For the October 2008 issue of Psychology Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the world's preeminent Muslim anti-Islamist.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a strict Muslim tribe in Somalia. When her father tried to marry her against her will, she escaped to the Netherlands, where she was eventually elected to Parliament. After she made a film condemning Islamic radicalism, her coproducer Theo Van Gogh was murdered—and the killer left a note on the body warning Ali she was next. She now lives in hiding, but remains a major critic of radical Islam.
During the course of the interview, we discussed her feminism, her loss of faith in Islam after 9/11, and the murder of her friend Theo Van Gogh. She also spoke candidly about survivor's guilt, what it's like to live in hiding, and how it feels to be hated. Below is a more complete version of the interview that appears in the magazine. —Jay Dixit
How did your traumatic early experiences affect how you look at the world?
I had no idea they were traumatic. Everyone around me was circumcised. We were all beaten. Arranged forced marriage is the Somali tribal culture and tradition. I knew no better. I had not acquired the ability to stand outside the community and judge the community and my place within it. Like everyone else within a group culture, I just did what comes automatically, which is just to survive.
How does it feel to go from that to having so much more freedom now?
When I first came to the Netherlands, once a month you have to write down how much you spend on what, what is my income. The assumption is that you’re going to have an income every month over and over again! And that you save and you get insurance, and you think of your life 10, 20, 30 years ahead. People from the third world, we just live with the day, in the present. So I find living in freedom becomes very challenging, to map out a life of what do I want to do, when, how.
In a way, it’s easier if you’re just told what to do. When I was growing up, no one ever expected me to get an income and divide it up in pieces. You are not consulted as to whom you want to marry. You’re handed over to your husband, and he tells you what to do. Now I have to decide everything myself. I have to make my own choices.
This is why when some of the Muslim women send me letters they say life in America or Europe is much more difficult than when they were with their family. And I understand why—because when you are in a constrained situation, you think, "If only I could get out." You don’t think about once you get out what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to cope.
When my sister came to Netherlands and there was nothing to rebel against, she cracked. She couldn’t deal with the situation of freedom.
How does it feel to live in hiding?
For people from a clan society, survival as a way of life comes naturally. When it gets predictable, that’s when questions pop up, like how do I do this, where do I start? I’ve learned to suppress my emotions.
Are you afraid for your life?
Yes. But it’s getting less and less. If I give into the fear, then they get what they want, which is to frighten in you into not speaking out, into keeping quiet.
Who were your female role models?
When we were kids in Kenya, there was literature we had to read: George Orwell, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen. Then there were the fun books kids exchanged. Nancy Drew was one of them. They were my first sense of individualization.
And believe it or not, my grandmother. Believe it or not, my mother, in a way—by watching her live her life, the choices she didn’t make. I don’t want to be in a position as helpless as she was. A kind of reverse hero.
How have your feelings about an appropriate role for a woman changed?
I was brought up to believe that the role of a woman is exclusively that of wife and mother and the years before, you’re only groomed to get to that point. I started to put question marks on that as I become a teenager. I could observe my mother’s life, I could see the other young girls of my age who were married off and the way they lived. It seemed to me very sad and full of despair. They were dependent for life. My view of that changed as I grew up, and very much when I came to the Netherlands. A life of one’s own choice is the best approach.
You went from being a Muslim to being an anti-Islamist. What was it like to change so drastically?
It was thrilling and frightening and exhilarating, and every time, I have to pinch myself to think this is not all a dream and it’s really true and it’s all possible. It also came at a high cost. I wouldn’t change anything—except the death of Theo van Gogh.
Do you have survivor’s guilt about that?
Yeah. Every time I think about it.
I knew and Theo knew it, and the people at the production company, we all knew it was tense and there was an abstract threat. We just didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like. I regret that we underestimated that it would come in the form of a young Muslim fanatic. None of us could believe that such a thing could happen.
Is it easier to bear now that several years have elapsed?
Really it just won’t go away. It affects everything I do.
Did you think that your personality changed, or just your views?
I’ve become more patient, I’ve become more accepting that some things just won’t change. That’s not because people are Muslims but because people are human beings.
What surprises people most about you?
People come to me and say, you are very different from the fire-spewing feminist we expected. They describe me as soft-spoken and hesitant.
After 9/11, you lost your faith in Islam. What was going through your mind?
I was shocked into it. I watched the planes and what happened. For me the personal implication was this was done in the name of Islam. It wasn’t something I could forget or push to the back of my mind and get on with my life.
In the West we like to believe female genital mutilation and honor killings are being done to women by men. But it’s women who pass down these traditions.
In the tribal Islamic order, everyone is caught in the system. Even though my father prohibited my mother from circumcising us, it was my grandmother who did it behind his back, because from her perspective, the idea of her granddaughters remaining unmarried or being ridiculed as filthy and impure was more unbearable than the pain she inflicted on us.
What does it feel like to be hated?
That’s awful. In a way that’s even worse than the death threats. Some people just hate me because someone has told them I say about the prophet this and about the Qu’ran that. The man who killed Theo van Gogh did not know him, had never interacted with him and never met him.
What’s your advice to young women about how to go after what they want in life?
In the West the law is such that you can’t be forced into marriage, you can’t be forced into something you don’t want to, at least the authorities will protect you. A life of freedom is in a way more difficult than when choices are made for you. But at least it’s your own freedom and when you do things good you feel proud and grateful and when you make mistakes you have the dignity of learning from those mistakes yourself.