The autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali reveals how the Dutch politician stumbled from Islamic to Western fundamentalism. Daniel Bax has read it
She described Mohammed as a "pervert;" she called Islam a religion of violence; she said that Muslim immigration was a danger for Europe: it was such headline-grabbing positions which made Ayaan Hirsi Ali famous. But people outside the Netherlands don't know much else about this 37-year-old politician whom some describe as a "women's rights activiist," others as a "fundamentalist of the Enlightenment." Deep down, what drives Ayaan Hirsi Ali?
In her autobiography, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tries to provide an answer. The book falls into two halves: the first, with the subtitle "My Life," tells of the various stations in her extraordinary childhood and youth, moving between Somalia, Saudi-Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. In the second part, subtitled "My Freedom," she describes her lightning political career in the Netherlands.
Political activity was part of her birthright. Her father was a prominent opposition politician who fought against the communist dictatorship in Somalia and was forced into exile. The family followed in 1978 and often had to do without their father for years at a time.
The evolution of a political philosophy
Hirsi Ali tells us intimate details, for which she deserves our respect: she tells, for example, of her circumcision, arranged by her grandmother in her parents' absence and against their will. What makes her biography different from other bestseller biographies of African women, with names like "Heart of Fire" or "Desert Flower," is the fact that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a politician. The reader looks for clues as to the evolution of her political philosophy, and finds them in a surprising place.
With a real sense of drama, Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes how, when she was sixteen, she came under the influence of a religion teacher, Sister Aziza, who covered herself with a black veil. Sister Aziza led her on to the path of "true Islam" and soon Hirsi Ali became one of the first girls at her school in Kenya to wear a veil. "Strangely, the veil gave me the feeling of being a real individual," she writes. "It communicated the message that I was something better: I was the only real Muslim."
It's rare to find the phenomenon of fundamentalism more sympathetically described, and Hirsi Ali has maintained her missionary fervour to this day, even if she has changed the old Muslim Brothers' slogan, "Islam is the solution," into its opposite: for her now Islam is the problem.
Tissue of lies spun around the civil war
Her conversion came in 1992 when she fled from a marriage which her father had arranged for her; when the plane she was on landed at Frankfurt, she used the opportunity to escape to a camp for refugees in the Netherlands. She applied for asylum and was lucky enough to be given an unrestricted residence permit, even if it was only on the basis of a tissue of lies which she spun around the civil war in Somalia.
Many refugees find themselves suffering an identity crisis in exile. Hirsi Ali's own sister, who followed her to the Netherlands, became so desperate that she lost her mind. Hirsi Ali found comfort and hope in her new faith in "the West." In the mid-1990s she began to study politics and to work as an interpreter. Working in police stations or women's refuges, she met Turkish and Moroccan women, but scarcely ever had to do with native Dutch people.
Abstract political principles
She asked herself why it was mainly immigrants who had such problems, and she soon came to the conclusion that it was due to their religion. It's not clear why she came to this conclusion: she had scarcely any contact with other immigrants, even though she makes harsh judgements about them. While her childhood memories seem lively and full of experience, her political principles seem abstract and based on books.
Her political coming-out took place on the letters pages of Dutch newspapers; the 9/11 terrorist attacks were her epiphany: she wrote an article in a conservative newspaper in which she laid out what she thought about Islam, and she received many letters of support from people who were looking for such simple answers.
She was soon being invited on to talkshows and began to see herself as the "Muslim Voltaire" for which many observers held her.
Very limited support from the Muslim women
Following the murder of the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, she was recruited by the right-wing liberal VVD party and became a member of parliament in January 2003. At this point her image was mainly based on her media fame among the conservative establishment as a public convert to its values. As she admits in her book, she had very limited support from the Muslim women whose interests she would like to represent.
Hirsi Ali toughened her political profile with populist demands such as for the closing of Muslim schools. Parliamentary work seems to have been less to her taste; she writes very little about it in her biography. There are other omissions which are more annoying: Hirsi Ali fails to mention that she supported the rigid deportation policy of her party colleague Rita Verdonk until she herself was affected by it and found herself about to be deprived of her citizenship.
Instead we find out other things: for example, Hirsi Ali is sure that the murder of Theo van Gogh, with whom she made the film "Submission," could have been avoided. But in reality Theo van Gogh ignored all the warnings he received about the risks he was taking. After his murder, the Netherlands suffered a bout of hysteria: for 75 days Hirsi Ali was hidden by the police and sent out of the country. She considers now that that was an overreaction.
Limited empirical evidence
Hirsi Ali has now moved to the United States where she is working at a neoconservative think tank. Her biography shows how limited the empirical evidence is for her black-and-white political claims:
"The ways of thinking which I encountered in Saudi Arabia and within the Muslim Brotherhood in Kenya and Somalia are incompatible with human rights and the basic principles of liberty," she writes. That may be so; the problem is that Hirsi Ali assumes that all the world's Muslims hold such fundamentalist positions.
© Daniel Bax/Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton