There are a lot of people who do not want to hear what Ayaan Hirsi Ali has to say about growing up as a female Muslim in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya.
In 2014, Brandeis University silenced her voice when its administration reneged on a plan to award her an honorary degree and have her address the student body, based on statements she previously made criticizing Islam.
She was the target of death threats in connection with her penning the screenplay for “Submission,” a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Soon after the film’s release, a radical Islamist murdered its director, Theo van Gogh, on an Amsterdam street, pinning a note to the victim’s body threatening Ali as well.
And, closer to home, in 2007, members of the Islamic Center of Johnstown, Pa,. tried to get the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown to cancel an appearance by Ali. The leader of the Center resigned shortly thereafter, following his telling a newspaper that a death sentence was warranted for the best-selling author because of her views on Islam.
Ali, who was in Pittsburgh on Jan. 20 as part of the Robert Morris University Speakers Series, is nonetheless determined to continue her campaign of raising awareness of the plight of millions of Muslim women and the dangers of not acknowledging the form of Islam that emphasizes violence and sharia law.
Ali began her comments to the packed house at Heinz Hall describing her upbringing in a religious household in Somalia, including her subjection to genital mutilation at the age of 5. Her family then moved to Saudi Arabia — where “women were covered head to toe in black” — and eventually made its way to Kenya.
Her time in Kenya changed her life, she said. It was there that she was taught to read and write in English, hiding the pages of Nancy Drew mysteries within the covers of her Quran. Her world was opened up to not only Charles Dickens, but also Jackie Collins. She and her sister risked beatings when they stole away to go to the movies. And it was in Kenya where Ali was first “introduced to Muslim extremists” through the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Sunni extremism was brought into our household and our neighborhood,” she said. “A lot of young men had lost their way. They started drinking alcohol and hanging about the street causing mischief. The Muslim Brotherhood took them off the streets and into the mosques. But they were being groomed for jihad.”
In 1990, Ali and her sister returned to Somalia, where she could now recognize the hypocrisy of a religious leader calling for his flock to abstain from things he considered unholy, while he himself “would indulge.”
“That didn’t make sense to me,” she said.
Ali’s life was thrown into complete turmoil when, in 1991, her father basically sold her into marriage.
“I was angry, tearful, frustrated and scared,” she said. “I felt I deserved a better future, and I could get a better future.”
Ali was able to escape the marriage and gain asylum in the Netherlands.
“As time went on, I said, ‘I really want to understand why Muslim countries have failed and the Netherlands is so successful,’” she said. She enrolled in political science and political theory classes, which she said “challenged my deeply held feeling of the superiority of Islam as a political philosophy.”
Ali eventually was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she focused on integrating non-Western immigrants into the society of the Netherlands, and campaigned to raise awareness of violence against women, including honor killings. She moved to the United States in 2006 and became an American citizen in 2013.
Ali has written several books recalling her experiences as a Muslim woman — she no longer adheres to the faith — and criticizing Islam. In her newest book, “Heretic,” she argues that it is counter-productive to insist that the violent acts of Islamic extremists can be disassociated from the religious doctrine that engenders them.
In her talk last week, Ali rejected the term “radical” when used in conjunction with Muslims who rely on violence — groups such ISIS and al-Qaeda.
“We have to acknowledge that within Islamic doctrine there is a set of beliefs that is a justification for violence, misogyny and intolerance,” she said.
She criticized those in the American government who “solemnly declare that Islam is a religion of peace.”
“That is a wrong-headed, obstinate strategy,” she said.
Citing the Dutch society’s reaction to the murder of Theo van Gogh — when discussion centered on whether he should have made a film that would offend Muslims rather than on whether it is acceptable to kill someone for making a film — Ali came down hard on those who rely on appeasement as a strategy to curtail Islamic violence.
“Appeasement emboldens violence,” she said. “It never takes it away.”
It is naïve, she said, to believe that “only if we implement all sorts of legislation that bans hatred” then social adhesion will not be disturbed.
“Moral relativism has invaded our campuses, invaded our media,” said Ali.
She is an advocate of marketing ideas of American freedom to attract those who are being recruited to Islamic terrorists groups.
“We need to get these people to come to our side,” she said. “We need to market the ideas that made us so great to them.”
Ali contends that Muslims can be categorized into three groups: Mecca Muslims, who follow the peaceful ways of Mohammed when he was in Mecca; Medina Muslims, who follow the violent, expansionist ways of Mohammed from his time in Medina; and those Muslims who are seeking to modify or reform their religion.
“The third set is young and well-educated,” Ali said. ‘We understand that the prophet Mohammed had a Jekyll and Hyde side to him. We have to make a choice, and we have to throw out the Medina period and appeal to the Mecca Muslims. I think this is more helpful labeling that radical and moderate.”
It would be a mistake to not see the Medina Muslims for what they are, she said.
“We cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend the group I’m talking about is the fringe, or they don’t mean what they say,” she stressed.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.