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Living with Death Threats

What makes this outspoken critic of Islam controversial enough to warrant threats to her life?

March 27, 2007

What makes this outspoken critic of Islam controversial enough to warrant threats to her life?

People are always asking me what it's like to live with death threats. It's like being diagnosed with a chronic disease. It may flare up and kill you, but it may not. It could happen in a week, or not for decades.

The people who ask me this usually have grown up in rich countries — Western Europe and the United States — after the Second World War. They take life for granted. Where I grew up, death is a constant visitor.

A virus, bacteria, a parasite, drought and famine, soldiers and torturers — could bring it to anyone, any time. Death comes riding on raindrops that turned to floods. It catches the imagination of men in positions of authority who order their subordinates to hunt, torture and kill people they imagine to be enemies. Death lures many others to take their own lives in order to escape a dismal reality.

For many women, because of the perception of lost honor, death comes at the hands of a father, brother or husband. Death comes to young women giving birth to new life, leaving the newborn orphaned in the hands of strangers.

For those who live in anarchy and civil war — as in the country of my birth, Somalia — death is everywhere.

When I was born, my mother initially thought death had taken me away. But it didn't. When I got malaria and pneumonia, I recovered. When my genitals were cut, the wound healed. When a bandit held a knife to my throat, he decided not to slit it. When my Quran teacher fractured my skull, the doctor who treated me kept death at bay.

Even with bodyguards and death threats I feel privileged to be alive and free.

I first encountered the full strength of Islam as a young child in Saudi Arabia. It was very different from the diluted religion of my grandmother, which was mixed with magical practices and pre-Islamic beliefs. Saudi Arabia is the source of Islam and its quintessence.

It is the place where the Muslim religion is practiced in its purest form and it is the origin of much of the fundamentalist vision that has, in my lifetime, spread far beyond its borders. In Saudi Arabia every breath, every step we took, was infused with concepts of purity and sinning — and with fear.

Wishful thinking about the peaceful tolerance of Islam cannot interpret away this reality — hands are still cut off, women still stoned and enslaved — just as the Prophet Muhammad decided centuries ago.

The kind of thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia, and among the Muslim Brotherhood in Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves a feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame.

It rests on self-deception, hypocrisy and double standards. It relies on the technological advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set takes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam.

It is always difficult to make the transition to a modern world. It was difficult for my grandmother and for all my relatives from the miyé. It was difficult for me, too.

I moved from the world of faith to the world of reason — from the world of excision and forced marriage to the world of sexual emancipation. Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other. Not because its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values.

My message is that we in the West would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life.

People accuse me of having interiorized a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument.

Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors' traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes?

When I came to a new culture — where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different — would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice?

Life is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better — and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state.

To accept subordination and abuse because Allah willed it — that, for me, would be self-hatred.

Editor’s note: Adapted from INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, copyright 2007. Used with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.