Hirsi Ali’s controversial stance on Islam has certainly won her many admirers, though, particularly among conservatives such as the Buckley Program crowd. But her strong support of women’s rights has also put her in good stead with feminists. She herself was a childhood victim of female genital mutilation and has been outspoken against the practice, which she said predates Islam but finds its greatest welcome today in the Islamic world.
Her railing against the dismal treatment of women in at least some sectors of the Muslim world has also led to death threats, most notably the note left on the body of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, with whom she had collaborated on the film "Submission," about the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. A radical Islamist shot, stabbed, and tried to decapitate van Gogh on an Amsterdam city street in 2004.
On Monday evening, Hirsi Ali arrived with a security detail of her own, and New Haven police had a healthy presence, along with a black labrador retreiver, presumably a bomb-sniffer.
Hirsi Ali, whose father was a politician in Somalia, served in the parliament of her adopted country, the Netherlands. But Holland ended up revoking her citizenship over controversy about her asylum application. She has since become an American citizen—in her talk at Yale, she repeatedly and comfortably referred to Barack Obama as “our president.”
Rehearsing a litany of recent world events in which Islam has played a major role, including Boko Haram’s kidnapping of several hundred school girls, and the threatened state execution of a Sudanese Christian woman, Hirsi Ali at last focused on the Islamic State, which has terrorized Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and, experts warn, could be plotting terrorist attacks in the West.
“We’re being moved to action by the graphic beheadings of James Foley and Steve Sotloff, fellow Americans,” she said. “And that has brought our president, and Washington in general, to say, ‘We need to eradicate this cancer.’ Does that mean we resort to war? Is this a clash of principles and ethics, a clash of philosophies of life and death between the West and Islam?
"I don’t blame our president for showing the restraint that he does," she continued. "The West is familiar with war and understands that clashes with civilizations like this can be very, very long. We want first to explore ways of fighting this cancer without resorting to war. But who and what are we fighting?”
Hirsi Ali finds at least part of the answer in her own childhood in Somalia. In her early adolescence, as she recalls, members of her family and community took their Islamic faith seriously and devoutly, but it was that—a faith.
“Some people broke the rules some of the time. Some people neglected to fast, some people ate meat that was not slaughtered in the way it was supposed to be, some people ate pork and others drank alcohol,” she recalled. “In those days, if you neglected your religious duties, you were left alone.”
She acknowledged that even today “Millions of Muslims live like this. They … think of themselves as peaceful, loving people. And they are.”
But her world changed in 1985, when she was 16. “A different kind of teacher entered my life,…who came to tell us that neglecting one’s religious duty makes you an infidel,” she said. “I call him the Preacher Teacher. … He encouraged us to not only read the Quran and Hadith but he encouraged us to use it as a driver’s manual. This preacher teacher came with a language that was new to our ears: ‘jihad.’ We were to wage jihad…. ‘Martyrdom:’ the best thing that could happen to us would be to die fighting for Allah. We were to strive to establish sharia law in our society…We were to aspire to destroying the Jews—all Jews, not only the ones in Israel.”
The scenario, she said, has been repeated over and over in various parts of the Muslim world, leading to the radical vision of groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram.