In the presence of greatness: Ayaan Hirsi Ali *UPDATED*

Hirsi Ali, parlamentaria en La HayaYesterday, I had the very great privilege of attending the Pacific Research Institute’s annual Sir Antony Fisher Freedom Awards dinner. The honoree and keynote speaker was the luminous Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Because it would have been inappropriate to take notes at this posh, Ritz Hotel affair, I’ll try to reconstruct from memory as best I can what Ali said. Everything she said was worth hearing and I hope I can do her justice.

In order to appreciate the impact of Ali’s words, it helps to begin with her presence. She is a tall, slender, poised woman, whose manner is almost, but not quite, self-effacing. She understands her worth, but realizes that she is not the only hero in the never-ending fight to preserve individual liberties. Her voice is quiet, but strong; her accent gentle; and her grasp of the vernacular, while superb, is endearingly imperfect at times (as was the case when she referred to the Europeans’ smug belief that all Americans are fat “potato couches”).

Ali’s presence — quietly powerful and manifestly fulfilled by the role in which she finds herself — exemplifies the two points that underpin her every utterance: each individual’s value and the fact that freedom is necessary to enable individuals to reach their highest and best purpose in life — even if that purpose isn’t elevated in and of itself.

The other thing one needs to know about Ali in order to appreciate the important message she delivers is the event that catapulted her from being a Dutch politician to being a world figure. Ali had been working with Theo van Gogh (Vincent’s great-grand nephew) on Submission, a film exploring how Islam abuses and subjugates women. Mohammed Bouyeri took umbrage at this exercise of free speech and voiced his objection so savagely that, when he slaughtered van Gogh in the street, he left von Gogh almost completely decapitated. He then pinned a note to van Gogh’s body (by stabbing a knife through both the note and van Gogh’s chest) warning that Ali was next.

Others who shall not be named have gone into hiding after learning that sharia-inspired assassins are targeting them. Not so Ali. She went the other way, making it her life’s mission to expose tyranny in all forms, with special emphasis on Islamic tyranny, something she knows all too well.

Holland initially tried to silence Ali, fearing a generalized backlash should it not appease the growing number of Islamists in its midst. It subsequently reversed itself, providing armed protection for her while she exercised her free speech rights. As we know, though, free speech in Europe is not the near-sacred doctrine it still is in America (America’s institutes of higher education excepted).  The Dutch establishment therefore worked hard to rid itself of this “polarizing” figure. Ali survived an attempt to gin up a scandal around the fact that, in order to escape religious persecution, she had falsified some information to get asylum in Holland (something she’d never made a secret), but Holland’s appeasers eventually succeeded in driving her out.

Ali immigrated to America in 2006, where she was greeted with open arms. In a true happy ending to her story, she married Niall Ferguson in 2011, with the two of them welcoming a child in the same year.

With this background, let me summarize as best I can Ali’s speech last night.

Ali started by stating a theme that she would repeat throughout her speech: That the real risk to freedom lies, not in those parts of the world that are not free, but in the free world itself. It is there that people take their freedom so much for granted that they are unwilling to defend it. To that end, some of the most courageous individuals are people such as Sir Anthony Fisher and Friedrich Hayek who understand that free men must constantly fight to preserve freedom and that, in some ways, there is no harder time to fight then when freedom is not under direct and obvious attack.

To explain her passionate devotion to individual worth and personal freedom, Ali took the audience on a brief tour of her young life, the memories of which start when she was five and her grandmother performed female genital mutilation on her in Somalia. Ali acquits her grandmother of malice. The fact was that Ali was born into a society dominated by tribalism and tradition. This dictated that, if a woman was to be married (and marriage was a woman’s only assurance that she would be protected and survive in this poor, brutal society), she had to have proof that she was a virgin — and what better proof could there be than the fact that she had been mutilated so as to dull sexual pleasure and sewn up to prevent any form of intercourse? Ali, the little girl, understood her place in this society.

When still young, Ali’s father was targeted by the Somali government, which killed several of his associates. He was able to relocate the family to Saudi Arabia. Ali notes that some think that, if one was a Muslim, Saudi Arabia was a better place than Somalia. That certainly was not true for women.

Ali arrived in a country that imprisoned women in their homes, allowing them to go out only with a male escort and only when swathed entirely in black garments covering everything but the women’s eyes (even the hands were gloved). To help us understand the horrors of this regime, Ali noted that the women were forced to wear this attire — gloves and all — in a country that routinely had temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

From Saudi Arabia, the family emigrated to Ethiopa, which allowed Ali a greater degree of personal freedom, although it was still a generally repressive society. Eventually, when Ali was 11, the family relocated to Kenya. It was there that two very important things occurred:  Ali learned English and learned how to read. At the same time, thanks to her mother’s devotion to the Qu’ran, combined with a Muslim education in a Saudi funded school, Ali was a devout Muslim.  She eventually joined the Muslim Brotherhood and wore a hijab to school where she tried, without success, to convert her fellow students to her more extreme view of Islam.

Even as she held tightly to Islam, something was happening to Ali, thanks to her new English-language and reading skills:  She was exposed to a world of ideas that contradicted what she was learning through the Qu’ran about man’s subjugation to the Qu’ran’s rules and about women’s subjugation to man. Dickens (especially Oliver Twist), Alcott, and even Nancy Drew exposed her to the idea of an individual with free will, one who freely makes choices for good or ill — but that are his choices.  Even Nancy Drew was an inspiration, with her lauded brave and intrepid (albeit still feminine) spirit.

Armed with this growing intellectual arsenal, Ali began to ask the “why” questions that a repressive society cannot tolerate: Why must I be treated this way? Why don’t we celebrate individuality? Why do we force people to behave in a certain way when free nations achieve greater things?  Why are women subordinate to men?

Ali glossed over the events that led her to Holland (she was escaping from an arranged marriage), but explains that, at first, it was a completely overwhelming experience for her. It wasn’t just that Holland had freedom.  It had “abundant” freedom. Ali worked hard and eventually obtained a graduate degree in political science from Leiden University. From there, she went to work in a Leftist think tank, after which she was elected to Parliament as a left-leaning MP.

Even as she was being fed the Leftist world view, though, Ali kept reading and reading . . . and reading. She exposed herself to the great philosophers, both ancient and modern. She also worked with female Somali refugees, which made her increasingly critical of Islam. After 9/11, she rejected Islam entirely.

Having established her premise, which is that she has an insider’s (or, more accurately, a victim’s) understanding of both political and religious oppression, Ali got to the heart of her speech, which is the obligation all free people have to preserve that freedom. All of us are warriors in that fight she said. People such as Sir Anthony Fisher, who seeded think tanks all over the world that are dedicated to preserving individual liberty (including PRI and the Manhattan Institute), are the visionaries, and we cannot do without them. Nevertheless, each of us has an obligation to fight. If someone is killed for drawing a picture of Mohammed, then we must all draw Mohamed pictures.

In that spirit, although I cannot draw, here is a Mohammed picture:

Early 20th century cigarette card of Mohamed

Ali reminded her audience that the desire for liberty is part of the human spirit. Why else, she asked, do Bangladeshi citizens keep blogging about liberty even when they know that they are likely to be butchered by a religiously-inspired madman wielding a hatchet? They know the risks, but the urge for freedom is stronger. And why would a man in Saudi Arabia risk his own and his family’s death in order to challenge the religious tyranny under which all Saudis live? He understands that he is working for a legacy of freedom that is greater than himself.

To Ali, the fight must always be to elevate the individual and to ensure the free exchange of ideas. She will acknowledge your right to spout your bad ideas, but everyone else must be assured of their right to speak their own ideas, whether good or bad. Fully understanding what constitutes a true marketplace of ideas, Ali said that the only way to destroy bad ideas is with good ideas — and it’s a sure sign of a repressive regime when it allows only those who support it to speak. The best world will be one in which tradition, tribe, and religion have to compete in the world of ideas, rather than do what they do now, which is to suppress all opposing views.

The audience gave Ali a long and enthusiastic standing ovation. She blushed.

During a subsequent question and answer period with Power Line’s Steven Hayward, Ali elaborated on the ideas expressed above. Many of the questions, of course, were directed at the refugees flowing into Europe and that are expected to arrive in America quite soon. How do we handle this influx without destroying ourselves?

The current problem with dealing with refugees, Ali said, is that we tend to view them in a tribal way. Rather than seeing them as individuals, with different needs and motives, we lump them together in blocks of “Muslims” and “Syrians” and whatever other labels we stick on people. Worse, in Europe those people are isolated into enclaves of theoretically like-minded people, handed a bunch of state benefits, and abandoned. The Europeans, while quite cruel to native Europeans who fail to fulfill their socialist obligations (contributing to the society in order to participate in its welfare culture), make no push whatsoever to teach these immigrant enclaves any Western values, including the value of participation in the work force.

Ali notes that, up until the modern era, Muslims assimilated into America just as successfully as any other immigrant groups. In the old days, America’s public schools taught immigrant children that America was a wonderful country in which people had freedom to make choices and that the sky was the limit when it came to achieving ones goals. People poured into America for just that reason, giving rise to innovations in every area. Only America, Ali says, could have created a Silicon Valley, with talent pooled from every part of the world. America’s problem with Muslim immigrants coincides with its decision to adopt Europe’s the anti-assimilation immigration model. It’s a shame, Ali said, that just when the world needs to use America’s assimilationist strategy for immigrants that, instead, America is following the failed European model.

Hayward asked Ali to discuss the fact that she has been likened to a modern Orwell because it was Orwell who understood euphemism’s destructive power. Although politely turning aside the compliment, Ali agreed completely with the fact that things must be called by their right names. In that context, she took on President Obama’s insistence that ISIS (“the Islamic State of Iraq”) isn’t really Islamic, as well as the political establishments’ equally wrong-headed insistence during the Bush years (and the Blair years in England) on calling Islam “a religion of peace.” As Ali said, Islam is most assuredly not a religion of peace.

Initially, she says, calling Islam a religion of peace was a political gambit. The powers that be were trying to assure the Muslim world that the West was not accusing it of guilt by association and did not intend to wage war against it. As a tactic, it failed utterly. Our leaders are now failing us by continuing this wrongheaded tactic. In this regard, she was careful to acquit President Obama of any ill will or wrongdoing. Instead, he and others like him, are guilty of naiveté.

[UPDATE:  I forgot to note earlier that it was at this point in the discussion that Ali said that his refusal to use euphemisms may go a long way to explaining Donald Trump’s current popularity.]

The evening wrapped up with Ali discussing whether Islam can be reformed. She acknowledged that it is impossible to reinterpret large swathes of the Qu’ran. Mohammed was extremely explicit in his directives to fight, kill, enslave, and conquer. The only way to change Islam is to reject those principles. It can be done, but it will be difficult.

In the context of reform, Ali discussed the three types of Muslims. The Medina Muslims are those who interpret every word of the Qu’ran as a mandate that must be followed to the letter. They are the ISIS, al Qaeda, and Wahhabi folks. The Mecca Muslims are the Muslim equivalent of what we would call “Sunday Christians.” They profess the faith and go through the motions, but it is just a part of their worldview, not a dominating idea. And lastly comes the group that all people of good will must support: The Reforming Muslims. These, she implied, are the people who can reach out and change the Mecca Muslims. (Although Ali didn’t name him, but I urge you to support the brilliant and brave Dr. Zuhdi Jasser and his American Islamic Forum for Democracy.)

To learn more about Ali’s ideas for reforming Islam, you may want to read her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

Ali closed by saying that, unlike her husband, who is a realist, she is an optimist. She believes that now is not the time to stop fighting but is, instead, the time to fight harder because each of us, by supporting freedom in all its forms, can make a difference.

[If you were at the event, and I’ve erred in any way, please send corrections to or leave a comment.]