Human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali headlined the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture on Saturday during the 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Chicago. The Somali-born bestselling author began with a reading from her book, Infidel, which described her reaction to the September 11 attacks while she was working at the Dutch Parliament. She writes that that experience made her realize that acts of violence were being carried out in the name of her religion, and it begged her to question where she stood.
Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman moderated the question-and-answer session in which Hirsi Ali addressed the role libraries have played in her life, how books open paths to new thoughts and intellectual enlightenment, and why she argues that the doctrine of Islam needs to be changed in the name of human rights.
“The institution called a library is why I’m here,” Hirsi Ali said, describing how she read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Shakespeare among the books that were available to her as a child in Kenya. She added that some of the books got so much use that covers and pages were missing. “I remember reading books that I didn’t know the title, beginning, or the end. If it hadn’t been for these books, I don’t know if I’d be capable of asking the question ‘where do I stand?’ on issues.”
Hirsi Ali explained that even though people in the West value individuality, people are not islands and as such are susceptible to social control. The idea of the collective is predominant in many cultures around the world, including Islam. As a 10-year-old in Kenya, her father had insisted she and her sister attend school. But there was a lot of free time, a lot of “boredom,” and books “got me out of that. A bit of my ethical and moral training came from those books, and I was exposed to real trash,” she said, adding that the basis for individual thinking versus the collective was laid by reading those books.
Describing herself as an average student — below in some areas like math and science and slightly above average in others, like languages — Hirsi Ali emphasized that even children who are exposed to ideologies of hate or other indoctrination can learn the ideas of the Enlightenment that govern much of Western culture.
“Everything about the Netherlands from 1992 to 1998 was a shock,” she said of her experience as an immigrant to Europe. Calamities like natural disasters or dykes breaking, which in Kenya or Saudi Arabia or Somalia would have been considered punishment from God for collective wrongdoing, were blamed on the government for not being maintained properly. “Growing up, asking questions was clamped. I was told I was an evil child. It’s very different in Holland. I am eternally grateful to Dutch society and my friends.
“When the opportunity to liberate myself intellectually arose, I took it,” she said.
Asked about some of the controversy her books have caused among Muslims, Hirsi Ali said her comments can be considered good or evil depending on one’s perspective. “I’ve put the dirty laundry out there. You become a bestseller and you become either famous or infamous,” she said, adding that she received letters from people all over the world — including non-Muslims —who could relate to the implications of the almost unlimited authority of the collective. “It seemed universal. There are degrees to which the radical ways of the collective can inhibit.”
Hirsi Ali said her new book, Heretic, is much more hopeful than her last book, Nomad, which painted a bleak picture of the state of Islam.
“When the facts change, you have to change your mind,” she explained. “In 2010, I didn’t have much to go on in terms of Islam as a doctrine ever changing. But then the Arab Spring happened.”
If people are risking their lives to overthrow despots like Honsi Mubarak in Egypt, then it’s only a matter of time until they get rid of other despots in their lives — fathers, husbands, or brothers — and begin questioning, Hirsi Ali said. “It’s only a matter of time before the student asks the teacher, ‘Why is there only one truth? And why are you the one telling me what that truth is?’ It’s only a matter of time before people ask, ‘Who is Allah, who is Mohammad to say we have to obey?'”
Because much of Hirsi Ali’s activism is focused on women, particularly Muslim women facing issues of discrimination and abuse, Seaman asked for her thoughts on why women are joining terrorist movements. Hirsi Ali explained that sometimes when someone’s faith is questioned — why aren’t you covering your hair as a Muslim woman? — they go into a state of dissonance. “Some people react by committing themselves to the obedience and submit to the letter and become more fundamentalist,” she said.
The thought process that says people who commit terrorism in the name of Islam are a fringe element who misinterpret Islamic texts is a state of denial, Hirsi Ali said. She argues that the actual doctrine within Islam instructs Muslims to behave in this way. She added that change is never a call by the masses.
“Change always starts with people who are persecuted, and it’s just that the line of people gets bigger,” she said, adding that people have to be willing to have a dialogue that Islamic religious leaders do not want to have.
Hirsi Ali added that libraries can play a crucial role in creating these dialogues. “Libraries are the place you come and reflect. You can’t do that on Twitter or social media. Libraries are temples of enlightenment,” she said. “Think of it as an institution. Let’s turn off our phones and really think about what’s happening and why. It’s very easy to identify who is vulnerable to these terrible ideas. We could be attracting those people to come to the library.”