Ayaan Hirsi Ali : A Voice of Dissent in Islam

Tom Shipka

For many Western political leaders, the problem in today's world is not Islam, which they see as a religion of peace, but religious extremists who subvert it. But this viewpoint is coming under fire from a growing list of writers (1), including Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Though a young woman at 36, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has received no less than a dozen major awards in Europe and the United States for her advocacy of Muslim women and in 2005 she was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. Recently she was the subject of one of George F. Will's syndicated columns (September 21, 2006).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia and raised a Muslim. She lived there and in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, until, at the age of 22, she ducked an arranged marriage to her father's cousin and settled in the Netherlands where she learned the language, completed her education, and eventually became a member of Parliament. In 2004 Ali published a book in Dutch which was recently translated and published in the West the under the title, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. Ali also wrote the script for a short film "Submission: Part I " which highlights passages in the Koran which disparage women. Theo van Gogh, director of the film, was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist shortly after the film was shown and Ali was herself threatened with death. Ali holds that in the name of religion, Muslim women "are enslaved in their homes" (p. 7) (2) subjected to genital mutilation and "disownment" (or abandonment) by their families for any real or imagined offense, and denied education and other opportunities for personal and professional growth.

But Ali's critique of Islam goes beyond this. She says that Islamic culture most needs what it most abhors : skepticism. She calls for an enlightenment in the Islamic world much the same as the one in the Christian world centuries ago. She writes: "(W)e Muslims are already imbued with faith and superstition. What we need are schools of philosophy"(p. 15) "Let Us Have a Voltaire" is the title of a chapter in her book. (pp. 35-41) "(A)ll Muslims," she says, "share the conviction that the fundamental principles of Islam cannot be criticized, revised, or in any way contradicted." (p. 9) This dogmatism explains virtually all the defects in Islamic culture, she says, including the 'fanaticism' of terrorists, sectarian strife, lagging the West in "technology, finance, health, and culture" (p. 15), lack of respect for individual autonomy and women's rights (p. 14), the political authority of mullahs, the failure of Muslims to read important Western thinkers, the lack of "a credible and workable political model" (p. 19), and Muslim hypersensitivity to criticism. On the last point, she writes "I am outraged that Muslims are not more offended by the invocation of Allah and 'God is great' for murder (by terrorists) than by cartoons." (p. xv) Her own skepticism is evident. "I have come to realize," she writes, "that the existence of Allah, of angels, demons, and a life after death, is at the very least disputable." (xi)

Ali recently left Europe for her own safety and accepted an appointment at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where she is now working on a new book in which the Prophet Muhammad has an imaginary dialogue with John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and Karl Popper. No doubt we can expect more sparks to fly once she publishes it.


  1. These include Muslims and non-Muslims such as Salman Rushdie, Irshad Manji, Ibn Warraq, Taslima Nasreen, Muhammad Abu Zaid, Bernard Lewis, and Sam Harris, among others.
  2. Quotes are from "The Caged Virgin"

Copyright © 2006 by Tom Shipka