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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Philosophy and Religion
IT Tuesday, 5 June 2007

“Let Tariq Ramadan speak”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali interviewed by Daniele Castellani Perelli

Over the past few months a heated debate, spread across the pages of the international press and of the website Signandsight.com, has raised the following question: Should the West support moderate yet controversial Muslims such as Tariq Ramadan, the popular grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brothers, or Islamic dissidents such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who for years has spoken out against crimes committed on women in the name of Islam, and who wrote the screenplay of Theo Van Gogh's provocative film Submission? The two intellectuals know and cannot stand each other. And yet today, while the Italian right once again attacks Ramadan, who is still banned from the U.S., the ex-Somalian refugee here defends his right to freedom of speech, even if she claims to be completely opposed to his thinking.

Forced to live under guard following the murder of Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali explains why infibulation is so widespread in Muslim countries and goes on to attack  multiculturalism: “The left thinks only in terms of groups”, claims the writer who works for a neo-con think tank in Washington, and was in Rome to present her autobiography Infidel, published in Italy by Rizzoli. “This is precisely why the Democrats are wrong. It makes no difference to me whether the President of the Unite States is black or white, a man or a woman” she adds, referring to the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “A President is not chosen according to these criteria, but in light of his or her policies.”

Many of the terrible things which you have had to go through in your life have been caused by tribal traditions (such as infibulation) or by practices diffused in every culture, such as the abuse of children. Why then do you attack Islam so strongly?

It is true that hitting off children is not something that has to do with religion itself. You have read my book where I do not say that what happened to me was due to my religion. It was because my mother was frustrated with her life and my teacher was not an intelligent man. Female genital mutilation existed before Islam, but if you look at those countries today in the world that practise it, almost all of them are Muslim countries. People who used to practise female genital mutilation stopped it when they discovered how harmful it is. In Muslim countries they continued that practice as it serves a purpose, and the purpose it serves is to reduce the sexual feeling of the girls – that is what they think – and to preserve their virginity. Therefore, female mutilation predated Islam but it serves a major Muslim purpose, namely virginity. And what I tried to explain in my book is that in order for female genital mutilation to stop completely, we have to value girls and women. We have to see them as more valuable than their virginity. That is why I got into troubles with Islam.

Do you think that Islam is not compatible with women’s rights?

I do. Islam subjugates women’s rights because it is a totalitarian religion. My Christian friends tell me they go to church on Sunday, they baptized their child when s/he was born or got married in church, but most of the time they are not busy with their religion. If you want to be a true Muslim, Islam is something you practice from day to day, from hour to hour and from minute to minute. Islam has designated a place for the man and a place for the woman. And the place for the woman is one of obedience to her father and family. Women must remain virgin and so must the man, but the investigation are always carried out through women, and when a man and a woman get married, the latter has to obey to her husband indefinitely. The same right is not accorded to – or the same limitation is not put on – the man. No one controls whether he is a virgin or not. He does not have to obey to his wife. A man can take four wives, whereas a woman can have only one husband. The testimony of a woman is worth half of that of the man. Therefore, in Islamic Shari’a law, if a man rapes a woman, and then she goes to court, her testimony is worth only half of her rapist’s one. This just shows that the position of women in Islam is a very bad one.

Many Muslim intellectuals, nevertheless, do not agree with you. The Iranian Peace Nobel winner Shirin Ebadi told us: “People like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are playing the Mullah’s game”. In fact, paradoxically, even in the Iranian regime, which you certainly despise, Islam is not compatible with women’s rights. What is your answer?

Well, those mullahs are right. They are honest! Shirin Ebadi does confuse Islam as it is and Islam as it should be in the future. To get to a different kind of Islam which is more respectful towards women, she should not take me on. She should take on the prophet Mohammed, the Coran or those who want to practise Shari’a law. Shirin Ebadi should say to women that the Coran is not written by God, it is written by a man, the prophet Mohammed, and following his example in the seventh century was fine, but we should not follow it now. The prophet Mohammed married a 9-year-old child, which goes against today’s child rights.

In a recent international debate, developing in the New York Review of Books and on Signandsight.com, you have been opposed to Tariq Ramadan. He has been banned from the U.S., and there are those who wish he were not invited to speak in Rome, like in Udine, some weeks ago.

I am a liberal in the classical liberal sense, so I do not like what Tariq Ramadan says. In fact, I think his message is the worst kind of message against liberalism, but in a free society, we have to give even those who have ideas that we do not like the freedom to debate them with us. I think this is a characteristic of this civilization. The European and Western civilization relies on that idea. So for him and me to debate, and for him to come to Rome, the US or France is fine. But what he is saying and campaigning for is against liberal and liberalism. Let Ramadan speak, and let us refute what he says, because the message that he wants to convey is more embarrassing than his presence. I have been in debate with him, and seen that he gets very angry when I touched on the core issue of what he says. He wants to take away fundamental freedoms from you and from me, and put them in the hands of God. And when I told him “If you do that for yourself it is fine, but why are you propagating it?”, then he got very angry.

You defined Mohammed a tyrant and a pervert. You are absolutely free to think and say anything you want, but maybe this kind of somewhat provocative language is useless, isn’t it? It could create walls and clashes, not favouring a dialogue. Your story is a terrible story and everybody should know that, but maybe this language could be an obstacle for moderate Muslims.

The prophet Mohammed married a six-year-old girl, had sex with her when she was nine, and there are millions of Muslim men today who follow in his footsteps. When I say he was a pervert, this is what I mean. Now, my opponents say “you will create walls if you call him this way”. What I say is that for these poor little girls who are 9, 10, 11 or 12, the wall already exists. In my views, provoking people to see what is happening behind this wall does not mean erecting walls, but trying and letting these walls tumble down. When Bin Laden, the Saudi Kingdom and Ahmadinejad want to establish theocracies today in the name of Islam, they are following the example of the prophet Mohammed. That is why I call him a tyrant. If we want to provoke people to think about this tyranny and how it comes about, it is good to bring Mohammed down to our level and say: “what he did was normal in the seventh century, but today we do not like it anymore, we do not find it normal, we do not like tyranny”.

Now you are in the US. How do you feel, as a radical secularist, about the American attitude towards religion? The American motto is “In God we trust”, and American people see religion as something liberating, not suppressing or negative.

America is a very complex country. It is more complex than all the prejudices that exist against it. There is no nation in today’s world with as much freedom for the individual, their expression and religion as the United States. It is not the best place in the world, and it is not a perfect place. But it is the best place for individual freedoms today. My observation is: there are very religious people in the United States, and there are other people who, when the religiosity of one group infringes on the freedoms of others, will react and push it back. My experience in Europe is: people do not talk about religion because they are not religious anymore (“I am not religious so I do not know why I should talk about it”), and when people use their religion, such as Muslims today, to infringe and take away the rights of others, those who are not religious look the other side. This does not happen in America.

The Bush administration has made it very difficult for an immigrant to enter the US. Do you agree with this policy?

One year – or maybe even less – after the Bush administration came into office, 9/11 happened. It was a huge attack, and whoever was in charge, be it Bush or Clinton, could not avoid reacting to that. They promised one thing as they said: “There will be no more attacks in the United States”. In order to do that, they have taken a few, very controversial steps such as ethnic profiling and making a list of countries where some immigrants are more scrutinized than other immigrants. The Bush administration is elected by Republicans, which today want the Mexican immigrants to come in, and it is actually the democrats who are saying “we should keep the immigrants out”. So this administration is not necessarily anti-immigration, but they profile who they let in and who they let out, and that is a very controversial policy.

You defend women’s rights and are against the intrusiveness of religion. These battles have always been left-wing, but you are now most appreciated by the right-wing in Holland, in the US and also in Italy. Would you define your battle as a left-wing battle?

When fathers remove girls from schools, when they force them into marriage, when genital mutilation is taking place and when the Socialist or the Social-democratic party says “this is their culture, this is multiculturalism, let us protect it and rule like this”, then I think they are not being left-wing. If left-wing were about individual rights as in classical 19th-century liberalism, I would define myself as leftwing. But left-wing these days is all about groups: workers, men and women, poor and rich, and that sort of thing. It is not about just human individuals.

Which party would you vote for in the US, if you could?

Some of the democratic philosophy, principles and programs I support, and some of them I do not. It is the same with the republicans. I have the excuse to say that for the coming five years I am exempted and can be comfortably in the middle, but I know this is not a satisfactory answer.

The US Democrats will have to choose between a black man and a white woman. Which candidate would you choose?

That is principally why I think today the democrats are wrong. Because of their emphasis on groups. I do not care whether the president of the United States is black or white, man or woman. I would appreciate any president of the United States living today as we do and who can say: “When I become president, there are three domestic problems that I am going to tackle, that have not been tackled by anybody before me. There are three foreign-policy problems that I am going to tackle as they need to, and this is how I am going to do that”. And I want to look at what they want to say. Anyone coming and saying “Elect me because I am a woman” would present a very poor résumé, and the same goes for those who proclaim “Elect me because I am black”. In my opinion, that is not a reason for being elected as president or to give anyone a job. All of that has to do with this obsession with groups.

In Nairobi sister Aziza, your terrible teacher, warned you that wherever you went, you would have taken on your shoulders two small angels. The one on the left would have taken note of your sins, and the one on the right, all your good work. What are they writing, now that you have become atheist?

I think the one on my right shoulder has gone to sleep, whereas the one on the left shoulder is very tired because he has written a library full of my sins.

Readers' comments
paul peabody

An open letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I am not quite sure what has affected me so deeply ,,your book, and the untold suffering described therein,,or the overwhelming courage that it must take to stand against such outrageous ,dark ages treatment for so long.I think though,what has me so disarmed me ,is that I am a lifelong professional musician,,,fascinated by accents and voices,,I have under my belt played the violin/fiddle in scores of movies,,,echoing he sounds of norwegian folk music,celtic fiddling,the swing style of Stephane Grappelli,,etc etc,,,. I am as intrigued by the disimilarities of sound in peoples voices as i am by styles in music.That being said,,,I find your voice to be as gentle as a summers rain, a humble and light voice that seems to breathe a thoughtful blend of careful use of words with a tenderness that surprised me. I think given the scope of physical abuse you have endured it is nothing short of miraculous the way that this sound reflects somehow of your soul.I would imagine that given the extent of the abuse ,a completely different sound,,,a hard edged empirious tone, instead but ,,this gentle and i feel overwhelmingly spiritual sound in your voice is like honey,a balm perhaps born of finally tasting freedom,,whatever it is ,memorable and deep and strangely comforting to me. As though what you are talking about is actually secondary,? hm,,,! Your book "Infidel" is a towering denunciation of what I have been aware of for long about the treatment of women in so much of Islamic society and found that i was frequently overwhelmed to the point of tears.However,,,your demeanor,in debates and while lecturing,, far from being the manner of the atheist or non believer the sound of which is so deeply alive,in the spirit,,,i am astonished ,Like the gentlest lap of waves against the shores of my mind there is something overwhelmingly comforting in your manner and voice that if anything,,,Is the first time that i have ever felt that there might be something speaking in you that remarkably could be in fact,,the spirit of the "prophet" trying through you to reconcile a history that is bleak at best for women. In her debate with Tariq Ramadan,her body language ,unlike his, with his grimaces ,etc, was conciliatory ,gracious ,and overwhelmingly warm. I find this an amazingly spiritual response ,to a man who clearly set out to distance himself and denigrate you ,which given your lifetime of treatment by men ,seems incredible ,remarkable. What else can I see Ayaan,,but that i love you for your grace under tremendous threat,,and can only say that you are like the bird of freedom whose song is miraculous and sweet and is a constant reiiteration of the joy of flight,,,,arms extended to the sky,I hear this over and over. just beautiful ,,thank you!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

it is so true of your voice being so gentle and for that matter quite intoxicating .Please dont stop your work its to important to us all and truely starting to have an impact

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

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