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Conversations in the Library: Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Philip Gourevitch


April 30, 2006 | The New York Public Library | New York City
Discussed: Islamic Enlightenment, burning The Satanic Verses, living as a Muslim atheist in Holland, liberal betrayal, the Prophet Mohammed as a moral guide for contemporary culture, Christian and Muslim provincialism.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: When you were about 15 years old, in Kenya, you were in the streets protesting for the death of Salman Rushdie, saying that you would be happy to go fight, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, against the great American Satan. You found your way to Europe in the early 1990s but remained Muslim by identity and by faith, practicing until very recently, when you fully renounced religiosity or faith and essentially embraced Western Enlightenment. Do you still consider yourself a Muslim?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: I don’t consider myself a Muslim in the sense that I believe in God, in hell and heaven, in the angels and the books and Muhammad as the messenger, the last prophet. I don’t believe in prophets anymore. But I am a part of that identity. I grew up in Islam and I was raised in Islam.

After 9/11, there was this huge appeal to Muslims to speak up and say that the terrorist acts in New York were not done in the name of this faith. That’s when the little compartment that had been at the back of my brain where I’d been trying to shut off the dissonance of being a Muslim and simply not behaving like a Muslim flew open. I had to find out: Do I believe in a God? Does God say this? Is there a God who wants this, and is that my God? That’s when my own individual conscious thinking started. That’s when I consciously withdrew from religion in general and Islam in particular.

GOUREVITCH: At this point would you call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever?

HIRSI ALI: I think I’ll call myself a Muslim atheist, like how in Holland we have Catholic atheists and Jewish atheists. I have become one who says God did not create mankind but mankind created God.

GOUREVITCH: I ask these things because you have not just renounced religious belief but you have also become a critic of Islam in a very broad way. When you went through this thought process after September 11, were you a public figure at that point?

HIRSI ALI: I was not a public figure. I had actually just graduated from university in 2000 and I had my first serious job. I was there for a week when the Twin Towers were hit. I was working in a research bureau of a political party and there was a guy named Pim Fortuyn who said Islam is backward. Everybody in Holland thought that he had kind of lost it, that he had become a racist. He was compared to Hitler and Mussolini and so on. I just went through one of the interviews he did on Islam and what he’s saying is not an opinion. It’s a fact measured by a number of standards like the treatment of the individual, or the position of women, human rights in general.

In that sense, yes, Islamic civilization is backward but it’s not going to remain backward forever. It can move on, and we can learn from the West and go through that whole process of Enlightenment in a much shorter time than the Westerners have done if we just open up to that process. I keep saying “we,” meaning the people who share a past in which Islam was central to them.

GOUREVITCH: You mean there could be more Muslims who become Muslim atheists?

HIRSI ALI: They don’t necessarily have to become atheists but I think that also because of the context that we live in. There was this Arab journalist who said, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorists today are Muslims.” It’s really urgent to reform Islam; it’s urgent to look at ourselves and to scrutinize ourselves. Because I was saying these things and because I had written some of the articles that have been compiled into a book now, I became a public figure.

GOUREVITCH: You’re quite tough on Islam. You speak of it as being backward and far behind the West. There’s a quote from one of your essays: “the three main shortcomings are insufficient individual freedom, inadequate knowledge, and a lack of women’s rights.” You write that daily Islamic life is “a dismal state of affairs” in which “mistrust is everywhere and lies rule.” You say, “Muslims don’t realize that in fact pursuit of a life based on their own holy book is the most significant source of their unhappiness.” Do you see anything in Islam that is worthy of defending and protecting and preserving?

HIRSI ALI: It’s a hundreds-years-old civilization so there’s a lot to defend. There’s a lot to preserve: art, architecture, and for those who have been lucky enough to make anything close to music, and so on. Also the memory of it all should be preserved. But that’s not the issue. If Islam were just made up of beautiful things that we should preserve and if Muslims realized that, we wouldn’t be having this debate.

GOUREVITCH: You say that Islam or the Muslim world can learn a great deal from the West, from its Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment is not an idea that came from outside the West and contradicted the West. It was a Western idea that argued with the West. There’s an argument that it’s difficult to simply fast-track a foreign idea and make it non-foreign for the Islamic world. How do you respond to that?

HIRSI ALI: First, it’s futile to compete with the West in the sense that you’re going to invent an authentic Islamic Enlightenment. They have been there before and there’s no way you will find something like that. I get into all these stupid arguments about Western human rights: “we don’t want Western human rights; we want Islamic human rights.” The fact that these ideas of Enlightenment have been developed in the West does not mean that they should be limited to the West. They could be universal, and you’ll see that other civilizations have borrowed this idea of protecting the life of the individual by using human rights as a yardstick: they prosper, they progress, and they don’t necessarily have to throw away their own cultures.

The second way I respond is to say that we are Muslims, or people who grew up with this civilization of superiority. We take so much material stuff from the West—we drive cars, we fly airplanes, we buy the latest gadgets, we dress. Not all of us, but many of us do all this. I don’t see why we cannot borrow the values that underlie that material growth and wealth.

GOUREVITCH: There are two targets in your book. The first is what you describe as the backward aspects of Islam or the culture that you came from, particularly the repression, abuse, and stifling of women and the ways that they create an inhibited society. It doesn’t do the men much good either: this notion of superiority actually ends up working as a strong inferiority complex a lot of the time. But alongside this, here is the West offering us a much better model, and you get quite indignant at the West for what you clearly see as its softness on its own ideas—the West not seeing itself as an evangelist for the Enlightenment but using what you call “the gospel of multiculturalism” to excuse other cultures that are non-Western in their values.

HIRSI ALI: The West is not a monolith like Islam. You have many different groups and different people and different individuals. Of course many people have called it different names, but this is liberal betrayal. The liberals who were critical of Christianity and Judaism and all kinds of obscurantism now stand up and defend Islam because Muslims in the West are a minority. They are perceived to be vulnerable and they attach a lot of meaning to their religion, so the liberal response has been to say, “If it’s so valuable for them to hold on to these beliefs and they don’t want us to touch on it, then we shall not,” thereby preserving this culture of backwardness. That annoys me. It makes me very angry. I can only describe it as betrayal because in saying “Welcome, we love you to be here,” you indulge this escapism, this self-denial, this shutting yourself off from reality. You’re actually freezing this culture in place and thereby, without intending to, helping those tyrants in Islamic countries that use Islam as an instrument to oppress their populations. 

GOUREVITCH: But part of the idea of Enlightenment and freedom is that you’re not free if you don’t come to it freely.

HIRSI ALI: Absolutely.

GOUREVITCH: So how are enlightened advocates of emancipation supposed to go about aggressively proselytizing in favor of the emancipation of others who do not seek that emancipation actively? As you’ve said, these voices aren’t going to come from the Arab world. They must come from the West. Why does that fall to Western voices and how is that supposed to work?

HIRSI ALI: It’s not so much proselytizing as creating the conditions for a dignified discussion to take place. There are many individuals right now in the West with an Islamic background who propagate—one of them is sitting right here. Forgive me for wanting to burn your book. I was very young…

SALMAN RUSHDIE: I forgive you.

HIRSI ALI: When Salman wrote that book, there was a huge amount of commotion and it was good, because when I started to grow up and I myself was confronted with the Enlightenment, I could say, “So what I thought then was wrong.” That goes for many other Muslim individuals living in the West and living outside the West. The only difference is that if you are in the West, then at least you think that freedom of speech is protected. You can freely think and experiment and develop ideas and theories, theories that may be wrong or right. If you are in the Middle East Islamic countries, you can’t. Or you can, but there are many odds against you. So it’s not a question of proselytizing. It’s more like you create the conditions, translate Popper and Hayek and Kant and all the other thinkers into Arabic. By the way, what’s wrong with proselytizing the Enlightenment? When I was living in Africa, we had Catholic missionaries coming and telling us all about their God. We had Jehovah’s Witnesses spreading the truth, and we had Muslims coming from Iran and Saudi Arabia spreading their form of truth. There was only one idea absent: the Enlightenment. I don’t understand why liberals are ashamed of sharing these values with others who are not in circumstances to get it themselves.

GOUREVITCH: So Yeats was right that “the best lack all conviction”?

HIRSI ALI: Exactly. Also, I think it’s natural. If you are a true believer of the Enlightenment, you are naturally lazier. When you believe in God and in a hereafter, you will be rewarded for all these. As a liberal, you’d rather enjoy your own life here on earth because this is all you have. Going about spreading the Enlightenment, we are lazier by nature.

GOUREVITCH: Some of this might come as news to Americans who feel that there’s been no particular shyness over the past five years on the part of the United States, for instance, about asserting what it thinks is a better idea and trying to change governments and so forth. Yet you say, “What can Westerners do? Leaders such as Bush and Blair must stop saying that Islam is being held hostage by a terrorist minority. They are wrong. Islam is being held hostage by itself.” How is that a message that a Western political leader can say in a way that is productive rather than merely provocative? Obviously, you can say it and it will appeal to people who are here, there, and elsewhere, and they’re saying, “That’s true, that’s how it is for us.” You’re saying we shouldn’t be afraid of setting people off if what we’re saying is the truth, but what’s the use? 

HIRSI ALI: The use is because you think, you hope, and you appeal to reason. You think that might dissuade people from resorting to violence. But after every terrorist attack inspired by Islam, when Blair and Bush come surrounded by Muslim figures and say it has nothing to do with Islam and at the same time make an appeal to those Muslim individuals that they think are moderate or liberal, that’s contradictory. By saying it has nothing to do with Islam—like in the EU, we are developing a lexicon where we are supposed to talk about terrorism without mentioning Islam, jihad, or fundamentalism—then in your own government, you will not realize that the people you are calling upon to start this debate will need protection. I have protection. I am not very brave. I can just go and say what I say because there are people protecting me. There are many others whom I know and whom I’m very close with who would like to do the same and start a movement that is reformist in nature—not atheists but those who are seen as apostates. The fundamentalists have the money and the resources and they have the conviction and they want to kill them. The Bushes and the Blairs and all of these other Western leaders get themselves talked into denying that there is no relationship between Islam and terrorism by tyrants in the Arab Islamic world who use religion, who use Islam, who use the Prophet Muhammad as an instrument to stick to power. I’m happy to be in a free country to tell all both these gentlemen, “Stop saying that now.”

GOUREVITCH: But do you think we would be in a better, more truthful, and a more promising situation if instead Blair had said, “We are actually at the vortex of a cultural clash, a religious confrontation, a confrontation with a religion of 1.3 billion people?”

HIRSI ALI: They don’t have to say anything about Islam. Let them speak to the politics of it.

GOUREVITCH: And stop making excuses. 


GOUREVITCH: But you’re not saying that there should be a more explicit declaration of the identification of what you see as the enemy?

HIRSI ALI: Ideally that would be the case, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Both men will have to go to the UN Security Council and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and persuade him that the 12th imam is not coming and that he doesn’t have to wipe Israel off the world map. I think it’s difficult for these leaders to sit and see eye to eye with Islamic leaders and say, “There may be some connection between Islam and terrorism,” and still have a fruitful conversation. They need these allies for all the wars. We are not living in an ideal world—they will not say that this is going on.

In July 2005, after the London bombings, Blair came out and said, “This is a war of ideology. It is a battle of ideology.” He just refrained from saying what the ideologies were. But it’s okay. As long as he does not say it has nothing to do with Islam, and as long as intellectuals are not forced to self-censor, as long as individuals with an Islamic background who are criticizing Islam and who are engaged in reforming Islam are not told to keep quiet about it. That’s what’s happening now.

GOUREVITCH: One could argue that September 11 wasn’t really so much the starting point as it’s often described. But it certainly has been the starting point of an openly named and explicit war on terror. From the start there has been an awareness among many people that accompanying whatever military action, whatever violence there would be, there was also a worldwide struggle for public opinion and that needed to be engaged very directly.

It’s the same thing that you’re talking about—the appeal to Muslim leaders to denounce terrorism, the appeal of trying to put forward alternative ideas. Arguably the West is doing a very bad job of that. As you point out, fundamentalism finds more adherents and Western ideas find less traction in the Islamic world. How do you account for that? Doesn’t that make your idea that there should be more outreach frustrating? 

HIRSI ALI: It is frustrating, and I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m not saying it’s not difficult. After the decolonization process, Britain, France, and the other countries had left interim governments in place, thinking that they would just adopt the system of government left behind by the colonizers. What’s amazing is that many states failed—especially in Africa. Most or probably all Islamic states failed. Some of them took on secular Western notions such as communism. Others got into these monarchies that they called democracy. But after the Westerners left, the Islamic elite insisted on the Arab or Islamic or authentic, which had nothing to do with the West, because it was better—we were more superior; we didn’t need their way. There was a turning back to this whole original ethnic stuff. For many years we tried that, and it doesn’t work. All these countries are overpopulated; they have very young populations. The UN Arab Human Development Report last published in 2002 tells us of the lack of knowledge, the illiteracy, the high rate of birth, the poverty, there’s going to be a water disaster coming. So it’s high time to say we’ve tried, we’ve experimented with some authentic form of Islam or Arab culture, but it doesn’t work.

GOUREVITCH: You mentioned earlier the need to translate texts into Arabic. What about your own work? Who is your audience? Reading your essays and knowing that they are published in Europe and here in translation, it feels as if you’re addressing yourself at least as much to a Western reader as to an Islamic or Arab reader. I wonder if they are translated into Arabic, if there are web sites where this gets out. I know that sometimes you’ve had a very hostile response from even the Dutch Islamic community. Do you feel that your words have been effective in the way that you wish them to be?

HIRSI ALI: I’ve been effective in my wish to create awareness for the position of Muslim women living in the West, starting with the Netherlands. No one denies any longer that honor killings, female circumcision, and the confining of women to their homes takes place in the heart of Europe. That’s acknowledged, and I consider that a success. Different governments are trying to deal with a way of changing that—through education on the one hand and through repressive means on the other hand, or by offering women runaway shelters and help. In the past, when a woman would come to a police station and ask for help, she would be told, “What’s wrong?” and she’d say, “I’m afraid of my family,” and the policemen would say, “Oh, we have so many people working with the families,” and she’d be sent away or her complaint would be noted and nothing would happen. So that kind of awareness has worked out.

There is a lot of resistance to anything that criticizes Islam in any way. You can persuade people who’ve been socialized with the idea that God will solve all our problems or we have to sacrifice our lives to God. Maybe then you can find some kind of balance between faith and reason and some kind of balance between the life here and a life in the hereafter.

If you want to invest in a life hereafter then at least you have to pay for it, because the unemployment rate in Europe for Muslims is sometimes as high as 25 percent. There is a lot of discrimination. I’m not denying that. But there’s also a lot of refusing jobs because people say, “Where alcohol is sold I will not work. Where I’ll see women in short clothes I’ll not work.” A debate on that has been generated by the articles and that’s what I wanted. But I haven’t achieved the real thing that I would like to achieve, which is a real debate on whether the Prophet Muhammad can be a moral guide in the 21st century.

GOUREVITCH: How would that debate come about? Who do you want to debate it with?

HIRSI ALI: With fellow Muslims, with people who say that they want to see the Prophet as a moral guide today. That would mean talking about the Prophet Muhammad as we talk about all other thinkers. And we will honor him. I’m not going to call him names anymore. If you want to follow, if you want to say, “I’m going to see him as an example; wage war because he said wage war; women should stay in their homes because that’s what the Prophet said; avoid contact with nonbelievers because that’s what the Prophet wanted too.” These are very relevant, very crucial, and very urgent questions for those Muslim individuals who have been privileged to have an education. For those who haven’t, it will come.

GOUREVITCH: Those who haven’t are an interesting group because they’re the larger portion of the population. In your criticisms of what you describe as Islamic abuses of women, you say that one of the most common complaints among Muslim women in the Netherlands is that their husbands don’t talk to them. I thought, Where would Hollywood romantic comedies be if American husbands talked to their wives? This is a pretty universal complaint among not all married people, but a large group of sort of ordinary people anywhere.

It seems to me that what you’re against is provincialism rather than Islam. You say somewhere that in the West, people don’t think that homosexuality is something to be punished by death. But there’s a church in this country that actually sends its members to attend the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq, saying that the roadside bombs are the device of God punishing America for homosexuality, taunting the families of dead soldiers. This kind of provincialism is not limited to Islam, and I wonder if limiting it to Islam as strictly as you do—because it’s your own world—doesn’t in some way hurt your argument when you confront a group of people whom you say are backwards. The complaint is that you are humiliating them in advance.

HIRSI ALI: I think that provincialism, especially provincialism that rests upon these orthodox religious beliefs, is certainly universal. I am confronted every day with a secular kind of provincialism as well. But let me define Islam and tell you how I conceive Islam to be. Islam is defined as “submission to the will of God.” The will of Allah is in the Koran, and this holy book is made up of a number of verses about kindness and goodness and really very good things, as well a number of rules and regulations—that which is permitted and that which is prohibited. This is supplemented by a series of writings supposedly saying “this is how the Prophet behaved.” That’s called the Hadith.

This body of thought was founded in Mecca in the seventh century in a tribal Arab desert culture. That provincialism has been spread for many centuries in the name of Islam, so it does not surprise me that there are people like whom you are talking about, standing with placards saying that the United States is being punished for homosexuality. This is how Islam functions. There is Christian provincialism and there is Islam provincialism, but with this difference: in the United States, there’s no way that that is mainstream. It has its degrees. But if you look at the 22 Arab Islamic countries studied by the United Nations in the Arab Human Development Report, you will see that provincialism prevails. It prevails in the name of Islam and it has been pointed out.

There are several groups—the Ahmadiyyas—who tried to reform Islam into something that’s not provincial or backward and that tries to relate to modernity. There are the Bahá’is; there are the Ismailis from India. But all these groups and others are seen as apostates by the ruling elites in Saudi Arabia and in Iran and by the majority of Muslims because they point out that the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad and his teachings are relative. That’s why I keep pointing back to the sources. Every child born into Islam is socialized into these rules—what is prohibited and what is permitted—and into what’s in the Koran and what the Prophet said. So let’s start there.

It’s not that I’m obsessed with it. I’m not only relating it to Islam, but by starting there, I think we could reform and increase the number of people who are willing to see the Koran as something written by human beings, which can be changed to decrease the number of people who are fundamentalist by nature, if such a thing exists.

GOUREVITCH: My sense is that in the Islamic world, one of the puzzles is why there has been such an increase not just in fundamentalism but in a certain kind of politicized, radical, violent Islam in the last half century. The idea of a cosmopolitan elite in Beirut, Baghdad, even in certain academic atmospheres in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt—throughout the Arab world—has shrunk, and often without an Islamic government. In Syria, in Iraq, you cannot blame an Islamic government. You can actually say that it’s the repression; under the Shah, Islamism is actually a response to another form of dictatorship. So it seems a good deal more complicated than this monolith of children simply being raised in this: If you’re raised in these texts, you’re inherently going to have this narrow, submissive, and beaten-down view. There was a time that you could be raised reading the Koran and having a religious experience as a Muslim and being quite a cosmopolitan type. What’s going on?

HIRSI ALI: I think you’re right: it’s not that everyone is raised in that way. But Islamism is an elite movement. I think we all make a mistake of thinking that it’s poor people who are Islamists. It spread to poor people but it is essentially an elite movement. Cosmopolitans took note of Western thought and ways of life and rejected that consciously. Intelligent people who thought they had an alternative idea, going back to “What has Islam got to offer us?” and “Islam has got the answers,” then built on that an ideology that we’ve now learned to call Islamism. If you’ve been raised with the doctrine that what’s in the Koran is perfectly true and is the word of God and the Prophet Muhammad is the only true moral guide, then when an Islamist comes and appeals to your reason, he tells you, “This is how you should behave. This is what is permitted. This is who you should engage with. This is when you should wage war.” It’s all very consistent.

The trouble with Enlightenment thinkers or secular thought is that it’s never perfect. There is always the totalitarian enticement in Islamism. It’s not only a reaction to modern and Western thought but it’s also a genuine attempt at getting at good, at doing things right. It just happens to be wrong.

GOUREVITCH: Even the killer of Theo Van Gogh was somebody who had been living in Holland, who drank, who had girlfriends, who had friends, who played sports. You mentioned earlier that it’s hard for liberals to proselytize or to get all that motivated since all they’ve got is the here and now rather than the sweet by-and-by. Here’s somebody who then made a conscious decision: “I repudiate all of that.” He obviously had a strong attraction to decapitation videos. But he also was, at the same time, quite “I’m not insane. I know why I did this. I would do it again. It’s a clear decision. I repudiate that world.”

How do you counter the notion that in fact there’s a hollowness in the West and in what the West has to offer, and that post-Enlightenment Westerners have come up with all sorts of existentialism for their own amusement but some people will look at that and say, “Actually, I don’t find that attractive. I find the consolations of a much more rigid orthodoxy attractive.” Is there room for that without that tending toward violence?

HIRSI ALI: If Mohammed Bouyeri were to say, “Okay, I repudiate all that but I’m not going to use violence,” then he could live in the West perfectly well. It’s just that the moment he takes his belief to “I reject all Western thought and the Western law and the Western judges” in the country he lives in, he ends up in prison. That’s one way of showing all the potential Mohammad Bouyeris that if you really take your religion this seriously, you will end up in jail.

Mohammad Bouyeri was not born with this stance; it’s something he learned. In the socialization process in Western countries, I think it would do well to develop not only the faith side of individual Muslims but also their reason, so they realize that aspirations toward perfection and running away from hollowness do not always give the answers. Hitler tried it. Stalin tried it. We have so many examples in history of people who aspired toward these perfect kinds of societies, who led those who followed them into destruction. It shouldn’t be too difficult to persuade individual human beings—be they Muslim or not—that such a thing as a perfect society does not exist and aspiring to it is very, very dangerous.

GOUREVITCH: I gather you’ve been called an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” by critics and that you regard that as a sort of badge of honor. But when I hear the phrase, it seems that what you’re really saying is that there is a problem with decadence or hollowness in the West and there is a failure to stand up for the ideas of the Enlightenment, to embrace them, to not to take them for granted but to understand that the struggle continues. Is that accurate?

HIRSI ALI: My criticism of the West, especially of liberals, is that they do take freedom for granted. People who are born after the Second World War in Western Europe haven’t seen war; they haven’t seen conflict. They’ve been born into the middle of freedom and into the conviction of their parents to live with the hollowness that freedom brings. Freedom does not bring happiness always. Freedom brings with it a lot of doubt and a lot of depression. People come from areas where freedom wasn’t always there. They have lost the instincts to recognize that there can be such a thing as an enemy or a threat to freedom. That’s what I’m witnessing in Europe: the European elite simply doesn’t know what’s going on. The whole pacifist ideology—in itself religious-like—that’s been spread is that violence should never be used under any circumstances and we should talk and talk and talk. Even when your opponent tells you, “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to destroy you.” The European elite says, “Please let’s talk. Let’s talk about the fact that you want to destroy me.”

GOUREVITCH: I was told that Theo Van Gogh’s last words were “Can we talk about this?” as the man shot him and was starting to stab him.

HIRSI ALI: I think that’s no laughing matter and it shows that humans are capable of reaching such a high level of civilization and such a high level of morality. It’s admirable. But when there is an enemy who says, “I’m going to destroy you,” whether you’re admirable or not, you have to make sure that you don’t get destroyed.

GOUREVITCH: You’re saying it’s not only a level of civilization but also a level of unreality.

HIRSI ALI: To some it’s been a level of unreality—that idea that after the Second World War, we are not going to have another war ever, which is a good thing. It’s a good point to start with. But that works only if the entire human race thinks and believes that.

GOUREVITCH: In your criticisms of multiculturalism when one looks to France and the debate about the veil, I assume you would be on the side of those who say they shouldn’t make room for it in the schools. They should assimilate.

HIRSI ALI: Yes, it’s just in the schools. The idea of a neutral school where children are not yet formed is a liberal idea, an Enlightenment idea. Children who have not made up their minds about who they are and what they want to be should first get a chance to be educated in all the variety of thoughts and ideas that are possible. Whether they want to veil themselves when they’re 18 is fine, whatever religion they want to take. I believe that in school, you shouldn’t give religious lessons. If parents want their children to be religious, they have the opportunity to teach them their religion in the evenings and in the weekend. School is not a place where you go to learn about God. You can do that at other places. 

GOUREVITCH: Islamism is an elite movement. That suggests, though, that there’s still a huge challenge for anyone trying to promote, as you’re suggesting, a liberal Enlightenment model of civic citizenship—nonreligious, based in law and equality before law. You’re saying, “Here it was. It existed. The merits were there and this was a reaction that came against it.” What’s missing? Where’s the missing piece? How does one spark this debate, if that’s really the program?

HIRSI ALI: The conviction of the liberals is missing. Just the passiveness with which people say, “Let them get ahead, let them go on, and let them believe in that.” You have all these masses of ignorant people who are getting a one-dimensional message repeated all the time. Not just the Islamists. In the third world, there are the Catholic missionaries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. All these religious groups are there. There are also the communists and what have you—all kinds of movements believing in and promising paradise. And the other side isn’t there.

GOUREVITCH: But there are universities that train people in law and international law and teach them Western literature and European philosophy.

HIRSI ALI: And halfway through that European philosophy, some appealing, easy idea comes along and many people subscribe to that, whether they are actually Muslims or not. Let me tell you about just one example. In that Arab Human Development Report, one thing that worried me was that the number of books translated from foreign languages into Arabic from the ninth century up to today were equal to the number of books translated into Spanish every year. That fact alone shows how tyrannical governments use Islam to keep their populations ignorant. Ignorant populations you can tyrannize easily. When they grow and become too many and when there is so much hunger, there is going to be some kind of revolution. People will stand up and come for your head. But, again, as long as they remain ignorant, the ruling elite will only be replaced by another tyranny and so on.

I wish that Bush and Blair, instead of saying “We are going to spread democracy in the Middle East,” would just say, “We will take it one by one, step by step, and fight for freedom of expression and other freedoms, like the freedom of movement for women.” Then at least these people could first read about freedom, watch movies, laugh at themselves, and then grow toward making elections or taking part in elections. When you are ignorant, when you know very little about the candidates and the programs that they have, what is election worth?

GOUREVITCH: You’ve written that what the Islamic world needs is its own Life of Brian and I wonder what you think about the subversive power of humor and its absence or presence in the Islamic world. Is there a tradition for that? How does one get into that? Your film Submission, which shows religious texts projected on the naked bodies of veiled women and also has testimonies from abused women, is definitely subversive but it’s hardly funny. One wouldn’t want to meet anybody who thought it was. So why is that, and are you going to make The Life of Abdul for us?

HIRSI ALI: I wish I could make it. I’m not a filmmaker or a scriptwriter. But there are comedians, there are many people—Muslims—who have a wonderful sense of humor, who can write and laugh, write funny stories about the Prophet, about God, about the way we engage in religion. For example, the whole idea of praying five times a day. I don’t think there are people who really get to pray all five times a day. There are all these jokes among Muslims on how to evade that and how to kind of pray at one time five times instead of five times spread out. So there is a sense of humor. It’s just that it’s not allowed. It’s suppressed. You can’t exchange it, you can’t spread it. But with today’s technology— the Internet, satellite dishes—that process of emancipating people through images and mass media is starting, just as much as mass media is also used to indoctrinate people into Islamism.

AUDIENCE: We hear about Islam being tolerant but one of the key doctrines of Islam is the doctrine of abrogation or cancelation, Surah 2-106, which cancels out every tolerant statement made before Muhammad got to Medina. In light of that, how can any rational person say that Islam is a tolerant philosophy?

HIRSI ALI: A rational person can say that. If you’ve been socialized to do that, to believe that, then you will say it. But I think a rational person will have some kind of dissonance in his mind when he reads that on the one hand and on the other hand says that Islam is tolerant but there is also the concept of hell. Unfortunately, rational people are not immune to the fear of hell. As you may know, the Koran is full of hell. The Hadith is full of hell. You know Islamic hell isn’t like the Christian hell. It’s ever-present, it’s always there. Just imagine if you get in a car accident and you die now, you will really burn. I think even rational people fear that.

First and foremost, the first emancipation activity for individual Muslims is to get rid of the fear of hell. Like many Christians in Europe say, there is no hell, there is only heaven. When that fear of hell falls away, then you can proceed with rational human beings into having discussions on what part of the Koran we should follow or whether we should we follow it at all.

RUSHDIE: I just wanted to query your argument that this has its roots in ignorance or lack of education. If you take a country like India, where people are very poorly educated, it’s a country that is nevertheless wedded to the idea of democracy at the mass level, not just at the elite level. It seems as if there, a lack of education doesn’t necessarily create the preconditions for antidemocratic ideas.

Also, as you yourself said, the leaders of the Islamist movement are highly educated. Lenin described terrorism as bourgeois adventurism and you can see in the people who were on the planes in New York, even in the July 7 bombers in London, they were not uneducated people. So I want you to explore that because it seems that it may not be automatic that a lack of education leads to this kind of prejudice.

HIRSI ALI: I concede to that, even when there are uneducated masses. I come from Africa and I have seen many people who cannot read or write and who are not in the least violent and who find the idea of democracy appealing. You see thousands of people line up in the sun in Kenya, in Zambia, in Zaire, wherever democracy is introduced, just to cast their ballot. So lack of education is not equal to terrorism. That is not what I am saying in the least. But democracy is all about investing in your life here on earth: getting property, building it, decorating it. That is an investment in life on earth, and one of the things that is very strong in Islam is that it takes away the urge of the human individual to invest in life on earth. When so many terrible things are happening in the world—which used to happen in the past but because of technology seem much bigger and greater—the tendency to invest in life on earth becomes less and more people get persuaded to the hereafter. I think it has to do with that fear of hell that we just mentioned here.

AUDIENCE: Just a question about literalism, whether it’s Christian or Islamic literalism: There seems to be an underlying sense of fear and insecurity that allows the person to give over to that literalism rather than take the responsibility of individual thought. Especially in terms of how women are suppressed, would you elaborate on that a little bit?

HIRSI ALI: Literalism—again, that’s universal. All religions have that. But I think tribal and group cultures make it difficult for an individual to make a choice without far-reaching consequences. If you yourself come to the conclusion as a Muslim individual that I’m going ignore this literalism. Many do. Even in Saudi Arabia, the country that lives in the middle of Sharia, individuals there still make choices that are not taking the Koran or the Hadith literally. But it all happens secretly. There is a lot of hypocrisy. It’s never internalized that what you are doing is right in itself. That’s another aspect of Islam.

It’s not that I’m Islam-bashing but it encourages hypocrisy—always trying to have dissonance in your head. This is the rule. You know this is the rule. But your mind, your environment drives you in a different direction. That is explained away by the imams as “It’s the Satan doing that.” So besides the idea of hell there’s also the idea of Satan playing with your mind, and if you get to a level of accepting that this is really what makes you happy—a glass of wine or having a relationship without having to marry—you then get into this dissonance that you have allowed yourself to be persuaded by Satan to do these things.

The Islamist rules and what the Islamists are trying to revive are the very detailed rules of life. It gets very absurd. When you enter a toilet, enter with the left foot first. When you are coming out, right foot first. When you sit down, you have to sit in a certain way. When you go to bed, you first have to lie on your right side. Before doing anything you say, “in the name of God.” Who to engage with and how to engage with whom. It goes very far and it creates a neutral, sorry, neurotic individual.

AUDIENCE: Do you consider yourself a rebel?


AUDIENCE: If you had children in today’s time, where would you have them educated?

HIRSI ALI: I think it’s not so much where as how I would have them educated. I certainly would not educate them in the same way that my parents educated me. I would educate them in the Enlightenment, in individualism, in tolerance, in moderation, in pluralism, and respecting others, but also in learning that these things don’t come free of charge or cheap. They have to fight for it, if ever a moment comes that it is needed for them to fight and to recognize it. Maybe I’ll just bring them up as rebels. 

AUDIENCE: At the end of such gatherings in which you spend an hour talking about Islam, do you ever have any qualms about not mentioning oil?

GOUREVITCH: We mentioned it in the green room. It’s not a taboo. We just didn’t get there.

HIRSI ALI: Salman just mentioned how India and other places have learned, even when there is ignorance, to commit to the idea of democracy. I think oil in the hands of tyrants has been a curse to the Muslim world and still is. The money gained from oil is not shared with the larger public. It’s used to oppress them. The best thing that the West can do for Islamic countries and for the environment is to look for alternative means of energy. That way, the creativity that Asian countries have, countries that have no resources at all but who have learned to survive, may start in the Middle East and in the countries that are oil-rich.

Part of Nigeria is Muslim and part of it isn’t, but when this kind of wealth comes in and it’s concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people who are ruthless, it only ends up being a curse.

Oil is not a taboo for me. As an example, Saudi Arabia discovers that they are rich from one day to the next. A population of 22 million people. They set up schools. Eighty percent of the curriculum is made up of religion. They import all labor. There is this idea that oil is from God and it will never finish. They are not rich anymore because things are changing slowly, but in the ’70s and ’80s, when they could have educated their people, when they could have created their own capital, they did not. They were importing people from all over the world and that’s what wealth from oil can do to people. In this case it was oil but it could be other resources. You get a nouveau riche intellectual mentality, which makes it very difficult to change things. Really a curse.

AUDIENCE: I just wanted to go back to a question that Philip Gourevitch raised but I didn’t feel was answered thoroughly and that was how largely secular governments, like those of Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, are facing this resurgence of fundamentalism. In Algeria, the results of an election had to be dissolved because of the threat of fundamentalism. Why should that be? Why should secularism in those countries not have proved itself?

HIRSI ALI: Because it’s secular tyranny. When these tyrannized populations respond, they respond in many different ways. I have described three forms of response. One is to join the ruling elite through the tribal means or engage with the ullamah, the imams, the clergy. Another way is by fleeing the country. Many Egyptians and Algerians have left their countries. A third way is by asking yourself why Islamism is really an elite movement—What are we doing wrong?—and then finding the answer in Islam. When that becomes a really genuine movement and you hold elections, of course people are going to vote for the people they trust. When Islamists in Egypt and Algeria and other Islamic countries have these community facilities, they are very honest. If you take your money to an Islamist bank in Egypt, you are bound to get it back without having to pay rent. If you go to a health clinic run by Islamists, you are bound to be treated very quickly.

Raul Gerecht has a theory that Algeria should have been left with its vote and it should have become like Iran. The Algerian population would have then experimented with Islamist theory, a theocracy based on Islam just like Iran has. In the end, like many Iranians are learning today, it was a bad thing to go after Ayatollah Khomeni, and now they are open for an alternative form of government, which is manmade, which is therefore secular. The same process would have taken place in Algeria, Gerecht says that they’ve been denied this opportunity to experiment. He also says, Look at how Hamas has now been elected into government. Let the Palestinians experiment with what that means and when they discover through experience that it’s not working, they will learn to vote for something else. They will learn to open to that. That’s one theory. I don’t know if there are people who support him. It comes at a huge price. But there is a lesson in it.

Copyright © 2006 PEN American Center. All rights reserved.


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