'Infidel' and an Argument for Intolerance
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is best known for what she did after she arrived in the Netherlands. The Somali-born refugee became an outspoken critic of Islam, won election to the Dutch Parliament, and collaborated with filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on a controversial movie called "Submission," which showed bruised, naked women with passages from the Koran painted on their bodies. It made them both targets for terrorists. And in 2004, Van Gogh was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamic extremist.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's early life is less well known, but perhaps just as remarkable. In her new book "Infidel," she writes about growing up in Africa and Saudi Arabia and the events that led to her ideological transformation. She was born in Somalia, but her family fled to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya because of her father's opposition to the government in Mogadishu. Much later, she fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage.
Later in the program, the good, the bad and the underwhelming. Your reviews of last night's Super Bowl telecast and the $2 million commercials.
But first, "Infidel." If you have questions for Ayaan Hirsi Ali about her life and what led to her rejection of Islam and her departure from the Netherlands, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali joins us from NPR's bureau in New York City. And it's nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. AYAAN HIRSI ALI (Author, "Infidel"): Thank you very much. It's good to be here.
CONAN: You begin this book with a vivid account of your grandmother demanding that you recite your Somali lineage. Why did you choose to begin the book there?
Ms. HIRSI ALI: There's no difference more remarkable with being a citizen in a liberal society than being a member of a clan. Being a member of a clan, that's your passport, your bloodline. That's your welfare state. That's your identity. That's what you need to know. That's what you need to defend with your life and with your property and with all that you have.
When I arrived in the Netherlands, the contrast couldn't have been bigger. Strangers were loyal to me. They were giving me money, food, shelter. And when I kept on asking why are they doing this…
Ms. HIRSI Ali: …it was like, you know, we all pay taxes. When I'm in need or when someone else is in need and you are capable of working, then you will be the one - it's from your taxes, taxes that you pay, that other people will be served. So I was amazed by this system that was built by the Dutch off strangers helping other strangers and all feeling citizens equal before the law. This amount of civilization, I wasn't used to that. So I had to explain where I came from and how that looks like, how we survived, compared to the country that I had come to and the system which they employed.
CONAN: And there's - part of your exile, your family's exile, when you were living in Kenya where, for example, there was a clan member, a wealthy merchant who you said, but his money was not necessarily his own. It was his obligation to help people like your family.
Ms. HIRSI ALI: Yes. As a clan member, your money is never your own. It's not (unintelligible). If you are well off, then it's your obligation to help all other members of the clan, starting, of course, as close as possible. So he would help his immediate brother and then his immediate clan mates, and then as the group grows larger. So coming to the United States, going to Australia or Canada or Europe, I'll have to go and say who is Osman Muhammad(ph)? Are there are any Magans? And once I find someone close enough to me, they will take me in.
CONAN: Hmm. You also describe a space of three generations, from your grandmother to you, during which you - your family has - you say that your grandmother lived in a world that was really the Iron Age, and, of course, you now live in a world, the 21st century, the West, the computer age. This has been an unbelievably fast transition.
Ms. HIRSI ALI: Yes, and I'm saying this in hindsight, after having lived for 14 years in the Netherlands. Back then, I would not have differentiated between Iron Age, Stone Age, or whatever age.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HIRSI ALI: Yes, but after - I mean it - trying to see this from the perspective of Europeans and Americans, I just have to say, look. Globalization is something that we really talk about now and we are fascinated with, but for some of us like my grandmother, it's been - globalization has been going on now for some time. They've - my grandmother has made this transition. I remember the fascination with - she talks about seeing the first radio…
Ms. HIRSI ALI: …talking on the telephone, you know, using what you in America call the bathroom…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HIRSI ALI: …and her complaining about, but someone else has been there before me. For example, the relationship towards property. I mean, from - if you look at things from my grandmother's perspective, property doesn't exist. If you're, you know, if there's no grass and if it doesn't rain and if there's no water for your animals here, then you just move to somewhere else.
And if there are other people living there, other tribes, and you're stronger than them, you conquer them and you take their land and you take their men and you - you kill their men and you take their women, and that's how life was. And if you're weak or you get decadent, then someone else will come and take your property and your women, and so that's how life was. That's what she told us. And that's why it was very, very important to know your bloodline…
Ms. HIRSI ALI: …yeah, to defend it and to feed on it.
CONAN: The radio you talked about - we want to move onto other things in a minute - but you, of course, described your feelings. You're looking at it as sort of a magic box when you were just a little kid, five or six years old, but you say the name for the radio was - some people called it the device that scares old people.
Ms. HIRSI ALI: Yes, because suddenly, this box - a male voice came from the box saying this is Radio BBC, five o'clock, from (unintelligible) in London -saying this in Somali, and the older people were startled. Of course, they didn't know where London was. But it was far more important than the Imam, far more influential than probably even the Prophet, because what came out of that radio was believed to be the truth, and it was only there at 5 PM.
And as we were in conflict with - in my case, my family was in conflict with Siad Barre and his - the dictator. Having, you know, breaking that device was kind of cutting off the lifeline to information - most important information -for all these older people.
CONAN: We're talking today with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former member of the Dutch parliament. Her latest book is called "Infidel." It's her autobiography. And you are also well known as someone - a champion of the rights of women and Muslim women in particular. And you've been very outspoken in the past about female circumcision, yet in this book you write - you describe your own circumcision. It must have been - what was it like to describe - terrible thing?
Ms. HIRSI ALI: It is terrible, and as someone who has undergone that, the most important thing that you want to do is to forget it, to put it behind you. But again and again, I was convinced by people that I've been lucky. I'm now in a position where it's not - I mean, I shouldn't only be angered by the sexual immorality within the Islamic world and with those women who were in my position, but I should speak up. And by describing what happened to me, it's not to groan and moan about, oh, this is what my parents did to me and maybe I should go in therapy. But it's to say, look, this is why it was done. These are the circumstances under which it was done.
What I tried to explain in the "Infidel" is there's no - zero tolerance against female genital mutilation will not help unless you really discuss the sexual morality on which it rests, pretty much like the veil. You have to tackle questions such as virginity. You have to tackle the fact that for example my grandmother thought we would never find a husband if we were not mutilated. And in that context, it was true. She was doing me a favor. The superstition that if you don't cut off the clitoris, it might grow into something very big that will then go in-between your legs, that - those are the root causes that we have to address before we start to look at the symptom which is female genital mutilation.
CONAN: As you point out in the book, not all peoples who practice female circumcision are Muslims, and not all Muslims do this. Nevertheless, it is an element of part of an attitude towards women in Islam that, well, you saw other examples of this in Saudi Arabia, a society that does not necessarily practice female circumcision.
Ms. HIRSI ALI: Exactly. This is an age-old - I've heard some records saying that it was 1,800 years before Christ, so it was way before Islam came about. But if you look at the countries that practice it today, most of them are Islamic. And one of the things that makes it very useful for Muslims is their attitude towards virginity and premarital sex. The Koran is very clear and says those who engage in premarital sex should be flogged a hundred times, both men and women. But it's of course much easier to prove that a woman has had premarital sex. And Islam like some of the other monotheistic faiths tries to control the sexuality of the woman first.
Now you can't guarantee this virginity all the time. Saudi Arabia has a lot of money and has brought about a segregation of the genders. But in nomadic societies like my grandmother's, female genital mutilation, which was probably already a practice, is quite useful because you cut off the clitoris to diminish the sexual - at least that's what people think...
Ms. HIRSI ALI: ...the sexuality of a woman. But you also seal the opening of the vagina so that on the wedding night you can prove that no one has been there before you. And again and again I'm trying to say, you know, this is what you should tackle first, this whole obsession with virginity and equaling the human being to whether her hymen has been pierced or not.
CONAN: Hmm, we're talking with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about her new autobiography "Infidel," and she talks a great deal in the book about the importance of women's issues in Islam and the centrality of resolving those issues to modernizing faith that she deeply criticizes. When we come back, we'd like to welcome listeners into the conversation. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. 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.
Our guest is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Many of us are already familiar with her criticism of Islam's treatment of women and the controversy and the death threats that brought her and her work in the Netherlands, as both a member of parliament and a writer of the film "Submission," to international fame. She's now written about her ideological transformation in a new autobiography called "Infidel."
If you have questions for Ayaan Hirsi Ali about her life and what led to her rejection of Islam, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is Tucson, Arizona.
MOGEE (Caller): Good afternoon. I initiated recently a project on culture and conflict, and one of its - at the University of Arizona - and one of its main foci is the relationship between modernity and religion, specifically Islam. And I have a question for your guest and a comment before the question. The comment is there is a phenomenon that I call colonial feminism, by which I mean when colonial forces, either in their old form or their present new form, use women's issues not to advance women's issues in Islamic countries, but to advance colonial agenda or neo-colonial agenda. And I am afraid whether Ms. Ali, you know, is being used for that purpose. And my question of your guest is whether she's - she feels she's being used. And it's very difficult to see how a person in her position is being used. Also I'm sure she - I hope - I'm hoping she knows that Siad Barre was a Western colonial puppet.
CONAN: The Siad Barre, the former dictator of Somalia.
CONAN: Let's get a response from Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ms. HIRSI ALI: Yes, I don't think that I'm being used. I would not allow anyone to use me. Regarding colonialism, I belong to the generation that was born right after independence in many of the African countries. I do remember that there was a lot of oppression and persecution, but fortunately or unfortunately, my generation cannot blame outside forces: white, Jewish, black or whatever. The people whom I saw who threw my grandmother onto the ground were Somalis like us. The people who were doing, you know, part of the persecution - in fact, but it was even a clan mate - and so I'm not in the luxurious position of blaming external forces.
What fascinates me about the West is not its history of imperialism, it's its history and the amount of value it attaches to individual liberty, to life itself, to rationality, to learning as opposed to dogma, to (unintelligible) as opposed to the value system in which I was brought up and which I was not allowed to ask questions, experiment, trial and error - and that's what fascinates me about Western culture.
And I know that Western societies and - have had a terrible past, from the burning of women as witches, all the way to what happened in the Second World War, and even engaging in enforcing dictators in Third World countries. That's one part of the West. But there's the other part, which is really developing institutions that safeguard the life and freedoms of the individual. And it would be a huge pity to confuse the two and to, you know, lump them together and describe the West only as a source of evil.
MOGEE: First, I'm not describing the West as the source of evil. I'm talking about history and I'm talking about in the past two or 300 years the forces of colonialism have, you know, plundered and exploited in so many different ways the part of the world where your guest comes from and also the Middle East. And if one forgets about that, if one forgets about hypocrisy and double standard that the Western neo-colonial forces use in that part of the world, I think it's an unfortunate fact of history and our many, many, many different kinds of victims. And although I, you know, your guest believes she is not being used, I respectfully disagree.
Ms. HIRSI ALI: I just want to respond to that by saying even when I read history, I read, yes, there was slavery. But the most passionate people who fought against slavery were whites, the British, and Americans - Americans fighting other Americans, some pro-slavery, others against slavery. The same goes for colonialism, which was abolished again by individuals living in the countries that were practicing colonialism. The same goes for apartheid.
Today in the world we live in, slavery is practiced only in Arab Islamic world, in the Arab Islamic world. Muslims are not responding to that. Islam, or a very radical form of it, is being spread all across the world to nations that are poor, and I would call that more moral colonialism. And it's not being stopped by other Muslims. When it comes to apartheid, what you see is gender segregation again being propagated by the wealthiest Muslim nations - Saudi Arabia and all the other Gulf states.
Hatred against Jews - I mean I know the Holocaust has taken place in Europe, but the Europeans who indulged themselves in that seem to be terribly ashamed of that past, whereas right now if we look at the anti-Jewish propaganda, it's coming from the Islamic world. So I think it's time that we Muslim look at ourselves, stop blaming external forces, and try and correct that, or we will destroy - in the attempt to destroy others, we will indulge in self-destruction.
CONAN: Mogee, thanks very much for the call. You just said we Muslims. You still consider yourself Muslim?
Ms. HIRSI ALI: I'm not a believing Muslim. I don't believe in Allah, the Koran, the Prophet, angels and so on, but I was born into that civilization, or if you can't call it a civilization, into that background. And I think that I - because of that and because I care about these issues, I have an obligation to speak up and to say at least I'm not a part of it and exactly respond to people like Mr. Mogee and say let's please stop blaming external forces. We've done that, and that only just serves to keep us stagnant and backward and in conflict with others. So I'm not a believing Muslim, but my parents are. I'm a part of that history, and in the world we are living now, I think it's everybody's duty to fight for whatever humans have reached - have achieved in civilization. And that's what's here now, and that's what under threat.
CONAN: Hmm, you describe in the book a meeting with I guess a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Bocal Saam(ph) - I'm not sure I'm pronouncing that correctly - but he's preaching total obedience. This is the rule in Islam. And you raised your voice, in a shaky voice, and said must our husbands obey us, too? There was nothing wrong with the question, but Bocal Saam's voice rose hard and dry, certainly not.
I dug my nails into my hand to stop myself from shaking. Went on, men and women are not then equal. Bocal Saam said, they are equal. But they're not, I told him. I'm supposed to totally obey my husband, but he is not totally obedient to me, and therefore we are not equal. The Koran says on almost every page that Allah is just, but this is not just. And then Bocal Saam's voice rose to a shout, you may not question Allah's word. His mind is hidden. Satan is speaking to you, girl. Sit down instantly. This and many other passages - were you born a troublemaker?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HIRSI ALI: I don't know. Maybe I was born - I think one of the things that my parents did was they sent me to school, and my father encouraged me to ask questions and then just kind of disliked some of the questions I asked. And when I came to the Netherlands and I just started to have informal conversations about religion and upbringing and so on with my Christian friends, and I would tell them about this.
They would say but we Catholics or Christians, we used to be like this until say 20 years ago. It wasn't such a long time ago that Christians did or Christians did that. And what fascinated me was not only that they had come past that, or most of them have, but that if you then ask those questions, you are not ordered to sit down. You are not threatened or, you know, any of that, but you're actually encouraged. And I thought maybe we could copy that, you know.
CONAN: Hmm, let's get another caller on the line. This is Kadia(ph), Kadia calling us from Oakland, California.
KADIA (Caller): Yes, hello. I read Nawal el Saadawi in English. And also Naguib Mahfouz who, to me, seems to be a feminist. I was wondering what feminist writers writing in Arabic your guest gets courage from.
Ms. ALI: I get courage from people like Nawal el Saadawi, of course, who doesn't agree with me on my pinpointing Islam as one of the sources of the subordination of women. I get support or at least courage from Bernisi(ph) and Mahfouz himself. Just after the attacks in Madrid, I think there was a Saudi Arabian man (unintelligible) outside Husaid.
Not all Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorist acts today are committed by Muslims. There was a Jordanian journalist who reprinted the cartoons - the Danish cartoons - in a Jordanian paper.
CONAN: The ones that made fun of the Prophet.
Ms. ALI: Yeah, depicted the Prophet. And so I know, and I have many other individuals who are born Muslims like me who sometimes agree with me, sometimes disagree with me. What we have in common is that we need to change the faith from within. We need to look at ourselves and stop blaming outside our external forces. And I derive a lot of courage from that.
And the only thing that's unrealistic is to expect all these people to agree on everything. And that's not the case. There are people who like Salman Rushdie. He and I agree on pretty much agree everything. But the whole idea is for 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion people living in the world to start thinking, at least, I mean, exercising some sort of intellectual activity, which we haven't been doing because in our own countries, in our own societies, if you do that, you run the risk of being killed.
And being here, in societies that protect the freedom of expression - I don't know for how long - but at least that's the case now. Then it's time to start that exercise for our - in our own self-interest.
CONAN: Kadia, thanks very much for the call.
KADIA: Well, I just wanted to say that I honor her courage.
CONAN: Thank you very much.
Ms. ALI: Thank you very much.
KADIA: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former member of the Dutch Parliament. Her new book, her autobiography, is called "Infidel." If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-925, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This is Tony. Tony's with us from Houston, Texas.
TONY (Caller): Yes. Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thank you.
TONY: My comment - I have a comment and, you know, and she can - your guest can take it as it is, and then I have a question. My comment is that her views - because I have done a lot of reading and a lot of research in this new so-called, you know, underprivileged women in Islam who have converted, and, you know, to me it's a typical one-sided and polarized view of the Islamic world that, you know, it's pretty prevalent in people of her, you know, of her following.
Now my question to you, to your guest would be that, you know, she's asking the Muslim world to open their eyes and open their brain and start, in her words, quote, unquote, "have some intellectual," you know, "activity" going on, which is very, I mean, extremely prejudiced as far as I'm concerned.
My question to her would be, like, for the children of Iraq, for example, today - 20 years from now, when they grow up, would it be close-minded of them and arrogant and an arrogant Muslim view of them to say that the United States came in and destroyed their world the way it was? I really would like to understand that and to say that, you know, terrorism is only being practiced right now by Muslims is also an incorrect statement because you're - she is looking at the individuals who commit the terrorist acts.
But what about state-sponsored terrorism? Or not state-sponsored, but the terrorism on the state level? The imprisonment of millions of Palestinian people by the Israeli government without any, you know, sort of benefits in their own land that these people owned, and such things?
And so what does she want? She wants to close our eyes to that and start, you know, picking her books and doing some research on - and being really intellectual and close our eyes to those things as if they don't exist? Injustices do exist. It's when we close our eyes to them, it's when people have the problems, and that's when they - you know, terrorism. And I really would like to…
CONAN: Let's give her a chance to reply, Tony.
Ms. ALI: Okay. Thank you. For empirical evidence on whether women in all the Islamic world is in a crisis, I would like to refer Tony to the Arab Human Development Report - which started to appear in 2002 and has been appearing since then - in which the fighters of that report say the Arab Islamic world is retarded when it comes to three forms - to three factors: the freedom of the individual, knowledge and the subjugation of women.
That's not something that I am inventing. This is something that I - being a part of that world - I am reacting to and saying, well, maybe one of - we need to start first and foremost by looking at ourselves instead of blaming outside forces. And I'm afraid that Tony is doing exactly the same by referring to Iraq, the Palestinians and Israel.
Iraq is - I mean, the Americans and the British went into Iraq with the intention to depose Saddam Hussein and give the Iraqis - and the same with the Afghanis - give them their own government. The execution of that hasn't gone as it should have been. Twenty years from now, that is what I would tell any Iraqi. There was a lot of optimism.
This is how Saddam's regime looks like. This is the intention with which the Americans came, and didn't work out that way. And as Thomas Friedman said in the New York Times, there are more and more voices going up and saying maybe Americans shouldn't be doing for the Iraqis what they themselves should be doing.
Regarding Palestine and Israel, I don't think that you can keep on using year after year by pointing to that tiny little place in the Arab Islamic world and blaming them for all the other things that go wrong there. There is no Arab Islamic country that is a true, liberal democracy. There are countries like Indonesia, Turkey and Pakistan that are referred to as democracies, but they are not fully functioning. You have radical Muslims disturbing the peace. There is a lot of corruption. Women are subjugated.
And all the other countries are dictatorships, and it's just pathetic to keep on referring to the Arab Islamic - sorry, to the Palestinian-Israeli problem as the root cause of that. It isn't, it's a distraction. And I'm a proponent of solving that, and I would (unintelligible) the first to say let's go for a peace - to encourage a peace process, but it's just not - I can't blame…
CONAN: I'm afraid - we'll pick this up after a short break, if you don't mind. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I'm Neal Conan, and this is NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Our guest right now is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her new book is "Infidel." She writes in it, people are always asking me what it's like to live with death threats. It's like being diagnosed with a chronic disease, she continues. It may flare up and kill you, but it may not. It could happen in a week, or not for decades.
And Ayaan Hirsi Ali, do you still travel with bodyguards?
Ms. ALI: Yes, I do. And referring to that question, I've been on a book tour now for six months. And I get that question again and again, regardless of talking about it in the book. And like people who are diagnosed with that sort of - you know, terminal disease, it actually makes you - it gives me more zest for life, because I realized how short it is and I realize - at least I've come to the conclusion for myself - I am not inputting to anyone - that there's no hereafter. So I try to enjoy it to the fullest and give it as much meaning as I can.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, now. Now this is Ali, Ali calling us from Kansas City in Missouri.
ALI (Caller): Yes, thank you. Just a short comment. I can, you know, understand much of what she said, especially early there, when she's talking about her grandmother and how, you know, the first time she had a radio. I was in that situation. I remember when I was young and (unintelligible).
But I have a question. I have seen a number of lady Somalis who wrote books and publicized the issue of circumcision or mutilation, whatever you call it. And I have never seen a single one of them doing anything to help, you know, resolve that issue - an issue, really, is not an indication of whatever people (unintelligible) you want. Islam is not - it's just not an indication that people think that's the way it should be.
And, you know, my mother will be, you know, the biggest, you know, defender of that practice. And it's (unintelligible). But I see a lady - a Somali girl is (unintelligible) yeah, and others who wrote books and publicized, and they did benefit from it, but really do not do anything concrete to help other people, to educate girls and young women so that they will not - the practice will not continue forever. That's my question. Is she doing anything on that front? Secondly…
CONAN: Well, let's take one at a time here, Ali.
Ms. ALI: Ali says you can't do anything concrete to help any woman. Well, I'd love to go to Somalia, to Egypt, to Yemen and so on and tell the people please don't do it or interfere. But these are - for every 10 seconds, a little girl is mutilated. A little girl's genitals are removed. There 140 million women who are mutilated. It would be delusional to think that only one individual like me can do anything as to stop it immediately.
In the world we live, what we do is communicate about it and try and address the issue, talk about it, so as to persuade people who practice it to stop practicing it. For a long time, activists of - against female genital mutilation have been going on and going about the cutting itself. What I try to add to that activism, which I completely support, is let's address the root causes that have to do with will my daughter find a husband because she needs, for her own survival, someone to take care of her? In that case, I would say empower the women to be financially independent. Give your little girl education so she doesn't need someone in the future who would only accept her if she's a virgin.
Then there is virginity…
CONAN: And we've lost our connection to our bureau in New York. There may have only been booked until 45 minutes after the hour. In that case, that may be the reason it was clipped off. Our guest is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her new book is called "Infidel." We want to get back to her if we can to see if we can reestablish contact to finish this answer. We do want to move on to another subject later on in the program if we can. And she's back with us. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, can you hear me?
Ms. ALI: Yes.
CONAN: OK. I'm sorry. We were cut off there. You were saying - let me just wind up by asking you, do you know - are you still in touch with your family in Somalia? Do they know you've written a book about them?
Ms. ALI: I think my brother knows that I've written a book. The rest of the family doesn't. And if they do, they don't know it from me. We're not in touch. And the tension between me and my family - that's all the members of my family - find that I should not bring Islam and I should not link Islam with any of the issues that I discuss, the position of women, with terrorism, or any of that.
CONAN: So you don't talk to them?
Ms. ALI: They don't talk to me.
CONAN: They don't talk to you. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we thank you very much for speaking with us.
Ms. ALI: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Dutch parliamentarian, a native of Somalia. Her new book, "Infidel," is her autobiography. She joined us today from NPR's bureau in New York City.
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