By the time Ayaan Hirsi Ali was 23 years old, she had lived in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Netherlands. On March 4, Katty Kay, BBC World News America anchor, asked Hirsi Ali about her journey for a sold-out event at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. “It’s not taking a plane, a train, or even walking,” Hirsi Ali said. “It’s making that transition from disappearing into the tapestry to finding your own voice, your own self.”
The Ringling College Library Association invited Hirsi Ali to Sarasota for its 2015 Town Hall Lecture series. Instead of the usual Town Hall format, a lecture followed by audience question and answer, Kay interviewed Hirsi Ali in a conversational fashion using audience-generated questions. Kay, who grew up in the Middle East, is a guest correspondent on NBC’s Meet the Press and MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Hirsi Ali is known for her critiques of Islam. In addition to her diplomatic and political work, she wrote the film “Submission,” which caused major controversy, including the death of its director, Theo van Gogh. Hirsi Ali herself has received numerous death threats since that event and is under constant supervision.
She is a passionate advocate for women’s rights and a vocal critic of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Muslim Brotherhood. Raised Muslim by devout, traditional parents, Hirsi Ali had her first taste of “radical” Islam when she was 15, receiving a Muslim education at a girl’s school in Nairobi, Kenya. “[Sister Aziza] opened a new atmosphere to me,” Hirsi Ali said of her teacher, who introduced the idea of hell and the afterlife to the students. Compelled by her teacher’s principles as a teenager, Hirsi Ali has a unique understanding of the “call to honor” in Islam, as she describes it. Only last week, it was reported that a 15-year-old British girl and her two friends boarded a plane to Turkey, allegedly to join ISIS. “If ISIS was appealing to me at 15 or 16, I would have joined them,” Hirsi Ali said to quiet gasps in the audience.
“Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents her personal experience with Islam, which I am sure is very validated,” first-year and Daughters for Life scholar Leen Al Fatafta said. “But that in no way gives her the right to condemn a religion of millions. There has to be a distinction between the religion and the follower.” Al Fatafta is from Amman, Jordan.
Now a radical opponent of Islam, Hirsi Ali has published four books, with her fifth “Heretic,” an outline of a reformed Islam, to be published at the end of the month. Without revealing the details of the book, Hirsi Ali mentioned the five aspects of reformation she believes to be essential in Islam. Total submission to the prophet, the emphasis on the afterlife, “demanding right and forbidding wrong,” Sharia law and the mix of church and state, and finally, the concept of jihad, or holy war, are among the facets of Islam Hirsi Ali said we can “throw out.”
Al Fatafta told the Catalyst about a major misconception about Sharia law. “When talking of or about Islam, we need to recognize the necessity of making a distinction between Sharia and Fiqh,” she said. “Sharia is the totality of God’s will as revealed to the prophet Mohammad, while Fiqh is the process of human endeavor to discern and extract legal rules from the sacred sources of Islam, the Koran and the traditions of the prophet. Sharia is eternal, Fiqh is human and is subjective. We must be aware of the male-centric interpretations of Sharia law made by Fiqh scholars to further perpetuate the subordination of women, but in the process we mustn’t confuse Sharia with its Fiqh interpretations. For instance, the claim that Islam has permitted wife beating is an example of Fiqh interpretation, it is subjective.”
Hirsi Ali developed her opinion on women’s rights as a culmination of a lifetime of watching female submission. A victim of genital mutilation as a child, she decided at a young age that she did not want to be subservient to a man. When her family travelled to Saudi Arabia, a young Hirsi Ali thought that her own mother was “invisible” in its culture.
As a teenager, Hirsi Ali had a secret boyfriend who was an imam and constantly preached that extramarital dating and relationships were an unpardonable sin. When they were together, she remembered him pressuring her to have sex.
Hirsi Ali’s father abandoned the family for 10 years before returning to arrange marriages for his daughters. “I had developed the most furious velociraptor scales,” Hirsi Ali said about that time. Before she was scheduled to marry, Hirsi Ali told her family she was visiting friends and boarded a train to the Netherlands, where she applied for asylum.
Since then, Hirsi Ali has completely renounced Islam, losing contact with her family in the process. She is now considered an influential atheist scholar. “You can’t walk out of one cage and into another,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali said with a shrug when Katty Kay asked her if she ever sought out a new faith after leaving Islam. Although the audience at the Van Wezel cheered heartily, Hirsi Ali’s views have a whole different meaning to Al Fatafta.
“Many women have found their voices within an Islamic paradigm, many have succeeded in engaging their activism within the parameters of their culture, and to condemn women who choose to find their feminism within Islamic teachings, is no different than condemning someone for being an ‘infidel,’” Al Fatafta said. “Both stem from a system based on negating and marginalizing the other. To say that Islam is perfect is far from the truth, but to say that there is no feminist potential in Islam is to sentence many women who identify as Muslims to exile from the feminist movement.”
To end her lecture, Hirsi Ali said “I’m not afraid to say it. The Saudi regime is evil. The Iranian regime is evil. The Muslim Brotherhood is evil.”
“A reform movement, in my personal opinion, is indeed desperately needed in Islam, but thinking of Islam as the antithesis of modernity and secularism is the wrong way to go about it,” Al Fatafta said. “It forecloses possible alliances between feminism, secularism and Islam that hold within its formation much potential in bridging the divide and shaping a consensus between the East and the West.”