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Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Immigration, Islam, and Christopher Hitchens

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Interview on Islam, Immigration and Christopher Hitchens

What I have found in the book is strong enough to suggest that there is a correlation between mass migration from Muslim-majority countries and the increase in sexual violence.”

On May 11thMerion West’s Vahaken Mouradian spoke with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, New York Times bestselling author of Infidel, about her latest book—Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s RightsAfter escaping forced marriage and requesting asylum in the Netherlands, Ms. Hirsi Ali has been a politician, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the subject of campus protest and disinvitation long before the practice became fashionable. She is one of the most prominent and eloquent apostates from and critics of political Islam.

A video of the conversation is also available on YouTube.

Hi, I’m Vahaken Mouradian, contributing editor at Merion West, and I’m delighted today to be in the company of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, research fellow at the Hoover institution, and author most recently of the book Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan, welcome; thank you for joining me.

Vahaken, thank you very much for having me.

After two memoirs of noted literary quality and two treatises for an Islamic reformation, you offer with your latest book something much more social scientific. You take on perhaps the most barbed European public policy question of our time: mass migration. How and why did you decide to write Prey?

Well, I think mass migration has been a topic in Europe and a very controversial one for decades now, but we weren’t having an honest conversation about the impact of young men coming from Muslim-majority countries on the rights of women. You would have anecdotal evidence. Sometimes in newspapers, sometimes online, [or for example] at birthday parties [with] people in close proximity, behind closed doors. [They] would say this is what happened; this is what happened to my daughter; this is what happened to me; that sort of thing. But there was this sense of “Let’s look away from it.” There was a taboo around what’s happening on European streets and neighborhoods as a direct consequence of immigration and what’s happening to women.

You sought asylum in the Netherlands in 1992 at the age of 22, [and] a decade after which, you were elected to the Dutch Parliament. This is atypical—a degree of integration one would expect to see intergenerationally. But what is different about today’s asylum seekers arriving on European shores, and why are you pessimistic about their prospects of joining European society?

So, on a personal level, I had nowhere. I had a choice. One choice was to do exactly as my father had directed me, which was to go to Canada and join the man that he had married me off to: That was one choice. I rejected that; I didn’t want to do that. I went to the Netherlands and asked for asylum, so the only path forward for me—on a personal level—was to assimilate. That is not just learn[ing] the language but also be[ing] open to the values and the norms and the ways of being a good contributing citizen of the Netherlands. 

I think that for most asylum seekers today, that is exactly the choice. Either they go back to the lives that they had left behind (that they didn’t want to be a part of) or they embark on the journey of integrating, assimilating into the host societies. Now, many people find that incredibly difficult. And I’ve written in my book Nomad on some of the reasons why that is difficult, but it’s not impossible.

In Prey, it’s about young men who come from societies where women are seen as commodities, and women are divided into the good and the bad. And the bad—the ones they consider bad—are attacked, and they’re considered prey, and they’re attacked with impunity. And so—coming into Europe—they see independent women who dress as they please, who go about their lives as they please. From the perspective of the young man who comes from a society where that type of woman is considered bad, he doesn’t see a fellow human being. He sees prey. And the problems that begets: That’s emerging in these societies, and it’s unfortunate that the European leadership didn’t anticipate these problems; they should have. And now that the problems are unfolding, they’re doing very little to protect the public space for women: all women regardless of their age, or their skin color, or what have you.

You acknowledge some of the obvious objections to your thesis early in the book, mainly that sexual violence is ubiquitous; that it is primarily a young male problem; that there are several related, entangled variables like unemployment and illiteracy; and possibly racism. What convinces you, however, that in having identified the Islamic religious and cultural factor that you have identified the right one, the operative one?

So, everything you’ve said is true. Sexual violence is a universal issue, and it is committed everywhere in the world. But, in Europe, for a period of time, things had actually moved on from let’s say the common human condition, and institutions were established. There was a women’s liberation movement, and what we had achieved was what I had encountered in 1992 when I first came to Europe: women who were free and safe and emancipated. And I think what we are seeing now is that this encounter—and sometimes collision—between men who come from societies where that hasn’t happened into societies where women think of themselves as free agents.

To your question: Is every Muslim man a predator? Absolutely not. Is every immigrant man a predator? Absolutely not. Do factors such as disenfranchisement, racism, the suffering that these young men, themselves, have gone through—do these things matter? They do. All of that is absolutely relevant, but right now sexual violence has gone steep, vertical, and you can see that there is a direct link between the arrival of these young men and this behavior. I think it would be a good thing a) to acknowledge it; b) to protect the women; and c) it would be even better for the men themselves to understand that they’re entering a different society and that if they adapt and behave in a respectful way, abide by the law then, in fact, their chances of success are way higher than if they engage in this misconduct.

This issue is a precarious one not just because of the peculiar cultural sensitivities of our historical moment. You have also encountered significant methodological obstacles, such as inconsistent data, different definitions of sexual crime across European states and within them over time. How did you deal with this problem of missing, at times, and at other times inconsistent data, and has that at all weakened your conviction in your arguments, in your conclusions?

Well, what I observed as I delve into this issue is that the agencies who are paid to collect this data have—in some ways been—confused by the people who ask them to gather this data: the politicians, the policymakers, the senior editors in newspapers, and other news outlets. Traditionally, because of especially the Second World War—and the history of colonialism and all sorts of bad stuff that Europeans did in the past—in many countries, when data on crime is gathered religion is left out, ethnicity is left out, nationality is left out. Now, in order for the thesis of this book to work, I will need all of this data. Where does a perpetrator come from? Not just his age but, yes, his skin color, his religion, his tradition, his nationality—all of that is relevant. Most of these agencies say, “We simply don’t do that.”

Some countries are changing. I’ve seen a certain shift in Denmark; I’ve seen a certain shift in Austria, but there are also other ways of finding this data. For instance, by talking to victims. Who was your attacker? And it’s more difficult; it is harder; it’s more expensive, but you can get to the real data with just a touch more effort. But the point I make in the book is: Given how difficult it is to find reliable data, the first step is actually to throw away all of these barriers and to get the reliable data. What I have found in the book is strong enough to suggest that there is a correlation between mass migration from Muslim-majority countries and the increase in sexual violence. This is not the last word on this. This is just to say that correlation is there; it’s strong enough, [and] let’s build on it. Now, are we going to do it? I don’t know. I think in some countries we will see a change; in others, we won’t.

One can’t help but notice that your memoirs, Infidel and Nomad, were bestowed by cover blurbs from institutions: The New York Times, The Daily Beast, by Kirkus Reviews. Prey’s hardcover features the words of individuals like Henry Kissinger, like Senator Tom Cotton, and Megyn Kelly. Has your audience changed over the past five to ten years, and, if so, why do you think that is?

I don’t think the audience has changed, but I think the center-left establishment media right now in the United States of America is either terrified of the woke, or they are woke. So, the fact that people like [James] Bennet and Bari Weiss are fired from the New York Times’ op-ed pages or have had to resign—that tells you enough that taking on a subject where immigration is looked at critically and its negative impact on women…that is precisely the sort of topic that The New York Times and Kirkus and Publishers Weekly would avoid. 

If you look at the #MeToo movement—by the way, the New York Times [was] reluctant to take that on, just for the record—but if you look at #MeToo, what you see is powerful men, white men, heterosexual men, preying on women in the workplace. For them, it was easier to take on that topic [that sort of perpetrator] than young immigrant men who are fleeing civil war, who have gone through hell crossing the Mediterranean and other routes to Europe. Even associating these people—who are seen as victims—with anything negative is something in the age of identity politics that I think the mainstream media is just not going to do, so it’s left to outlets like yours.

And we’re happy to fill the vacuum if I may say so.

Thank you. I mean, we always need good reporting and quality reporting, so it’s good that people like you are getting into that space.

The charge of hypocrisy might be the lowest form of critique, but it’s the main one that Jill Filipovic wields against you in her review of Prey in The New York Times. From that review I quote: “Her [your] proposed solutions include ramping up policing, harsher criminal penalties and intrusions into [what Filipovic redundantly calls] personal privacy.” To rephrase her arguments and also give you a chance to respond: How can you, Ayaan, a liberal, recommend illiberal asylum and law enforcement policies?

Well, first of all, law enforcement policies in Europe were not designed for the context of mass migration, people coming from really violent contexts into Europe. What I have noticed…is that the punishment very often does not fit the crime. There are stories of men who have raped or participated in gang rape who have been let out because of a cultural defense, and what kind of justice is that for the female victim? Jill Filipovic does not touch on that. So this isn’t about an illiberal or harsher justice system; it’s about finding the right balance between the crime and the punishment. Punishment has—at some point—also to be a deterrent, and, right now, these punishments in Europe for rapes and harassment and sexual violence against women are simply not meeting the condition for deterrence. 

In terms of asylum, I think it’s the failure of European leadership. People who want to come and make a living in Europe from outside Europe—they can only do it through one path, and that is the path of asylum. That’s not what the asylum laws were designed for. So, you have economic migrants, and I think economic migration is fantastic; in fact, it’s the best sort of migration. But Europeans don’t have a framework for that or not an effective one. That needs to be changed. So, it’s not hypocrisy; it’s not harsh. This is a proposal, and it can always be dismissed but a proposal for elected officials and free societies to decide and reconsider how they’re going to reorganize immigration policy to fit the demands and the difficulties of today.

Your argument, curiously for me at least, does not encompass the United States. Do you think America is exceptionally capable of immigrant integration or for some reason fundamentally unalike Europe?

I think compared to Europe—America from its conception has been an immigration nation—immigration to America has always been selective. At first, it was natural selection. If you were able to survive here and thrive, then you survived and thrived, but otherwise you didn’t. There were a lot of immigrants who went back to Europe. Then later on, there was a huge selection. You had to come here and fend for yourself and have family; you had to be healthy; you had to have work. So, it was always selective; it still continues to be selective. 

There is a similarity, however, and that is with the Northern Triangle now, where lots and lots of people from Central and South America are coming in large numbers, and that might present similar problems to what I describe in Prey. But that is so fresh and so new; I haven’t done any research on it, [and] I don’t know if anyone else has actually done that. So, there might be a similarity there when you have this unmanaged, ad hoc stream of people coming in, and then going straight into the illegal sphere. I know that there is a rise in crime due to that, but the debate is too heated at this point in America to find cool heads who will say, “Let’s have a ledger of what is good about this type of immigration and what is not so good about it.” Now, having said all of that, when it comes to crime and punishment in America, the debates we’re having in America about the criminal justice system is that, “It’s too harsh; let’s make it more lenient,” whereas in Europe it’s too lenient. It’s a way of finding some sort of justice for the victims but also developing a system that actually is a deterrent, and right now in Europe it’s not.

For what it’s worth, there is considerable longitudinal data that suggests that, taken as a whole and on average, immigrants in the United States are far less likely to commit crimes than the native-born. But I take your point that perhaps such data needs to be updated and  constantly and consistently maintained to ensure that we have the best knowledge available. Luckily, we have you in the United States now to be a part of this debate. 

In his imperishable memoir, Christopher Hitchens writes that you were the first person that he had thought of inviting to his naturalization ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial in April of 2007, which you attended. Had you, by then, already decided that America was to be your home, too?

Yes, at that point…I was coming under different circumstances and can’t be compared to the people who are coming in from Central and South America into America or coming from the Middle East, South Asia, [and] Africa into Europe. But even under those circumstances, I had to go through that whole process of applying for a visa, then applying for the green card. You had to meet all these [requirements], and this is what I meant by selective, in order to get the green card. They even test you on TB and HIV and all of that, and, if you test positive, you don’t get a green card. Then: that whole process for citizenship. I wanted it; it’s something I desired, and I feel that I am a part of this community, and so was Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens was a citizen of the U.K. and decided to become an American citizen because of what Christopher and I shared: the idea that America is so great and so fantastic. I think that America does have a better infrastructure in place to attract that type of immigrant: the immigrant who comes here and wants to be here and appreciates being here. 

But having said that, again, I think just having this type of caravans full of people attracted—to a certain degree—to the welfare state is going to pose similar problems to America as we have in Europe. So, I just don’t want Americans to look at Europe and think, “Those dumb Europeans!” It’s not like that.

There’s a smaller welfare state, generally speaking, in America than in Europe, correct? So that might not be as large of an incentive in the States?

It is, and also, in America, I think the economic system makes it possible. People who come to America start businesses three or four months into their residence, even sometimes as illegal residents, and there’s all sorts of employment. Americans love economic migration. In fact, that’s the type of immigrant we want to attract, whereas in Europe, in sort of the various national narratives, economic migrants have been demonized. So, the only way left is for people to seek asylum and because it doesn’t automatically fit into the system, when you seek asylum, you’re also automatically subjected to the government taking care of you. And sometimes people—lots of immigrants—get trapped in that system.

Since we brought up the Hitch, he was also very picky and precise with words, a trait that I think he identified in you, given his writing. What do you think of the word “Islamophobia” as it has frequently been deployed against you?

Well, I think the first thing Christopher noticed and I didn’t—but anybody who is paying attention will notice—is that Islam is a set of ideas, beliefs. It’s a religion; it’s not a race.

In the name of Islam, several things have been done that people are legitimately afraid of. I don’t want to dwell on it, but the gruesome behavior of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and those that they have inspired—beheading people, bombing innocent people, terrorizing, running people over with trucks and cars—that sort of behavior has been legitimized and done and invoked in the name of Islam. So, the fear—if people are afraid of Islam—is legitimate: It’s not a phobia.

There are those who are trying to proselytize and spread Islam, especially its radical strains, who don’t want to be questioned. They don’t want to be questioned about what Islam says about women, about homosexuals, about Jews, about Christians, about people like me who have left the faith. They don’t want to answer those questions, so they throw around this word “Islamophobia” and accuse the people who are asking legitimate questions of being bigoted. They’re riding on the coattails of other social movements, but that doesn’t work. I think they hate it when people like Christopher Hitchens see right through this mess and say, “No, we’re not going to buy that.”

Unfortunately, though, Christopher Hitchens and I have failed because “Islamophobia” is now part of the lexicon of identity politics. It’s something you can throw around, effectively, to shut down debate on Islam.

You have previously been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an anti-Muslim extremist. And in 2010, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has since been acquainted with an American drone, very considerately, very lovingly, thought to include you on a hitlist. I hope this doesn’t come across as a rhetorical or unfair question: How does it feel to be perhaps the only point of agreement and convergence between the SPLC and Al-Qaeda?

[Laughs.] First of all, the SPLC—as an organization, back in the day—had a legitimate mission: to draw to the attention of Americans what was [being] done to blacks: the lynching, the discrimination, the segregation. I think to a certain degree they did succeed, but then that organization morphed into something else, entirely different, where they frighten mostly Jewish people into giving them a lot of money because Jewish people do care about discrimination and anti-Semitism, but also the wider society at-large. What they do with that money, I don’t know. But they have taken to going after people like me [and] like Maajid Nawaz. Right now, I just see them as a bunch of charlatans, really. I’m not sure they know that in many ways, inadvertently, that they’re affiliated with Al-Qaeda. 

It’s not only you who draws this conclusion. By drawing up a list of people—that Al-Qaeda would also draw up—and publishing that list, implicit in that is, “It’s legitimate to attack these people.” I don’t know if the SPLC and their leadership know this. They have apologized to Maajid Nawaz, but that is only after he took them to court. I think they took my name off that list, but there are still people on their list that should not be—on their list of so-called bigoted people.

It is unclear if that benefited Maajid at all given that Quilliam, his organization, I believe is no more. The damage may have been done already. 

May I offer a confession as we get close to the end? I really miss the old literary voice of Ayaan: the voice of Infidel and of The Portable Atheist, that inimitable essay that you wrote at the end of Hitchens’ edited volume. What’s going to be the next thing on your writing desk?

I see an emerging attraction towards tribalism in America and maybe in the wider Western society. That is, the attitude of unquestioningly being faithful to something. Where I come from, it’s the bloodline. But now here it’s politics: You are on this side of the aisle, on that side of the aisle. But in such a way that you are uncritical, and you loathe and hate the other side and, in some ways, you’re willing to go from just despising people to legitimizing violence. I find that fascinating, this tribal impulse, and I’d like to spend more time looking at it and writing about it.

Well, you published an essay just a few days ago in UnHerd on that matter precisely. It’s interesting to see you compare the tribalism here with the tribalism you observed as a child in Somalia, and perhaps in Kenya, where one might make deductions about the other based on the proportions of his forehead or the way one frowns.

[Laughs.] Or their accents, and decide those people are evil! I’m seeing things like this here, and I think it’s fascinating to see that maybe you can’t snuff out the tribal impulse out of humanity. But there are ways of dealing with this. Sports is one way. My husband is a fan of Arsenal [the English football club]. When he’s supporting them, he gets a little tribal, and I think maybe that’s how the West dealt with it: by creating all of these sports organizations so young men can channel their negative energy into that. Then, once they leave the stadium, [they’re] back to civilization. So, who knows? That’s what I’m thinking.

I hope that that next book gives us—I trust it will give us—an occasion to do this again, hopefully in-person and with a couple of glasses of iced Greek coffee. Until then, Ayaan, thank you very much, once again, for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Thank you, Vahaken. Thank you very much for having me and for the kind words and also for bringing up Christopher Hitchens, whom I really hope that we never forget.

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