Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
2008.02.18 : Infidel
The Heroic Life, and Threatened Death, of Ayaan Hirsi Ali
"Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth, and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad."
- George Orwell, 1984


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Somali-born feminist, writer, and politician who has been living under 24-hour guard since a promise to kill her was found pinned to the body of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gough – with a butcher knife. Hirsi Ali had written the screenplay of his short film Submission, Pt I, which criticised the oppression of women under Islam.

When I first read about Hirsi Ali, I ran out that minute and bought her autobiography, Infidel. It then sadly sunk to the back of the reading queue; but, with the Archbishop of Canterbury's new promotion of Islamic religious law, it suddenly seemed to be very urgent that I read this. I did, and it's thrilling and terrifying and inspiring and eye-opening, and I strongly suggest you read it, too. (amazon.com, amazon.co.uk) She's my new, unrivaled, hero.

Reading and writing about her now are also incredibly timely, and urgent, because Ayaan Hirsi Ali may die. When she left the Netherlands – life there had become impossible – to live in the United States, the Dutch government stopped paying for the round-the-clock protection that is keeping her alive. The U.S. – to it's everlasting shame – has declined to pick up the tab. Last week, she petitioned the EU Parliament for help; and France may rise to the occasion, making her a citizen and protecting her. It's not yet clear what we can do for her – though there's been some talk of private subscriptions to pay for her security, and there was a demonstration in her support, led by the philosopher Bernard-Henri LÚvy, in Paris last week. Watch this space.

Update: There is in fact a fund for private donations toward Ms Hirsi Ali's security costs – the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Security Trust. To help keep this heroic woman (not to mention her cause) alive, you can learn how to make a donation here.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969, into a traditional Islamic family and culture. Her grandmother had grown up nomadic, and had actually given birth to her mother while out herding goats. She delivered the baby under a tree, cut the umbilical cord with her knife, and got the flock home with the baby clutched to her breast.

Hirsi Ali's father had studied abroad, and was a dissident against the autocratic Somalian government, and was opposed to female genital mutilation. However, when he was out of the country, Hirsi Ali's grandmother and some other relatives held her down, along with her sister, and "excised" them both with a pair of scissors; then sewed them back up so they would be preserved for their future husbands.

Uncircumcised girls will be possessed by devils, fall into vice and perdition, and become whores. Imams never discourage the practice: it keeps girls pure. Many girls die during or after their excision, from infection. Other complications cause enormous, more or less lifelong pain.

Her family was forced to flee the country to Saudia Arabia, where they were exposed to more extreme practice of Islam. Soon after they were forced to Kenya – but at that point, Saudi-financed religious teaching was spreading, and young Ayaan started studying the Koran more rigorously, as well as wearing a full hidjab over her school uniform. She was steeped in teaching about what was forbidden and what was allowed; what horrible torments would befall in her Hell if she was not dutiful; that being dutiful for a woman meant submitting totally to the rule of men; how the Jews were responsible for everything bad in the world; and how there was an evil worldwide crusade led by Jews and Americans to destroy Islam that must be resisted by jihad.

However, she was bright and curious and, after secondary school, adopted reading as a constant pursuit: first the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Nancy Drew Mysteries; later, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, and Wuthering Heights.

All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. Even our plain old biology and science textbooks seemed to follow a powerful narrative: you went out with knowledge and sought to advance humanity.

From the age of 14, she saw her friends being sent off to arranged marriages, often to cousins. These women (and girls) had no say in the course of their lives, and they came back with stories of horrible wedding nights, and not much better married lives – able to leave the house only with permission, and only covered up, for example. At age 22, Ayaan was betrothed by her father to a cousin she had never met, and sent to live with him in Canada. She flew first to Germany, where she was amazed at the cleanness and safety and efficiency of life there, as well as the freedom and equality for women:

Everything was so clean it was like a movie… The shopfronts gleamed… The women were bare – they seemed naked – their legs, their whole arms, their faces and shoulders were all completely uncovered… I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it, and now I could see it, smell it in the air around me: the kind of life I had always wanted, with a real education, a real job, a real marriage. I wanted to make my own decisions. I wanted to become a person, an individual, with a life of my own.
Defying her father, her upbringing, her family, and her religion – with no resources and no idea what she might do when she got there – she fled to the Netherlands and sought political asylum.

While working her way through school in Holland, she took on a variety of menial jobs – but also worked as a translator. She visited terrified and abused women in battered women's shelters, in asylum centers, in abortion clinics – and became increasingly convinced there was a great deal central to Islam which was extremely hostile and harmful to women. She saw case after case of beaten and powerless Muslim women.

One Somali woman was about my age, from a rural area. She couldn't read or write Somali or speak a word of Dutch. She had been married in Somalia, to a man who had come to visit, looking for a wife, and who then brought her straight to Holland. She almost never left the apartment on her own. Her husband beat her; finally, the police brought her, horribly bruised and cut, to the women's shelter. This woman was not only homeless in Holland; she could not go back to her family in Somalia either. She told me it was Allah's will. "Allah gave me these circumstances and, if I am patient, Allah will remove this misery." Women like this never pressed charges. The prospect of making their way alone seemed to them impossible. They were convinced that by accepting systematic, really merciless abuse, they were serving Allah and earning a place in Heaven. They always went back to their husband.

She studied social work, then political science at Holland's oldest and most prestigious university – trying to understand why some political and social systems produced results like Holland, and some produced results like Somalia.

I came to realise how deeply the Dutch are attached to freedom, and why. Holland was in many ways the capital of the European Enlightenment. Four hundred years ago, when European thinkers severed the hard bands of church dogma that had constrained people's minds, Holland was the center of free thought. The Enlightenment cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kinship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and had regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule.

After gaining a master's degree, she went to work for a Dutch think tank, and became a frequent writer and speaker on issues around Islam and women. She was elected to the Dutch Parliament, where she first set about trying to get the police and government even to record the number of "honor" killings of Muslim women and girls in the Netherlands – they did, and the results shocked everyone. Soon after came the 9/11 attacks – and Hirsi Ali found her reaction to be different from everyone around her:

He said, "It's so weird, isn't it, all these people saying this has to do with Islam?" I couldn't help myself. "But it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam." I walked into my office thinking, "I have to wake these people up." Holland, this fortunate country where nothing ever happens, was trying to pretend nothing had happened again. The Dutch had forgotten that it was possible for people to stand up and wage war, destroy property, imprison, kill, impose laws of virtue because of the call of God. It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam.
She recognised perfectly the tone in Mohammed Atta's letter, and recognised the prayer every Muslim utters when he is dying. She felt she knew people just like him – that she could have been like him herself, if she had remained where she was. She watched bin Laden's interviews on CNN and Al-Jazeera; she looked up the passages he quoted from the Koran and the Hadith – "When you meet the unbelievers, strike them in the neck", "The Hour of Judgement will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them" – and, to her despair, found them there word for word.

She got interested in using art to raise awareness about women's plight under Islam, and wrote a screenplay for a short film. It was made by her friend, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gough. Not long after, van Gough was blasted off his bicycle by a gunman in the street; as he pleaded, in very Dutch fashion, "Can't we talk about this?", his throat was slit, and Hirsi Ali's death threat was stabbed to his chest. Hirsi Ali was whisked away by security, and has been living as a virtual prisoner, under a death sentence, ever since. She continues to write and speak and campaign for Muslim women, and for the reform of Islam.

It's recently occurred to me how amazing and indescribably courageous it is to take up a cause ignored or denied or soft-pedalled by almost everyone on the planet – and, very possibly, to give her life for it. (Orwell also said, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.")

How will Ayaan Hirsi Ali's story end?


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about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
DON'T SHOOT ME IN THE ASS, AND OTHER STORIES by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
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