Bill Steigerwald, a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, interviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali about her memoir Infidel, her campaign to reform Islam, and her thoughts on American politics.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was born and raised as a Muslim in Somalia and is now the New York Times best-selling author of Infidel (Free Press), is an outspoken defender of women's rights in Islamic societies. A former member of the Dutch Parliament who speaks six languages, she's a freedom-fighter whose criticism of conservative Islamic cultures and their traditional mistreatment of women and children have made her internationally famous and brought her death threats. Hirsi Ali, who calls herself a "classic liberal" who desires the state to be limited to guarantee as much individual freedom as possible, is currently a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. She says Infidel--the name she found herself being called when she would suggest some oppressive or backward aspect of Islam should be changed or reformed--is her account of her transformation from "the world of faith to the world of reason."
Bill Steigerwald: Why did you write Infidel and what do you want it to accomplish?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Whoa! (laughs) I wrote "Infidel" to answer the question asked of me by my publisher, my colleagues, by associates in Holland--"Ayaan, how did your own process of enlightenment go? How did your own journey from being born and raised in a pre-modern, devout Muslim family to an ultra-modern society like the Netherlands go? And what is it that you still value in the moral framework that you were brought up in, and what is it that you don't? And what is it that you value in our moral framework, and what is it that you don't?" Infidel is the answer to that.
Steigerwald: It is a personal story?
Hirsi Ali: Yes. It's subjective. As I go from place to place promoting the book, that's what I emphasize--it is my story.
Steigerwald: Who did you write the book for? Who is the audience?
Hirsi Ali: Two audiences. One are those who have inherited the Western system of human rights and freedom and the institutions (that protect them) but who do not understand what it is not to have freedom--in short, those who take freedom for granted. The other audience are those who share my Muslim background and who reject freedom on the basis of religious dogma or tradition, such as those who say, "I don't care to send my children to school" or "I'm going to circumcise my daughters because this is what we always used to do."
Steigerwald: What is the significance of the title Infidel?
Hirsi Ali: That as someone who was born into Islam and brought up with Islam, every call for for change meets with the accusation "You are an infidel." After the 11th of September, Western leaders started to persuade Muslims all over the world to stand up and say, "This is not done in my religion." I started to download what bin Laden had said. Pretty much the message of bin Laden is that every Muslim should stand up and fight the enemies of Islam. I started to download his speeches and he quotes abundantly from the Koran and the Hadith (written traditions of the Prophet Muhammad). Bin Laden's message is consistent. What he says, is in the Koran. What he says that the prophet did, it is true the prophet did. My reaction to that was, let's not turn away from that but let's acknowledge that our religion has very violent principles and by acknowledging those deviances, we can correct it. And that's when I was met with the accusation "You've become an infidel." Then in Holland, I started to point out the position of Muslim women in Holland and in Muslim countries. I said it is inferior and that inferiority and the violence against women and the subjugation against them is justified in the name of Islam. I said, "Let's acknowledge that this deformity is within the religion and reform it." And the answer to that was always, "Oh, but you are an infidel if you say that." I said, "Let's correct what the prophet Muhammad said"--"No. The prophet was perfect, he was infallible. You don't correct what he said. If you do that you are an infidel."
Steigerwald: Is Islam inherently anti-western, anti-individual, or anti-woman, or has it has been perverted by its leaders?
Hirsi Ali: The religion is the problem. The religion is anti-individual. And the notion of equality between men and women, or at least protecting their rights as equally valuable, is also another Western notion. Islam as a doctrine, as a religion, is opposed to all of that. There are leaders who want to change that and move forward, and they are the ones who are accused of being infidels. From really the time the religion was founded until now, they have either been exiled or killed or silenced in some way.
Steigerwald: Is there anywhere where Islam is practiced today that you would say is a model situation?
Hirsi Ali: Not where sharia--the law of Islam--is implemented. Anywhere where sharia is implemented, you see incredible inhumanity. People's hands are cut off. Women are confined to their homes and are stoned. Peopled are hanged. Homosexuals are hanged or must hide. That is Iran, Saudi Arabia . . . Afghanistan under the Taliban. Parts of Somalia are now under sharia rule. Anywhere there is sharia rule, there is violation of human rights.
Steigerwald: What do you want Americans to learn or to understand after reading Infidel?
Hirsi Ali: Become aware that you have these freedoms. Don't take them for granted. Protect them against predators with totalitarian ideologies, such as Islam.
Steigerwald: Do you feel that people are getting the message you want them to get from your book?
Hirsi Ali: I feel that conservatives are getting the message--and had gotten it before I even started coming to the U.S. I'm having difficulty getting the message to liberals and that has to do with people who are opposed to the Bush administration but at the same time don't realize that Islam is a doctrine. And that for the agents of Islam, those who want to create a caliphate, it really doesn't matter whether you are a Democrat or a conservative. You are an infidel all the same.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.