Ayaan Hirsi Ali was only in her second week as a researcher for the Dutch Labour Party’s think tank when the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001. It was the beginning of her rise to public prominence, as well as the catalyst for what some see as her political evolution from left to right. Drawing attention for her criticism of Islam in the aftermath of the attacks, Hirsi Ali – a former Muslim – was elected to the Dutch parliament for the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) two years later.
It may seem a radical shift, but speaking to me recently from her home in the US, the author and human rights activist said it was centre-left parties that “abandoned their own missions”, insisting that the “foundational principles of the social democrats are still very dear to my heart”. She describes herself as a classical liberal in the American context, and joined the VVD because she thought it was more “consistent with this approach to individual rights”.
Hirsi Ali, 51, was born in Somalia – her father a prominent leader during the Somali Revolution in the late 1980s, and her mother a religious and often abusive parent. When she was a child, her family moved from country to country. Then, at the age of 22, she fled an arranged marriage to a distant cousin in Canada and claimed asylum in the Netherlands. Quickly adding Dutch to her repertoire of languages, she worked during the 1990s as a translator in refugee centres, before being elected as an MP in 2003.
But it was the murder of the film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist extremist (after he and Hirsi Ali made a 2004 film criticising Islamic teachings about women) that brought her to international attention. Already living under armed guard since 2002, Hirsi Ali became embroiled in a series of scandals regarding the cost of her government protection and her asylum application – a debate she sought to resolve in her bestselling book Infidel (2007). After resigning from parliament in 2006 when the Dutch government attempted to revoke her citizenship, she moved to the US to work for right-leaning think tanks and set up the AHA Foundation, which combats crimes against women and girls. In 2011 she married the conservative historian Niall Ferguson.
While her politics over the past two decades may not be easily categorised, Hirsi Ali has been consistent in her impassioned advocacy of women’s rights and fervent criticism of Islam. It’s a combination of views explored in her latest book, Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, in which she argues that increased immigration from Muslim majority countries since 2015 has contributed to a rise in sexual violence. Few topics could be more controversial. Why write such a book when the majority of sexual crimes are committed by non-immigrant men?
“It is true that most sexual violence anywhere is committed by the native population against women. That’s a truism. It’s a given,” she told me, saying that instead she chose to focus on the increase in “sexual violence against women in the public space, [where] the perpetrator and victim don’t know one another… It’s a very interesting development.” As in her book title, she labelled the problem an “erosion of the rights of women”, for which she blames the “failure to integrate the existing immigrant communities”.
Associating immigration with sexual violence is a trope frequently adopted by the nativist far right. Anyone who has observed a Tommy Robinson rally, for instance, knows the emotive impact that claims of immigrant violence against white women have on his supporters. Some might accuse Hirsi Ali of feeding such reactionary politics. She argued, however, that part of the reason for writing the book was a desire to counter such narratives. “The more direct you are, the more honest you are, the more you win the trust of… your voters.” If politicians are dishonest about the problem, she said, “people see right through it, and they start voting for the wrong guys”, who sense an opportunity “as you see in Germany, or market themselves as saviours of the population as Trump has done”.
The global campaign against sexual violence has been bolstered in recent years by the #MeToo movement. Hirsi Ali has voiced her strong support for the movement’s campaign for women’s safety in the workplace, but she also criticised it for being dominated by middle-class concerns. “I’m not saying that those issues are unimportant, but really a feminist movement that is coming out in defence of and articulating the concerns of working-class girls and women – it’s not there.”
There are other ways she diverges from progressive orthodoxy. In a newly launched podcast advocating “critical thinking and common sense”, Hirsi Ali has turned her attention to “wokeness”. Rejecting the claim that it represents something progressive, she told me the censorious nature of some on the left reminded her of “Islamists, because if you disagree with them, you’re cancelled, you’re out, you’re punished”.
[See also: Why the UK government’s “war on woke” is failing]
The former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has appeared on her podcast, and Hirsi Ali has found some common ground with the Trump administration. “Where [our views] coincide, then they coincide,” she told me. “If Donald Trump says he is a proponent of defending Western civilisation, then that coincides and I’m not going to object to that, even though I can say he’s a distasteful person.” In particular, she views the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and certain Arab countries as sensible, and praises Trump’s Warsaw speech in which he asked “whether the West has the will to survive”. She frames the subject of her book as a clash of values and reiterates the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisations thesis. But she’s clear that “the man [Trump] as an individual was as flawed as they come”.
Ed Husain, the bestselling author of The Islamist (2007), who has debated with Hirsi Ali in the past, told me that she’s “more Voltaire than Voltaire”. Husain, who co-founded the (now defunct) counter-extremism think tank Quilliam following his transition away from fundamentalist Islam, thinks her advocacy on women’s rights is an important intervention, as are her criticisms of Islam. “But I think she goes too far,” he said.
Hirsi Ali is currently focused on combating the misogyny she identifies in her new book. She is sceptical that politicians alone can address these problems, telling me that “civic action is probably the best path to go”. She hopes for a “coalition between immigrant women, mainly Muslim women… and the working-class women who find themselves faced with the unintended consequences of immigration.
“It’s a dream,” she said. “It’s something I would like to see happen.”
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire