The NS Interview: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

“Islam is exempted from scrutiny – and spreading fast”

You grew up in Africa and then moved to the Netherlands. How did that affect you?
It was my first gateway to western life as it is lived, not the way I read in novels in Kenya.

You have written of your traumatic childhood. Is there anything that you owe your family?
I am grateful to my father for sending me to school, and that we moved from Somalia to Kenya, where I learned English. And that my mother has always been a very strong woman.

Your family still lives within Islam. How do they feel about your atheist life in America?
My brother thinks it is very, very bad that I left Islam. My half-sister wants to convert me back; I want to convert her to western values. My mum is terrified that when I die, and we all go to God, I will be burned.

Do you feel that you belong in America?
I'm finally at home. I feel welcome, I feel free.

Which thinkers have shaped your ideas?
Many: John Locke and John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, people like Karl Popper. Defenders of individualism.

You defend free speech, yet you're under guard because you criticise Islam publicly. How do you deal with this contradiction?
I'm willing to face the continuous stream of threats. It's not the same as my freedoms being taken away. If I'd gone with the man my father chose, I wouldn't be living the way I want to.

Did you intend to become known for your outspokenness on Islam?
I don't define myself by this subject, I just publish and debate other participants' involvement.

In your book Nomad, you talk about the west's superiority as an objective truth.
Freedom, women's rights, prosperity, stability - by all these indicators, the west is superior. That's not opinion, it's basic fact.

What do you want your work to achieve?
I'd like Muslims to look at their religion as a set of beliefs that they can appraise critically and pick and choose from.

Is there anything you like about Islam?
There are things I don't mind - people praying and fasting because it makes them feel good. But there are all these rules governing men and women. And the political dimension: jihad.

What ideology does appeal to you?
Liberal capitalism is not perfect, but compared to the other isms it's far superior.

Do you ever worry that your ideas contribute to mistrust or intolerance of Muslims?
I don't think so. What I do is not create division, but expose the reasoning and the activity, and how persistently it violates human rights.

When you talk about a clash of civilisations, are you trying to be provocative?
To provoke debate, yes. Islam is spreading very fast. Westerners exempt Islam from scrutiny.

You are sympathetic towards Christianity, but doesn't it also have its unpleasant extremes?
Christianity has gone through a process of reformation. Islam has not.

Isn't that an idealised view, given the recent abuse scandals and so on?
If I idealised it, I would be a Christian. Are all religions equally bad? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins say so. I beg to differ. It doesn't blind me to Christianity's imperfections.

You say western feminists are soft on Islam. Can't Muslim women fight their own battles?
Some Muslim women will say, "You're patronising," but the ones who are locked up, who are forced to wear the burqa, they will be grateful.

Do you support Europe's moves to ban the veil?
No. I'm against the veil because of the idea that a woman is responsible not only for her sexuality but also for that of men.

How do you view the recent events around the aid flotilla sent to Gaza?
Turkey provoked Israel. It is moving away from the west and slowly Islamising.

What are your hopes for Britain's government?
I really hope it will be strong on national security and push back the Islamisation of the UK.

Is there anything you regret?
I regret that Theo van Gogh was killed.

Do you vote?
I just voted in Holland, for the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy [VVD]. Their philosophy is comparable to David Cameron's.

Do you have a plan?
When I took the train from Germany in 1992, I didn't know where my life would lead me, but I'm really glad that I did it.

Are we all doomed?
No. Things can always be improved - and it's worth trying.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Mogadishu, Somalia
1976 Settles with family in Kenya, having lived in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia
1992 Political asylum in the Netherlands
2000 MA in politics, Leiden University
2002 First book, The Son Factory, published
2003 Enters Dutch House of Representatives
2004 Receives death threats after broadcast of Submission, her film with Theo van Gogh
2007 Becomes a permanent US resident
2010 Nomad is published

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

All Photos: The Perth Mermaids
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Meet the mermaids trying to defend the coral reefs from climate change

Speaking up for the ocean is taking professional mermaids to the heart of Australia's fiercest political debate.

The tale of a woman who swaps her voice for legs might not always appear empowering. But the legacy of Disney’s Ariel has a new twist. Around the world young people are speaking up for the ocean by diving into it – as mermaids.

Recreational mermaiding has found its feet in recent years. Mass-produced tails are increasingly affordable, the dolphin kick is a great work-out, and MerCons (Mermaid Conventions) are on the rise. The appeal of fashion and free-diving are big parts of its attraction – but so is a love of fish, with some professionals putting conservation at the heart of their work.

This is particularly true in Australia, where climate change is decimating underwater life. Almost half of the Great Barrier Reef is thought to have died in the last 18 months. “I remember crying at how magical it was and how angry I was at what we were doing to it,” says Jessica Bell from Perth. “I just want to grab our government, shove their heads under there and say ‘Look at what we have, look at how special it is – can you see why we need to protect it at all costs!’"

Jess performs as a mermaid at the Aquarium of Western Australia, together with her friend Amelia Lassetter. The two met studying art at university, where they hand-crafted their first tail. Disney's Little Mermaid film was definitely an inspiration here, yet that is far from their whole story: “Don't get me wrong, we love Disney, but this is about so much more for us,” says Jess, “it is our livelihood. It is connected to our art, fitness and mental health; we connect with people from all over the world; we inspire children; we give the ocean a voice.”

The artists use their mermaid alter-egos to help children celebrate the sea and all things in it. That means wearing 15kg silicone tails that look like Anglefish (and feel like squid to touch). It means biodegradable glitter and learning to swim like a dolphin. But it also means blisters, back strain and chest infections. Holding your breath underwater can be life-threatening without proper instruction, and accidentally swallowing remains of the aquarium’s rotting fish-food is a hazard of the job. 

By far the most challenging part of their work, however, is spreading the word about the problems the oceans face. “Many people don’t know exactly what coral bleaching is, or that coral is a living animal, as opposed to a plant.” says Jess, “Others are unaware of what an important cornerstone of the ocean ecosystem coral reefs are – or simply don’t seem to care.”

In fact, talking about the reef’s destruction is taking the mermaids to the heart of Australia’s most polarised political issue: climate change.

The environmental minister Josh Frydenberg recently described Unesco's decision to leave the reef off its “In Danger” list as a “big win” for the centre-right Australian government. But environmentalists beg to differ, saying the plan downplays Australia's responsibility to cut its own CO2 emissions: “The political response to the enormous damage being done to the coral and the marine life on our Great Barrier Reef has been vastly inadequate and doesn’t reflect the urgent threat a warming planet poses to the ecosystem,” says Geoff Cousins, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Of primary concern are plans to dig Australia’s biggest ever coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. This scheme will see increased industrial traffic across the nearby reef and unleash decades of pollution. The result is a situation in which climate change has become so highly charged that “some organisations prefer not to talk about it,” says Josh Meadows from Environmental Justice Australia.

Where does this leave professional mermaids? The word mermaid is derived from the “mere” meaning water and “maid” meaning servant, explains Jess. “So we are like the guardian or servants of the ocean. We are literally half fish, half human; a bridge of understanding between land and sea.”

Balancing this impulse with the politics of their employers is not always easy. “There are some aquariums in the world that are extremely commercial and not interested in rocking the boat whatsoever,” says Jess. “Yet there are others that have really great conservation messages, such as the government-run Great Barrier Reef HQ.”

Some aquariums have also focused on cultivating an interest in how the oceans work at a young age – which is where mermaids can play a part. The challenge, Jess explains, is to explain climate change to kids without scaring them, boring them, or leaving them racked with guilt: “Younger children don’t understand climate change, but they do understand animals and plants and can be engaged by them."

This was the case for Amelia, Jess's fellow mermaid. As a child, she used to collect coral off the beach and think it was beautiful. Then one day her mother told her that what she had found was actually the skeleton of coral that used to be alive. "She was shocked," Jess says.

Thankfully their efforts, alongside those of the wider environmental community, are showing signs of success. A recent poll from the Climate Institute revealed that 66 per cent of Australians have a high level of concern about climate change, while the campaign against the Adani mine is fast becoming the environmental issue of the day.

There is of course still much more to be done, with the legal team at Environmental Justice Australia calling on the government to set even stronger goals to cut climate pollution and to stop supporting new mines. Yet however hard it can be, and however “trivial or childish” they may appear to some, the mermaids are resolved to continue their role. “Sometimes we feel helpless," Jess says. "But we always come full circle and are determined to do our part to help." 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals