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

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The cellist of Auschwitz

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was sent to the death camp as a child. Music saved her.

In the grainy black-and-white photograph the girl poses with her cello, gazing down towards the bow. It was 1938 in Berlin, shortly before Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass”, the
first Nazi pogrom that led to the incarceration of Jews. Anita had grown up in a house in Breslau, which was then in the east of Germany, that was filled with music. Lying in bed, she would listen as her mother, Edith, started her violin routine with the opening octaves of a Beethoven concerto. Her father, Alfons, loved to sing. Her two elder sisters played the piano and the violin. She, too, started learning to play an instrument “very young”, as she recalled recently when we met at the JW3 Jewish community centre in London.

“I remember that my mother had such a small cello that she could hold it under her chin,” said Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who is now 90.

The Laskers’ quiet life soured after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. In the street, children spat at Anita or called her a “dirty Jew”. Schools were segregated. The anti-Semitism became so pervasive that it was no longer possible to find a music teacher brave enough to take on a Jewish pupil.

Anita’s parents sent her alone to Berlin, a bigger city that offered more anonymity, and where they had found a tutor to help her master the cello – a skill that later saved her life. At that point her father, who had fought in the trenches for Germany in the First World War, winning an Iron Cross, believed that the Nazis “could not be so stupid” as to intensify their persecution of the Jews. Indeed, Anita began to enjoy her time in Berlin (“I was quite a good practiser but I preferred walking around the stores!”), but her stay was cut short when stormtroopers and civilians smashed thousands of Jewish-owned shops, homes and synagogues on Kristallnacht. “From that day on, you knew there was no hope,” Anita said.

Her eldest sister, Marianne, emigrated to the UK shortly before war broke out, but despite their parents’ frantic efforts the rest of the family could not get out. The oppression mounted. In 1941, Anita’s high school was closed and she and her sister Renate were ordered to work in a paper factory, placing labels on toilet rolls. (In a letter to Marianne at the time, Anita wrote: “I have attained a dexterity at doing this which I’ll probably never be able to reach on the cello.”) Then, in April the following year, her parents received a deportation order and were given 24 hours to report to a transport point. They were taken to a village called Izbica in Poland, where Jews were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.

Though Anita and Renate were not on the deportation list they were being closely watched. At the paper factory, they had been forging leave passes for French prisoners of war and civilians who were forced to work in Germany. Realising that the Gestapo were on to them, the girls created their own travel documents and tried to board a train bound for Paris, but they were arrested at Breslau station. Anita was prepared: in her stocking was a tiny bottle of cyanide. She and Renate each swallowed half. Instead of bitter almonds, however, they tasted icing sugar. Anita’s friend who had given her the poison, had later secretly changed the contents, not wanting her to die.

Convicted of forgery, aiding the enemy and attempted escape, the sisters were sent to separate prisons. Then in December 1943 Anita was told she was being moved to Auschwitz. She was aware what that meant. “You knew about the gas chambers in Auschwitz long before one was in Auschwitz,” Anita told me.


When the packed cattle trucks arrived at Auschwitz an SS committee was usually on hand to select people to be gassed immediately. Anita’s group, though, was relatively small and consisted solely of Karteihäftlingen, “prisoners with a file”, which is to say those who had been convicted of a crime. This meant they could not be killed straight away, in case they had a summons to reappear in court.

“There was this division between the law – the old-fashioned law – and the Nazis, where the law suddenly did not apply any more,” Anita said. “I had ended up there as a criminal rather than as a Jew, and it was much better to be a criminal.”

She was made to undress, and had her head shaved and her left arm tattooed with the number 69388. Unprompted – she still does not know why she said it – Anita mentioned to the prisoner who was processing her that she played the cello. As she recalled in her 1996 memoir, Inherit the Truth, the woman grabbed her and said: “That is fantastic . . . You will be saved.”

Like some of the other concentration and extermination camps, Auschwitz had an official men’s orchestra. The SS commander of the women’s camp, Maria Mandl, a brutal woman known as the Beast, loved classical music (Puccini in particular) and ordered that a female orchestra should be set up, too. The orchestra leader when Anita arrived was the renowned violinist Alma Rosé, an Austrian Jew and niece of Gustav Mahler. Rosé asked Anita to try out; her audition piece was Schubert’s “Marche Militaire”. The “band”, as Anita called it, had violins, mandolins, guitars, flutes and accordions, but no bass instrument, so a cellist was highly valued, and especially a good one. “There were only about five people in that orchestra who could play their instruments properly,” Anita told me.

She was assigned to the music barracks with the rest of the orchestra. During the day they would practise intensively under Rosé’s strict instruction, playing German hits, arias from operas and other classical pieces. “We never went out to arbeit [work] because we were too busy trying to learn.”

Though there seemed no hope of getting out alive – the smoking chimneys were daily reminders of the Final Solution – Anita knew she was fortunate compared to many other prisoners. Being “the cellist”, she had not completely lost her identity and her talent was worth something to camp officials. After she was reunited with Renate, who arrived at Auschwitz from prison in Jauer, Anita gathered the courage to ask Mandl if her sister could work as a messenger. With this job, Renate, who was in a terrible physical state, received slightly better rations and housing. The cello had prolonged Anita’s life, and now it saved her sister’s, too.

The band’s main role was to play marching music at one of the camp gates in the mornings and evenings as thousands of men and women were led to and from the nearby factories and fields. Forced to keep in rhythm, the slave labourers were easier to control. “The Germans like to keep things neat and tidy,” Anita said.

Many of the prisoners hated the music. In his memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi described the marching tunes as “infernal”. Anita said she understood the sentiment, and that the orchestra’s second function – the Sunday concerts – may have been even more offensive. (But she did add that some survivors said: “For ten seconds, we could dream ourselves out of our situation.”)

“People have asked me: ‘How could you play music in the camp?’ It wasn’t the situation that you come there and have a choice: you come there expecting to go in the gas chamber. Instead of that, somebody puts a cello in your hand. Well, you are unlikely to say, ‘No, I’m only playing at Carnegie Hall . . .’ You just sat there, you played, and you hoped you were alive the next day.”

The musicians had a third, unofficial function: playing for individual SS officers who, having spent the day deciding who should live or die, would enter the barracks and demand a solo performance. Among these was Josef Mengele, “the Angel of Death”, who performed lethal experiments on human subjects and specialised in identical twins. One of his favourite pieces was “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), a hauntingly beautiful piece from Schumann’s suite Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”). “Mengele comes in [and says to me], ‘I want to hear the Träumerei,’” Anita said. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I didn’t even look at the guy; I thought, ‘I’ll play it as fast as is acceptable.’ It wasn’t un­usual that they wanted to hear something. Germans are very musical people.”

In October 1944 the female musicians were told to line up, Jews on one side and Aryans on the other. Anita was sure they were going to be gassed. Instead, with the Russians advancing, they were being moved to Bergen-Belsen. As she wrote in her book, in Auschwitz, people were murdered: in Belsen they simply perished. When Belsen was liberated by British troops on 15 April 1945, most of the 60,000 prisoners, in­cluding Anita and Renate, were half starved or seriously ill. As many as 13,000 corpses lay unburied.

Anita testified against the SS commanders at the Belsen Trial in Lüneburg in September 1945. In March 1946, she was finally given permission to resettle in Britain, where she later co-founded the English Chamber Orchestra. Today, she lives in London but no longer plays. Instead, she gives talks about her experiences during the Holocaust, to help ensure that the lessons of history are not forgotten.

This month she visited Breslau, now known as Wroclaw and part of Poland, where she addressed a few dozen children aged 17 or 18. “I can’t expect young people nowadays to be terribly interested in someone’s horror story – how many horror stories are there in the world all the time?” she said. “I asked them, ‘Why are you interested in this?’ You know, this is miles away from them. They said, ‘Well, we just are: we want to know what went on.’”

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch will discuss her life and experiences as a musician during the Holocaust at JW3, London NW3, on Tuesday 3 November (7.30pm). Details:

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?