion – even though the religion does not condone it. Examples are Triple Talaq in India which is not allowed under Shari’a law the way it is practiced in India; and stoning for “adultery” in Islamic countries – which is not allowed in Shari’a either, nor is there a Hadith that support that sentence. So, culturally, these human rights abuses are practiced, but it’s the culture that dictates these issues, because the religion does not allow it.

    Of course, this is my Western Islamic scholarly point of view. If you asked a Mullah or Imam from Nigeria or Somalia or Afghanistan, they would have a much different answer…

    1. Karen and James, FYI alas from what are considered the two most reliable Hadith collections in Sunni Islam:

      There came to him (the Holy Prophet) a woman from Ghamid and said: Allah’s Messenger, I have committed adultery, so purify me. He (the Holy Prophet) turned her away. On the following day she said: Allah’s Messenger, Why do you turn me away? Perhaps, you turn me away as you turned away Ma’iz. By Allah, I have become pregnant. He said: Well, if you insist upon it, then go away until you give birth to (the child). When she was delivered she came with the child (wrapped) in a rag and said: Here is the child whom I have given birth to. He said: Go away and suckle him until you wean him. When she had weaned him, she came to him (the Holy Prophet) with the child who was holding a piece of bread in his hand. She said: Allah’s Apostle, here is he as I have weaned him and he eats food. He (the Holy Prophet) entrusted the child to one of the Muslims and then pronounced punishment. And she was put in a ditch up to her chest and he commanded people and they stoned her. – Sahih Muslim 17.4206.

      Umar said, “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, “We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,” and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” Sufyan added, “I have memorized this narration in this way.” ‘Umar added, “Surely Allah’s Apostle carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him” (Sahih Bukhari 8.82.816).

  7. Ben,

    Islam is not off-limits for critique. I guess I just want to see constructive criticism, especially from prominent Muslim women who can make a serious difference. Laleh Bakhtiar, Amina Wadud, Daisy Khan – these women are good for Muslim women. Check them out 🙂

    1. Why is only “constructive” criticism allowed? Some cultural practices and ideas are so bad they deserve to be destroyed. If something can be shown to be abhorrent through “destructive criticism” then the critic has done us a service. Not all cultural expression deserves protection or respect.

  8. Karen, indeed, I have checked them out and have often enjoyed reading their perspectives! 🙂

  9. Thanks for those Hadiths, Ben. Most Islamic scholars – Ramadan, Esposito, Wadud – find these Hadiths to be un-authentic. The fact is that the act of adultery must have four witnesses to the act, and even then in the Qur’an, the punishment is lashing, not stoning. As I know you are aware, the Qur’an must be the first source consulted in Shari’a. So, I have issues when Shari’a courts, such as in Nigeria and the case of Amina Wadud, try to justify their sentences of stoning for adultery utilizing these Hadiths. This is one of the issues in Islam – there is no actual authority to determine what can be utilized in the Shari’a courts and what can’t. I wish I had an answer to this predicament, but all I can do now is write about what I know… Oy!

    1. Karen, thanks again for engaging. A few constructive challenges:

      1) I would love for these Hadith to be exposed as inauthentic, and they may very well be, but I repeat, they appear within what are considered the most reliable and authoritative collections of Hadith for Sunni Muslims. As you allude to with Nigeria, these Nigerians are just some of the many Muslims who do appeal to these Hadith as sources for Muslim law and practice. At this time also, as you allude, a non-Muslim scholar like Esposito or a firebrand Muslim feminist like Wadud are not going to be looked to as authorities by most Muslims. Of course, if Esposito and Wadud can supply strong arguments for why these Hadiths are inauthentic, and then disseminate those arguments to Muslims within the Muslim world, that’s another matter! Unfortunately one obstacle Esposito and “western” Muslims face is for allegedly dismissing Hadith as inauthentic because they are contrary to Western values, not because they are truly inauthentic. This doesn’t mean they should throw in the towel and give up on their scholarship, but it leads to a second point:

      2) We (and I am also speaking to myself here) need to be careful about our phrasing and the way we represent Islam, Muslims and Sharia (as well as Christians, Jews, Humanism, and so forth) that our representations are as rigorous and accurate as possible for the sake of truth and accuracy ,and for the sake of being fair to our interlocutors. Stating, “nor is there a Hadith that support that sentence,” is simply not accurate. Your later argument after I presented two examples was then that these Hadith are inauthentic. OK, that’s worth pursuing.

      We are all in the process of growing in our awareness, but mistakes — or worse, the deliberate obfuscation done by some scholars and speakers who hope their audiences won’t notice — will lead critics to discredit the speaker and doubt the speakers’ sincerity, and could also lead to anger from audience members and interlocutors who will assume they are being deliberately deceived. We have to be very careful about accuracy also for this reason, and not papering over difficult facts. There’s also the danger of what progressive Muslim Omid Safi called “pamphlet Islam” that claims, “Islam doesn’t teach (Blank) it teaches (blank)!” when such issues are actually in dispute.

      3) Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated that to discern how to achieve our goals, we have to discern where we are now (my paraphrase). Similarly, in the process of Muslim reform / reform of Islam, reformers cannot ignore unpleasant realities or pretend they don’t exist. The first step in reform is acknowledging that there is a problem, the problem from our (your, my, and I include James) perspectives is the horrific practice stoning women, which Jesus for example repudiates in his New Testament encounter with “a woman caught in adultery.” But to robustly address this and other human rights, religious, etc. concerns, we have to give “the other side” its true due while at setting forth more desirable approaches.

      Long windedly but hopefully understandably,


    2. I like Ben’s response, but I want to add one more thing: there is a grotesque irony in seeking to defend a religious tradition by appealing to the idea that it is lashing rather than stoning should be the punishment for adultery.

      Adultery is not a crime, and capital punishment of any kind is abhorrent. If we are really in the position, when evaluating the moral tenets of a particular tradition, of choosing lashing or stoning when it comes to responses to the non-crime of adultery, then I would suggest we should leave the tradition behind and build something more humane entirely.

  10. James -you wrote – “there is a grotesque irony in seeking to defend a religious tradition by appealing to the idea that it is lashing rather than stoning should be the punishment for adultery.” Agreed. I am not defending this act/sentence, I am just stating that that is what it is. Right now, we can’t just leave a tradition and its practices behind, but more, we need to understand them and work within their boundaries. Just as with Female Genital Cutting – this is not a Muslim practice, but it is a cultural practice that is done in many Muslim countries. It is not my place to go in and say, “HEY! You can’t do that because I say it is inhumane!” More, I have to go in and work within the system and as I “educate,” I bring change. Yet, as a Westerner, who am I to take the stance that I know better because I am “educated” and I am walking into someone else’s home and educating them? This is where it gets muddy and complicated. Anyway, we could go on and on with this subject. I hear what both you and Ben are saying. With my time spent overseas examining these human right abuses under the guise of religion, I am still at a loss as to how to approach these difficult subjects as an outsider looking in.

    1. I understand there are complex social and political issues working here, but the moral issue is crystal clear: practices like FGM are WRONG.

      You ask “who am I to take the stance that I know better because I am “educated” and I am walking into someone else’s home and educating them?”

      The question I prefer to ask myself is “who am I to stand by and watch children being mutilated due to a misguided belief?”

      Cultural relativism is supremely dangerous when it leads to moral paralysis.

      1. “Cultural relativism is supremely dangerous when it leads to moral paralysis.” – James

        “The lowest place in hell is reserved for those who were neutral in the midst of serious moral decay!” Dante (Inferno)

        The great poet confirmed your idea here, James. My compliments. Indeed to all three of you in this thread.

      2. After reading both of your blospogts I staleness say i pioneer this specific one to generally be top cut. I hold a weblog also and necessity to repost a few snips of your articles on my own blog place. Should it be alright if I use this as retentive I own comment your web journal or create a incoming attach to your article I procured the dress from? If not I realise and could not do it without having your approval . I score fact noticeable this article to twitter and zynga story conscious for reference. Anyway appreciate it either way!

  11. Agreed. They are wrong. I don’t think I am paralyzed. At least, I hope not. The fact is that I have sat down with Muftis, Imams and Mullahs all over the world and discussed these matters. They don’t listen if you tell them they are wrong. They do listen, however, when you let them see that you want to understand their religion and culture. With that, I can talk til I am blue in the face about how wrong these practices are, but it won’t matter if I cannot communicate on a level of understanding. And, I really don’t believe in cultural relativism… I guess I believe that I can express my disgust for these practices, but in a constructive manner that makes progress and won’t just send me out the door with the people I’ve just left thinking, “Stupid Westerner (or American – take your pick), thinks she knows everything…” The goal is to be invited back time and time again, which I have achieved, to have honest conversations that can be a vehicle for change.

    1. This I understand, and I commend your work. It is work I think I would be completely unable to do. I suspect issues such as these will only move if pushed both from the inside, with voices like yours, and from the outside, with voices like mine. Here’s hoping!

  12. HA! I hear you! It is not easy, sitting across from men as a woman and having them tell you that basically, what they are doing to women is OK and “normal.” I have had to bite my tongue several times. Here’s hoping, indeed. 🙂

  13. Hey Ben,

    You’ve got some great stuff here! We’ve got some catching up to do… Send me an email when you get a chance.

    The Other Ben

  14. your moral stands are all well and good but before you look at neighbour you all should try to clean the social issues in your house it seems that the almighty god has given your nation the power to govern the world and the power to know right from wrong if this is so please begin at home

  15. ayaan be careful ………. and it’s not about fear but belief because you too believe…… there’s always consequence for action even in your world……… search the theory of you mentors

Comments are closed.