Taking the fight to Islam

London, England - Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not the only critic of Islam who lives with round-the-clock protection. But surely none wears their endangered status with greater style. The Dutch Somali human-rights campaigner looks like a fashion model and talks like a public intellectual. Tall and slender with rod-straight posture and a schoolgirl smile, she is a thinker of stunning clarity, able to express ideas in her third language with a precision that very few could achieve in their first. This combination of elegance and eloquence would be impressive in any circumstances. Under threat of death, it is nothing short of incredible.

A little over two years ago, a second-generation Dutch Moroccan by the name of Mohammed Bouyeri sent a letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Aside from the destruction of Holland and Europe, Bouyeri called for the death of Hirsi Ali, whom he described as a 'fundamentalist unbeliever' and a 'soldier of evil'. His macabre method of delivering the correspondence was to impale the note in the chest of the filmmaker and outspoken maverick, Theo van Gogh, having already shot him eight times and cut his throat through to the spine. Van Gogh had made a short film with Hirsi Ali called Submission 1, in which lines from the Koran, detailing a man's right to beat his wife, were superimposed on the body of an actress portraying a victim of domestic violence.

The murder took place in broad daylight during the morning rush hour in a busy Amsterdam high street. Though the letter was addressed to Hirsi Ali, it was intended for a wider audience. Its message, while incoherent and rambling, was shockingly simple: say the wrong thing about Islam and nowhere is safe for you. It was medieval justice meted out in one of the most liberal and modern cities in the world. The killer, it turned out, was part of a cell linked to a fundamentalist network that stretched across Europe.

The murder of van Gogh had the unintended effect of bringing Hirsi Ali global recognition. While she was whisked away by Dutch security to an army base and on to a 'dismal motel' near an industrial estate in Massachusetts, cut off from the rest of the planet, the rest of the planet became suddenly very interested in her. The subject of numerous profiles, she was named the following year one of the '100 Most Influential People of the World' by Time magazine.

In Holland, though, Hirsi Ali was already both famous and infamous. In Amsterdam a few days after the murder, I spoke to Muslims on the street about the killing. The majority blamed Hirsi Ali. 'This woman is the cause of all the problems, telling lies about Islam,' one told me. 'If she hadn't sucked van Gogh into this, he'd still be alive today.'

The reason Bouyeri killed van Gogh rather than Hirsi Ali was that she was already under police protection. Two years before van Gogh's slaying, Hirsi Ali had called Islam 'backward' in a TV debate and was forced into hiding. Her subsequent media profile encouraged the Dutch Liberal Party to offer Hirsi Ali a position as an MP. She served with some distinction, focusing on issues such as domestic violence and female genital mutilation - the sort of campaigns that used to be part of frontline feminism but which had become increasingly neglected owing to multicultural sensitivities.

I met Hirsi Ali at her publisher's office in central London last week. Dutch bodyguards follow her everywhere she goes, and reportedly in Britain Special Branch officers afford further protection, though neither were in evidence. She looked as sharp as a pin in a black trouser suit, even if she was jet-lagged and tired, having flown in from her new home in the United States.

Last year Hirsi Ali, the most assimilated of all Dutch immigrants, was rejected by her adopted homeland twice over. Residents in her apartment block gained a court ruling, under European Human Rights law, stipulating that her presence placed her neighbours at risk, and she was duly evicted. At the same time a TV documentary alleged the MP had provided false information on her original asylum application. Hirsi Ali had admitted as much many times in interviews but nonetheless a minister in her own party decided to revoke her citizenship. In a farcical series of events, the citizenship was reinstated and the government collapsed. Meanwhile Hirsi Ali moved to Washington DC to take up a post at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.

She says she feels at home in America, a nation of immigrants. The move was only the latest, and perhaps least dramatic, in a lifetime of peripatetic reinventions. Born in Somalia to a resistance leader, she was exiled to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. In Nairobi she joined the Muslim Brotherhood and in 1989 she believed that Salman Rushdie should be killed for having blasphemed the prophet. How she went from devout believer to fearless opponent, from a loyal clan member to being renounced by her family, from Africa to Europe, and from blind faith to unbending reason is the compelling story she tells in her new autobiography entitled, with characteristic bluntness, Infidel

Strictly speaking Hirsi Ali is not an infidel but an apostate, a designation that in the Koran warrants the punishment of death. The distinction is not without significance. In a poll published last week, one in three British Muslims in the 16-24 age group agreed that 'Muslim conversion is forbidden and punishable by death'.

This figure comes as no surprise to Hirsi Ali. She argues that Europe's determination to maintain cultural difference will lead increasing numbers of alienated Muslims to seek the unambiguity of fundamentalism. Liberals, she says, have shirked the responsibility of making the case for their own beliefs. They need to start speaking out in favour of the values of secular humanism. And they need to make clear that they are not compatible with religious bigotry and superstition. 'You have to say that if you want the Prophet Muhammad to be your moral guide in the 21st century and you are aware of the choices the Prophet Muhammad made towards unbelievers, women, homosexuals, do you really think you're going to succeed? You will get into some sort of cognitive dissonance if you at the same time want to adapt to a life here.'

Without an open and robust critique of the nature of the prophet's teachings, she goes on, 'these clerics proselytising radical Islam make much, much more sense. Because the radical Muslims say that democracy is bad, and the young Muslim mind says "Why is it bad?". Because the Koran says it's bad. That makes more sense than democracy is good, the rights of individuals must be observed but you can also hang on to what the Koran says. I say stop that and appeal to and challenge young minds.'

When it comes to words, Hirsi Ali is not one to look for the mincer. She speaks in a language that makes no concessions to the softening euphemisms of political correctness. Those immersed in circumspection and ever vigilant to the contemporary sin of offence are bound to ask themselves if she's allowed to say what she says. In this respect her predicament is reminiscent of the moment in Basic Instinct when Sharon Stone lights a cigarette under interrogation in a police station. She's told that's it's non-smoking environment and she replies: 'So arrest me.' Hirsi Ali's life is already in jeopardy. She's long past the point of polite restraint.

Some observers find her forthright approach refreshing and, indeed, intoxicating, but many recoil from her unadorned conviction. Writing in the New York Review of Books, the historian Timothy Garton Ash described Hirsi Ali as a 'slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist'. Last year when Garton Ash chaired a discussion with Hirsi Ali at the ICA, he seemed both to admire the incisiveness of her quietly spoken logic and to wince at its unshakeable conclusions.

'For him,' Hirsi Ali laughs, 'the Enlightenment is complex. For me, it isn't. There's nothing complex about it.' A student of 17th- and 18th-century political ideas, she doesn't mean that she thinks the Enlightenment was some kind of uniform philosophical movement. The simplicity, for her, is the legacy of the Enlightenment, the things we take for granted about Western sociopolitical culture: the rule of law, the rights of the individual, freedom of expression. To Hirsi Ali these are bedrock precepts that should not be compromised in the name of cultural diversity.

Most of the political classes would agree with her in principle but like to take a more nuanced, and often evasive, stance in practice. She was one of the few intellectuals, for example, who rushed to support the Danes in the cartoon crisis last year. If you believe in the right of freedom of expression, she says, you have to defend that right. In a debate a few years back, Hirsi Ali challenged the Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, something of a poster boy for the multicultural left, to be more consistent and clear-cut in what he said. Was the Koran the word of God or a man-made text that was out of date? Ramadan responded by questioning Hirsi Ali's adversarial style. 'The question,' he said, 'is whether you want to change the mentality or please the audience.'

Does her bald delivery not further alienate Muslims, forcing them to cling to traditional values? Hirsi Ali is too smooth of skin and composure to bristle, but it is obviously an accusation she finds irritating.

'Tariq Ramadan is filled with contempt for Muslims because he believes they have no faculties of reason,' she replies in a beguilingly friendly tone, as though she had remarked that he had an excellent taste in shirts. 'If I say that terrorism is created in the name of Islam suddenly they take up terrorism? He gives me so much more power than I have. Why don't my remarks make him turn to terrorism? Because he's above that. Like many believers in multiculturalism, he puts himself on a higher plane. The other thing is that it's not about your style, it's about your content. Are my propositions right or wrong? Is it social, cultural and religious beliefs that cause economic backwardness or is it the other way round? My take on this is the cultural and religious elements are far more important to look at. That is what we should be looking at and not how I say it.'

All the same, it's fair to say that her audience is made up largely of white liberal males, rather than the Muslim women she wishes to liberate. In Holland, a female Muslim politician named Fatima Elatik told me: 'She's appealing to Dutch society, to middle-class Dutch-origin people. She talks about the emancipation of women but you can't push it down their throats. If I could talk to her, I would tell her that she needs to get a couple of Muslim women around her.'

Hirsi Ali dismisses this as 'a very silly remark. I started off in a position where none of these women were visible anyway except as proxies to be put forward to get subsidies from the government. Just keep singing we're discriminated against. No Muslim women are allowed into this debate by their own groups. So it's way too early. By the time these women are assertive enough, I won't be around. It will be one generation on.'

She also argues that it's important to address white liberals because they need to overcome the self-censoring effects of post-colonial guilt. 'If you want to feel guilty,' snaps Hirsi Ali, 'feel guilty that you didn't bring John Stuart Mill and left us only with the Koran. It doesn't help to say my forefathers oppressed your forefathers, and remain guilty forever.'

There is no zealot like the convert, goes the old saying, and many commentators have concluded that Hirsi Ali is a prime secular example. 'In a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals,' wrote Garton Ash, 'she has gone from one extreme to the other'. The word on Hirsi Ali is that she is 'traumatised' by her upbringing and her subsequent adoption of a Western lifestyle. It's the word that Ian Buruma uses to describe her condition in his book Murder In Amsterdam

Needless to say, she finds this appraisal of her ideas patronising. It was, she says, partly in an effort to combat this impression that she wrote Infidel. 'People can see that there is not much trauma in my story.'

That depends on what you think constitutes trauma. The account of being held down by the legs, aged five, and having her clitoris and inner labia cut off with a pair of scissors will certainly alarm many readers. 'I heard it,' she writes, 'like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat.' The fierce beatings she receives at the hands of her embittered mother, and the fractured skull inflicted on her by a brutal religious teacher, these too would leave psychological scars on most of us.

But as Hirsi Ali writes, they were normal events in her childhood and in the lives of people she knew. Death and illness were commonplace in Africa, and by African standards she lived well. There is nothing melodramatic in Hirsi Ali's prose. It's matter-of-fact and also, as she is quick to point out, entirely subjective. It's possible, she says, that her family will remember things differently. 'But it's my story and if you undertake such an endeavour you have to be honest. Usually people make excuses for their culture and family etcetera. I could tell the story that we in the Third World have things that the West could learn from, which is obviously true, but that isn't what I wanted to show. My argument is that western liberal culture is superior to Islamic tribal group culture.'

Hirsi Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan 38 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a leading figure in the Somali Salvation Democratic Front. He was imprisoned by the Somali dictator Siad Barre during much of Hirsi Ali's childhood, and thereafter she lived in exile with her mother and brother and sister, largely estranged from her father, who remarried. In Kenya she gained a limited amount of freedom from the strict Somali clan system, though its extended network continued to circumscribe her life.

She was a good but not exceptional student at school in Nairobi and went on to attend a secretarial course. Her mother and religious instructors brought her up to distrust unbelievers and to hate Jews, who, she was told, were responsible for all the problems of the world. Her mother did not want her daughters to work and in 1992 her father announced that he had arranged a marriage to a distant cousin living in Canada. Hirsi Ali maintains that she had no desire to marry the man but also, given family and clan honour, no choice. 'I was condemned to a predictable fate,' she writes, 'that of being a subservient wife to a stranger.'

En route to her husband in Canada she stopped over in Germany, and from there she went to Holland where, in a sudden surge of self-empowerment, she claimed asylum. She was told that running away from an arranged marriage was no reason to be awarded refugee status, so she made up a story about fleeing persecution in Somalia. It was then that she changed her name to Ali, the better to elude her infuriated clan.

She marvelled at the free room and board and health care provided by the Dutch state: '...all these people were busy helping you, and this for foreigners. How on earth did they treat their own clans?' Not all her fellow refugees were quite so appreciative. Many complained of racism and saw themselves as victims of European imperialism. 'The Europeans had colonised Somalia,' writes Hirsi Ali in characterising this sense of grievance, 'which was why we all had no qualifications and were in this mess to begin with. I thought that was so clearly nonsense. We had torn ourselves apart, all on our own.'

Little by little, she dropped the trappings of her culture and religion. First she removed her headscarf, then she wore jeans, rode a bicycle, fraternised with Dutch people, and with Jews, went to a pub, later drank a glass of wine, and eventually she met and moved in with a Dutch man. But her younger sister, who had been more of a rebel, joined Hirsi Ali in Holland and grew increasingly religious, to the point of psychosis. She returned to Africa and died following a miscarriage.

Working as a translator for Dutch social services, Hirsi Ali came across a hidden world of domestic violence, honour killings and of women entombed in the home, unable to speak Dutch or English and with no idea about the society in which they lived. 'While the Dutch were generously contributing money to international aid organisations,' she writes, 'they were also ignoring the silent suffering of Muslim women and children in their own backyard.'

She took a degree in political science at Leiden university - no mean feat for a refugee without any previous academic ambition - after which she became a researcher with a Labour party think tank, looking at immigration. By now her belief in Islam was precariously loose but she still held on to the idea that she was a Muslim. But the events of 11 September 2001 changed that. 'The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attacks, and it refused to close again. I found myself thinking that the Koran is not a holy document. It is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.'

She decided that what the Muslim world needed was its own Voltaire. And after she wrote an article outlining her ideas and concerns, some readers decided that they had found their new Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish refugee from the Inquisition who came to Holland and founded the Enlightenment.

No doubt Hirsi Ali's critics would find the comparison hard to stomach. Spinoza was against religious persecution, whereas Hirsi Ali, say her opponents, is an arch exponent of Islamophobia. One such critic has written a stinging attack on Hirsi Ali in this month's Times Literary Supplement. Maria Golia, an Egyptian-based academic, writes: 'Hirsi Ali seems far more interested in indicting Islam than helping damaged women, whose horror stories she conveniently trots out whenever she needs to bludgeon home a point.'

She takes Hirsi Ali to task on female genital mutilation which, she points out, is not an Islamic practice. Hirsi Ali wanted the Dutch government to institute medical checks on young girls in vulnerable circumstances. Golia calls the idea 'institutionalised violence' and prefers an approach that 'requires understanding of context and coalition-building, not to mention compassion and subtlety'.

It should be said that in Infidel Hirsi Ali specifically states that FGM predates Islam, is not limited to Islam and that it is not practised in many Islamic countries. However, she adds, it is very often 'justified in the name of Islam'. Indeed one need only look at the advice of the leading Egyptian cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is considered one of the most influential scholars in Islam. Qaradawi has been promoted by London mayor Ken Livingstone as a moderate voice, but on his Islam-online website he writes of female circumcision: 'Anyhow, it is not obligatory, whoever finds it serving the interest of his daughters should do it, and I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world.'

She characterises the manner in which liberals sidestep such details as a confusion of facts and strategy. 'Some people will accept that Islam is backward but they're not going to say that because Muslims will be offended. "We want them to become liberals, so we're just going to trick them into a secular humanistic way of thinking."' At this she lets out a giggle, as if tickled by the absurdity of the idea. 'But people are aware of what's going on. That's why many Muslims are suspicious of liberals. Because they know they are not being taken seriously.'

Perhaps a more telling symbol of the growing cultural gap between mainstream Western society and doctrinaire Islam is the veil. Again Hirsi Ali does not look around for a fence to sit on. 'The veil,' she says, 'is to show that women are responsible for the sexual self-control of men.' It's a surgical observation, cutting right through to the bone of the issue. She goes on to note that in all communities where the veil is actively observed boys are not taught to restrain themselves. 'They look upon all those who are not veiled as women who are looking for sexual contact and they just go about molesting and being a nuisance.'

But what about those women who say that the veil has nothing to do with sex, that is a demonstration of their love of Allah.

'That is a very small group of women?'

But are you to deny them their right to dress as they please?

'No,' she insists, 'I don't want to deny them that and I don't want anyone to deny them that.'

Her solution is secular civic space - for example in schools and government offices - in which all religion is removed. The French model then? That's hardly been a great success. 'It's never been tried,' she counters. 'The French have voiced it but never implemented it. They've created these zones outside Paris where people from Third World countries are put together and excluded from the secular neutral model. They've preached secular Republicanism and practised multiculturalism, that's the whole French hypocrisy.'

Hirsi Ali doesn't really do small talk. She's not interested in talking about her private life, whether she is in a relationship, how often she thinks about the danger she is in, her everyday life in America, or any of the sort of personal details that fascinate people who want to know what it's like to live life under threat of death. This is partly because she is not supposed to give away any information that may aid potential attackers. But more than that, it's because she really only wants to talk about ideas. To some readers, especially Muslim readers, it may seem that she only wants to talk about one idea: the danger of Islam.

Certainly, it's a major preoccupation. But for all her clinical rhetoric, Hirsi Ali is not really interested in carving the world into two blocks of clashing civilisations. At heart she is a universalist, a passionate believer in human rights. If you believe in equality for women, then you must believe in equality for all women, regardless of their culture or religion. Her deepest wish is to allow the world's oppressed peoples, especially women, to share in the fruits of reason. 'And to do that,' she says, 'someone's got to shake the tree.'

As she sees it, Islamic society is inimical to development. 'So everyone wants to move here, and they want to make this place look like there. We shouldn't cling to the customs and beliefs that caused us to move out in the first place. Unfortunately people in the Third World think that just by moving house they leave their misery behind. And that's what the integration debate is about: if you take those values with you and come here, it's not going to change your misery.'

This is in essence what Tony Blair said a few weeks back when he spoke about a 'duty to integrate', and suggested that those people looking to move to Britain who didn't agree with British values should perhaps think about not coming. To some, Blair's comments were tantamount to a crude 'send 'em back' agenda. This in itself is perhaps reason to be thankful for Hirsi Ali. She knows what life is like without the benefit of the freedoms and rights that Europe has established and she, at least, is not afraid to emphasise how crucial it is not to lose them.

But of course in voicing her opinion in the style she does, she risks lumping together over a billion people from different nations, cultures and traditions as a single 'problem'. For Hirsi Ali, the problem is one of self-definition. If Muslims want to assert a religious text as the basis of their public identity, then they have to accept public debate of that text and its ideas with all the discomfort and offence that may involve.

In truth there is probably room for both what Hirsi Ali calls 'Tariq Ramadan gymnastics' and her more uncompromising approach. Though it may say something for our incurable self-loathing that it is Hirsi Ali, the most fervent admirer of European liberalism, that we've effectively sent packing.