Last Tuesday at nightfall, as the servants of democracy fled SW1, a young Somali woman stood spotlit on a stage in Westminster. Behind her was the illuminated logo for the Centre for Social Cohesion: a white hand reaching down across England to help a brown one up; in front, an audience of some of Britain’s biggest brains — politicians, editors, academics. She drew her shawl a little closer round her shoulders, looked up and said: ‘We are not at war with “terror”, that would make no sense.’
‘Hear, hear,’ said a voice at the back. ‘Terror is just a tactic used by Islam,’ she continued. ‘We are actually at war, not just with Islamism, but with Islam itself.’
Out in the dark began a great wobbling of heads. Neocons nodded, Muslims shook their heads; others, uncertain, waggled theirs anxiously from side to side: at war with all Islam, even here in the UK? What does that mean?
It would be easier in some ways to ignore Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to label her as bonkers — but it would also be irresponsible. She’s not just another hawkish hack, anxious to occupy the top tough-guy media slot — she has the authority of experience, the authenticity of suffering. In the spring of 2004 she wrote a film called Submission (an artsy 11-minute protest against Islamic cruelty to women) which was shown on Dutch TV. In November 2004 the film’s director, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated and the killer left a long letter to Hirsi Ali knifed into his corpse which said, in short: you’re next. But Hirsi Ali couldn’t be silenced. She has since written an autobiography (Infidel) about growing up a Muslim (in Somalia, then Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia), describing her circumcision, the beatings she received, her arranged marriage, her flight to Holland. She risks her life daily, speaking out against what she calls the ‘fairytale’ that Islam is in essence a religion of peace.
The other reason to take her seriously is that Hirsi Ali’s ideas about Islam (that it is unamenable to reform, and intrinsically opposed to Western values) are attracting attention worldwide. In Holland where, until 2006, she was an MP for the People’s Party for Freedom and Independence (VVD), the famous ‘pillarisation’ approach to immigration — where each new culture becomes a pillar upon which the state rests — has given way to a ‘new realism’, much more in tune with Hirsi Ali’s way of thinking, and in part because of her. In Britain and in America, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become a sort of popstar for neocons, and she now lives in Washington, and works as a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.
But is she right? And what does ‘war with Islam’ mean? I went to find out; to meet Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the House of Lords on a bitter and blustery afternoon last week, bustling past the police, down the corridors of partial power, to the visitors’ room where she was waiting. We haven’t got much time, so can we dive straight into Islam? I ask. ‘Yes, absolutely, go ahead,’ she smiles. Up close she is disconcertingly beautiful, and fragile-looking. OK then, right. Well, you say that Islam is a violent religion, because the Prophet advocated violence. But isn’t that open to interpretation? I ask. Karen Armstrong, (a non-Muslim biographer of Mohammed) has said the Prophet was a loving man who’d have been horrified at 9/11.
‘Karen Armstrong is ridiculous,’ says Hirsi Ali in her quick, light voice — Africa still audible in the clipped consonants. ‘The Prophet would have not have disapproved of 9/11, because it was carried out in his example. When he came to Medina, the Prophet had a revelation, of jihad. After that, it became an obligation for Muslims to convert others, and to establish an Islamic state, by the sword if necessary.’
But there is such a thing as moderate Islam, I say. Muslims aren’t all terrorists. There are some like Ed Husain (author of The Islamist) who argue that there are many peaceful traditions of Koranic scholarship to choose from. Isn’t it a mistake to dismiss this gentler, acceptable branch of Islam?
‘I find the word “moderate” very misleading.’ There’s a touch of steel in Hirsi Ali’s voice. ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as “moderate Islam”. I think it’s better to talk about degrees of belief and degrees of practice. The Koran is quite clear that it should control every area of life. If a Muslim chooses to obey only some of the Prophet’s commandments, he is only a partial Muslim. If he is a good Muslim, he will wish to establish Sharia law.’
But I don’t call myself a ‘partial Christian’ just because I don’t take the whole Bible literally, I say. Why can’t a Muslim pick and choose his scriptures too? Before Hirsi Ali can answer, the door to the waiting room flies open and a House of Lords doorman stands theatrically on the threshold. ‘You must stop this interview immediately!’ he says. Why? Is there a breach of security? A terrorist threat? ‘I have not received authorisation for it,’ he says. But we’re here with a peer, I say. I’m sure he has cleared it. ‘Please proceed to the waiting area in silence.’ So off we trudge to the foyer to sit by a fake fire — ‘it’s much nicer here, anyway,’ says Hirsi Ali kindly — and to continue our discussion about the superiority of the free, enlightened West in urgent whispers behind my rucksack.
‘Christianity is different from Islam,’ says Hirsi Ali, ‘because it allows you to question it. It probably wasn’t different in the past, but it is now. Christians — at least Christians in a liberal democracy — have accepted, after Thomas Hobbes, that they must obey the secular rule of law; that there must be a separation of church and state. In Islamic doctrine such a separation has not occurred yet. This is what makes it dangerous! Islam — all Islam, not just Islamism — has not acknowledged that it must obey secular law. Islam is hostile to reason.’
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s eyes are now aglow. She is a terrific believer in reason. For her, Western civilisation is built on the bedrock not of Judaeo-Christian values, but of logic. After seeking asylum in Holland, she spent five years at Leiden university studying political science, absorbing the Enlightenment philosophers — Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire — and she mentions them fondly, as if they’re family. But there’s a steely side to her atheism, which says with Voltaire: Ecraser l’infâme! During a recent debate with Ed Husain, as Husain was explaining his moderate Islam, she began to laugh at him, saying: ‘When you die you rot, Ed! There is no afterlife, Ed!’ And it makes me wonder whether, for Hirsi Ali, Islam’s crime is as much against reason as humanity; whether she sees the point of spirituality at all.
Are you so sure you understand what is at the heart of Islam? I ask her. Isn’t there a peaceful prayerfulness — apart from the politics — that an atheist might not understand? ‘I was a Muslim once, remember, and it was when I was most devout that I was most full of hate,’ she says.
OK then, you talk about your conscience, and how your conscience was pricked by 9/11. But if there’s no God, what do you mean by a conscience? And why should we obey it?
‘My conscience is informed by reason,’ says Hirsi Ali, surprised I should ask. ‘It’s like Kant’s categorical imperative: behave to others as you would wish they behaved to you.’
I say, so let’s assume Islam is hostile and not open to reason, that it needs to be wiped out. The next question then is how?
We can’t just ban it. Isn’t it destructive to curtail freedom so much in the interests of protecting it? Don’t you risk loving freedom to death?
Hirsi Ali looks at me with pity. ‘You, here in the UK, are in danger. Of course you can’t ban Islam outright, but you need to stop the spread of ideology, stop native Westerners converting to Islam. You definitely need to ban the veil in schools, and to close down Muslim schools because that’s where kids are indoctrinated.’
But, what about freedom of belief and free speech? I ask (with a nervous look at the doorman). And if you close down Muslim schools, don’t you, by the same logic, have to close all faith schools?
‘Islam is different from other faiths because it is not just a faith, it is a political ideology. Children learn that Allah is the lawgiver, and that is a political statement. You wouldn’t allow the BNP to run a school, would you?’
But if we crack down like this, won’t it make Muslims angry? I say, thinking about terrorists and my safety. ‘Well perhaps anger is no bad thing,’ says Hirsi Ali, thinking about ordinary Muslims, and their enlightenment. ‘Perhaps it’ll make Muslims more aware, help them question their beliefs. If we keep on asking questions, maybe Muslim women will realise, as I did, that they don’t have to be second-class citizens.’
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is on her favourite topic now (the subjection of women), leaning forward, gesticulating. And as she talks I realise (belatedly) what makes her different from her neocon pals. Whereas they seem motivated by fear of Muslims, she is out to protect Muslims from submission to unreason. When she speaks of a ‘war against Islam’, she’s thinking not of armies of insurgents, but of an ideological virus, in the same way a doctor might talk of the battle against typhoid. ‘Yes, I am at war with Islam,’ she says, as she gets up to leave, ‘but I am not at war with Muslims.’ It’s a crucial difference.
It’s teatime now and the House of Lords hallway is suddenly full of peers’ wives chattering, shaking their brollies. Sorry about all these women in headscarves, I say unnecessarily, as I shake her hand goodbye. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ‘It’s not the hijab, the headscarves are just to protect them against the rain!’ And she walks off, laughing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 1, 2007