First aired on
Writers & Company (01/16/11)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali became world-famous in 2004 when filmmaker and journalist Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered by a Muslim extremist on the streets of Amsterdam. A five-page letter was stabbed into his chest. It was addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Hirsi Ali and van Gogh had made a short film denouncing Islam's treatment of women. At the time of his murder, Hirsi Ali was already under police protection. In fact, she thinks that saved her life. She continues to have 24-hour security today.
Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969. When she was two, her father was arrested because of his opposition to the communist dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The family was forced into exile, fleeing first to Saudi Arabia, and subsequently to Ethiopia and then Kenya.
When she was married against her will to a Muslim Canadian, Hirsi Alli decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands, where she travelled en route to Canada . She learned Dutch so quickly that she first took a degree in political science at Leiden University and then became a member of the Dutch parliament. She also wrote a book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.
Hirsi Ali is a passionate advocate for secular and Western Enlightenment values. She's also an outspoken critic of religion, and Islam in particular. When life became untenable for her in the Netherlands, she moved to the United States and published her memoir, Infidel. Since 2006, she's worked in Washington for the American Enterprise Group, a conservative think-tank.
When Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel was invited to speak with Hirsi Ali at the University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas, she decided to take the opportunity to follow Hirsi Ali through her personal story — to try to understand how the various forces in her life shaped this controversial figure.
Hirsi Ali's latest book, Nomad, was inspired by a visit to her dying father, whom she'd been estranged from for many years. In it, she traces the history of her family from her nomadic grandmother to her urban mother — the second of her father's four wives. Listen to the entire conversation in the audio clip above.