Women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the most recent guest in this year’s Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series, giving two talks at the Van Wezel on Tuesday, both moderated by BBC World News America lead anchor Katty Kay.
Security at the hall was high for the talks because of the numerous death threats the Somalian-born Hirsi Ali has received for her outspoken criticism of the state of Islam. In 2004, the director of her film, Submission—about the oppression of Muslim women—was found murdered with a death threat for Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest. At a press conference Tuesday morning, members of the media had to check in with police and show ID before being allowed entrance to the briefing; during the lecture, numerous police offers stood watch throughout the hall.
Hirsi Ali’s talks came at a particularly timely moment, as the radical group ISIS continues to terrorize the Middle East and the story of three British teenage girls leaving their homes in England and flying to Turkey to join the group hit the news. Hirsi Ali addressed both of those topics, saying that she spent five years as a radicalized Muslim when she was a teenager thanks to an especially outspoken teacher.
“If I’m being really honest,” she said, “there was a time [in my life] when I would have gone, because [in Islam] we are told that the greatest honor is to do things for the sake of Allah, and [if you do], he will reward you. That’s totally consistent [throughout Islam], and even moderate Muslims agree.
“The bedrock is there, even if your family is not radical,” she continued. “If you are a proper Muslim, you submit to Allah.”
But Hirsi Ali takes issue with that point of view, asserting that she thinks Islam needs to undergo the same type of reformation other religions—like Christianity and Judaism—have, and that just because something is written in the Koran doesn’t make it true. “I don’t care if Muhammad says it or Allah says it—if it’s wrong, it’s wrong!” she said, adding, “that’s why they hate me.”
As for ISIS, “its message is ‘we love death,” she says. “It should not be difficult to formulate a message of ‘we love life’ and sell it to kids from preschool on.”
And she says that while the United States gets “an A for effort” in its attempts to deal with ISIS and Middle Eastern countries like Iran, “in the context of the Middle East, negotiation doesn’t mean you meet halfway. To compromise is to commit shame in an Islamic society. Negotiation is a zero sum game, and it’s difficult for Westerners to get that.”
But despite the tumultuous state of world affairs these days, Hirsi Ali says she’s not pessimistic. “What we are seeing now is that Islam is going through a crisis,” she says. “But if you take one step back and analyze what’s [really] happening, you’ll see that after the Arab Spring, there are young people organizing, questioning, coming out and saying ‘we don’t want to hate, we want to love.’ I think there is a chance a reformation has started.”