Heretic or Heroine? In Defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali


A few years ago, I read a book that changed my life. The book was a memoir called Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In addition to being an author, Ali is a human-rights activist, former politician, feminist and scholar. In her memoir, she chronicles her life growing up in the Muslim world. Originally from Somalia, Ali moved to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Netherlands and eventually the United States to escape war, an arranged marriage and multiple death threats. The breadth and potency of her life experience — as a victim of female genital mutilation, a refugee, a Dutch-politician, a scholar, and a U.S. political commentator — leads her memoir to read more like a novel than an autobiography.  

Born in Somalia to a religious Muslim family, Ali was exposed to radical Islamic doctrine from an early age. As a young girl, she endured the horrors of female genital mutilation and witnessed the subjugation of women under fundamentalist Islamic law. When she was a young adult, Ali was forced into an arranged marriage from which she was able to escape by seeking asylum in the Netherlands. While there, she worked as a translator for refugees and immigrant women in asylum centers, going on to become a politician in the Dutch parliament.

As a politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali began speaking out on behalf of Muslim immigrant women and about the egregious human rights violations committed in radical Muslim countries. After enduring a great deal of pain and suffering under a radical Islamic regime, she decided to dedicate her political career to advocating for Islamic reform and a disposal of the political Islamic doctrine.

Ali’s cry for reform led her to be labeled as a heretic, and her fatwa — a decree handed down by a Islamic religious leader — was a death sentence. While this is not unusual for Muslims who speak out against radical Islamic doctrine, what is more surprising — especially from a Western perspective — is the way that her criticisms of Islam have effectively ostracized her from the liberal community. Despite the fact that Ali herself was once a devout Muslim and her motives are rooted in the desire to protect human rights, liberals have responded to her criticisms as politically incorrect and intolerant of the Muslim faith.

However, Ali argues that the liberal community’s insistence upon political correctness and their definition of “tolerance” is being practiced at the expense of the safety and security of immigrant Muslim women. She suggests that by not directly addressing the faults of fundamentalist Islam, liberal politicians are still allowing many antiquated practices to continue in the West.

ayaan hirsi ali
Photo: Washington Examiner

Ali points out that Muslim women who have moved out of a religious totalitarian regime are still vulnerable to inhumane or sexist Islamic policies such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Despite living in a Western democracy, many Muslim women are still expected to honor violence inflicted by their families or communities in the name of religion.

Looking at this from the perspective of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the liberal West is not doing Muslim women any favors by being politically correct on this matter, turning a blind eye to oppressive or violent traditions in the name of religious freedom. She argues that Western countries who welcome in immigrant Muslim women need to take action against the continuation of religious-based oppression, or they are only harming the very people for which they claim to offer a safe haven.

Ali believes that politicians need to do a better job of representing the citizens of their country by advocating for an end to oppressive practices against Muslim women. She calls for politicians to publicly denounce religious-based violence and to stay vigilant within immigrant Muslim communities. By doing this, she says, politicians will not only protect Muslim women and girls, but the entirety of their population from the potential violence of extremist religion.

It is imperative to note that in Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali does not generalize Muslims, nor declares them to be an unpeaceful people. Instead, she acknowledges the diversity of Muslims, pointing out that the majority of them want to live in peace and assimilate into modern society. While she views political Islamic doctrine as totalitarian and misogynistic in nature, she treats it as a separate entity from the Muslim people. She gave a detailed explanation of her ideology at the 2016 Women of the World Summit in New York City as a panel member discussing the state of women in Islam.

I do not believe that I have enough of an understanding of Islamic doctrine to effectively weigh in on Ali’s criticisms of the religion itself. However, I do feel very strongly about the fact that Ali has not gotten the recognition or support that she deserves within the modern liberal and feminist movements. Despite being a vocal advocate for women’s rights, a woman of color, and a former refugee, Ali’s point of view is often belittled or outright ignored by liberals and feminists who fear being labeled as intolerant or Islamophobic.

I understand that fellow politicians and leaders may be hesitant to associate themselves with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in an effort to be politically correct and avoid controversy. I know they may be wary of ostracizing Muslim women who disagree with Ali’s views. However, I find it incredibly hard to argue that Ali’s platform does not align with a liberal and feminist agenda.  

ayaan hirsi ali
Photo: The Cut, New York Magazine

In 2007, Ali founded the AHA Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls fight back against female genital mutilation, violence in the name of honor, and forced marriages. Her organization has helped hundreds of women access the support and services they need to escape oppressive socioreligious practices and fully realize their human rights.

The AHA Foundation also offers a fellowship to college students to promote critical thinking skills. For Ali, this is a tangible way to fight back against her experience of many people’s frequent attempts to silence her for her views. Rather than shutting down the views of anyone with whom they disagree, AHA fellows are encouraged to engage in constructive dialogue about contentious issues on campus.

I believe that the modern feminist movement would do well to adopt this ideology, as disagreement and discussion is a vital aspect of progress. Ali has been shunned by several prominent feminist leaders for her views and was even viciously targeted by one of the Women’s March organizers, Linda Sarsour. In 2011, Sarsour tweeted out that Ali “deserved to have her vagina taken away” as an advocate for the dismantling of Islamic Sharia law. To say this about a woman who is not only a victim of female genital mutilation but also a staunch advocate for women’s rights is not only abhorrent but inherently anti-feminist.

It is acceptable for Sarsour to disagree with Ali, but her use of hateful language to humiliate and degrade another woman clearly indicates her bigotry as well as a shocking lack of compassion and integrity. Sadly, despite this tweet being public knowledge, Sarsour is still lauded as a social justice warrior by feminist and liberal leaders alike. Given the insanity of our current administration, it may be tempting to support just about any political figure who represents a liberal agenda. However, it is vital that you seek out the facts and decide for yourself who and what is worthy of your support, even if that means taking a standpoint that is not popular.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali has to say, I believe that we should all have respect for the fact that she has been a brave and vocal advocate for women’s rights. I believe that she has a unique and valuable perspective as a Muslim woman who has lived as a citizen under an Islamic regime and later, as an immigrant and political leader in the West. Ali highlights the potential danger of our Western tendency to prioritize being “politically correct”, arguing that it has the potential to harm the very people we have a responsibility to protect. She suggests that human rights violations in the name of religion can not be served by political neutrality, and this approach can obstruct our ability to think critically. For her refusal to be silent in the face of great danger and adversity, Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves to be part of the modern feminist canon.