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Interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Islam, Sharia law and contradictions


Emine Dilek
WVoN co-editor

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a mass of contradictions.

A fierce critic of Islam, she has made many enemies. And since her collaboration in 2004 with Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, on a film which portrayed violence against women in Islamic societies, she has lived under the constant threat of death.

A bodyguard now follows her everywhere. And for good reason. Van Gogh was killed – shot and stabbed on a street in Amsterdam – the same year.

She is also a feminist activist who set up the AHA Foundation in 2007 to “help protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture”.

Yet she is also the resident scholar for a right wing think tank called the American Enterprise Institute (hardly, one assumes, in the vanguard of progressive feminist thinking).

And she is the author of a memoir, NOMAD, in which she argues that Islam creates dysfunctional families, including her own.

She was born in Somalia, grew up in Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia and escaped an arranged marriage by fleeing to the Netherlands where she became an outspoken centre right MP.

So it was a question begging to be asked – how does she reconcile these apparently contradictory stances? I spoke to Ms Ali by phone earlier this week.

Emine: You are a fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, but all your life you have worked for and promoted liberal policies for women’s rights. Do you find a conflict of interest or discrepancy in your situation? How do you reconcile it? Do you consider yourself a liberal?

AHA: Within The American Enterprise Institute, I do not find any constraints on me not to be a liberal. In fact I find encouragement and a wonderful platform where I can publish, I can speak and I can participate in debates of the 21st century.

I do consider myself a classical liberal which means individual rights are more important than collective ones.

Emine: You have received several awards for promoting free speech, which we are guaranteed in the USA and Europe, by our  constitutions. But in many Muslim countries it is still a challenge. Why do you think free speech is seen as a threat and censorship is so widely accepted in Muslim countries? And how can it be changed?

AHA: I think the first thing that needs to be recognized is that there is no democracy in most Muslim countries. Only in Turkey and Indonesia and in Malaysia you have democracy, but these democracies are what I call developing democracies as they are not quite developed yet. So that is number one.

Number two in Islam and in many Muslim constituencies political life is not separated from religion, and most Muslims do not want the separation.

And the third reason is most of these countries, some way or another, have been former western colonies, they have been victims of western imperialism. Many people are against free speech or democracy because it is associated with the west. There are other factors but I think these three are very important.

Emine: There has been a major backlash over the application or utilization of Sharia law in England and now may be in the USA. What is Sharia law and what are the dangers of its application?

AHA: When the prophet Muhammad died he left behind his teachings, known as *Hadith. When he moved from Mecca to Medina he established a center and that is the beginning of Sharia.

After his death so called *Ulema combined the Quran and the Hadith together and produced a body of law called Sharia. Now Sharia is applied differently in different places, for example in Saudi Arabia it is applied rigidly, relying on a puritanical application of the laws of the seventh and eighth centuries.

In Morocco, even though they are changing now, they only apply the family law section of Sharia.

In many Muslim countries or Muslim communities it is an informal institution so there is no state, no formal government that imposes Sharia law. Or possibly you get a minority Muslim community living in Kenya or in America using it as family law, inheritance law, birth and death laws.

What they are using in England is the family law section of Sharia as in most European countries – so to do with marriage, divorce, inheritance and so forth.

The Taliban is very purist and very medieval, whereas in places like Tunisia or Morocco it is very informal and scarcely applied.

In other words, there is a real diversity in how much of it is applied and how strictly it is applied.

Emine: I also want to ask you about the burqa or abaya. As you are aware, it is being banned in several European countries. Do you think it should be banned?

AHA: Burqa or the covering of the woman is a major part of Sharia because it dictates how a woman should or should not dress. It is a very good example of women being forced to wear something but they say they choose themselves to wear it.

I think the burqa ban in France opened a debate about what the burqa is. I think it is more important to teach women why the burqa is discriminatory towards them, and I hope that that debate comes along.

And also it is very important to note that what the French are banning is not the head covering, it is the face covering. It is not just on moral grounds but on practical grounds such as security. I think it is very difficult in the age of Islamic terrorism to maintain that a woman wants to cover her face.

Emine: I am sure you know that there is a major online campaign for the driving rights of Saudi women, as they are not allowed to drive by themselves without a male guardian. It is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Do you think the oppression of women in Muslim countries is the result of Islam or a combination of Arab culture and religion?

AHA: The ban itself is derived from Sharia law, not just her body but also her mobility is controlled. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to leave the house without a male guardian. Driving in a car on her own violates those mobility laws.

It is definitely Islamic law, nothing to do with culture. In any case, it is very very difficult to separate culture from religion. Religion is a product of culture. Islam is a product of tribal, Arab, desert culture. Christianity is a product of Roman culture; Confucianism is a product of Chinese culture.

Emine: You have been a prominent critic of women’s treatment in Islam, but what about other religions? Do you think religion inherently has a bias against women?

AHA: Yes, religion has bias, inherently, against women. And what I see is in Judaism, in Christianity, in Hinduism, in Confucianism are also limits put on the freedom of women. Limits to freedom to own her own body and female sexuality are controlled by all religions to a certain degree.

In the 21st century there are degrees of that control, for example in Christian religions or Jewish religion, these religions have moved forward and orthodox communities that want to control women are marginalized.

Yet in Islam it is the opposite, for those who want emancipation of women are a very small minority; they are marginalized, they are the fringe.

Emine: Your stance on immigration has been both admired and criticized. What do you think about the immigration problem in the USA, especially the hostility towards Muslim immigrants?

AHA: In America all immigrants are treated equally. Immigrants who want to abide by the constitution are accepted, but immigrants who do not want to abide by the constitution, want to change it or want special treatment get a lot of attention, a lot of negative attention.

And some of the Muslims –not all of the Muslims-, some of the Muslim prominent leaders have been demanding special treatment; extensions to the constitution, application of parts of Sharia, building of mega mosques near Ground-Zero.

They are attracting that negative attention. There is no empirical evidence to support that Muslims are treated worse than any other immigrant group. Actually there were many prominent Americans supporting their right to build the mega mosque.

Emine: You are the founder and president of the AHA Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organization. I know you do a lot of work on female genital mutilation (FGM) and Sharia law. What is AHA’s mission and how can our readers get involved, if they are interested?

AHA: Our mission is to protect the rights of women from militant Islam and tribal customs and by tribal custom we mean any justification to limit the rights of women by using culture as an argument. FGM and honor killings are practiced not only by Muslims but other cultures and religions as well.

Our website is

Emine: Thank you for your time…Have a great day.

*Hadith: Saying, act or tacit approval, validly or invalidly, ascribed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

*Ulema: The body of Muslim clergy who have completed several years of training and study of Islamic sciences, such as a mufti, qadi, faqih, or muhaddith.

Emine Dilek is also a producer/host for Women’s Voice Radio.

  1. Thank you for contributing a well written interview with great questions. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a complex woman, an intelligent, courageous, purveyor of truth and justice. In America people are always trying to categorize another’s politics. It is enlightening to find such a deep rich mind blend elements of both into her own personal philosophy and use it to benefit mankind. She thinks for herself rather than being influenced by any political agenda as she stated,”Within The American Enterprise Institute, I do not find any constraints on me not to be a liberal.”

  2. nanoubix says:

    Thank you for this interview. I have had mixed feelings about the ban of the burqa in France. I attended a meeting in London from leftwing individuals and feminists at the time when the ban was being voted. The overall majority believed that the ban was just another measure to control the body of women in society by politicians/rule makers – which I think is partly true, but no other views that showed the complexity of the situation in France were allowed to be heard: one person tried but was denigrated so badly that nobody else dared to speak afterwards. I am glad to have heard AHA’s views today.

    News reporting of such complex political issues are often as subtle as the reporting of a football match.

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