There is something dignified in the quiet, determined manner of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as she rises from the audience and walks towards the podium to deliver her lecture. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's intricate history starts in Somalia, where she was born to a Muslim family. At the age of five she underwent female genital mutilation. By her teens she was a devout Muslim. In her early 20s, upon learning of plans for an undesirable arranged marriage, she made her way to Holland, where she applied for asylum. Hirsi Ali studied at Leiden University and began publishing critical articles about Islam, the condition of the Muslim woman, and so forth.
She wrote the script for the Dutch movie "Submission" for director Theo van Gogh, who was subsequently murdered by a Muslim assassin. Hirsi Ali joined the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and in 2003 was elected to the Dutch parliament. A few years later she moved to the United States, where she became a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. She published some books; notably, an autobiography titled "Infidel" that became an international bestseller. Already in 2005, Time magazine named Hirsi Ali among the 100 most influential people in the world. The internet abounds with information about her, with articles and videos of her lectures…
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was visiting Israel for the recent Presidential Conference in Jerusalem. Following are excerpts of an interview published in Israel Hayom.
Q: In your lectures you made numerous references to the situation in the Middle East. You claim that people in the West do not understand that what is taking place in the Middle East is not a dialogue.
Hirsi Ali: More than one issue is at stake here. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian context, the main problem is that you may speak of a peace process, but what you get is a process, not peace. And why is this process so prolonged? Because for the Israelis this issue is a territorial problem. For the Palestinian negotiators, on the other hand, it is not a territorial problem but a religious and ethnic one, It is not only about Palestinians but about all Arabs. Most of all, it is a religious problem.
From the perspective of the Arab leaders, reaching a two-state solution is to betray God, the Koran, the hadith and the tradition of Islam.
Q: Even though they are portrayed as secular?
Hirsi Ali: The presumption that the Palestinian negotiators are secular is not supported by facts. Were they secular, there would already be a settled territorial agreement of some kind. But there is no agreement as of today, because on one side it has become religious jihad of all or nothing, while on the other side it is still a territorial issue. Of course I know that there are Israelis who also perceive this as a religious problem; but their numbers pale in comparison to the Muslim side. Reaching a settlement that brings about two states is a religious betrayal – not only for the leadership but for most Muslims today. The West does not understand this.
Q: Why? After the many years you have lived in the West, how can you explain this?
Hirsi Ali: The conception of religion in the West in the 20th and 21st century differs from that of Middle Eastern Muslims. The West successfully separated religion and politics, but even in places in the West where there is no distinct separation, still the concept of God and religion, even in the 13th or 15th century, differs to the current reality in the Middle East.
Islam is an Orthopraxy, Islam has a goal. So if you are a true Muslim, you must fight for that goal. You can achieve a temporary peace or truce, but it is not ultimate, not everlasting. It is not just about the territory. Because the territory does not belong to the people; it belongs to God. So for a Palestinian leader – even if he is secular, even an atheist – to leave the negotiating room with the announcement of a two-state solution would mean that he would be killed the minute he walks out.
Q: Many wise people come here advising us Israelis to act rationally. Do you think this dispute has anything to do with rationalism?
Hirsi Ali: Europeans and Americans – and I do not refer merely to the leadership, but to people in general – when they have a problem, they think there must be some kind of compromise on the table. What they cannot accept is that one party would say "the only rational outcome is our complete victory." If you put aside the Israeli-Palestinian situation, you see components of this culture in the events in Syria, in Lebanon. You've seen it with Mubarak. There is a winner and there is a loser. But there cannot be two winners.
Q: So the proposal of compromise stems from naivety?
Hirsi Ali: You can give it any label you like. I have listened to someone like Tony Blair, I was in two or three conferences where he spoke, and he is not naïve anymore, he is not the same man he was ten years ago in regards to this conflict. More and more leaders see that this conflict is not going to be resolved Western-style, namely that all conflicts are resolvable and no-one leaves the table empty-handed.
In a culture dictated by honor and shame – in addition to the religious issue – defeat of any kind, accepting a compromise, is to leave the room empty-handed. Compromise is loss in this culture. It is very hard to explain this to contemporary Westerners.
Q: Many liberals around the world, who support the compromise solution, also tend to blame Israel.
Hirsi Ali: Many perceive Israel to be one of their kind; another liberal, white, rational state, etc. Therefore they expect you to approach matters the way they would. But then they approach the subject in the context of the U.S. or Europe, or some other Western system, where there is rule of law, arbiters, an ability to go to court in case of disagreement. There is a district court, a court of appeals, a supreme court, and once the judges have spoken their decision is final. You lose face, but you have to accept defeat…
With the Arab Spring. Many are in favor of change. They just don't know how to go about it.
We are speaking of a fundamentally different context, where such a judicial infrastructure does not exist, and those who aspire for it are a persecuted minority.
And yet I am optimistic, after the Arab Spring. I see people, albeit few in number and very disorganized, but who do want that infrastructure where religion is put aside and where compromise becomes central. They just don't know how to go about it. They lack the resources and the institutions to make that happen. But it is possible…
Q: There is also a certain measure of idealism...
Hirsi Ali: Idealism is a good thing. But when idealism encounters reality, you must not try to manipulate it to fit your utopia. You have to take in the reality. 93,000 people have died in Syria because the fighting forces could not, cannot, and will not compromise. This toll is higher than all the fatalities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!
So, to go on and on about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my view is to take a tranquilizer or smoke pot. You do it just to feel better. You cannot face reality, so you just keep on harping about something that can make you feel better. One can also mention the number of people who died in Libya because Kaddafi and the opposition would not find the way to the negotiating table. This phenomenon is repeated throughout the region, not only today but throughout history. Reaching compromise is to lose face.
Q: So do you think that talk about negotiations brought up by the Arab counterparts is a game, with no real intentions behind it? We know that right after the Oslo accords, Arafat spoke in a mosque in South Africa, comparing the Oslo accords to the hudaiba treaty by Muhammad with his enemies. In Israel, there were those who accepted this, as they said that Arafat had to resort to speaking two different languages, one for his people and one for us.
Hirsi Ali: I hear this argument constantly, also in relation to the Turkey's Erdogan and in regards to the Saudis. Do you know what is wrong with this argument? If you want peace and not merely a process, you must make peace with the people. The negotiators themselves are of no importance. They are a few individuals who may tomorrow be out of power or dead. You have to have peace with the people you are in conflict with, and as long as they do not want to hear a different tune, you will not have peace. Until the people at large are ready for that compromise, there is no compromise.
This is true of the domestic politics of any nation or the external politics with foreign nations, for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen symbolically as the biggest icon of all foreign affairs relations with the Arab Islamic world.
There has to be a change of attitude and a change in attitude within the culture and of culture, and I hope that we can see this.
True emancipation cannot exist without the freedom of the individual's voice.
I believe that true emancipation cannot exist without the freedom of the individual, without the individual's space and voice. The fact that individualism is not given a chance in the Arab Muslim world is related to belonging and the collective. If you want to belong and be part of the collective you have to be a winner. If you are not, then you are a source of shame.
So you have to ask yourself why the Syrian regime and its likes are incapable of putting an end to the bloodshed after killing ten, or 1,000, or 10,000 people. Why not? It is not caused by Israel, the Americans or any outsiders; it is part of the culture. And for the culture to grow out of such phenomena, change has to come from within.
Q: If so, do negotiations have any meaning when we talk about peace while the Palestinian Authority use anti-Israeli school books, which do not even mention Israel by name in their geographical maps?
Hirsi Ali: Not now. Not as long as a majority of the people do not want peace. An Arab leader who genuinely wants peace has to convince the Arab people first, must get their endorsement and then go and get peace. That is why the first thing that needs to be worked out is not so much the relationship with Israel but changing the culture, Islamic and Arab. This process does not depend on you, though you can help it, facilitate it, be a catalyst; but it does not depend on you, on America or the rest of the world.
Q: In reference to Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory, is there any sense that Europe is awakening to the threat it faces? We have a feeling that Israel is a scapegoat of sorts for the rest of the world. Do you not think that Europe is overcome by a quiet conquest of the Muslims there?
Hirsi Ali: Yes, but it is no longer quiet, ever since 9/11 and the terrorist plots. Because the countries of Europe and the U.S. are democracies, their citizens enjoy freedom of speech. The more we listen, the more discernible is the extreme cultural divergence between the civilizations, as Huntington claims. One must first face it before blaming Israel or scapegoating others, otherwise things will not change. And the Europeans are waking up to this.
Europeans are waking up to the cultural divergence between the civilizations.
I visited Israel for the first time in 1998 or 1999, and saw people in uniform with guns in buses, in the market, on the streets. My European friend who came with me found this so strange. You would never find this in Holland. Now all airports in Europe and the U.S. have security men, all wielding machine guns, just like I saw in Israel at the time. After the Boston marathon bombings, I think that on the Fourth of July this year there will be more security than spectators.
So, as these liberal Western democracies are beginning to face the same challenges as Israel, or at least a tiny fraction of them – you see attitudes changing.
Q: Do you perceive attitudes changing towards Israel? An understanding of Israel?
Hirsi Ali: Well, some people get hardened. I do not understand Stephen Hawking's refusal to come to Israel. There is a boycott on Israel by the intellectuals. Yet, the people in Boston are the most liberal in the United States, maybe short of San Francisco, and they were really quite happy with people in uniform patrolling the streets, which compromises their civil liberties. But people would rather face reality than lose limbs…
Q: And you think that it will be a huge mistake to give away territory before a cultural change occurs?
Hirsi Ali: I will just say that Israel is not the problem nor is it the solution. Even if you give up all the land, it will not solve any of the problems in the Middle East. It will not obliterate despotism, it will not liberate women, it will not help religious minorities. It won't bring peace to anyone. Even if Israel does not give up an inch of land – the result will be the same.
If you want a process, continue the way you are. If you want real, lasting peace, then things have to change first within the Arab Muslim individual, family, school, streets, education, and politics. It is not an Israeli problem.
You must learn to take advantage of opportunities. Due to technology, things can develop quickly. Look at the Iranians; what took the Iranians thirty years could take the Egyptians five or ten.
Q: To become secular?
Hirsi Ali: No, just for the majority of the people to stand up to Shariah. This is what I want to say about Muslims in general: Muslims want Shariah until they have it... For cultural change to transpire we need one hundred years and more to pass. You can pick any number you want. I am speaking of a lengthy, bloody period. But it is going to change.
Originally published in Israel Hayom