Ayaan Hirsi Ali is in a perpetual state of grave danger. In 2004, while a Dutch MP, a documentary she had written about about the subjugation of many Muslim women, called Submission, based on her book of the same name, resulted in the murder of the film’s director Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was stabbed to death in the street by the Islamist extremist Mohammed Bouyeri, who left a note on the body promising to come for Hirsi Ali next.
Because of her deteriorating security situation in Europe, as well as a row over how she obtained refugee status (she was accused of and had admitted to falsifying details to gain asylum in the Netherlands), in 2006 the Somali-born Hirsi Ali bundled herself off to America to work for The American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative DC-based think-tank. She now lives in California, still under round-the-clock security, with her husband, celebrity British historian Niall Ferguson.
Hirsi Ali’s commitment to documenting what she sees as the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism to women and the West, and therefore to the world, has remained unwavering, with book after book elucidating it. After a bestselling collection of essays, The Caged Virgin (2004), came Infidel(2007), which wowed me as a young woman struggling to make sense of the world after 9/11. It gives an extraordinary account of leaving the Muslim Brotherhood, life in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, fleeing an arranged marriage, arriving in the Netherlands, and losing her religion as she discovered European, and particularly Enlightenment thought. This was followed by a sequel to Infidel called Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilisations (2010), and Heretic: Why Islam needs a Reformation Now (2015).
Her most recent tome, Prey, argues that mass migration of young men to Europe since the 2015 crisis has, on balance, been deleterious for European women.
The terse, engaging book has been a bestseller in Europe (number one in Denmark) but was virtually ignored in the US where “the publishing infrastructure has been taken over by woke”, as Hirsi Ali tells me good-humouredly. Predictably, right-on reviewers hated it. Jill Filipovic’s review in The New York Times called the book “absolutist” and by implication racist; in the UK, Maryan Namazie accused Hirsi Ali of “pandering to Trumpian politics”. This was a strange response to a book of strikingly even tone, packed with constructive solutions to a problem carefully identified. But then again, her critics aren’t confined to parts of the Muslim community; large swathes of the Left – on high alert for any critique of “brown people”, whom they see as necessary and eternal victims of the white West – do, too.
In refusing to be silenced, Hirsi Ali also has the terrifying honour of being on al-Qaeda’s most-wanted list. I hope to ask what this is like but am told by her head of communications not to bother: she is not able to comment on her security situation. In the event, we meet in Cernobbio, on Lake Como, under mysterious circumstances. I am instructed to be at the four-star Hotel Miralago on the lake at 5pm, when Hirsi Ali has a short break in a schedule of events. Shortly afterwards, she appears with her burly head of security; they have just stepped off a boat. As Hirsi Ali, who is charming and warm, nips to the loo, the security man tells me she’s been at a big economic forum: “Everybody is here; all the world leaders”. Hirsi Ali is reluctant to talk about it – they don’t want press – but reveals it’s an Ambrosetti summit, held by a think tank called The European House. Later, when I leave to return to Milan, there is a bomb scare at the Como train station and we are all bundled out by yelling police: Hirsi Ali is only one of many possible targets that weekend.
She has been one of America’s most outspoken critics of Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, not least for the abandonment of its women, and as she sips her chamomile tea she tells me why it represents “a huge catastrophe”. “You sow the seeds, you cultivate your [crops], you watch it grow, and then just at the final moment you run, which doesn’t make sense to me. None of us understand why it had to be this way.”
To many, the withdrawal represented the end of an age of American dominance – and decency – but “there are people who think there’s something worth clinging to”; Hirsi Ali included. Despite being painted as a “Trumpian” by her woke detractors, she has a far subtler view about the West than such a label implies. “The post-1945 rules-based international order is imperfect, but worth holding on to. I’m 51 years old, I’m old enough to think that’s better than the alternative – which is the idea that all this is just Western hubris.
“The West has been dealing with radical Islamic terrorism since 9/11; it’s been messy and bloody and bad, but look at what [China] is [doing].” If we let China take over the world order, unspeakable things would take place, Hirsi Ali says: “look at how they’re treating [millions] of their own people” – the Uighurs.
“Is the West messy? Yes. But I’d rather hide behind Boris Johnson’s skirts and even Biden’s, than the president of China and Islamists.”
“I think Britain has a huge role to play, more than they realise. Because America is now in this moral and cultural confusion, Britain should take the lead of the English-speaking world.” Hirsi Ali is a big fan of Brexit, in part because it showed the health of our political culture. Instead of responding to a problem – the sense that globalisation had left many behind – with an orange-headed persona like America did with Trump, we responded with an “idea”: taking back control by leaving the European bloc.
If he wanted to, Johnson could step up to the plate and become the new leader of the world order because he is “a charismatic guy, a hero for a lot of people”. But even if he fails to step up to the plate, “Britain still can lead because Britain is more than the prime minister in office today: it’s also the Royal family, it is the English language, it is English movies and literature.”
Hirsi Ali wrote recently of her disgust with America caring “more about pronouns than the women of Afghanistan”. There’s a document, she tells me, which shows that “the current state department is proselytising about gender fluidity in third world countries. How can you talk about women’s rights when you erase women, when you talk about chestfeeding, ‘people who menstruate’, how do you even make sense to anyone?”
Hirsi Ali’s feminism is universal: we should care about all women the world over. But how are we to prioritise the needs and rights of all women in the world without going out and conquering every country? Should we do that?
Again, I am surprised at how swiftly Hirsi Ali distances herself from anything remotely warmongering. “No, we should not. You have to think about the battle as a confrontation of ideas. The Chinese are trying to sell us on their ideas. They think that an authoritarian government that tells its citizens what it can and cannot do is the best way for a society to live. Then the Islamists are saying, ‘here is the straight path’. And then we have our own messy Western ‘live and let live’ way. I’m not saying we should conquer other people but we should do our darndest best to sell them our ideas and to promote them.”
But how do we make that happen without the kind of military presence we had in Afghanistan, where thanks to Western occupation, Afghani girls became scientists, journalists, doctors? “But what if they come here?” she promptly says, an extraordinary response for someone who has just published a book about the gross mismanagement, and consequent negative effects, of mass immigration to Europe.
People are “voting with their feet,” she says, and those who “don’t want to live under their dictatorship are making their way to the West. Given that, it shouldn’t really be too hard to say, ‘hey, why are you here? How can we make this a win-win?’ And that’s really the story of Prey. You can either let these men rampage the way they do back home, or you can say, ‘wait a second’, the minute you come in our territory, this is the kind of behaviour we expect, and if you don’t do it, we will deport.”
It’s that staunch “our way or the highway” view of immigration that the hypocritical anti-imperialism brigade can’t stand. “Why not offer those classes: the minute you come through the border: you’ve got to show up for a class, and if you don’t, we’re going to send you back,” she says. “Get that message across, and make it very clear, and it will happen. People say, ‘oh we can’t’ and I say, wait a minute, you used to colonise half the world, of course you can do it.”
In fact, the biggest problem facing the West right now, she thinks, is an addiction to comfort, which has created a crisis of moral courage. “People are afraid, ‘I’ll lose my job, I won’t be invited to a party, I’ll be maligned, I’ll be made to feel uncomfortable’. My gosh, if you threaten me: ‘either you conform or lose your job’, I would literally stick my tongue out. Losing my job? That’s the threat? It’s not dissent or the gulag. It’s dissent or comfort!
“The woke are easy to defeat,” she explains. “The people I have a problem with are people cowed by this comfort; they are ready to hand [themselves] over to ideological extremes because it’s so much easier.”
Our time is short, and Ferguson calls his wife, reminding her they have a dinner to get ready for. “He has that Scottish time, everything has to be precise,” she explains. “I come from Somalia and I barely can read a clock… he knows how long it takes me to get ready. He is my clock.”
For all the seismic problems gripping the world, Hirsi Ali is no pessimist. “I think we just need to encourage those people who are in their comfort zone to come out of it.” And as that begins to happen, “there’s cause for hope, more and more.”