By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
People come along every now and then, idiosyncratic, opinionated, talented, flawed, impossible. You call them iconoclasts, troublemakers, provocateurs, opportunists, polemicists.
Camille Paglia, of the feminist and anti-feminist perspective, she's one of these. Michael Moore with his satirical film rants, Michael Eric Dyson in his race debates, Germaine Greer and the brand of feminism she called "the Push," and the late journalistic table-pounder Oriana Fallaci, too. Something between artist, scholar, journalist and radical.
So now, ladies and gentlemen, live from Somalia and the Netherlands! Give it up for new-to-Washington Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Muslim heretic, self-proclaimed "Infidel," whose memoir by that name is at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list!
It's a popping good story, fascinating, with lots of forward lean to the narrative. She's got guts, brains, looks, talent. She's called the prophet Muhammad a pervert. She says, "Islam is a culture that has been outlived." She has lost her faith, ditched two husbands and been disowned by her family.
She was elected to the Dutch parliament, but resigned in a scandal that brought down the ruling party. She scripted an 11-minute film about the Koran and domestic abuse of women that resulted in the throat-slitting assassination of its director, Theo van Gogh, by a Muslim fanatic.
The killer stabbed a note into the dying man's chest. It was addressed to her.
It promised death.
If you're having lunch with her -- say, at Zaytinya downtown -- a bodyguard employed by the Dutch government will call you a few minutes beforehand, saying, "I have a person to deliver to you."
She's adored by many on either side of the political seesaw: Western feminists, defenders of free speech and the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative Washington think tank that now employs her.
But many Muslims regard her as a self-promoting traitor.
"She's just another Muslim basher on the lecture circuit," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington-based activist organization.
She's tall, black, angular, charming, sparkling brown eyes.
Neoconservative, middle-aged white men, Dutch author Ian Buruma noted, tend to swoon when she walks into the room. Muslim women of her complexion, whom she says she wants to rescue from Islamic oppression, tend to recoil.
She says, at a recent book launch party in Washington:
"I am a happy individual now."Severed Family Ties
She comes into a nearly empty Zaytinya on a recent Saturday afternoon, the bodyguards staying at the door. She's wearing a gray suit and a disarming smile. She's willow-thin and takes the seat next to you, rather than across the table, because "you'll never be able to hear me if I sit that far away."
This proves to be true.
She gets asked about her family a lot, about how they said she lied about details of the arranged marriage that she fled, and she is unfazed. She hasn't spoken to her father in three years, her mother in four. "If they were to show any affection to me at all, they would be in terrible trouble."
She's pretty sure her father is still in London. Her mother lives in northern Somalia. She has a brother in Kenya but doesn't talk to him much.
"They're all praying for me, hoping that one day I'll wake up and see that Islam is best. Repent. I think that's what they want me to do."
She doesn't get recognized as much on K Street as she does in Europe, which allows her to go shopping, to movies, without as much hassle. One has a public face and a private life, and the difference is striking in her -- the public persona tough and confrontational; in private, she giggles and makes, for lack of a better term, girl talk.
"All we talked about was manicures and clothes," says Martha Levin, executive vice president and publisher at Free Press, her American publishing house.
"I thought I'd meet someone who was much more single-minded, humorless, strident, shrill and uncompromising," says Isabella, a friend in London. After a man stood in front of her mother's house taking pictures when Hirsi Ali was visiting, Isabella asks that her last name not be used. "I think she's very much misunderstood. She's immensely entertaining."
Hirsi Ali, nibbling on some warm bread and a salad, says she is not conflicted about the whirlwind surrounding her.
"It may be naive, stupid, irrational, but I'm doing this because I think that if I do, there'll be less honor killings, fewer little girls undergoing female genital mutilation like I did."
It's not quite that simple, however. She's complicated because, as admirable and courageous as she clearly is, it's also fair to say that she almost gleefully alienates the people who share her stated goals.
"Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women," notes Lorraine Ali in Newsweek. Nuruddin Farah, the exiled Somali novelist who is one of the most respected thinkers on the continent, has spent a four-decade career championing strong Somali women -- and even he makes it clear, while on book tour, that he doesn't think much of her. ("There are plenty of others to criticize her," he says, ending the conversation.)
The film she scripted, "Submission," showed naked women who had been beaten by husbands or family members, with verses from the Koran projected onto their flesh.
When it was screened for a small audience of Islamic women at a Dutch shelter for abused women -- and you'd have to figure this would be her core audience -- they were appalled, not inspired. The screening was filmed for television, writes Buruma, and when one of the women stressed her objections, Hirsi Ali dismissed her with a wave of her hand and, "So long, then."
"It was this wave, this gentle gesture of disdain, this almost aristocratic dismissal of a noisome inferior, that upset her critics more than anything," he writes.
But Hirsi Ali sees herself standing in the long light cast by the Western Enlightenment thinkers: Voltaire, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and maybe Thomas Jefferson. The stifling clergy, the sackcloth-and-ashes drag of faith and superstition -- all rinsed away by the ablutions of personal freedom, reason, logic.
How heady! How liberating!
"Three hundred and fifty years ago, when Europe was still steeped in religious dogma and thinkers were persecuted -- just as they are today in the Muslim world -- Spinoza was clear minded and fearless. He was the first modern European to state clearly that the world is not ordained by a separate God. . . . Now, surely, it was Islam's time to be tested."'Pious Slaves'
Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969, the daughter of a prominent political dissident. Oral recitation of family history, going back hundreds of years, was the initial means of education. It taught one's place in the world, from whom you came and to whom you belonged, whom you could trust and whom you should fear.
This was buttressed by the teachings of Islam as she saw it -- one neither questions nor critiques Allah or His prophet, Muhammad. There is only submission. For women in Somalia, and in Saudi Arabia, where the family lived for several years, this submission suffocated all possibility of self, sex, love, career, life.
"A woman . . . is like a pious slave. She honors her husband's family and feeds them without question or complaint. She never whines or makes demands of any kind. She is strong in service, but her head is bowed. If her husband is cruel, if he rapes her and then taunts her about it, if he decides to take another wife, or beats her, she lowers her gaze and hides in tears. And she works, hard, faultlessly. She is a devoted, welcoming, well-trained work animal."
This observation is as cutting as it is overreaching, but it's this outraged expression of horror -- and the desire to avoid such a fate at all costs -- that would propel her onto an international stage.
She was given to a man she scarcely knew in an arranged marriage. En route to his home in Canada, she got off the plane in Germany and sought asylum in the Netherlands. She worked at menial jobs, learned Dutch, graduated from college. Then came 9/11.
The attacks on the Trade Center were not by a "lunatic fringe," she said, but by the very center of the faith: "This was not just Islam, this was the core of Islam . . . [this was] not frustration, poverty, colonialism, or Israel: it was about religious belief, a one way ticket to Heaven." She began to scorn her fellow immigrants. She said Muslims needed to adopt Western values; if necessary, the Netherlands should amend its Constitution to ban faith-based schools in order to keep Muslim parents from sending their children to Muslim schools. She stood for office on the Liberal ticket, one of a slate of candidates, and made it into parliament -- an immigrant elected on a current of anti- immigrant sentiment.
During the uproar that followed filmmaker van Gogh's murder, there was a television documentary that showed people, including her ex-husband, saying much of what she had said about her arranged marriage was false. It became public knowledge that she had lied on her immigration application (she had changed her name, age and important details about her refugee status). The government, furious, announced she would be stripped of citizenship. That set off another uproar that toppled the ruling coalition of parties, but saved her Dutch nationality.
What's left after such an ordeal?
The United States, of course.American Dream
She wants a green card. She says she wants to stay and that she's tired, after five years of almost constant controversy.
"I'd like to buy a place, have a circle of friends around me, work, have a weekend. I'd like to try being an average American." In her first book, she wrote that "Right now the media are still lapping it up: a black woman who criticizes Islam. One day the magic around me will disappear."
But, you know, you have to wonder how idealized a concept she has of this country. You wonder what she'll make of the cultural incoherency: 50 Cent, Rosie O'Donnell, Jerry Falwell, Don DeLillo, the death penalty, the state of Idaho, college football, the gun lobby. She seems as if she'd be perfectly at home at a Georgetown reception as the only black person in the room and perfectly lost at a Harlem dinner party. She wouldn't rate an invitation to the Dearborn, Mich., Arab American dinner.
Does any of that matter?
But still, somewhere in the chord of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, there is a note as discordant and troubling as it is compelling.
Smart, angry, tough, vulnerable: She'll be a big hit in this country.