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Back Channels: Boldly confronting the problems of Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a big believer in freedom of speech. So she practices it daily, fearlessly, and at great personal cost.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a big believer in freedom of speech. So she practices it daily, fearlessly, and at great personal cost.

"Every important freedom that Western individuals possess rests on free expression," she writes in her new book, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. "We observe what is wrong, and we say what is wrong, in order that it may be corrected."

What Hirsi Ali wants to correct most are certain aspects of Islam, the religion and culture she practiced growing up in Somalia. The religion and culture she abandoned in order to escape an arranged marriage. The religion and culture she says often conflict with Western values. And in order to make the necessary corrections, she outlines the wrongs in Nomad:

"Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence."

"[A] strict interpretation of Islam is preparation for bigotry, violence, and oppression."

"It is part of Muslim culture to oppress women ..."

"All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. ... The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better." (Emphasis in original.)

There is a price for speaking one's mind about Islam, as Hirsi Ali is aware. She wrote and coproduced the 10-minute 2004 film Submission (a translation of the word Islam) about the treatment of Muslim women. Three months after the film aired on Dutch television, coproducer Theo van Gogh was shot eight times while cycling to work. His jihadist killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, tried decapitating the filmmaker and then plunged two knives into him. One knife pinned a five-page note to the body that, among other things, threatened Hirsi Ali's life. She has been in hiding, or under 24-hour guard, since.

Violence, threats, and fear take their toll, she told me during a June 3 interview before she spoke to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia at the Union League.

"[They] turn the Western mind to an attitude of 'OK, let's not offend them, let's just stay away from the whole concept of Islam,' " she said. Thus the fight against Islamic fascists is waged by military means but not on an intellectual level.

"We're not fighting the ideological war," she says. "There's no counter to the propaganda that the jihadists offer."

The result, she says, is, "you waste the opportunity of converting people who now identify themselves as Muslim into a better idea of how society can and should be built."

She points to the Iran born of the revolution of 1979:

"Ayatollah Khomeini came with a set of ideas derived from [the prophet] Muhammad," she relates. "He said, 'I want to institute sharia, and sharia is a system of justice.' Now, lots and lots and lots of Iranians don't want to live under sharia. They don't know what else they want, but they don't want sharia. That's a huge opportunity."

Hirsi Ali's writings, her work at the American Enterprise Institute, and her new organization, the AHA Foundation (her initials), all focus on seizing that opportunity. Not, as she emphasizes, solely to criticize Islam, but to offer something better, especially for Muslim women and young girls who are abused by their families and communities.

With her foundation, Hirsi Ali wants to promote discussions among law enforcement, social-service agencies, and educators about the practices that oppress Muslim women and girls, even in the West: forced marriages, genital mutilation, honor violence and killings. Too often, she says, such acts are ignored, or considered onetime aberrations, or excused for cultural reasons. For example, she says, honor killings are not usually crimes of passion, with a man suddenly driven to act by anger or shame. Instead, she says, these murders are often deliberate, planned in advance by the families. They help the murderer escape or have him confess - and it's often a juvenile in hopes of gaining a lighter sentence - making for an open-and-shut case.

"Think of the impact on the other girls in the community who may have wanted to live their own life," Hirsi Ali says. "They think: 'I don't want to be beheaded. ... I don't want to be killed. I'm going to submit and conform.' "

The law must trump culture, Hirsi Ali says, or the West will damn girls, the most vulnerable members of Muslim communities, to second-class status or worse.

Hirsi Ali won't sit quietly and watch the West take that course, for her sake as well as for others. She writes in Nomad:

"[W]hen Westerners refrain from criticizing or questioning certain practices, certain aspects of Islam, they abandon those Muslims who seek to question them too. They also abandon their own values. Once they have done that, their society is lost."