Ayaan Hirsi Ali
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Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2016
Ayaan Hirsi Magan
13 November 1969
|Residence||Washington, D.C., U.S.|
|Alma mater||Leiden University (M.Sc.)|
|Occupation||Politician and author|
|Known for||Women's rights advocacy, criticism of female genital mutilation, criticism of religion, criticism of Islam|
|The Caged Virgin|
Infidel: My Life
Nomad: From Islam to America
|Political party||2001–02: Labour Party (PvdA) |
2002–06: People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)
Niall Ferguson (m. 2011)
|Member of the Dutch House of Representatives|
30 January 2003 – 16 May 2006
|Prime Minister||Jan Peter Balkenende|
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (/
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at The Harvard Kennedy School, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In 2003, Hirsi Ali was elected a member of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the States General of the Netherlands, representing the centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). A political crisis related to the validity of her Dutch citizenship—namely the accusation that she had lied on her application for political asylum—led to her resignation from parliament, and indirectly to the fall of the second Balkenende cabinet in 2006.
Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim who abandoned her faith and became an atheist, has been a vocal critic of Islam. In 2004, she collaborated on a short movie with Theo van Gogh, entitled Submission, a film depicting oppression of women under fundamentalist Islamic law, critical of the Islamic canon itself. The film sparked controversy and death threats. Van Gogh was murdered later that year by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Moroccan-Dutch Islamic terrorist. Hirsi Ali maintains that "Islam is part religion, and part a political-military doctrine, the part that is a political doctrine contains a world view, a system of laws and a moral code that is totally incompatible with our constitution, our laws, and our way of life." Having previously argued that Islam was beyond reform, in her latest book Heretic (2015) she calls for a reformation of Islam by defeating the Islamists and supporting reformist Muslims.
In 2005, Hirsi Ali was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She has also received several awards, including a free speech award from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the Swedish Liberal Party's Democracy Prize, and the Moral Courage Award for commitment to conflict resolution, ethics, and world citizenship. Critics accuse Ali of having built her political career on denigrating Islam and Muslims, and questioned her scholarly credentials "to speak authoritatively about Islam and the Arab world". Her works are accused of using neo-Orientalist portrayals and of being an enactment of the colonial "civilizing mission" discourse.
Hirsi Ali emigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. Hirsi Ali has published two autobiographies: in 2006 and 2010. She is married to British historian and public commentator Niall Ferguson.
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Political career
- 3 Life in the U.S.
- 4 Social and political views
- 5 Personal life
- 6 Reception
- 7 Publications
- 8 Awards
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Early life and education
Ayaan was born in 1969 in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a prominent member of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front and a leading figure in the Somalian Revolution. Shortly after she was born, her father was imprisoned due to his opposition to the Siad Barre government. Hirsi Ali's father had studied abroad and was opposed to female genital mutilation, but while he was imprisoned, Hirsi Ali's grandmother had a man perform the procedure on her, when Hirsi Ali was five years old. According to Hirsi Ali, she was fortunate that her grandmother could not find a woman to do the procedure, as the mutilation was "much milder" when performed by men.
After her father escaped from prison, he and the family left Somalia in 1977, going to Saudi Arabia and then to Ethiopia, before settling in Nairobi, Kenya by 1980. There he established a comfortable upper-class life for them. Hirsi Ali attended the English-language Muslim Girls' Secondary School. By the time she reached her teens, Saudi Arabia was funding religious education in numerous countries and its religious views were becoming influential among many Muslims. A charismatic religious teacher, trained under this aegis, joined Hirsi Ali's school. She inspired the teenaged Ayaan, as well as some fellow students, to adopt the more rigorous Saudi Arabian interpretations of Islam, as opposed to the more relaxed versions then current in Somalia and Kenya. Hirsi Ali said later that she had long been impressed by the Qur'an and had lived "by the Book, for the Book" throughout her childhood.
She sympathised with the views of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and wore a hijab with her school uniform. This was unusual at the time but has become more common among some young Muslim women. At the time, she agreed with the fatwa proclaimed against British Indian writer Salman Rushdie in reaction to the portrayal of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in his novel The Satanic Verses. After completing secondary school, Hirsi Ali attended a secretarial course at Valley Secretarial College in Nairobi for one year. As she was growing up, she also read English-language adventure stories, such as the Nancy Drew series, with modern heroine archetypes who pushed the limits of society. Also, remembering her grandmother refusing soldiers entry into her house, Hirsi Ali associated with Somalia "the picture of strong women: the one who smuggles in the food, and the one who stands there with a knife against the army and says, 'You cannot come into the house.' And I became like that. And my parents and my grandmother don't appreciate that now - because of what I've said about the Qur'an. I have become them, just in a different way."
Early life in the Netherlands
Hirsi Ali arrived in the Netherlands in 1992. That year she had travelled from Kenya to visit her family in Düsseldorf and Bonn, Germany and gone to the Netherlands to escape an alleged arranged marriage. Once there, she requested political asylum and obtained a residence permit. She used her paternal grandfather's early surname on her application and has since been known in the West as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She received a residence permit within three or four weeks of arriving in the Netherlands.
At first she held various short-term jobs, ranging from cleaning to sorting post. She worked as a translator at a Rotterdam refugee center which, according to a friend interviewed in 2006 by The Observer newspaper, marked her deeply.
As an avid reader, in the Netherlands she found new books and ways of thought that both stretched her imagination and frightened her. Sigmund Freud's work introduced her to an alternative moral system that was not based on religion. During this time she took courses in Dutch and a one-year introductory course in social work at the De Horst Institute for Social Work in Driebergen. She has said that she was impressed with how well Dutch society seemed to function. To better understand its development, she studied at Leiden University, obtaining an MSc degree in political science in 2000.
Between 1995 and 2001, Hirsi Ali also worked as an independent Somali-Dutch interpreter and translator, frequently working with Somali women in asylum centers, hostels for abused women, and at the Dutch immigration and naturalization service (IND, Immigratie- en Naturalisatiedienst). While working for the IND, she became critical of the way it handled asylum seekers. As a result of her education and experiences, Hirsi Ali speaks six languages: English, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic, and Dutch.
After gaining her degree, Hirsi Ali became a fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Stichting (WBS), a think tank of the center-left Labour Party (PvdA). Leiden University Professor Ruud Koole was steward of the party. Hirsi Ali's writing at the WBS was inspired by the work of the neoconservative Orientalist Bernard Lewis.
She became disenchanted with Islam, and was shocked by the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, for which al-Qaeda eventually claimed responsibility. After listening to videotapes of Osama bin Laden citing "words of justification" in the Qur'an for the attacks, she wrote, "I picked up the Qur'an and the hadith and started looking through them, to check. I hated to do it, because I knew that I would find Bin Laden's quotations in there." During this time of transition, she came to regard the Qur'an as relative – it was a historical record and "just another book."
Reading Atheïstisch manifest ("Atheist Manifesto") of Leiden University philosopher Herman Philipse helped to convince her to give up religion. She renounced Islam and acknowledged her disbelief in God in 2002. She began to formulate her critique of Islam and Islamic culture, published many articles on these topics, and became a frequent speaker on television news programs and in public debate forums. She discussed her ideas at length in a book entitled De Zoontjesfabriek (The Son Factory) (2002). In this period, she first began to receive death threats.
In November 2002, after disagreements with the PvdA about what security measures they would offer her as a member, she sought advice from Cisca Dresselhuys, the editor of the feminist magazine Opzij, on how to gain government funding for what was essentially political protection.
Dresselhuys introduced Hirsi Ali to Gerrit Zalm, the parliamentary leader of the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and party member Neelie-Smit Kroes, then European Commissioner for Competition. At their urging, Hirsi Ali agreed to switch to their party of the VVD and stood for election to Parliament. Between November 2002 and January 2003, she lived abroad while on the payroll as an assistant of the VVD.
In 2003, aged 33, Hirsi Ali became a prominent candidate in the parliamentary election campaign. She said that the Dutch welfare state had overlooked abuse of Muslim women and girls in the Netherlands and their social needs, contributing to their isolation and oppression. She won her seat.
During her tenure in Parliament, Hirsi Ali continued her criticisms of Islam and many of her statements provoked controversy. In an interview in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, she said that by Western standards, Muhammad as represented in the Qu'ran would be considered a pedophile. A religious discrimination complaint was filed against her on 24 April 2003 by Muslims who objected to her statements. The Prosecutor's office decided not to initiate a case, because her critique did "not put forth any conclusions in respect to Muslims and their worth as a group is not denied".
Film with van Gogh
Working with writer and director Theo van Gogh, Hirsi Ali wrote the script and provided the voice-over for Submission (2004), a short film that criticised the treatment of women in Islamic society. Juxtaposed with passages from the Qur'an were scenes of actresses portraying Muslim women suffering abuse. An apparently nude actress dressed in a semi-transparent burqa was shown with texts from the Qur'an written on her skin. These texts are among those often interpreted as justifying the subjugation of Muslim women. The film's release sparked outrage among many Dutch Muslims.
Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Dutch Moroccan Islamist and member of the Muslim terrorist organisation Hofstad Group, assassinated van Gogh in an Amsterdam street on 2 November 2004. Bouyeri shot van Gogh with a handgun eight times, first from a distance and then at short range as the director lay wounded on the ground. He was already dead when Bouyeri cut his throat with a large knife and tried to decapitate him. Bouyeri left a letter pinned to Van Gogh's body with a small knife; it was primarily a death threat to Hirsi Ali. The Dutch secret service immediately raised the level of security they provided to Hirsi Ali. Bouyeri was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
In 2004 a rap song about Hirsi Ali was produced and distributed on the Internet. The lyrics included violent threats against her life. The rappers were prosecuted under Article 121 of the Dutch criminal code because they hindered Hirsi Ali's execution of her work as a politician. In 2005 they were sentenced to community service and a suspended prison sentence.
Hirsi Ali went into hiding, aided by government security services, who moved her among several locations in the Netherlands. They moved her to the United States for several months. On 18 January 2005, she returned to parliament. On 18 February 2005, she revealed where she and her colleague Geert Wilders were living. She demanded a normal, secured house, which she was granted one week later.
In January 2006 Hirsi Ali was recognised as "European of the Year" by Reader's Digest, an American magazine. In her speech, she urged action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. She also said that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be taken at his word in wanting to organise a conference to investigate objective evidence of the Holocaust, noting that the subject is not taught in the Middle East. She said, "Before I came to Europe, I'd never heard of the Holocaust. That is the case with millions of people in the Middle East. Such a conference should be able to convince many people away from their denial of the genocide against the Jews." She also said that what some have described as "Western values" of freedom and justice were universal. But she thought that Europe has done far better than most areas of the world in providing justice, as it has guaranteed the freedom of thought and debate required for critical self-examination. She said communities cannot reform unless "scrupulous investigation of every former and current doctrine is possible." Hirsi Ali was nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize the same month by Norwegian parliamentarian Christian Tybring-Gjedde.
In March 2006 she co-signed a letter entitled "MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism". Among the eleven other signatories was Salman Rushdie; as a teenager, Hirsi Ali had supported the fatwa against him. The letter was published in response to protests in the Islamic world surrounding the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark, and it supported freedom of press and freedom of expression.
On 27 April 2006 a Dutch judge ruled that Hirsi Ali had to abandon her current secure house at a secret address in the Netherlands. Her neighbors had complained that she created an unacceptable security risk, but the police had testified that this neighborhood was one of the safest places in the country, as they had many personnel assigned to it for Hirsi Ali's protection. In an interview in early 2007, Hirsi Ali noted that the Dutch state had spent about €3.5 million on her protection; threats against her produced fear, but she believed it important to speak her mind. While regretting van Gogh's death, she said she was proud of their work together.
Dutch citizenship controversy
In May 2006 the TV programme Zembla reported that Hirsi Ali had given false information about her name, her age, and her country of residence when originally applying for asylum. In her asylum application, she had claimed to be fleeing a forced marriage, but the Zembla coverage featured interviews with her family, who denied that claim. The program alleged that, contrary to Hirsi Ali's claims of having fled a Somali war zone, the MP had been living comfortably in upper middle-class conditions safely in Kenya with her family for at least 12 years before she sought refugee status in the Netherlands in 1992.
In her version of events, she had fled civil war in Somalia, was forced into an arranged marriage with a man whom she had never met, and was not present at her own wedding. Upon escaping she was forced into hiding in the Netherlands, for her ex-husband and father's brothers would have been by Somali custom, required to perform an honor killing. The accounts of various witnesses varied greatly from hers. According to them, she left Somalia prior to any mass violence, and led a comfortable, upper-middle class life in neighboring Kenya, where she attended a Muslim Girls' school and received a full western-style education with focus on the Humanities and Science, her brother attended a Christian school, she lied to the Dutch immigration service about coming from Somalia in order not to be sent back to Kenya, and they allege she met her husband a few days before her wedding. After several meetings with him, they allege she agreed to the marriage, even though her mother said Ayaan should finish her education so she could afford to leave him if the marriage should prove unsuccessful. They also allege that Hirsi Ali was present at the wedding, something her brother later denied, and according to several witnesses appeared to be enjoying herself. Hirsi Ali denies all of this. On her way to Canada, she says she travelled to Holland by train during a stopover in Germany, and applied for political asylum. During her stay in Holland she regularly received letters from her father. The documentary also quoted several native Somalians as saying there is no tradition of honor killing in Somalia, something that is disputed.
Hirsi Ali admitted that she had lied about her full name, date of birth, and the manner in which she had come to the Netherlands, but persisted in saying she was trying to flee a forced marriage. She noted that her first book, The Son Factory (2002), provided her real name and date of birth. She had also stated these in a September 2002 interview published in the political magazine HP/De Tijd. and in an interview in the VARA gids (2002). Hirsi Ali asserted in her 2006 autobiography (2007 in English) that she made full disclosure of the matter to VVD officials when invited to run for parliament in 2002. It is not known on what grounds she received political asylum. On the issue of her name, she applied under her grandfather's surname in her asylum application, to which she was entitled; she later said it was to escape retaliation by her clan. In the later parliamentary investigation of Hirsi Ali's immigration, the Dutch law governing names was reviewed. An applicant may legally use a surname derived from any generation as far back as the grandparent. Therefore, Hirsi Ali's application, though against clan custom of names, was legal under Dutch law. The question of her age was of minor concern. Media speculation arose in 2006 that she could lose her Dutch citizenship because of these issues, rendering her ineligible for parliament. At first, Minister Rita Verdonk said she would not look into the matter. She later decided to investigate Hirsi Ali's naturalisation process. The investigation found that Hirsi Ali had not legitimately received Dutch citizenship, because she had lied about her name and date of birth. However, later inquiries established that she was entitled to use the name Ali because it was her grandfather's name. Rita Verdonk moved to annul Hirsi Ali's citizenship, an action later overridden at the urging of Parliament.
On 15 May 2006, after the broadcast of the Zembla documentary, news stories appeared saying that Hirsi Ali was likely to move to the United States that September. She was reported to be planning to write a book entitled Shortcut to Enlightenment and to work for the American Enterprise Institute. On 16 May Hirsi Ali resigned from Parliament after admitting that she had lied on her asylum application. In a press conference she said that the facts had been publicly known since 2002, when they had been reported in the media and in one of her publications. She also restated her claim of seeking asylum to prevent a forced marriage, stating: "How often do people who are seeking refuge provide different names? The penalty of stripping me of my Dutch citizenship is disproportional." Her stated reason for resigning immediately was the increasing media attention. Owing to the fact that a Dutch court had ruled in April 2006 that she had to leave her house by August 2006, she decided to relocate to the United States in September 2006.
After a long and emotional debate in the Dutch Parliament, all major parties supported a motion requesting the Minister to explore the possibility of special circumstances in Hirsi Ali's case. Although Verdonk remained convinced that the applicable law did not leave her room to consider such circumstances, she decided to accept the motion. During the debate, she said that Hirsi Ali still had Dutch citizenship during the period of reexamination. Apparently the "decision" she had announced had represented the current position of the Dutch government. Hirsi Ali at that point had six weeks to react to the report before any final decision about her citizenship was taken. Verdonk was strongly criticised for her actions in such a sensitive case. In addition to her Dutch passport, Hirsi Ali retained a Dutch residency permit based on being a political refugee. According to the Minister, this permit could not be taken away from her since it had been granted more than 12 years before.
Reacting to news of Hirsi Ali's planned relocation to the US, former VVD leader Hans Wiegel stated that her departure "would not be a loss to the VVD and not be a loss to the House of Representatives". He said that Hirsi Ali was a brave woman, but that her opinions were polarizing. Former parliamentary leader of the VVD, Jozias van Aartsen, said that it is "painful for Dutch society and politics that she is leaving the House of Representatives". Another VVD MP, Bibi de Vries, said that if something were to happen to Hirsi Ali, some people in her party would have "blood on their hands." United States Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said in May 2006, "we recognise that she is a very courageous and impressive woman and she is welcome in the US."
On 23 May 2006, Ayaan Hirsi made available to The New York Times some letters she believed would provide insight into her 1992 asylum application. In one letter her sister Haweya warned her that the entire extended family was searching for her (after she had fled to the Netherlands), and in another letter her father denounced her. Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said that the asylum controversy would not affect the appointment. He stated that he was still looking forward to "welcoming her to AEI, and to America."
On 27 June 2006, the Dutch government announced that Hirsi Ali would keep her Dutch citizenship. On the same day a letter was disclosed in which Hirsi Ali expressed regret for misinforming Minister Verdonk. Hirsi Ali was allowed to retain her name. Dutch immigration rules allowed asylum seekers to use grandparents' names. Her grandfather had used the last name Ali until his thirties and then switched to Magan, which was her father's and family's surname. This grandfather's birth year of 1845 had complicated the investigation. (Hirsi Ali's father Hirsi Magan Isse was the youngest of his many children and born when her grandfather was close to 90). Later the same day Hirsi Ali, through her lawyer and in television interviews, stated that she had signed the resignation letter, drafted by the Justice Department, under duress. She felt it was forced in order for her to keep her passport, but she had not wanted to complicate her pending visa application for the U.S. As of 2006[update] she still carried her Dutch passport.
In a special parliamentary session on 28 June 2006, questions were raised about these issues. The ensuing political upheaval on 29 June ultimately led to the fall of the Second Balkenende cabinet.
Life in the U.S.
In 2006 Hirsi Ali took a position at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.; as the Dutch government continued to provide security for her, this required an increase in their effort and costs.
Her high public profile and outspokenness continued to attract controversy. On 17 April 2007, the local Muslim community in Johnstown, Pennsylvania protested Hirsi Ali's planned lecture at the local campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh imam Fouad El Bayly was reported as saying that the activist deserved the death sentence but should be tried and judged in an Islamic country.
On 25 September 2007, Hirsi Ali received her United States Permanent Resident Card (green card). In October 2007 she returned to the Netherlands, continuing her work for AEI from a secret address in the Netherlands. The Dutch minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin had informed her of his ruling that, as of 1 October 2007, the Dutch government would no longer pay for her security abroad. That year she declined an offer to live in Denmark, saying she intended to return to the United States.
In early 2014 Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced that Ali would be given an honorary degree at the graduation commencement ceremony. In early April, the university rescinded its offer following a review of her statements that was carried out in response to protests by the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) and lobbying by Joseph E. B. Lumbard, Head of the Islamic Studies Department, other faculty members and several student groups that accused Hirsi Ali of "hate speech". University president Frederick M. Lawrence said that "certain of her past statements" were inconsistent with the university's "core values" because they were "Islamophobic." Others expressed opinions both for and against this decision. The university said she was welcome to come to the campus for a dialogue in the future.
The university's withdrawal of its invitation generated controversy and condemnation among some. But, The Economist noted at the time that Hirsi Ali's "Wholesale condemnations of existing religions just aren't done in American politics." It said that "The explicit consensus in America is ecumenical and strongly pro-religious ..." The university was distinguishing between an open intellectual exchange, which could occur if Hirsi Ali came to campus for a dialogue, and appearing to celebrate her with an honorary degree.
A Brandeis spokesperson said that Ali had not been invited to speak at commencement but simply to be among honorary awardees. She claimed to have been invited to speak and expressed shock at Brandeis' action. Hirsi Ali said CAIR's letter misrepresented her and her work, but that it has long been available on the Internet. She said that the "spirit of free expression" has been betrayed and stifled.
Among the commenters, Jeffrey Herf, a Brandeis alumnus and historian, published an open letter criticizing Lawrence's decision, saying it had "done deep and long-lasting damage to a university." Lawrence J. Haas, the former communications director and press secretary for Vice President Al Gore, published an open letter saying that Lawrence "succumbed to political correctness and interest group pressure in deciding that Islam is beyond the pale of legitimate inquiry ... that such a decision is particularly appalling for a university president, for a campus is precisely the place to encourage free discussion even on controversial matters."
Designation by Southern Poverty Law Center
In October 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center accused Ayaan, and the liberal Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, of being "anti-Muslim extremists", which caused protests in several prominent newspapers. The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice wrote a public letter to the SPLC asking them to retract the listings.
In April, 2018, the SPLC retracted the "Anti-Muslim Extremist" List in its entirety after Nawaz threatened legal action over his inclusion on the list. In June 2018 the SPLC settled with Nawaz, paying him $3.375 million USD to drop the case.
In April 2017 she cancelled a planned tour of Australia. This followed the Facebook release of a video by six Australian Muslim women who accused her of being a "star of the global Islamophobia industry" and of profiting from "an industry that exists to dehumanize Muslim women" but did not call for her to cancel her trip. Ali responded that the women in question were "carrying water" for the causes of radical Islamists and stated that "Islamophobia" is a manufactured word. She explained that the cancellation was due to security concerns and organisational problems.
Social and political views
Hirsi Ali joined the VVD political party in 2002; it combines "classically liberal" views on the economy, foreign policy, crime and immigration with a liberal social stance on abortion and homosexuality. She says that she admires Frits Bolkestein, a former Euro-commissioner and ideological leader of the party.
Hirsi Ali is the founder and president of the AHA Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organisation to protect women and girls in the U.S. against political Islam and harmful tribal customs that violate U.S. law and international conventions. Through the AHA Foundation, Hirsi Ali campaigns against the denial of education for girls, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour violence and killings, and suppression of information about the crimes through the misuse and misinterpretation of rights to freedom of religion and free speech in the U.S. and the West.
Hirsi Ali has criticised the treatment of women in Islamic societies and the punishments demanded by conservative Islamic scholars for homosexuality and adultery. She publicly identified as Muslim until 28 May 2002, when she acknowledged in her diary that she knew she was not.
Just like Nazism started with Hitler's vision, the Islamic vision is a caliphate – a society ruled by Sharia law – in which women who have sex before marriage are stoned to death, homosexuals are beaten, and apostates like me are killed. Sharia law is as inimical to liberal democracy as Nazism ... Violence is inherent in Islam – it's a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder.
In a 2007 article in Reason magazine, Hirsi Ali said that Islam, the religion, must be defeated and that "we are at war with Islam. And there's no middle ground in wars." She said, "Islam, period. Once it's defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It's very difficult to even talk about peace now. They're not interested in peace ... There comes a moment when you crush your enemy. (..) and if you don't do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed. Adding: "the Christian powers have accepted the separation of the worldly and the divine. We don't interfere with their religion, and they don't interfere with the state. That hasn't happened in Islam." She reiterated her position that the problem isn't just a few "rotten apples" in the Islamic community but "I'm saying it's the entire basket." She stated that the majority of Muslims aren't "moderates" and they must radically alter their religion. Max Rodenbeck, writing in The New York Review of Books, notes that Ali's view of Islam has shifted and "mellowed," as she no longer completely rejects Islam. She now narrowly criticizes what she calls "Medina Muslims", meaning the fundamentalists who envision a regime based on sharia, and who ignore the more inclusive passages of Muhammad's Meccan period, a small minority of Muslims, who are, nevertheless, quite influential among young Muslims, according to Hirsi Ali: "These men, I find them to be far more influential in inspiring and mobilising young men to see the religion of Islam the way they see it, than the way either Imam Faisal says he sees it, or Maajid Nawaz says he sees it." Ayaan Hirsi Ali stated that, in her opinion, "The Christian extremists here, in the United States, who take the Bible and use it to kill people and hurt people, they are the fringe, but unfortunately, what we are seeing in Muslim countries is that the people who feel they should be governed under the Sharia Law, are not a fringe. (..) Islam can become a religion of peace, if politics is divorced from religion", and she stated that: "The individual that wants to kill me because I am an apostate of Islam, is inspired to do that from the scripture of Islam, the example of the prophet Mohammed, the clergy that preached to him, and the reward that he will get in the hereafter."
She described Islamic societies as lagging "in enlightened thinking, tolerance and knowledge of other cultures" and that their history cannot cite a single person who "made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement".
In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, she compared the responses of Christians and Muslims to criticism of their respective religions. While Christians would often simply ignore criticism, Muslims would instead take offence, display a victim mentality and take criticism as insults.
She insists that many contemporary Muslims have not yet transitioned to modernity, and that many Muslim immigrants are culturally unsuited to life in the West and are therefore a burden. Ali calls upon atheist and Christian Euro-Americans to unite against the Muslim extremism in the West. She urges the former to educate Muslims and the latter, especially Western Churches, to convert "as many Muslims as possible to Christianity, introducing them to a God who rejects Holy War and who has sent his son to die for all sinners out of love for mankind". Hirsi Ali stated that: "Islam needs a reformation. Muslim leaders who are serious about achieving true and enduring peace, need to revise the Koran and the Hadith, so there is a consistency between what the peaceloving Muslims want and what their religion says."
Hirsi Ali speaking in April 2015, on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program said,
It's wrong for Western leaders like [former Prime Minister of Australia] Tony Abbott to say the actions of the Islamic State aren't about religion. I want to say to him 'please don't say such things in public because it's just not true.' You're letting down all the individuals who are reformers within Islam who are asking the right questions that will ultimately bring about change.
Speaking shortly after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, Hirsi Ali commented on the nature of radicalization within communities of Islamic believers saying, "If we talk about the process of what we now call radicalization, that you see a process where individuals are putting on a religious identity. It's all about being a Muslim, you shed the rest of it or you downplay the rest of it and you try to make everyone else as pious as yourself. And this would be, looking back at San Bernardino, the telltale signs. These changes that the family, the friends, the close circle of relatives should have observed."
Hirsi Ali criticises the central Islamic prophet on morality and personality traits (criticisms based on biographical details or depictions by Islamic texts and early followers of Muhammad). In January 2003 she told the Dutch paper Trouw, "Muhammad is, seen by our Western standards, a pervert and a tyrant", as he married, at the age of 53, Aisha, who was six years old and nine at the time the marriage was consummated. She later said: "Perhaps I should have said 'a pedophile'". Muslims filed a religious discrimination suit against her that year. The civil court in The Hague acquitted Hirsi Ali of any charges, but said that she "could have made a better choice of words".
Hirsi Ali is a prominent opponent of female genital mutilation (FGM), which she has criticized in many of her writings. When in Dutch parliament, she proposed obligatory annual medical checks for all uncircumcised girls living in the Netherlands who came from countries where FGM is practised. She proposed that if a physician found that a Dutch girl had been mutilated, a report to the police would be required – with protection of the child prevailing over privacy. In 2004 she also criticized male circumcision, particularly as practiced by Jews and Muslims, which she regarded as being another variant of mutilation practiced without the consent of the individual.
Hirsi Ali has criticized Western feminists for avoiding the issue of the subjugation of women in the Muslim world and singled out Germaine Greer for arguing that FGM needs to be considered a "cultural identity" that western women don't understand.
Rich Lowry writing for Politico wrote that while Hirsi Ali had many traits which should have made her a "feminist hero" such as: being a refugee from an abusive patriarchy, being an African immigrant who made her way to a Western country and an advocate for women's rights, this does not happen because she is "a dissident of the wrong religion". Feminists instead criticise Hirsi Ali for "strengthening racism" instead of "weakening sexism".
Freedom of speech
In a 2006 lecture in Berlin, she defended the right to offend, following the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark. She condemned the journalists of those papers and TV channels that did not show their readers the cartoons as being "mediocre of mind." She also praised publishers all over Europe for showing the cartoons and not being afraid of what she called the "hard-line Islamist movement."
In 2006 Hirsi Ali as MP supported the move by the Dutch courts to abrogate the party subsidy to a conservative Protestant Christian political party, the Political Reformed Party (SGP), which did not grant full membership rights to women and withholds passive voting rights from female members. She stated that "any political party discriminating against women or homosexuals should be deprived of funding."
Opposition to denominational or faith schools
In the Netherlands about half of all education has historically been provided by sponsored religious schools, most of them Catholic or Protestant. As Muslims began to ask for support for schools, the state provided it and by 2005, there were 41 Islamic schools in the nation. This was based on the idea in the 1960s that Muslims could become one of the "pillars" of Dutch society, as were Protestants, Catholics and secular residents. Hirsi Ali has opposed state funding of any religious schools, including Islamic ones.
The Netherlands has always been one of the most prominent countries that support aiding developing countries. As the spokesperson of the VVD in the parliament on this matter, Hirsi Ali said that the current aid policy had not achieved an increase in prosperity, peace and stability in developing countries: "The VVD believes that Dutch international aid has failed until now, as measured by [the Dutch aid effects on] poverty reduction, famine reduction, life expectancy and the promotion of peace."
In 2003 Hirsi Ali worked together with fellow VVD MP Geert Wilders for several months. They questioned the government about immigration policy. In reaction to the UN Development Programme Arab Human Development Report, Hirsi Ali asked questions of Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the Minister without Portfolio for Development Cooperation Agnes van Ardenne. Together with parliamentarian Geert Wilders she asked the government to pay attention to the consequences for Dutch policy concerning the limitation of immigration from the Arab world to Europe, and in particular the Netherlands.
Although she publicly supported the policy of VVD minister Rita Verdonk to limit immigration, privately she was not supportive, as she explained in a June 2006 interview for Opzij. This was given after she resigned from Parliament and shortly after she had moved to the United States.
In parliament, Hirsi Ali had supported the way Verdonk handled the Pasic case, although privately she felt that Pasic should have been allowed to stay. On the night before the debate, she phoned Verdonk to tell her that she had lied when she applied for asylum in the Netherlands, just as Pasic had. She said that Verdonk responded that if she had been minister at that time, she would have had Hirsi Ali deported.
Hirsi Ali discussed her view on immigration in Europe, in an OpEd article published in the Los Angeles Times in 2006. Noting that immigrants are over-represented "in all the wrong statistics", she wrote that the European Union's immigration policy contributed to the illegal trade in women and arms, and the exploitation of poor migrants by "cruel employers."
She drew attention to the numerous illegal immigrants already in the Union. She believed that current immigration policy would lead to ethnic and religious division, nation states will lose their monopoly of force, Islamic law (sharia) will be introduced at the level of neighborhoods and cities, and exploitation of women and children will become "commonplace". To avoid this situation, she proposes three general principles for a new policy:
- Admission of immigrants on the basis of their contribution to the economy. The current system "is designed to attract the highest number of people with truly heartbreaking stories".
- Diplomatic, economic and military interventions in countries that cause large migrant flows.
- Introduction of assimilation programs that acknowledge that "the basic tenets of Islam are a major obstacle to integration".
Regarding unemployment, social marginalization and poverty among certain immigrant communities, Hirsi Ali places the burden of responsibility squarely on Islam and migrant culture.
In 2010, she opposed the idea of preventing immigrants from traditional Muslim societies from immigrating, claiming that allowing them to immigrate made the U.S. a "highly moral country."
Also see her 2017 Hoover Institution Press publication "The Challenge of Dawa, Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It.
"When I speak of assimilation", Ali clarifies, "I mean assimilation into civilization. Aboriginals, Afghanis, Somalis, Arabs, Native Americans—all these non-Western groups have to make that transition to modernity".
Israel and the Palestinians
"I visited Israel a few years ago, primarily to understand how it dealt so well with so many immigrants from different origins," Hirsi Ali says. "My main impression was that Israel is a liberal democracy. In the places I visited, including Jerusalem as well as Tel Aviv and its beaches, I saw that men and women are equal. One never knows what happens behind the scenes, but that is how it appears to the visitor. The many women in the army are also very visible.
"I understood that a crucial element of success is the unifying factor among immigrants to Israel. Whether one arrives from Ethiopia or Russia, or one's grandparents immigrated from Europe, what binds them is being Jewish. Such a bond is lacking in the Netherlands. Our immigrants' background is diverse and also differs greatly from that of the Netherlands, including religion."
As for Israel's problems, Hirsi Ali says, "From my superficial impression, the country also has a problem with fundamentalists. The ultra-Orthodox will cause a demographic problem because these fanatics have more children than the secular and the regular Orthodox."
I have visited the Palestinian quarters in Jerusalem as well. Their side is dilapidated, for which they blame the Israelis. In private, however, I met a young Palestinian who spoke excellent English. There were no cameras and no notebooks. He said the situation was partly their own fault, with much of the money sent from abroad to build Palestine being stolen by corrupt leaders.
When I start to speak in the Netherlands about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the role of Arafat in the tragedy of Palestine, I do not get a large audience. Often one is talking to a wall. Many people reply that Israel first has to withdraw from the territories, and then all will be well with Palestine.
On the way Israel is perceived in the Netherlands:
The crisis of Dutch socialism can be sized up in its attitudes toward both Islam and Israel. It holds Israel to exceptionally high moral standards. The Israelis, however, will always do well, because they themselves set high standards for their actions. The standards for judging the Palestinians, however, are very low. Most outsiders remain silent on all the problems in their territories. That helps the Palestinians become even more corrupt than they already are. Those who live in the territories are not allowed to say anything about this because they risk being murdered by their own people.
Hirsi Ali has attracted praise and criticism from English-speaking commentators. Literary critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens regarded her as "the most important public intellectual probably ever to come out of Africa." Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times called Hirsi Ali a freedom fighter for feminism who has "put her life on the line to defend women against radical Islam." American novelist and screenwriter Roger L. Simon has praised Ali's defense of women's rights, calling her "one of the great positive figures of our time, a modern Joan of Arc who surpasses the original Joan in a moral sense and is at least her equal in pure guts."
Tunku Varadarajan wrote in 2017 that, with "multiple fatwas on her head, Hirsi Ali has a greater chance of meeting a violent end than anyone I've met, Salman Rushdie included." According to Andrew Anthony of The Guardian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is admired by secularists and "loathed not just by Islamic fundamentalists but by many western liberals, who find her rejection of Islam almost as objectionable as her embrace of western liberalism."
The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam
In his 2006 review of this collection of seventeen essays and articles on Islam by Hirsi Ali, journalist Christopher Hitchens noted her three themes: "first, her own gradual emancipation from tribalism and superstition; second, her work as a parliamentarian to call attention to the crimes being committed every day by Islamist thugs in mainland Europe; and third, the dismal silence, or worse, from many feminists and multiculturalists about this state of affairs."
He described the activist as a "charismatic figure in Dutch politics" and criticised the Dutch government for how it protected her from Islamic threats after her collaboration with Theo van Gogh on the short film Submission and the assassination of the director.
Infidel: My Life (2007 in English)
The Guardian summarizes Infidel: "[Hirsi Ali]'s is a story of exile from her clan through war, famine, arranged marriage, religious apostasy and the shocking murder on the streets of Amsterdam of her collaborator, Theo van Gogh. Told with lyricism, wit, huge sorrow and a great heart, this is one of the most amazing adventure narratives of the age of mass migration."
William Grimes wrote in The New York Times: "The circuitous, violence-filled path that led Ms. Hirsi Ali from Somalia to the Netherlands is the subject of "Infidel," her brave, inspiring and beautifully written memoir. Narrated in clear, vigorous prose, it traces the author's geographical journey from Mogadishu to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and her desperate flight to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage."
In his critique of the book, Christopher Hitchens noted that two leading leftist intellectual commentators, Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma, described Hirsi Ali as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist[s]." Hitchens noted further that, far from being a "fundamentalist," Hirsi escaped from a "society where women are subordinate, censorship is pervasive, and violence is officially preached against unbelievers."
Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations
The Guardian observes that Nomad "(describes) a clan system shattering on the shores of modernity". The books expands Hirsi Ali's previous early life descriptions focusing on "the remarkable figure of her grandmother, who gave birth to daughters alone in the desert and cut her own umbilical cord, raged at herself for producing too many girls, rebelled against her husband, arranged for the circumcision of her granddaughters and instilled in them an unforgiving, woman-hating religion." "Hirsi Ali observes that her own nomadic journey has been taken across borders that have been mental as much as geographical. In Nomad she calls her ancestral voices into direct confrontation with her demands for reform of Islamic theology. The result is electrifying."
Hirsi Ali calls Nomad her most provocative book for urging moderate Muslims to become Christians. She later backed off this view. After witnessing the Arab Spring, Hirsi Ali also took back her argument in Nomad that Islam is beyond reform.
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
In the book Hirsi Ali quotes statistics such that 75% of Pakistanis favour the death penalty for apostasy and argue that Sharia law is gaining ground in many Muslim-majority nations. Hirsi Ali quotes verses in the Qur'an encouraging followers to use violence and make the argument that as long as the Qur'an is pereceived to be the literal divine words, violent extremists have a justification for their acts.
Andrew Anthony for the Guardian in 2015 wrote that even her fiercest critics would have problems denying what Hirsi Ali writes about current issues in Islam and since those issues are unpalatable an added difficulty was a cultural practice at the time to "not offend anyone". Anthony concluded that regardless of what critics may think of her solutoin, Hirsi Ali should be commended for her "unblinking determination to address the problem".
Susan Dominus of The New York Times wrote: "In "Heretic," Hirsi Ali forgoes autobiography for the most part in favor of an extended argument. But she has trouble making anyone else's religious history – even that of Muhammad himself, whose life story she recounts – as dramatic as she has made her own. And she loses the reader's trust with overblown rhetoric. ... She tries to warn Americans about their naïveté in the face of encroaching Islamic influences, maintaining that officials and journalists, out of cultural sensitivity, sometimes play down the honor killings that occur in the West."
The Economist wrote: "Unfortunately, very few Muslims will accept Ms Hirsi Ali's full-blown argument, which insists that Islam must change in at least five important ways. A moderate Muslim might be open to discussion of four of her suggestions if the question were framed sensitively. Muslims, she says, must stop prioritizing the afterlife over this life; they must "shackle sharia" and respect secular law; they must abandon the idea of telling others, including non-Muslims, how to behave, dress or drink; and they must abandon holy war. However, her biggest proposal is a show-stopper: she wants her old co-religionists to "ensure that Muhammad and the Koran are open to interpretation and criticism"."
Clifford May of The Washington Times wrote: "The West is enmeshed in 'an ideological conflict' that cannot be won 'until the concept of jihad has itself been decommissioned.'" May goes on to suggest that if "American and Western leaders continue to refuse to comprehend who is fighting us and why, the consequences will be dire."
In May 2015, Mehdi Hasan wrote an article in The Guardian arguing that Islam doesn't need a reformation and that she will never win any fans over from Muslims, regardless of whether they're liberal or conservative. Hasan wrote: "She's been popping up in TV studios and on op-ed pages to urge Muslims, both liberal and conservative, to abandon some of their core religious beliefs while uniting behind a Muslim Luther. Whether or not mainstream Muslims will respond positively to a call for reform from a woman who has described the Islamic faith as a 'destructive, nihilistic cult of death' that should be 'crushed' and also suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu be given the Nobel Peace Prize, is another matter." Hasan also invoked the death toll of the Christian sectarian conflicts of Thirty Years' War and the French Wars of Religion to argue that an Islamic reformation would lead to conflicts of a similar scale. Hasan also wrote that Islamic reformation should not be promoted by non-Muslims or ex-Muslims.
Criticism for stance on Islam
This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (November 2018)
Ali's public commentary and stances, particularly her criticisms of Islam, have elicited denunciations from a number of commentators and academics. brahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemned her "one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide." Saba Mahmood writes that Hirsi Ali "had no public profile until she decided to capitalize on the anti-Muslim sentiment that swept Europe following the events of 9/11". Adam Yaghi has questioned her appeal in American society where her "serial autobiographies are treated as honest and reliable testimonies in spite of the troubling inaccuracies, exaggerated descriptions, blunt neo-Orientalist portrayals, and sweeping generalizations". Stephen Sheehi writes that in spite of her lack of scholarly credentials and academic qualifications "to speak authoritatively about Islam and the Arab world", Hirsi Ali has been accepted in the West as a scholar, feminist activist, and reformer primarily on the grounds of her "insider claims about Islam".
Other critics have called Ali as an "inauthentic ethnic voice" at the service of "imperialist feminism." Kiran Grewal asserted that Ali is "a classic enactment of the colonial 'civilizing mission' discourse." Grewal describes Ali's works as using "the language of 'lived experience' to justify an intolerant and exclusionary message" and alleged that her "extremely provocative and often offensive statements regarding Islam and Muslim immigrants in the West" alienated some feminists and academics.
Yaghi comments that "Ali attributes everything bad to a monolithic Islam, one that transcends geographic and national boundaries ... willfully ignoring her own distinctions between different interpretations of Islam, versions she personally encountered before leaving to the West". Pearl Abraham makes a similar observation: "[I]n her writings, lectures, and interviews", Ali "reaches for the simple solution and quick answer. Always and everywhere, she insists on depicting Islam and Muslims as the enemy, her tribal culture as backward". Hirsi Ali is also criticized for persistently singling out Islam and Muslims, but never manifestations of religious revivalism present with other religions.
According to Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian journalist and foreign policy analyst, Ali's criticism applies mostly to "Wahhabism", the strain of Islam most familiar to Hirsi Ali, and not to Islam as a whole. Jebreal added that Ali's "outbursts" are originated from her own pains, "physical scars inflicted on her body during childhood," which were justified by a radical version of the religion into which she was born. Jebreal wrote: " To endorse Hirsi Ali so unabashedly is to insult and mock a billion Muslims. It's time to listen to what is being said by the Muslim voices of peace and tolerance. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not one of them," she added.
Hirsi Ali has continued discussion of these issues in her two autobiographies, published in Dutch in 2006 and in English in 2010. In her first work, she said that in 1992 her father arranged to marry her to a distant cousin. She says that she objected to this both on general grounds (she has said she dreaded being forced to submit to a stranger, sexually and socially), and specifically to this man, whom she described as a "bigot" and an "idiot" in her book.
She told her family that she planned to join her husband, who was living in Canada, after obtaining a visa while in Germany. But in her autobiography, she said she spent her time in Germany trying to devise an escape from her unwanted marriage. She decided to visit a relative in the Netherlands, and to seek help after arrival and claim asylum.
Her first autobiography, Infidel (2006), was published in English in 2007. In a review, American Enterprise Institute fellow Joshua Muravchik described the book as "simply a great work of literature," and compared her to novelist Joseph Conrad.
In her second autobiography, Nomad (2010, in English), Hirsi Ali wrote that in early 2006, Rita Verdonk had personally approached her to ask for her public support in Verdonk's campaign to run for party leader of the VVD. Hirsi Ali wrote that she had personally supported Verdonk's opponent, Mark Rutte, as the better choice. She says that after telling Verdonk of her position, the minister became vindictive. Hirsi Ali wrote that, after the 2006 report of the Zembla TV program, Verdonk campaigned against Ali in retaliation for her earlier lack of support.
- De Zoontjesfabriek over vrouwen, Islam en integratie, translated as The Son Factory: About Women, Islam and Integration. A collection of essays and lectures from before 2002. It also contains an extended interview originally published in Opzij, a feminist magazine. The book focuses on the position of Muslims in the Netherlands.
- De Maagdenkooi (2004), translated in 2006 as The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman's Cry for Reason a.k.a. The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. A collection of essays and lectures from 2003–2004, combined with her personal experiences as a translator working for the NMS. The book focuses on the position of women in Islam.
- Mijn Vrijheid, translated as Infidel. An autobiography published in Dutch in September 2006 by Augustus, Amsterdam and Antwerp, 447 pages, ISBN 9789045701127; and in English in February 2007. It was edited by Richard Miniter.
- Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Her second autobiography, published by Free Press in 2010. ISBN 9781439157312
- Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Harper Publications (March 2015). Hirsi Ali makes a case that a religious reformation is the only way to end the terrorism, sectarian warfare, and repression of women and minorities that each year claim thousands of lives throughout the Muslim world. ISBN 978-0062333933
- 2004, she was awarded the Prize of Liberty by the Flemish classical liberal think tank Nova Civitas. It is considered to be one of the most important political honours in the Low Countries.
- 2004, she was chosen "Person of the Year" by the Dutch news magazine Elsevier.
- 2004, she was awarded the Freedom Prize of Denmark's Liberal Party, the country's largest party, "for her work to further freedom of speech and the rights of women".
In the year following the assassination of her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, Hirsi Ali received five awards related to her activism.
- 2005, she was awarded the Harriet Freezerring Emancipation Prize by Cisca Dresselhuys, editor of the feminist magazine Opzij.
- 2005, she was awarded the annual European Bellwether Prize by the Norwegian think tank Human Rights Service. According to HRS, Hirsi Ali is "beyond a doubt, the leading European politician in the field of integration. (She is) a master at the art of mediating the most difficult issues with insurmountable courage, wisdom, reflectiveness, and clarity".
- 2005, she was awarded the annual Democracy Prize of the Swedish Liberal People's Party "for her courageous work for democracy, human rights and women's rights."
- 2005, she was ranked by American Time Magazine amongst the 100 Most Influential Persons of the World, in the category of "Leaders & Revolutionaries".
- 2005, she was awarded the Tolerance Prize of Madrid.
- She was voted European of the Year for 2006 by the European editors of Reader's Digest magazine.
- 2006, she was given the civilian prize Glas der Vernunft in Kassel, Germany. The organisation rewarded her with this prize for her courage in criticising Islam (1 October 2006). Other laureates have included Leah Rabin, the wife of former Israeli prime-minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany.
- 2006, she received the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee.
- 2007, she was given the annual Goldwater Award for 2007 from the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.
- 2008, she was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, an international human rights prize for women's freedom, which she shared with Taslima Nasreen.
- 2008, she was given the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction for her autobiography Infidel (2007 in English). The Anisfield-Wolf awards recognise "recent books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and appreciation of the rich diversity of human culture."
- 2008, she was awarded the Richard Dawkins Prize (2008) by the Atheist Alliance International.
- 2010, she was awarded the Emperor Has No Clothes award by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
- 2012, she was awarded the Axel Springer Honorary Prize, "for her courageous commitment – her approach to freedom and her courage to express a nonconformist opinion."
- 2015, she was awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize for fearless leaders, reformers and rebels who have been willing to defy social and cultural norms to speak out against human rights abuses. Other laureates were Rebiya Kadeer and Irshad Manji.
- 2016, she was awarded the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education
- 2017, she was awarded the Oxi Day Courage Award by the Washington Oxi Day Foundation 
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