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

Colin O'Brien
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London Life: the photographs that capture the changing face of London over seven decades

Over 70 years, Colin O'Brien has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse.

Born in a Victorian tenement in ­Clerkenwell in 1940, when the area was known as “Little Italy” in recognition of the main immigrant community, Colin O’Brien began to take photographs of his family, friends and immediate environment with a box camera at the age of eight. Displaying extraordinary maturity, some of these pictures are reminiscent of Bert Hardy’s photographs of children playing in the street – except that Colin was one of the kids and he was photographing his peers (above).

Intimate images of his mother in the scullery, his father eating breakfast before going to work at the nearby Mount Pleasant sorting office and a neighbour sharing out the shepherd’s pie among the members of her large family: these are the domestic scenes of Colin’s childhood. Drama erupted into this world in the form of multiple car crashes at the junction of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, which Colin captured from his window in beautiful compositions that prefigure both Weegee and Andy Warhol in proposing traffic accidents as legitimate subjects for photography.

In the 1960s the O’Briens were rehoused in a top-floor flat in Michael Cliffe House, a modernist council block on the eastern fringe of Clerkenwell named after the erstwhile Labour mayor of Finsbury, and the tenement dwellings of Little Italy were demolished. From here, Colin recorded the postwar rebuilding of the City of London and the construction of the Barbican. His longing for dramatic spectacle was satisfied by shots of lighting over St Paul’s Cathedral, which he took down to Fleet Street for publication in the Evening Standard the next day.

As Colin’s experience of London expanded he recorded the transition from the years of austerity to those of plenty. At first, he took affectionate pictures of his mother trying on hats she couldn’t afford in Oxford Street; later he captured enthusiastic customers at the Woolworths pic’n’mix counter in Exmouth Market at the end of sweet rationing. A chance encounter with the playwright Bill Naughton led him to take the photograph for the dust jacket of Alfie, and Naughton subsidised Colin to set up his first photography studio. By now, Colin was recording new waves of immigration, taking glamorous street portraits of black girls posing for his lens and, in later years, Asian children enacting a Nativity procession in Brick Lane. Through redevelopment in the 1980s, the flash of the 1990s and the increasing dominance of corporate culture in the 21st century, Colin kept snapping.

Over seven decades, he has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse. In 2014 he photographed Jasmine Stone, one of the single mothers in New­ham, east London, evicted from a homeless hostel and denied social housing. She occupied an empty council house in protest against the sale of local authority housing to property developers. The picture of Jasmine and her daughter Safia (facing page) is a poignant coda to an unparalleled body of photography, distinguished equally by its aesthetic flair and its human sympathy.

The Gentle Author blogs about London at: spitalfieldslife.com

“London Life” by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life (£25)

 

Battersea, 1974

“I came across these children from the prefabs playing on an industrial site and they posed for me in front of the junkyard gates,” the photographer writes.

Corner of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, 11 June 1962

“I read later that a child died in this accident,” O’Brien writes. “There was a rumour the traffic lights all turned green at once.”

Gerrard Street, Soho, 1987

When O’Brien exhibited the picture, the man in it recognised himself and said that the child was his niece Christine. “Next day, she came along and I took her photograph again, standing next to the earlier shot. By then she was a student, training to be a dentist.”

Battersea Park, 1975

Three generations of the same family sit down for lunch at a café.

Oxford Street, early 1960s

 

O’Brien’s mother and Auntie Beattie try on hats while he takes their picture with his prized Leica – which his parents bought for a “nominal sum” off a chauffeur who claimed he’d found it in the back of his employer’s car. “These sort of deals with expensive merchandise being sold ‘off the back of a lorry’ were not uncommon,” he says.

 

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double