'Nomad' Ayaan Hirsi Ali On Reclaiming Islam
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
The world learned about Ayaan Hirsi Ali after she arrived in the Netherlands as a refugee from East Africa, from an arranged marriage and from a religion she describes as tantamount to slavery.
She became an outspoken critic of Islam, won election to the Dutch parliament, and collaborated with filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a controversial movie, "Submission." After he was stabbed to death in the street, she's been forced to live under the protection of bodyguards.
In her latest memoir, Hirsi Ali continues her journey from the Netherlands to the U.S., and towards some kind of reconciliation with her family.
Later in the program, it's upfront week, when the TV networks lay out the schedule for the new TV season. But first, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If you have questions about her life or her journeys - physical, spiritual or intellectual - give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali joins us from NPR's bureau in New York City. Her new book is called "Nomad," and nice to have you back on the program.
Ms. AYAAN HIRSI ALI (Author, "Nomad"): Thank you so much for having me back. It's wonderful to be here.
CONAN: And there's a moment in your book I wanted to ask you about, where you note that your family has regressed over the past few generations. Tell us what you mean by that.
Ms. ALI: When I was a little girl living in Mogadishu, we used to hear about the future and how wonderful it would be. We described ourselves, the adults in my family described themselves as some of the more privileged families. My father had studied in Italy. He had studied in the United States. He was involved in government. And the idea was his son, my brother, would be - would carry his torch and become even more successful and a leader. And my brother's child would become even more successful.
So there was this - my mother was illiterate. I learned to read and write, and when I now reflect back on the history of my own family, I see us moving backwards, first toward tribalism. You know, clan loyalty's become ever more important, even though clans have disintegrated in Somalia. We become more religious or instructed by religion, inspired by religion - in this case, Islam.
My mother became more and more fundamentalist. My father moved away from his progressive ideas of democracy in a secular state to actually really wanting or promoting or supporting people and voices in Somalia who wanted to introduce Shariah.
The last time I spoke to him, he said: Tell your good friends who are Christian to consider converting to Islam. And he tried to convert me back to Islam. And so that's - I tried to describe in "Nomad" that life is not simple.
CONAN: It certainly isn't. Certainly, your life is not simple. There's -you end up thinking about how your conception of the world around you has changed, that you could no longer recite the long list of ancestors that you were taught by your grandmother. And you eventually end up writing a letter to your grandmother - she, of course, no longer with us -but hoping in some way to persuade her in some sense that you were still a member of the family and not the apostate that someone would have -that some would believe.
Ms. ALI: The apostate or the traitor, the outsider, the mad person. It's a letter to my grandmother, but it's really a letter to fellow Somalis and fellow Muslims. It's a letter where I am trying to persuade people who share the same background, the same background with me, that tactics and strategies of survival that worked for people like my grandmother no longer work, and that it's a good thing to innovate.
And I point out societies - for instance, the Netherlands, the United States - where people have innovated and gone forward; that yes, a lot of tradition has been shed, but a lot has also been achieved and gained, and that's the gist of the letter.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you about some of your cousins, people of the same generation as you, some of whom have moved out of East Africa -obviously, a lot of people left Somalia for one reason or another during the various wars there over the past too many years - including a cousin, Hasan(ph), who drives a taxicab.
Ms. ALI: Who drives a taxicab, and I think he lives in San Diego. I'm not sure. The last time when I heard, he was in San Diego. And he is committed to the values of the bloodline. He's informed by the concept in Islam that what - you know, the money you make, you're obliged to share it with your nearest and your dearest. And I just try and show -take his story and use it as an illustration of, you know, how good a person he is, how generous he is but how much of the money he makes -and he spends about 10 hours a day working - how he sends that all back.
And there are a lot of people I've met in Europe and in the United States who applaud immigrants for sending money back and for remittances, but who at the same time also point to the poverty that is often in Europe, of Muslim immigrants - saying why is so difficult for them to save money and to invest it, and to reach the middle classes?
And I use his story to illustrate that. That's probably because of these loyalties that are ingrained in us, that you don't invest in your own individual financial future, and you're not only responsible for your own financial expenses and income, but that you're obliged by religion and by tribal culture to share. And that's a good thing, and it's well-intended, but then it disincentivizes some people who then just, you know, live on people like my cousin Hasan.
CONAN: Nevertheless, you send money to your mother.
Ms. ALI: I do, but I only do it because I can spare that. And in the case of Hasan, he can't spare it. It's - his income is so low. I'm not sure he has a pension plan. I'm not sure he has thought about - he and I are about the same age, and I think he's in his early 40s. Twenty years from now, when he's no longer a cab driver, when there is no income, what is he going to live on?
CONAN: Will there be a grandson of another generation that will provide him with money?
Ms. ALI: Well, that's the idea. And that is where these values of, we have to have as many children as possible as an insurance and as a pension system, instead of setting money aside when we work.
And this is where I - you know, I show through themes like sex and money and violence that we, from a tribal Muslim society, have different values regarding those universal urges. And my cousin Hasan is just one, but there are really thousands, millions of people who just haven't moved on from that, are still attached to the old values but are living in modern society, and that creates a major poverty and a cycle of poverty.
CONAN: And I want to ask you about each of those things. But there are plenty of people who want to talk to you on the phone as well, and that's 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is our guest. Her new book is "Nomad."
But I wanted to ask you about those three things that you come back to again and again in your book, and that is - well, start with money. You were just talking about your cousin Hasan and his approach towards money.
Ms. ALI: Hasan is just an illustration. For anyone with a tribal Muslim background who feels obliged that any amount of money he makes or she makes, she or he must share it with the family. And that sharing is -you know, instead of saving money, instead of investing it, instead of spending it on yourself and your own children, that that is - you are first and foremost obliged to give that to your parents and maybe your siblings, and maybe to the extended family.
I wanted to show - to use that story to show why some of the Muslim immigrants in the West live in perpetual poverty, and that if we want to change that, we not only have to start programs educating people on all kinds of things but also to see if we could change that mentality and sense of guilt that my cousin feels towards his father - who keeps marrying, keeps having children, and keeps asking him for money. Is that something that can even be addressed without Hasan being labeled a traitor, an apostate, and someone who has neglected his duties to his parents?
CONAN: There's another cousin who you say illustrates some of the problems that tribal Muslims have with sex.
Ms. ALI: Yes, that is the cousin who has internalized all the mystification of sexuality. We are, as girls, also as boys but also as girls, brought up to remain virgins until we are married, until our wedding days. Before that, we are supposed to pretend we don't know anything about sex. We don't engage in it. We don't have any sexual desires.
And that pretense takes away the opportunity to get informed. Now, what that cousin does is, she has these desires and she becomes sexually active, but she doesn't inform herself. She gets HIV and passes it on to another innocent person. And I try and show that, that we could address these issues if we became more rational and more informed, and developed a more rational and informed attitude toward sexuality instead of mystifying it. Let's get educated on it.
And by saying that, I'm already moving away from the tribal Islamic convictions and principles that underlie that virginity obsession. But I also want to use her story to show that a more informed, more modern way of looking at sexuality, acknowledging that it can be a source of pleasure, but it can also be a source of unwanted pregnancies and disease, that that attitude in general - in general, it doesn't apply to every single human being - but in general, that is a healthier attitude and a better way of preserving community relations, chastity, developing love in relationships, that that is just a better attitude than the one that my grandmother gave me, or the one that the prophet Mohammed left behind.
CONAN: We have to take a short break in a moment. So we'll discuss violence on the other side, but I couldn't go away from the issue of sex without discussing the barbarity of genital mutilation.
Ms. ALI: Well, genital mutilation is used as an instrument. The cutting off of the clitoris is a measure to curb the libido of a woman. The sewing of the opening of a vagina is a measure to ensure that on the wedding night, a woman is a virgin.
And so if we were supposed to - if we were to let go of these convictions on virginity and chastity, female genital mutilation would disappear on its own. And I think all human rights activists, whether they're in the United States or outside of it, should go to the root cause. And it's these convictions on virginity, on the position of women that we ought to address, and not just the terrible symptoms of the mutilation itself.
CONAN: More with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in just a moment. Her new book is called "Nomad: From Islam to America." If you'd like to talk with her about her journey - physical, intellectual, spiritual - give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wants to reclaim Islam from within. She introduced us to her criticisms of her former religion in the book "Infidel." In her latest memoir, she continues her story, and her struggle to bridge the conflict she sees between Islam and Western values. The full title of the book is "Nomad: From Islam to America, a Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations." You can read an excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Calls in just a moment, but the third of the things, of the three principles you were describing, we've been through money and sex -violence.
Ms. ALI: In my background, the tribal Islamic background, violence is used as an instrument to discipline, subordinate individual to the group, to subordinate the female to the male, to subordinate the citizen - or rather, the subject - to the state. And the state is tyrannical.
And when I come to the Netherlands, I find a moral framework that turns that upside down. I find that the state is actually an entity that protects the rights and freedoms of individuals; that the family tries to foster, as much as possible, individual responsibility; and violence is an ultimum remedium(ph).
Only when an individual uses violence against others is he or she punished, but that most of conflicts, human conflict, is spoken, it's talked about - whether it's between parents and children or it's in the school or, you know, where you address with therapy or with lawyers.
But the way of solving conflict is through talking, and this inspired me and fascinated me and again, I have to emphasize that this is not - I'm not saying that in Western countries, there is no violence. There's plenty of violence.
Ms. ALI: But the common, the general conviction - the generally accepted culture and principle is that violence is bad, and that you should use it with - just only when it's absolutely necessary.
And that's - I show that using the example of when I was an interpreter, a translator of the two little boys, where the Somali parents face up to the Dutch parents, whose child makes faces at and ridicules a Somali child, and the Somali parents tell their child to go and beat the other - the Dutch child.
And then I show the scene where the two sets of parents meet with the teacher as mediator, and I see that as a classic example of the two different attitudes toward violence.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'll go first to Ahmed, Ahmed with us from Sterling Heights in Michigan.
AHMED (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. Ms. Ali, how are you?
Ms. ALI: I'm fine, thank you. How are you?
AHMED: Good. First, I think tribal Islam is an oxymoron. They are two different, opposite things. And if somebody studies the history of Islam - actually, it broke the tribalism.
But my question is: When your father asked you to convert back and he forced all the Christians to convert to Islam, did he take it from a specific situation, or do you sincerely believe it is the proper teaching of Islam for all the Christians and non-Muslims to be converted? Because I certainly don't think so. Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you, Ahmed.
Ms. ALI: Thank you, Ahmed. That's a very good question. My father was convinced that it is the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and it is in various hadith. It is also the history of the founding of Islam. Once Muhammad gets the revelation, as he calls it, and he converts his wife, Khadijah, who - and he goes on to convert his best friend, they start, initially, a peaceful campaign of trying to convert the people in Mecca.
And after that, when they become very successful, in Medina they start an aggressive campaign of converting people, which goes from da'wa -that is, an attitude of persuasion and proselytization - to jihad, converting people by the sword.
And my father, on his deathbed and before that, was actually trying to encourage me to engage in da'wa - that is, to persuade Christians by good example. My father doesn't believe that there are people who are other - you know, other faiths or atheists, to go and convert people to Islam.
And so yes, this is at the core of Islam. It's - and it's interesting. And he meant it very well, but I disagree with my father, and I disagreed with him.
CONAN: It should be pointed out that there are other religions, including Christianity, who, at least in centuries past, were certainly not averse to spreading the faith through the sword. And indeed, there are a lot of people who proselytize about the value of their religion to this day.
Ms. ALI: Yes. And religion's ideas about how people ought - with the emphasis on ought - how people ought to live together, and right now, Islam is the most vibrant, most potent and most powerful proselytizing machine. And again, in "Nomad," what I try to do is encourage other religions, especially Christianity, but also humanists, atheists, to take their ideas and values to the marketplace of ideas and try actively to convert the young demographic of Muslims on whose minds now only radical Islamic agents have a monopoly.
CONAN: Let's go next to Miriam, Miriam with us from Cincinnati.
MIRIAM (Caller): Hi, Ayaan. I'm from the Netherlands, originally, and I left shortly after the assassination of Theo van Gogh. And the Netherlands changed after the assassination of both Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, which inevitably changed your life tremendously. You got security and all that. How has that changed your position in society, and how are you able to communicate to us everyday people as you used to, were able to do in the Netherlands?
Ms. ALI: Well, what I would like to point out often is that I had security as of the 16th of October 2002. And because I had security and was threatened way before Theo was killed, I escaped death. And unfortunately, Theo, who at that point did not have security, was found and surveilled by his killer and murdered.
So it's very important for listeners to know that my - the threats against me and the security that I have started way before Theo was killed.
CONAN: OK. My mistake, I'm sorry.
Ms. ALI: Yeah. How then - how has that changed my life? I do what is sensible, and I stay within the perimeters of what the security - or the people who are in charge of my security tell me to do; refrain from what they tell me not to do.
But I have followed the debate, both in the Netherlands and in the United States, you know, concepts like homegrown terrorists. I follow in the United States very closely honor killings, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, all of the things that we had seen in Europe and in the Netherlands. And Americans - some of the audiences that I spoke to felt that Islam was really a matter of foreign policy.
When I think - incidents like the Times Square incident recently, here, changed that. I have - I was able to establish a foundation with some very good friends for - with a mission statement to protect the rights of women from militant Islam and tribal custom, here in the U.S.
I have remained involved. I think about it. I experiment with ideas, like many other thinkers, on - you know, what do we do with Islamic terrorism? How do we deal with it? How do we approach it? And "Nomad" is the outcome of these past few years of my thinking and the places I have been to, and the conversations I have had.
I have also - and I think this is good news - had a number of Muslims, or ex-Muslims, corresponding with me, telling me how they feel about the work I do and how supportive they are. And that gives me a great deal of hope, that I'm not a lone bird, singing alone in the woods.
MIRIAM: I want you to know, I admire you so much, and I think a lot of people do. And I think communication is the key to a lot of answers that we need in society and the world as a whole. (Foreign language spoken).
Ms. ALI: (Foreign language spoken). Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thank you, Miriam. Here's an email from Brenda in Berkeley: Don't you think that persons from traditional Muslim societies are not a good cultural fit for the West, particularly America, and should not be admitted as immigrants? Not all diversity is desirable. And she gives us examples of FGM, which by - I assume she means female genital mutilation, and polygamy.
Ms. ALI: You know, I don't - I really don't think that we - by excluding people or by kicking people out of the country, that that is where we should look for solutions. The United States is a highly moral country. Most Americans go out of their way to help people who are underprivileged, whether it's in the United States or outside of the U.S.
And I know there's a lot of criticism on American foreign policy, but I just see this great moral activity, and the only - my message is to share, first and foremost, the values that have made Americans successful and resilient, with the newcomers.
And I think it's justified for those people who truly understand what the American Constitution is about, and what democracy and liberalism are about and who reject it, and who want Shariah to say - it's common sense to tell them, take a legal U-turn. Go back to where these - Shariah. I think that's justified.
But for a lot of people who don't know of these ideas and who are here, I think the first step would be to educate them on these, you know, on freedom and the institutions and Constitution of freedom.
CONAN: Let's go next to Josef(ph), Josef with us from Buffalo.
JOSEF (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Hi. Good, thanks.
JOSEF: Ms. Ali, you know, I wanted to say, first of all, that I - to some extent, I admire you and to some extent, I find a lot of your statements a little offensive, as in the - on the one hand, I do admire a lot of the work that you've done to raise awareness about a lot of things that are justified in the name of Islam which are very horrific, like female genital mutilation and honor killings, and all types of - for instance, terrorism, you know, needless to say.
On the other hand, I feel as a modern Muslim, a lot of statements that you make tend to alienate a lot of people that I've met, that would otherwise agree with you on a lot of these issues. And I feel like sometimes, you overemphasize. And like I said, you bring up a lot of negative aspects that are associated with the religion. But I feel like by shying away from maybe emphasizing some of the positive things, some of the positive spiritual ideas that are within Islam, you tend to lose a lot of the audience that would otherwise support you, within the Muslim community.
So I just wanted to know what you felt are some positive ideas or positive ways of working within the Islamic religion itself, that could basically accomplish the goals that you want to. Just to give you an example, I know in America, there was a big issue a couple years ago when a female scholar, Amina Wadud, gave a challenge to a lot of orthodox scholars saying that a woman shouldn't be allowed to lead other men in prayer. A lot of people did agree with her, and a lot of people didn't. But that's said about that type of debate within the Islamic community -emphasizing some of the positive aspects that Islam has to say about women.
I just felt, you know, what do you feel is - can Muslims take away from your message, who do feel Islam is a way of life for them, and what positive spiritual message they can use to understand where you're coming from?
Ms. ALI: Well, that is the message of "Nomad," this book that's just been launched today. And I have to say, I get this question frequently. I'm not in the business of public relations for Islam. I'm paid to, you know, to write my observations and support them with data. And if I read bin Laden's work, the Muslim brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi - if I read about Shariah, if I read the hadith, the guidance that the Prophet Muhammad left behind and the Quran, I find things in there that are consistent with subjugating women, husbands who say that they have a right to beat them and quote from the Quran, women who are denied the most basic rights, advocacy for killing gays, advocacy for killing infidels. I find all of that in there.
And I want to engage fellow Muslims - I'm no longer a Muslim, but those people who still want to remain in the faith. And many of them write to me and say, perhaps we should not deny that the hadith exists and the Quran exists, and these things are in there. But perhaps we should just acknowledge that and start a movement that says, fine, it's in there, but we don't agree with the mullahs.
I also think we should, as Muslims, start moving away from trying to find solutions only within Islamic scripture. And I mean, look at - and I take this from the European history and American history. People don't look for all answers in the Bible anymore. We are endowed with reason, as individuals. There's a lot of ideas that have been tested and tried that lead to prosperity and peace and tolerance, but they're outside of Islam. And why are we ignoring that marketplace? I mean, that - I think that's what I would say.
CONAN: We're talking with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I wanted to ask you about the experiences you describe, as you went to speak book tours and whatnot, lectures at various universities around the country. And you said you were startled to be greeted by young American Muslims, people who are born and raised here.
Ms. ALI: Yes. I went to places like Scripps College, Bucknell, places -you know, that it's not just Harvard and Yale, but colleges that are out of the way, a place where you wouldn't accept - expect jihadi rhetoric or jihadi discourse. And I was startled to find, especially young women, spouting that, saying that it's their choice to wear the veil or the burqa, or defending very strong, Shariah points of view.
And I thought: Everyone says - and has been saying for a long time - maybe education is the answer. And now, here we have these highly educated, middle-class, privileged, young people, and all they could do was defend the image of Islam. None of them would feel - or express any kind of outrage to women here in the United States who were run over by their father, killed, taken out of school. They wouldn't express any kind of outrage for the victims of Iran or the victims of - in Afghanistan. And the justification that all this is used - and it's in the name of Islam. They were more worried, they were more concerned about defending the image of Islam than they were about the human rights of fellow Muslims, and fellow men and women.
CONAN: And you feel that it isn't - we just have a few seconds left but -a fundamental error in our society: to encourage that sort of belief without challenging it.
Ms. ALI: Without challenging it. And I don't mean - I think what the military is doing is great and what the secret services are doing fine, but that's just one aspect of it. And it's a very expensive, time-consuming, resource-consuming aspect. I think we need now to really engage, get into neighborhoods where - that are majority Muslim here in the U.S. and in Europe, and offer Muslims an alternative model framework -be it secular or an alternative theology such as Christianity or, I don't know, Buddhism. But let's compete on the marketplace of ideas because right now, radical Islam has a monopoly on it, especially in Muslim communities.
CONAN: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, thank you so much for your time today.
Ms. ALI: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Her new book is "Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations." You can read an excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us today from NPR's bureau in New York.
Coming up, "FlashForward" fizzles out. "Hawaii Five-O" returns - book 'em Danno - and "Law & Order" misses out on a 21st season. It's upfronts week. We'll preview the full TV season. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.