Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be the perfect feminist hero.
In theory, she fits the role on multiple levels: She’s an escapee from an abusive patriarchy. She’s an African immigrant who made her own way in a Western country, the Netherlands. She’s a fierce advocate for women’s rights. She’s a target for deadly violence by angry men who want to shut her up. She left her religion and became a scourge of its repressive practices.
Except for the blemish on her record: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a dissident from the wrong religion.
Raised a Muslim in Somalia, subjected to genital mutilation and married off to a distant cousin, she is famously a critic of Islam. She has excoriated it at extraordinary risk to her own safety, and makes the case again in her latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.”
When she collaborated on a film in the Netherlands in 2004 cataloging abuses against Muslim women, her fellow filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated by an Islamist who left a note threatening her pinned to van Gogh’s chest — with a knife.
But Hirsi Ali wouldn’t be silenced. She is truly a hero of our time. She is defying the jihadi censors, the misbegotten hate-speech laws and the polite conventions of Western debate that all limit what can be said about the relationship of Islam to modernity.
Our society, and especially the left, tends to reflexively celebrate dissenters. But some heretics are more welcome than others. In the case of Islam, the pieties of multiculturalism clash with what should be an imperative of feminism (i.e., forcefully standing up for the basic rights of women in Muslim societies), and feminism tends to lose out.
“The concern,” as one feminist wrote of Hirsi Ali, “is that her intervention into the issue of gender equality in Muslim societies will strengthen racism rather than weaken sexism.” In the fashionable neologism designed to be a conversation-stopper, she is “an Islamophobe.” Brandeis University notoriously rescinded a planned honorary degree for her last year.
If Hirsi Ali had had a strict Baptist upbringing and left to tell the story of its hypocrisies and closed-mindedness, she would be celebrated in such precincts as Brandeis, without anyone uttering a peep of protest.
This is the “Book of Mormon” effect — no one cares about offending the inoffensive. It’s only debate over a religion that is home to dangerous fanatics that must be carefully policed.
Even people not otherwise known for their solicitude for religious sensibilities are uncomfortable with her criticisms of Islam. In his interview with her this week, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart worried that “people single out Islam,” when Christianity underwent its own difficult reconciliation with modernity. True enough, but the horrific intra-Christian bloodletting of the Thirty Years’ War was 400 years ago.
If Islam is on the same trajectory, it is badly trailing the pace. Hirsi Ali’s prescriptions are hardly unassailable. Her notion of religious reform bears an atheistic stamp. If change in Islam depends on getting Muslims to admit that Muhammad was not The Prophet, as she writes in “Heretic,” the cause is indeed hopeless. The ummah is not going to dissolve itself into a gooey Unitarian Universalism.
Hirsi Ali recalls the dissidents from communism in the 20th century like the great Whittaker Chambers. Their personal experience redoubled their commitment to the fight for freedom and human dignity. They, too, were often dismissed as fanatics and as embarrassments to polite opinion. But their intellectual contributions, and the examples of their own bravery, were indispensable in the long ideological struggle.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not just a heretic; she also is a believer. She has more confidence in Western civilization and its values than people who have never had to live outside it, or face down the enemies who want to destroy it. If she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves, so much the worse for her detractors.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.