Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is very worried these days. According to her, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just a symbol — a small-scale model of the bigger war between the West and radical Islam. She predicts that this bigger war will become very tangible in the coming years.
I would like to talk to you about the Islam that you knew, in comparison with the Islam observed by Hamas. What are the similarities? What are the differences?
«My first participation in this debate between Islam and the West was after Sept. 11, 2001. All the Western people were trying to explain [the attack] away, saying Islam is a religion of compassion, it is a religion of peace, it is a great civilization, and all the things that are done in the name of Islam, they are done by a small minority that hijacked this religion. It is all hijacking, it is not Islam. This premise still underpins American and European foreign policy. Back then we had Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Taliban. It was all fringe. There were 19 men who took airplanes and crashed into the twin towers and the Pentagon. This was a small group of men who were pathological and they twisted Islam to fit their pathology. Now instead of a small group of 19 boys there are millions.
«We are also talking about second- and third-generation American and European citizens who are volunteering to go and fight in Syria and Iraq and then come back with their citizen passports and cause mayhem here [the U.S.] and all over Europe.
«Let me give you an example: A French citizen of Algerian heritage goes to fight in Syria and learns how to shoot and kill people in al-Qaida fashion. He goes back to France and travels to Belgium. He goes to the Jewish museum in Brussels and randomly kills people. He then goes back to France. He takes a bus to Amsterdam and gets caught by Customs, and that is how they find out. The point is that it is not a minority. But the premise that this is a small problem caused by small group of very naughty boys, that is still the premise that underpins foreign policy [in the West].»
Why are we so naive?
«This is not naivete anymore. This is called wishful thinking. They say that Islam is a religion of peace and compassion, but that is what we want, that is what it should be, it’s not what it is. There’s a difference. We’re just not being realistic.
«I think that the State of Israel is different. You are living in a hornets’ nest. Israelis cannot pretend for too long, if you have tunnels being dug under you and rockets flying above you.»
And what do you think about Hamas’ version of Islam?
«When I was a little girl, the Islam that I believed in was transmitted to me by my grandmother, who could not read or write, and by my mother, who also could not read and write. It was absolutely not political. There was no interest in politics, in government, in power. For them it was very spiritual. What it meant was that there would be a moment when the hardship would end. I had never heard the word ‘caliph.’ We recited the Quran but we didn’t know what we were saying. Only really important men went to the mosque. Women didn’t go to the mosque. Everyone around me was Muslim, it was our identity, but there was nothing even close to what Hamas is now.
‘Then my family moved to Saudi Arabia and for the first time I saw women covered from head to toe in black. Every two or three meters there was a mosque. Five times a day there was a call to prayer. On the streets there are police who are called the police who command right and forbid wrong.»
Did women walk alone in the streets?
«They were in groups. There were a lot of women with children and sometimes men. You never see women alone in the street. And when we went to madrasa, suddenly we had to recite the Quran in a certain way, in this beautiful way. Every Friday my father and brother had to go to a mosque, and on their way back they sometimes walked by the ‘chop chop’ square, where people’s hands were cut off, people were flogged, people were stoned, people’s heads were cut off. That is the Islam of Hamas. Back in the 1970s it seemed to me that it was a Saudi thing, but now it has become an international thing.
«My grandmother’s Islam was something of her own. You can argue that it was not friendly to women, but it was not a political movement seeking to transform the world in its own seventh century image.»
Is there any point in negotiating with Hamas? With any Muslim movement?
«You can negotiate with fellow human beings with whom you have some kind of common ground. The assumption as we negotiate is that there is fair play. The problem with negotiating with Hamas is that they have a vision, a certain kind of utopia. And for that utopia to be realized, the State of Israel must be completely destroyed. Shariah law has to be established, ideally, all over the world. You can never trust a Jew, you can never trust a Christian. That is the utopia. Women have to behave a certain way, they have to be locked up, it is very totalitarian. You can negotiate until you are as blue in the face as the American flag, but it will never yield anything on the other side.
«Everyone was upset with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu when he said that he would not negotiate before the other side said that they recognize the existence of the State of Israel. That is a basic demand. Without that it is pointless to go to the negotiations table. It is Negotiations 101.»
Is there any point in negotiating with those who believe that life on earth is just a test leading to the next world?
«Israel is investing everything it has into life on earth. Hamas is investing everything it has into life after death. When Hamas recruits young people, their doctrine is ‘we love death, they love life.’ You will be rewarded in the hereafter — that is supposed to be the appeal.
‘You asked me about the Islam of Hamas. It used to be the Islam of Saudi Arabia. It used to be very small, relatively, in the modern world. But because of oil money it has now become so profound and so powerful and so widespread. And so disruptive, first and foremost, to Muslims. The people who suffer the most are Muslims. If this type of Islam ceased to exist, the first people to benefit would be Muslims. Then everyone would be able take a deep breath and talk about real problems, like the Ukraine and Russia, but for now, there’s this big problem that is spreading across the world, with the help of oil money.»
I am worried about Qatar.
«Back in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, people didn’t know about the way Qatar funds Islamists. But now we are in the Google age. There is transparency that is frightening, in a way, but it is also illuminating and reassuring, because everything is now out in the open.
«I watch Hamas television and I see that they are not primitive. They are very strong and very intelligent.
«I never doubted that. When I spoke to social democrats in Europe they would pretend that these people were stupid, but it is just not true. They are incredibly smart and incredibly Machiavellian.»
And they are willing to sacrifice a lot more than Westerners.
‘They will do that because of their philosophy on life and death. They welcome death, death death. In the Hamas narrative, which is also the Wahabi narrative and the Salafi narrative, you get to ecstasy and self actualization after you die, not before you die, don’t be silly. So now you have millions of people who welcome death, and that is very confusing for Westerners to understand. They do not want to understand. For somebody like John Kerry it is too much to understand.
«It is illogical for us. Our logic is that we love life. But it is also very hard for me to see the children of Gaza taking up guns and fighting.
‘That is the tragedy of it all, the tragedy of the Palestinians in general. It is so sad to see the three- and four-year-olds who are being denied the opportunity of having a life, indoctrinated, brainwashed. All the little boys spend their days throwing stones instead of in school. The big moral question for all of us is how can we let this happen?
«Around the time that Israel became independent, Spain, Italy and Greece were also coming out of various forms of dictatorship and they were very poor. Fast forward to the 1980s, and you see that they were building infrastructure. They built a network of tunnels, but these were tunnels built to connect the countryside to the cities or one country to another country, so there would be more trade, more contact. You look at Hamas and you think that they’ve worked so hard, spent so much money, spilled so much human blood and treasure on building these tunnels, but what is the objective? To destroy and to be destroyed. That is the philosophy of death.»
What do you think is going to happen in Europe and in other countries where there is an increasing concentration of Muslim immigrants?
‘It is so clear what is going to happen. All these countries that are now condemning Israel will find themselves in exactly the same position as Israel. Some countries more than others. They will have young populations that are having many more children than they are, who are high on this doctrine of death. They will be faced with completely revamping their ideas and ideals. You can already see in countries like England, where the Islamist population is very big.»
And in France as well.
«In France they’ve given up in a way. Belgium is another country very few people talk about. I was in parliament in The Hague, there is a neighborhood now called the Shariah triangle. There is a Shariah triangle in Brussels and in many other places. There is another problem that Europe will face: Traditionally, they have an extreme right wing, as in racist, as in white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigration, anti everything, and they are violent too. You will have the European community caught between two extremes, the Islamist violence on one side and the white supremacist violence on the other. The established politicians, on either the Left or the Right, will have nothing to say.’
Let’s talk about hope. Are there any enlightened Islamic organizations fighting for Muslim reform? Aside from you, of course.
«I don’t know about organizations. I know where I draw my hope. Mohammed Morsi was in power in Egypt for one year, and millions of Egyptians took to the streets to ask for him to step down. I don’t want to focus on Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and the reinstitution of military power. I don’t think that is a positive. But the fact that there are all these millions of Egyptians who are Muslim but who do not want Shariah law, I think that is a fantastic ray of hope.
«I have another ray of hope. The Iranian people who have been governed by an Islamist regime since 1979. In 2009, we saw a demonstration of young people who said they did not want this regime, or, in other words, they do not want Shariah law.»
Do you think that Sissi visiting the hospital bed of a victim of a gang rape during a Tahrir square demonstration was a breakthrough in the treatment of women in Arab society?
«I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I want it to be what you are saying, a breakthrough. But knowing the regional politics and calculations, it could just be a political stunt, to gain international legitimacy. We’ve seen it many times.»
You fight against female genital mutilation. Why do you think women are seen as such a problem in Islam?
«Before Islam there was tribal patriarchal society, and Islam was born into that reality. The woman is either an asset or a source of evil. She is an asset for making as many boys as possible, and she is evil if she goes with your rival and makes a boy for him instead of for you.
«When Muhammad came with this religion, and he faced resistance from the tribes, he did not throw every tribal aspect out the window, especially concerning women. He was a tribal man himself. He made some modifications, but he did not change much. So the tribal stuff, like female genital mutilation, was accommodated, rather than being abolished.»
Obama wants us to cease our fire. We agree but Hamas responded by shooting rockets.
«If there was an organization like Hamas on the Mexican border or the Canadian border with the U.S., and a foreign power would say to Obama ‘you have to sign a cease-fire’, he would not agree. No American would agree. No one in the world would accept that.»
Obama has demanded that the media stop using the term «radical Islam.»
«The White House is the last institution that is still using the term ‘violent extremism’ — the press is calling it Islamism and radical Islam, everyone is calling it what it is. The EU is also using these euphemisms, but everyone else has moved on.»
You said that there could never be peace between the cultures.
«Not unless Islam there is a true reformation of Islam, an irreversible change where Muslim leaders distance themselves from parts of the Quran, from this emphasis on life after death. This needs to happen on a scale where there is a leadership that wants that change and a fellowship that wants to go along with that change and that is extremely difficult for Islam because there is no central leadership.»
So there is no solution?
«For the Israeli government, like all governments, the first obligation is to protect the citizens from domestic and external threats. The removal of the tunnels built by Hamas is a number one priority for the Israeli government. It doesn’t matter what people outside of the Israel say. If I were an Israeli citizen I would expect that.»
You left your previous life, but you dedicated you book «Infidel» to your family. Is there is anything that you miss?
«It is intangible. It is a sense of belonging that is so strong and so profound and you take it for granted until you are not in that context anymore. And suddenly you don’t belong and you’re a stranger and you have to establish a new family and new friends and put down roots, and it is a very difficult process. Perhaps that is one of the biggest reasons for why it is difficult for Muslim immigrants to adjust to the West. That sense of belonging cannot be recreated, it takes time. I still can’t replicate that sense of belonging.
Despite everything you’ve been through and the fact that you have been exposed to so much evil, bringing a child into this world is a sign of optimism. Tell me a little about motherhood.
«It is a realistic optimism. There is hope that I can do better than my parents. In my context, it was a life of struggle. What you hope is that your child will struggle less, and his child will struggle even less.»
Who do you admire?
«I admire my husband, of course. In terms of political leadership, I admire Henry Kissinger, and this is relevant now because I ask myself, what if we had Kissinger as the secretary of state today instead of John Kerry, what would all this look like, what would he do? I think he would advise on a more comprehensive level. He has a very interesting and incisive view of what American power is, and what it can achieve if implemented well.
«On an intellectual level I admire professor Bernard Lewis. I really admire Benjamin Netanyahu.»
«Because he is under so much pressure, from so many sources, and yet he does what is best for the people of Israel, he does his duty. I really think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize. In a fair world he would get it.»
Do you think Obama should have gotten one?
«It was given to him pre-emptively. He got it before the performance, not after. He doesn’t have to play, he already received his Oscar.’