Ayaan Hirsi Ali probably has the strongest current claim to the title of most unfairly maligned person. Ever since she started speaking out against the dangers posed by Islamism and the abuses inflicted on women across the world, and particularly in migrant communities in Europe, in the name of Islam, she has been both lauded and excoriated, but mostly the latter. To many, she is a race, class, faith or cultural traitor, her mind poisoned by Orientalism and far-right bigotry against several groups of which she was once a member: asylum-seekers, migrants, Muslims and Muslim women. The criticism has continued with her new book, Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. A review by Jill Filipovic in the New York Times describes Prey as “absolutist” in a way similar to a fundamentalist religion and, more cautiously, suggests that “it could also be said to be cut through with bigotry.” Douglas Murray has provided a fine dissection of Filipovic’s review. More worryingly, Maryam Namazie, feminist, communist, ex-Muslim, human rights activist and much more, has just as scurrilously critiqued Hirsi Ali’s book, even though Namazie has herself been unjustly slandered for being a vociferous critic of Islam and a tireless champion of the disenfranchised.
I have enormous admiration both for Namazie as a person and for her work. I have helped to host her for a talk at Edinburgh University in 2019, interviewed her for a podcast and dined with her. That is why her tweets on Prey and her subsequent review have disappointed me. The problem is not that Namazie disagrees with Hirsi Ali, but that she imputes motives to her that are not to be found in her work and that are often demonstrably false. I don’t agree with everything Hirsi Ali has written, let alone everything in Prey, but the author does not deserve to be maligned.
Prey was always bound to be controversial, since it tackles the recent wave of migration to Europe by people from mostly Muslim countries and the problems that have ensued. Hirsi Ali argues that sexual violence against women in Europe has increased because of the misogynistic religious culture from which many of these migrants have come—in other words, she argues that values matter. Some of the solutions she proposes, such as increased surveillance of migrants, are too heavy-handed, but they are not offered frivolously. She condemns the passivity of European politicians and feminists who are too ensnared by intersectional multiculturalism to stand with their sisters against an aggressive, religion-based outbreak of patriarchal sexual violence.
Namazie argues that Hirsi Ali’s focus on Islam is misplaced, given the fact that violence against women is universal:
Undoubtedly, sexual violence is pervasive and on the rise in the UK, Europe and everywhere. For example, incidents of rape per 100,000 are higher in Australia and the US than a majority of European countries. According to WHO, most sexual violence is carried out by an intimate partner, not a stranger. This violence has been greatly exacerbated during lockdown.
But Hirsi Ali spends a lot of time saying similar things. In the introduction, she poses the question, “Why does this book focus only on Muslim men and not on all men, when sexual violence and contempt for women are universal phenomena?” and lists examples of non-Muslim sexual violence. “If several million mostly young men had arrived in Europe from any part of the world, there would almost certainly have been an increase in sexual crimes against women,” she continues, but, she argues, large-scale migration from Muslim-majority countries marks a meaningful social and cultural shift and there is significant regional and cultural variation across the world in the sexual violence numbers. There is nothing wrong with focusing on a particular problem, especially one so massive and so often talked about only by racists or not at all.
Namazie herself provides the answer to the question of why Hirsi Ali focuses on Islam. She notes that most sexual violence is committed by partners, not strangers, but, as Hirsi Ali shows, in Europe, an increasing amount of sexual violence is being committed by people unknown to the victim. This is a phenomenon worth investigating.
But doesn’t this just play into the hands of those racist nuts on the far right? Namazie claims that, “Written during Trump’s presidency, and published only in the US, Hirsi Ali’s book on the UK and Europe panders to Trumpian and populist politics.” However, in her review, Namazie fails to mention Hirsi Ali’s reasoning in Prey that she wishes to stop the discussion being “monopolized by those elements.” Hirsi Ali includes an entire chapter in which she critiques populists and their solutions and says that an honest, rational conversation about the issue is the best way to prevent them from gaining power. One of the primary themes of the book is how to defend liberal societies against populists and racists.
Of the failure of politicians and feminists to address issues with migration, Hirsi Ali writes:
it is just this sort of appeasement of the forces of illiberalism that leads to the rise of the populist Right. As the legitimate authorities shut down the free speech of those who seek to defend the open society, they inadvertently create an opportunity for forces that are not much more committed to liberal values than those they seek to expel or exclude from Europe.
I have been a beneficiary of the asylum system and of a successful integration program. I have emigrated twice in my life. I would be a monstrous hypocrite if I lent support to the proponents of deportation and immigration restriction. What I want to see is many others like me enjoying the same opportunities that I enjoyed and contributing, as I believe I have, to the health of the West’s open societies. But without drastic reforms of Europe’s immigration and integration systems, that is not going to happen.
There are many other such passages. These are not the words of someone who sympathises with racists in the slightest but of someone as utterly opposed to them as she is to the forces of reaction in Islam. In fact, the latter quotation shows that, for all her criticisms of the current system, she is arguing for a better life for immigrants and refugees. One of her issues is that, under the current system, everybody loses—migrants themselves, the host societies, liberal democracy, women both Muslim and non-Muslim—except for the Islamists and the racists.
Hirsi Ali speaks of a “nightmare scenario” in which, having failed to deal seriously with the migration issue, the result is that parallel societies proliferate throughout Europe, racists are emboldened, ordinary people turn to extremism, having lost faith in the existing order, and women suffer worst of all, at the hands of both Islamic misogynists and the far right. That her condemnation of racists and the far right here and elsewhere has seemingly escaped so many reviewers’ notice is mystifying.
But sexism is not in someone’s DNA because of a lottery of birth. Those in power determine the dominant culture and use force to impose it, hence why many flee. Also, no community, population or society are monoliths. Culture isn’t static. It’s constantly changing and being revised, reviewed and challenged by individuals with agency. In Iran, for example, there is a tsunami of atheism and a vibrant women’s liberation movement despite a repressive theocracy.
But Hirsi Ali’s previous book, Heretic, is specifically about the diversity of Muslims and the many reformers and liberals in the Muslim world and nowhere in Prey does she state anything remotely like the views that Namazie imputes to her here. Here is a selection, from throughout the book, of what she actually says:
- It is important to state unambiguously that there is no racial component to my argument.
- Let me state this up front: being Muslim, or being an immigrant from the Muslim world, does not make you a threat to women. Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment seem to be universal.
- The point of this book is not to demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. Rather, it is to better understand the nature and significance of the sexual violence that has occurred in so many parts of Europe in the recent past … [Because of the #MeToo movement] I found myself wondering why an equally bright light was not being shone on the often more serious crimes against women in lower-income neighborhoods in Europe.
- As an immigrant and former asylum seeker of Somali origin, I am for immigration … In fact, the West is failing migrants by refusing to prepare young men for the culture clash they will experience.
- I am aware of the fact that I am generalizing. The reality is, of course, more complex than even a book can convey … It is not my intention to dismiss all immigrants as incapable of adapting to their new surroundings … But there is a problem with the attitudes and behaviors that some immigrants bring with them.
- I do not want to create the impression that all people from Muslim societies are aggressive. They are not.
Such disclaimers and nuances are apparent throughout. Hirsi Ali discusses Muslim and ex-Muslim reformers, even praising the niqab-wearing and still somewhat conservative “Salafi Feminist” Zainab bint Younus as “a breath of fresh air.” Is this a racist woman who has turned her back on fellow immigrants, who are trying to escape suffering and persecution while she closes the door after her? Clearly not. This is a humane and rational woman who calmly analyses lots of data and cases in the hope of improving everybody’s lives, but especially women’s, whose safety faces a particular threat in Europe, a threat that has hardly been publicly discussed but is attested to by the many feminists, including migrant activists, quoted in the book. Hirsi Ali explicitly defines herself in the book as pro-woman and pro-immigrant, and constantly shows her commitment to these stances.
For someone enamoured with ‘Western civilisation,’ Hirsi Ali should understand individual rather than group accountability for crime. Her emphasis on migrant men from Muslim-majority countries means that her solutions are focused on migration control rather than ending sexual violence. They include severe punishments for minor infractions, increased southern border security, enlarged defence budgets, expanded surveillance, and further military interventions as well as the scrapping of the asylum regime and the deportation of those who don’t subscribe to or adopt western values. Which ‘western values’ is unclear: hers, Douglas Murray’s, Donald Trump’s and Tommy Robinson’s, or that of Martin Luther King, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
The list of Hirsi Ali’s solutions Namazie outlines here is simplified and misleading. For example, Hirsi Ali doesn’t advocate “further military interventions” tout court, but rather a concerted effort on the part of Europe to improve conditions in desolated countries rather than relying on “half-baked transatlantic intervention[s]” such as the US campaign in Libya. Military intervention should only come about “if necessary.”
As for lumping together Hirsi Ali in a rogues’ gallery with Tommy Robinson when her book is a spirited defence of liberal humanism and feminism, well, that is just clumsy. Hirsi Ali has more in common with the good guys on Namazie’s list than with Robinson. And Namazie is wrong in her criticism that the values Hirsi Ali espouses in the book are unclear. Hirsi Ali argues throughout for liberal values—free speech, women’s rights and the rule of law—and concludes that: “we need a new women’s movement, one that views the world not in terms of multiculturalism and intersectionality but in universal terms and that, in the spirit of John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, is prepared to stand up for the rights of all women.”
I agree with Namazie that the phrase “western values” is meaningless, given that western values have produced superstition and bigotry in the past and present (including Critical Social Justice) as well as great universal values, such as free speech. But it is clear what Hirsi Ali means when she uses such terminology. And she frequently invokes universalism, too.
Yes, all sexual violence is underreported, as Namazie says. Hirsi Ali makes the same point. But there is the complicating factor of political correctness when it comes to migrant sexual violence. Namazie denies that this is important. But in Prey, Hirsi Ali quotes the relevant authorities on their fear of being labelled racists as a reason why too little, too late was done to protect women and girls, in Cologne, for example.
Namazie’s review is slightly more restrained than her earlier tweets, in one of which she says, “Now that you are safe @Ayaan, you seem to forget right to asylum is a human right. Whether you like it or not. Like the right to shelter, education, food … And not just for those who are like you.” This ugly accusation is not only utterly without foundation, but is flatly contradicted by Hirsi Ali’s own words. Namazie concludes her review thus: “It [the book] is more concerned with defending the racialisation of crime and the criminalisation of migration than ending sexual violence. Clearly, even if all her solutions are carried out to the letter, violence against women will still be a pandemic. But that is not, after all, the point of her book.” But the book itself contains a great deal of evidence against the accusation that Hirsi Ali cares more about perpetuating racism and criminalising migrants than about women’s rights.
The problem is not that Namazie disagrees with Hirsi Ali. It is that she disagrees with things that Hirsi Ali is not arguing.
Hirsi Ali’s main achievement is to have calmly, humanely, and rationally opened up a conversation about one of the most urgent issues of the day. That she is able to write with such restraint and wit, and only allows her rage to surface in occasional, understated—and therefore all the more piercing—moments, despite dealing with some horrific crimes, is a testament to her integrity and resilience.
Her cautious, intelligent use of data, her wide-ranging and reasonable analyses, her sympathy with women and migrants, her opposition to jihadists and racists alike, and her defence of universal liberal values, both in Prey and throughout the rest of her remarkable output, mark Hirsi Ali as one of the most significant intellectuals alive today. Do yourself a favour and ignore the hit pieces. Read Prey instead, and you might come to the same conclusion as I have: that it is about time Ayaan Hirsi Ali was recognised as the feminist hero she is.