Clearly, there is something about Ayaan Hirsi Ali that annoys, rankles, and irritates. I am speaking here not as one who knows Hirsi Ali—the outspoken Dutch-Somali critic of Islam—but as one who, while living in Europe, cannot seem to avoid meeting her detractors. Most recently, I met a Dutch diplomat who positively glowered when her name was mentioned. As a member of the Dutch parliament, Hirsi Ali had, he complained, switched parties, talked out of turn, and refused to toe whatever was the proper political line. Above all, it irritated him that she did not share his Dutch faith in political consensus.
For those who haven't encountered her name yet, suffice to say that Hirsi Ali is a European of African descent with an almost American rags-to-riches life story. As a young woman, she escaped from her Somali family while en route to an arranged marriage in Canada, made her way to Holland, learned Dutch, attended university, and eventually won a seat in the Dutch parliament. Along the way, she also made an intellectual journey—beautifully described in her new book, Infidel—from tribal Somalia, through fundamentalism, and into Western liberalism. After Sept. 11, 2001, horrified by some of the things Osama Bin Laden was saying, she reached for the Quran to confirm a hunch: "I hated to do it," she wrote, "because I knew that I would find bin Laden's quotations in there."
Partly as a result, she lost her faith, concluding that the Quran spreads a culture that is "brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war," and that should not be tolerated by European liberals. That conclusion led her into a series of controversies—and to the murder of a Dutch filmmaker with whom she had co-produced a film about the mistreatment of Islamic women. The murderer was born in Holland, the son of Moroccan immigrants; he pinned a letter threatening Hirsi Ali onto his victim's chest. Ultimately, she left Holland for Washington, where she remains, ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute.
Yet even from that distance, she continues to provoke Europeans, sometimes without saying anything at all. Following a somewhat patronizing review of her first book—in which British writer Timothy Garton Ash called her a "brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist"—French philosopher Pascal Bruckner came galloping to the defense of Hirsi Ali and the Enlightenment. Garton Ash counterattacked, and others joined what turned quickly into a wide-ranging debate (read the whole thing here) about reason, faith, multiculturalism, and the integration of millions of Muslim immigrants into European culture.
Curiously, what seems to rankle Europeans most is the enthusiasm with which Hirsi Ali has adopted their own secularism, and the fervor with which she has embraced their own Western values. Though this is a continent whose intellectuals routinely disparage the pope as an irrelevant dinosaur, Hirsi Ali's rejection of religion in favor of reason, intellect, and emancipation seems to make everyone nervous. Typical is the British feminist who complained that not only does Hirsi Ali paint "the whole of the Islamic world with one black brush," she also "paints the whole of the western world with rosy tints," which is of course far more objectionable. Others have compared her unfavorably to Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who argues that religious Islam can be made compatible with modern European democracy. He, it is said, offers a way forward for millions of pious European Muslims. By contrast, her rejection of religion in favor of Western secularism is said to be a form of integration that works for no one but herself.
I suppose this latter charge might be true. On the other hand, it might not be: Maybe Infidel will inspire a generation of Muslim teenagers to study, work hard, join the mainstream—and then say what they think and spoil the political consensus. Either way, I'm not sure that the impulse to dismiss Hirsi Ali for her lack of utilitarian value reflects very well on those who do it. Nor does the underlying assumption—namely, that religious faith must be respected and defended on behalf of the dark-skinned immigrants who live among us, even though we natives no longer seem to require it.
But perhaps it is just a question of time. In America, the phenomenon of the flag-waving first-generation immigrant is a familiar one. In Europe, such a thing is unknown. Maybe once Europe gets used to the idea—a Muslim immigrant who embraces Western culture with the excitement of the convert—they'll like Hirsi Ali better. And, if they're lucky, others will follow in her footsteps.