Ayaan Hirsi Ali – The Caged Virgin

July 03, 2009

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, was raised Muslim, and spent her childhood and young adulthood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, Hirsi Ali came to the Netherlands as a refugee. She earned her M.A. in political science and worked for the Dutch Labor party. She has served as a Dutch parliamentarian, fighting for the rights of Muslim women in Europe, the enlightenment of Islam, and security in the West. She was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and by Reader’s Digest as “European of the Year.” She is the author of The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, and the acclaimed Infidel.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts opportunities that have allowed her to become emancipated from Islam, emphasizing that every woman in Islamic societies can likewise work against oppression and “have faith in reason.” She talks about how 9-11 was a turning point in her “gradual process of enlightenment” to renounce Islam. She explains why she rejects Islam and all religions, even while recognizing that religion has some positive characteristics. She draws distinctions between favorable concepts of God in Judaism or Christianity versus destructive concepts of God within Islam. She argues that Islam, unlike Christianity and Judaism, is not a just a religion, but is a political ideology at its core, and that it is fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracies. She contends that anyone who cares about the freedom of individuals should work to “defeat Islam.” She recounts how gay rights figured prominently in her initial decision to speak out and write as a Muslim apostate. She explores why Islam needs its own Voltaire, and why it has been so difficult for Islam to have its own Reformation or Enlightenment. She shares examples from the Koran that demand from Muslims complete submission, even at the expense of one’s empathy and conscience. She talks about reform movements within Islam, including Bahá’í, the followers of Āgā Khān, and Ahmadiyya, and why they have failed to moderate the core political ideology of the Muslim faith. She talks about how every individual Muslim is commanded in the Koran both to do good and to punish evil, and the implications of this doctrine for the rule of law in society. She talks about why liberal reinterpretation of religious texts is easier in Christianity and Judaism than within Islam. She discusses her own experience of female genital mutilation, and how the practice is used to enforce the dogma of virginity. She compares and contrasts female genital mutilation with male circumcision, and argues that both practices — cutting into the bodies of children based on religious belief — should be stopped. She talks about her involvement in slain director Theo van Gogh’s movie Submission, which focused on how Islam harms women. She defends 17-year old Rifqa Bary’s decision to convert from Islam to Christianity, even though in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s view it is just going “from one superstition to another.” She expresses outrage at the death threats and other reactions from the Muslim community to Bary’s decision. And she explains how situations like Bary’s and Van Gogh’s murder, along with the death threats that she has received, only motivate her to speak out more, because “it is a worse kind of death to be alive but to be silenced.”

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 3rd, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. I’m really happy that my guest this week is a yarn here. See, Ali. She was raised a Muslim, spent her childhood and young adulthood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. She’s now in Europe, where she’s earned a degree in political science. She was elected to the parliament in the Netherlands, where she worked to raise awareness about the plight of Muslim women in Europe. A few years ago, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. She was also named one of Glamor magazine’s heroes for 2005. Reader’s Digest named her European of the Year a couple of years ago. In other words, she’s received wide recognition for her courageous stance against the negative aspects of Islam. She’s the author of The Caged Virgin and Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam and also the book Infidel. 

She’s also a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, a yarn. Hirsi Ali, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you, T.J.. Thank you for having me on. 

What an honor it is to have you on the show. Yours is an absolutely amazing story. We had some technical difficulties getting you on. I’m so glad you’re finally here. And you were born in Somalia. You lived in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya. Now you’re this prominent public intellectual, recognized the world over, but not many young Muslim women in these. Can I call them misogynistic Islamic societies? Not many of them make it out of all that to become outspoken critics of Islam. Tell me what makes you so different than all these other Muslim women? 

I didn’t really think of myself as being very different. 

I think of myself as someone who has been exposed to a unique set of opportunities. And I was able to take those opportunities. I’ll give you an example. My father found it important to send my sister and me to school, and he insisted with my mother that we stay in school reading and writing. I can’t think of a greater emancipated than that. And you’ll obviously see. But India’s misogynistic societies, there are many women who continue to fight. But I got another opportunity when my family left Somalia and went to all these other different places to be exposed to other cultures. The Ethiopians, the Kenyans and the debts are not Muslim. So I was able to see how different societies with different model frameworks function. When my father came back into my life and decided for me who to marry. That is also another facet. Most Muslim women are made of very, very, very young ages in their lives, 50 and 60, and sometimes even as young as nine. And having lived without my father for about 10 years in Kenya, having become was not completely independent. But having had a taste of independence, I was able to make up my mind that I didn’t want to go with that man. Mm hmm. And then there’s just that moment that I was able to go from Kenya to Germany and Germany to Canada. That was my intended itinerary. And in Germany, I was able to take a train and go to Holland and ask for asylum. If you’ll put all of these things together, they create a cocktail of unique opportunities for me. 

But it doesn’t make me any different from what I would see as all the other women who are born in the same circumstances that I was or worse. 

So if you’ve been emancipated from Islam, you think it’s possible for any other woman in a Muslim society who hears this message? It’s possible for her as well. 

Absolutely. I think that every woman, every girl has her own sets of unique opportunities and unique constraints, but that the individual human being is able to get out of an oppressive situation and to have faith in prison. And there’ll be hurdles. There’ll be obstacles. My message to everyone is to start with attempting a clean iron. 

Let’s backtrack a little. You were formerly a devout Muslim. Yes. But as a child is so devout, you wore the hijab as a girl. You actually say you took pride in doing so. And at one time you even agreed with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. And now you’re one of the most outspoken critics. You just kind of narrated this this path, you know, that got you to where you’re at right now. But was there one turning point? Say, 9/11 or something else that that kind of cinched it for you? Rejection of Islam. 

It was definitely 9/11. But I think of it as a gradual process of enlightenment. Starting again with the time that I was able to read a slave. It wasn’t a conscious path. I mean, I wasn’t setting out to emancipate myself from Islam. 

What 9/11 did for me at the age of 30, 41, after I had graduated from politics in the University of Leiden, was bin Laden and al-Qaeda put all Muslims on that date on the spot, demanding if you’re Muslim, you support these attacks justified in the name of Allah and the prophet. If you don’t support them, then you are a traitor or an infidel. And it put me in, like many Muslims, in a state of shock where I had to answer that question for me, knowing what the consequences were. Mm hmm. 

Do you consider yourself an atheist? Like, do you reject all religions or are you more like those who are, say, secular Jews? Jews who don’t necessarily believe in the supernatural claims of their faith, but they still connect culturally with Judaism. In other words, are you something like a culturally Muslim or are you instead an ex Muslim who rejects the whole tradition completely? 

I consider myself an atheist in the sense that they do not. I do not any longer believe in the supernatural Jim Underdown. 

This is the way I like to put it. Is it man who created God? It is God who created man. And I have come to accept as a fact that it is man who created God. Having said that, I also can observe that religion has a function in society and that there are different religions. There are different concepts of God. There are parts of the Islamic tradition like Chatterji hospitality, that sort of thing that I still appreciate. I grew up in a clan society. I’m very much a group person, even though I’m in myself. I consider myself individualistic, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that these different concepts of God do matter. And take, for instance, the current Christian belief that God is seen as a father and a source of love, that Jewish people see their God as not all of them. Some of them as an entity you argue with. And that then develops critical thinking. I reject the most about the Islamic concept of God. Is the demand for total submission. 

Mm hmm. And for here, after that is presented as if it’s just around the corner, that is what I suggest the most, a complete relinquishing of your faculty or prison. And by doing that, then finding oneself, doing all sorts of atrocious things to other human beings because someone tells you God seeds. Mm hmm. 

You mentioned that as regards 9/11, bin Laden put all Muslims on the spot. You’ve written about defeating Islam, not just radical Islam, but Islam itself. And you just said that Islam teaches submission, not just kind of fundamentalist Islam or extremist Islam. Would you unpack all that for me? How do we defeat Islam? If you’re painting with such a broad brush, you know that the whole religion is bad. It seems like you’re saying how do you defeat Islam without going to war with the whole religion? 

Well, first of all, I object to the definition of Islam purely as a religion and then religion as perceived in the West. The Judeo-Christian traditions or the Judeo-Christian followers here, most of them have accepted the notion of separation and church and state. What we are seeing now is a revival of Islam as a political theory, as not just an answer to the problems in society, but to replacing liberal democratic societies with Shariah law. And it’s that that ideology that is at the core of Islam that one must defeat because it cannot be reconciled with the principles of liberal democracy. I also make a distinction between Muslims, of individual adherents of the faith and the basic tenets of the faith. Muslims say they are diverse and some of them want to be like bin Laden and practice every letter in the Koran and follow Mohammed in all of his examples. But there are many people who are just Muslim in name. There are others who just said the spiritual dimension and pay and Farson. Do not wish to harm anyone, and it’s very good to see this diversity among the believers. But it’s very, very important in our time to recognize that the ideology of Islam aspires to create a state under Sharia law is very potent and successful, and it’s spreading. And there is a confrontation with liberal democracy. And anyone who cares for the freedom of individuals and about liberal democracy should face this reality. And yes, defeated. 

You’re saying at its core, at its very core, Islam has this political religious element. It’s not just a faith tradition, but it is a at its core, a political ideology. 

It is a political ideology. It is an ideology of conquest. It’s an ideology of domination. It’s an ideology that divides the world into us. And them and them must be conquered. Them must be they must surrender. And we have seen a few of those Western, some of them secular, others religious. And we all know from history. Well, that’s sort of a totalitarian utopian aspiration. Mm hmm. 

Yarn. I want to talk about your book, The Caged Virgin, an amazing read. Tell me when you decided that you wanted to start telling your story to the world. Did you plan on writing against Islam early on in your education? Or again, was there a turning point, something that clicked for you when you when you said, I have to get this story out? 

I didn’t plan to become an activist. Also, if I had anything against Islam in 1992, all I knew was I just wanted to live with the man that my father chose for me. And so that was just a personal escape, a personal a personal journey. I think the first moment I remember was a television news documentary slash show where an imam in the Netherlands was approached by journalists who are reporting on young Muslim men molesting gay men, beating gay teachers, just making life impossible for gay people in Amsterdam. And the imams response was, well, homosexuality is a disease and this is a right in persecuting gay people. And I remember the first saying in my mind, that moment of thinking, no, they have been indoctrinated in the same way that I was indoctrinated. I remember thinking this is exactly what I used to think. And it’s something that you can learn. And that was when I wrote my first article where I brought Islam at that point, then with the persecution of gay people. This was in 2000 and one in May and then in September of 2001, the 11th of September took place. And while the rest. 

Mm hmm. You write in the Caged Virgin that Islam needs its own Voltaire. Why has it been so hard for Islam? Even the non radical parts of it, the parts you were just talking about a moment ago, where Muslims who are just spiritual, but they’re not radical. They’re not extremist. They don’t want to harm other people. Why is it so hard for Islam as a whole to take a critical look at itself, to turn inward, to reject the extremism? Islam has not had its own Voltaire. Someone from within the religion that that demolishes the most extreme versions of of that. Do you have a guess as to why that’s the case? 

I think in answer to this question, it is important to make that distinction again between the individual human being who is the adherent to the sense of belief on the one hand and the set of beliefs on the other hand? Islam? Mm hmm. Islam as a set of beliefs is very clear, coherent. It means submission to the will of Allah. And the founder of Islam, Mohammed has left behind a number of whose distinguished members from nonmembers, weak members, from strong members. But if you look at the individual Muslim mind, one of the I think, most important reasons why it’s very hard for the Muslim mind to continue calling or thinking of yourself as a Muslim. And on the other hand, combining it with other ideas is because these prove that Mohammed left behind demand complete objection, the demand complete surrender. There’s no ambiguity in that when the conscience of a Muslim collides with a command in the Koran that he has to follow that commands. Let me give you the example of the flogging. There’s a chapter in the ground to flog the adelfa and the aboutus and. Let there be let there be witnesses and the witnesses are not allowed to move to be moved by compassion. Most human beings will be disgusted of watching a public flogging. But what do you do with that disgust? What do you do with that compassion that you feel for the victim? If you give in to that, then you’re an infidel and your fellow Muslims will call you an infidel. Mm hmm. If you if you don’t, then you’re a Muslim, then you’re being you’re being very cool. And you are applying much more justice and engaging in an atrocious act. And so this is what makes it a very difficult place. The other one is there is no leader who speaks for Islam who says, well, once upon a time, this is how the set of beliefs look. And now we can modify it and adapted to new realities. Every male Muslim can call himself a leader. You’re only required to not a text very much. But knowing doesn’t mean questioning. It’s knowing just me and memorizing. 

Mm hmm. So the reason there’s never been a Voltaire is because of the strict adherence to the faith itself keeps internal criticism from happening. But there were fundamentalists or devout religionists in in Judaism or Christianity, and somehow they’re still cropped up. Critics who led to the Reformation or the Enlightenment. Do you think that Islam can ever have its own reformation or its own enlightenment? 

When I look at the history of Christianity, let’s see the evolution of Christianity from the time when thinkers were persecuted. What happened? And all burned, which is Waban. There was the Inquisition. There was the dark times of Christianity. Those people within the jurisdiction of Christianity who objected to it. Some of them were able to organize themselves and organize their ideas. Some of them stepped up the faith. Others decided to modify the faith to fit in with their newly acquired values. That process has eluded Islam. There are a few organizations you need a committee of the behave, the followers of Aga Khan. But those attempts have always been rejected and shunned as infidels, as heretics, as non-Muslims. And they haven’t been able to to evolve and get a majority in the way. Let’s say the Christians have. And again, it goes back to who speaks for Islam. When Mohammed died, he didn’t leave a bureaucracy behind. He didn’t leave a procedure of succession behind. And so it is a sort of ad hoc as you go. There is a concept in Islam that every single Muslim is required to command good and to punish evil. So every Muslim person is a budding policeman. There’s no rule of law. The concept of the nation state is something foreign to Islam. And until today, it has only been an instrument of oppression where Islam as a set of beliefs is a game use of force so far. There are so many commands in the Bible that are vague. And you can go around. You have books in the Bible, Deuteronomy and a few and all of these people. But the Koran is considered by Muslims to be essentially the word of God. And you’re not allowed to change a letter. Mohammed, the founder, has been identified as infallible. So you have principle and practical obstacles that make the evolution of Islam very, very difficult, if not impossible. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the Caged Virgin and Emancipation Proclamation for Women in Islam through our website point of inquiry dot org, a yarn your father, who was a prominent figure in the Somalian revolution in the 1980s. 

Well, I want to talk about something kind of sensitive about him, about your childhood. Your father opposed female genital mutilation. Yet your grandmother still had it done to you. What, when you were five. Do you think that the effects of female genital mutilation. It does. That cast a shadow on Muslim women’s lives all over. Is that something I mean, this sounds. This is a hard question. But is that something someone gets over? 

It depends on how it’s how bad the operation. How harmful the operation is. Many girls don’t get it and they immediately after the operation. Others carry the harmful after effects of the operation for the rest of their life. And for many, you do get it. You can’t get off of it. And also when this question comes up. I always have to see female genital mutilation is not, say, an Islamic practice. But it is a practice that today, if you look at the number of countries that practice, whether passes, is common. Most of them are Muslim countries. And that is because it is an effective measure to enforce the demand in Islam that girls remain virgins before their marriage, before their first marriage. And its control mechanism of females, which is inherently Islam. You can get over the harmful effects of that in the Islamic world for them to be persuaded to give up female genital mutilation. They will have to be persuaded to give up the idea that dogma of virginity and the dogma that you have to control female sexuality in order to have a calm, peaceful society. Mm hmm. 

It’s my sense that many people in the West don’t really understand the whole notion of female genital mutilation. You know, it’s not mobs of people, you know, mutilating children. It’s it’s something kind of similar to male genital mutilation in the West. You know, circumcision of boys. You’re saying, though, that in in these Muslim societies, it’s happening as a as a way to control the sexuality of girls in Western society. Male circumcision is not really seen to be a means of controlling boys. Sexuality isn’t. 

No. And neither is it seen in Muslim. Every Muslim male must be circumcised. But that is seen as an act of cleansing. It is an oppression of hygiene. 

And you also oppose the circumcision of boys because it has become redundant. 

I oppose any argument to cut into the body of a child. I’m not talking about consenting adults. I’m talking about babies and children with the argument. Well, because some old figure called Ibraham demands that we do it. That is not a satisfactory argument. It doesn’t make an operation like that necessary. Now, the argument on Haiti in most Western countries, well, we just have water and good hygiene means to keep the genitals of a boy child clean. You no longer need to cut it. But again, the main difference between female and male genital mutilation is the male one is seen as an act of cleansing. And in fact, even enhancing his sexuality, which is not true, in fact, though. But for the females, it is absolutely done with the idea to limit sexuality and to control it. 

I, I know you’re a little short on time. I want to touch on one other thing before we wrap up. And that is living in the Netherlands. You were involved with the Dutch film director, Theo Van Gogh’s short movie submission. It’s kind of an exposé of how horribly women are treated in Islamic societies, not just about female genital mutilation, but, you know, up and down, you know. 

Yeah. The beatings and the rapes and. Yeah, right. 

You did the narration. You wrote the script for that movie, right? Yes. As our listeners probably know, Van Gogh was actually murdered by a Muslim extremist. Does that kind of violence, that real threat of being killed? Has that ever given you pause, made you think that you should stop speaking out about the horrors of Islam? 

No, it has only motivated me to speak up even more because that would mean that I mean, it’s ridiculous to say someone is killed twice, but Taylor was killed for making that film against a blatant mass injustice carried out in the name of religion to who was his killer. And all those of us who wanted him dead want me silenced by keeping silent is also dying in a way. And I think that that is not I think it’s a worse death to be alive and be silenced than to go out and continue to say this is unacceptable. And we’re not at all of these things start in a small way settlement, which he has gone through this. But I don’t know if you’ve heard of the story of Mr. Barry, a 17 year old who converted to Christianity. I don’t think it’s a good idea to look for her to grow from, in my view, once a position to another. But she has that is provocative. That is what we call freedom of conscience. And not only half that, but so many Muslims in the United States today would like to get her killed or silenced, shunned, imprisoned, put in a mad asylum. And as long as this goes on and people are. Ignorance that they feel they can impose their questions on others. We have to keep speaking it out and then tell would not have died for nothing. 

Mm hmm. Your continue to speak out, but nonetheless, you’re in hiding today of sorts. 

I’m not in hiding, but I have police protection. 

Yes. And the Freethought community is kind of come to your aid in that regard. Sam Harris, others, they’ve helped raise money to underwrite bodyguards for you against these death threats. 

Yeah. To suffer Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, many of the other free thinkers who are privileged that they are born and live in free societies are well aware of the fact that the society we live in is vulnerable to that sort of, you know, ignorance and misogyny and oppression and who are willing to fight for it. I mean, Christopher Hitchens somehow is which adopted it really him out themselves. And they too risky taking the same risks as I am. But they choose to sit down and conflict and just cast their hands. And I admire them for that and love them for that. Mm hmm. 

And there’s so much more I’d like to talk with you about. But I know you’re short on time. I wonder if we could have you back on the show again in the near future. I want to discuss your ties to the neo conservative movement. Your book, Infidel, other things. How’s that sound to you? 

Let’s do it some other time. 

Well, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, thank you so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Thank you, T.J.. Thank you for having me. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for nineteen ninety. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week. Find me on Facebook and on Twitter if you want to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join us at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the Center for Inquiry’s views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly, recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Our music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.