When I ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali what she likes to do for fun, she has to pause. It's not that she can't think of an answer—she loves dancing—but rather she worries, as the question is a personal one, whether something in her seemingly innocuous response could compromise her safety.
It's a legitimate concern. Since she first started voicing extreme criticism of Islam, Hirsi Ali has faced grave death threats. The most explicit one occurred in 2004 after the release of a film she had worked on with Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh. The short documentary, Submission, which aims to showcase how Islamic doctrine condones violence against women, features images of the abuse of Muslim women, juxtaposed against specific Koran verses. A few months after the film's release, an Islamic extremist shot and stabbed Van Gogh to death in Amsterdam, pinning a five-page warning letter on his body for Hirsi Ali—she would be next.
"I was frightened. I have no desire to die," Hirsi Ali later wrote in her 2007 biography, Infidel.
But fear—whether of death or causing offense—has never stopped Ayaan Hirsi Ali from proclaiming her opinion, however controversial, and, to many, insulting it may be. Hirsi Ali has been issued a damning Fatwa, but she remains one of the most well known critics of Islam in the world. She's also the founder of the AHA foundation, which seeks to end honor violence against women committed in the name of religion.
Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali's story begins with her upbringing in a strict Muslim household, where she underwent female genital mutilation. Eventually moving with her family to Kenya, Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape a forced marriage. Although she's now a self-proclaimed heretic, this wasn't always the case. "There was a time...I wanted to be the best Muslim woman ever," Hirsi Ali tells me.
Hirsi Ali was already known in Holland because of her roles in the Dutch parliament, but she became a famous (or notorious) name after the death of Van Gogh. Today, she's the author of multiple books including three that argue for a drastic Islamic reformation: Infidel, Nomad, and the recently released Heretic. Always high on shock value, Hirsi Ali is known for suggesting Islam—not just its radical offshoots—should be "defeated." In an oft-quoted 2007 interview, she even described Islam as a "nihilistic cult of death."
Hirsi Ali is accustomed by now to the negative labels people have given her—infidel, bigot, Islamophobe, to name a few. Well-known academic Haroon Moghul has lambasted Hirsi Ali, recently writing that her new book, Heretic, "isn't just one of the worst books ever written about Islam. It's one of the worst books, period." Earlier this year, Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal argued that Hirsi Ali conflates "an intolerant radical" version of Islam with Islam in general. To unabashedly endorse Hirsi Ali and her views, she wrote, is "to insult and mock a billion Muslims."
Although she's been attacked as an author and critic, Hirsi Ali says she cares more about her role as an activist, advocating for women's rights and gender equality. Her deep dislike and contentious criticism of Islam is rooted in her urgent belief that as a religion, at its core and in its most sacred texts, it promotes unfair and unjust treatment towards women—a belief many Muslim feminists have decried as bigoted and Islamophobic.
"What I always found fascinating after I left Islam is there is so much that is promised in terms of reward in the afterlife to men that believing men can fantasize about...they go, they have endless sex, they have endless power, they have endless comfort, this and that, and the other. But to us as women, not much is promised," Hirsi Ali says.
As well as arguing that Islam's main teachings are fundamentally sexist—she quotes in our interview a teaching from the Hadith, religiously authoritative sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which says the majority of people in hell are women—Hirsi Ali also believes that women are radical Islam's biggest victims. "ISIS is the manifestation [of Islamic extremism] that's now getting all the attention, but in the Islamic World, women are seen basically as reproductive organs," Hirsi Ali tells me. "Women are there to give birth to children and to have sex with. And when Jihad is waged, women are seen as tools to enlarge the group of Muslims...the children they bear are seen as part of the caliphate."
She adds, "Because the spread of radical Islam is all over the world now, communities that used to be relatively liberal are becoming, now, very strict in enforcing Islamic law. And that fast enforcement of Islamic law: it begins with women."
While she supports a humanitarian response to the current refugee crisis in Europe, Hirsi Ali also fears an influx of communities who are in favor of Sharia law and what this would mean for women. "If you're going to continue practicing female genital mutilation, child brides, and honor killings, if you're going to continue with your, you know, practice or culture of misogyny, then you're not welcome, thank you. You can go back," Hirsi Ali says. "I think pity, compassion, I think it's a wonderful part because it drives us to make sure there aren't people drowning in the Mediterranean. But once you fish them out, that's the end of the pity."
This is a strong statement, to say the least—especially since Hirsi Ali is a former Muslim refugee herself. It's a view strangely similar to Donald Trump's unapologetic position on undocumented immigrants coming to the US from Mexico (he advocates for the return of "the good ones" but is vehement in stopping the majority of undocumented Mexicans who he says are "criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.").
Hirsi Ali emphasizes that it's "shameful" to watch people die on the way to Europe or any part of the world. But if they are bringing Sharia values or any tendencies to misogynistic violence, she is similarly adamant: "Make a legal U-turn. Go back."
This intense opposition to Islamic law underlies Hirsi Ali's work with the AHA Foundation, "the leading organization working to end honor violence that shames, hurts, or kills thousands of women and girls in the US each year, and puts millions more at risk."
I ask Hirsi Ali about the women she's met through AHA and if she's found people receptive to its message. "The women who come to us at the AHA foundation...they're called rebels and things like that, they are the dissenters, the ones who are standing up to these teachings, and they are standing up for themselves." she says. "So those [types of women] come to me, they are like me. They admire me. They think that hopefully one day those of us who have rebelled will be large enough to influence everybody else."
Hirsi Ali admits many women also seem to hate her. To her surprise and frustration, she's found that Western feminists are among those who most strongly condemn her opinions and her advocacy work. In 2014, after previously saying they would award Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, Brandeis University revoked the honor after a Change.org petition accusing Hirsi Ali of Islamophobia gained thousands of signatures. Hirsi Ali notes in Heretic that among those who signed the petition were professors of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as feminist scholars.
Hirsi Ali believes that her feminist detractors are hypocritical. "They call themselves feminists," she says. "How on earth are they preserving that legacy and expanding it to the rest of womankind if they're making excuses for religious misogyny on the grounds that the religion is practiced by a minority? Shouldn't we extend these privileges that we have most of all to the minorities without a voice? Isn't that what feminism is supposed to do?"
In Heretic, Hirsi Ali also addresses this incident: "Why are these people impelled to silence me, to protest against my public appearances, to stigmatize my views and drive me off the stage with threats of violence and death?"
Maajid Nawaz, a well-known academic and activist dedicated to combating Islamist extremism, is a close friend of Hirsi Ali and has also been threatened with death for voicing his opinions. Nawaz and Hirsi Ali do not always agree (they first met as opposing sides in a debate) but they see eye-to-eye on one thing: She has every right to express her views.
"I have a maxim: 'No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity,'" Nawaz wrote to me in an email. "As long as scrutiny of religion is done in a way that doesn't victimize and stigmatize its followers, then it is not only perfectly legitimate but it is our civic duty to scrutinize the ideas themselves. Ayaan understands this distinction. What is really anti-Muslim is the assumption that somehow Muslims should be insulated against intellectual conversation, because they cannot handle it. We call this the racism of low expectations."
Another friend of Hirsi Ali, Asra Nomani, who is a well-known name in the Islamic feminist movement, thinks those who demonize Ayaan should focus their attention elsewhere. "Sure, there are times when Ayaan has chosen to frame her ideas indelicately, but negotiating our words to a place of wisdom, and stumbling along the way, at times, is the very nature of being a human being," Nomani says. "The best of Islam would be to be kind to her, but, instead, what I have seen is that, instead of making the Islamic States's Abu Bakr Al-Bagdhadi, enemy No. 1, too many Muslims have put a target on Ayaan's back, heartless, mean and vindictive in their anger, wrath and rage."
Hirsi Ali has been depicted as a militant agitator determined to squash the Muslim world under her iron boot. She sees herself as a critic with contentious, often incendiary, opinions and strong feminist convictions. "I find her to be sensitive, thoughtful, and self-critical," Nomani tells me. "She doesn't have horns growing from her head."
Hirsi Ali says she expects and welcomes debate, disagreement, criticism, and even condemnation. More often, however, she contends with demonization and threats of violence. After leaving our lunch, she has a whole afternoon of conversations lined up, much to the probable chagrin of her detractors.
"They don't want me to start this conversation, and truly deep down that's what it is about," she says.