Carys Moseley comments on the recent conversion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Christianity
The most famous ex-Muslim in the western world, if not the entire world, has publicly declared that she has embraced Christianity. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born advocate for women and girls who left Islam having gained asylum in the Netherlands and initially turned to the New Atheism for moral guidance. Two weeks ago, she wrote an article for Unherd magazine sharing some of the reasons for her turn towards Christianity. Here I shall consider the significance of her turn for handling abuse of women, Islamic revivalism, Christian mission among Muslims and how this affects the Islamophobia narrative.
Escaping a forced marriage
Ali herself escaped a forced marriage, having previously undergone FGM as a five-year-old child in Somalia. These experiences would later prove central to the nature of her advocacy for women and girls. When she first surfaced, the problem of forced marriage and honour-based violence had only recently been aired publicly in western countries.
In 1998 the murder of Rukshana Naz helped bring the issue of forced marriage into the limelight in the UK. An inquiry was led by two Muslim peers, Baroness Uddin and Lord Ahmed. One year later Mehmet Goren, a Kurdish man who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and gained refugee status in the UK, murdered his daughter Tulay because she had a Christian Lebanese boyfriend. Goren was eventually convicted and sentenced to imprisonment ten years later in 2009.
Christian leadership in opposing FGM
Hirsi Ali’s turn to Christianity, and her support of a Christian basis for civilization, is significant given that she is a strong critic of FGM. She endured the practice as a child in Somalia. The historical record shows that Scottish missionaries in Kenya initiated opposition to FGM in the early twentieth century.
Marion Scott Stevenson was a missionary with the Church of Scotland Mission in British East Africa (Kenya) between 1907 and 1929. Her service was extraordinarily wide-ranging, including Bible translation, teaching hygiene, working in a hospital and establishing a school for girls. A new study on the effect of historic Christian opposition to FGM in Africa published by three Swedish researchers in the Journal of Development Economics has recently been published. They looked at surveys of 410,000 respondents in 14 African countries over the period 1990 to 2020. They found that respondents who lived close to where a historic Christian mission had existed were less likely to have undergone the practice (which they termed ‘Female Genital Cutting’). The relationship was found to be ‘especially strong’ for women living in areas where it was done before the missionary era, or if their own ancestors practised it.
Islamic revivalism – deceptive and deadly
Ayaan Hirsi Ali left the Muslim Brotherhood’s Somali branch, which she had joined as a teenager in Nairobi in the 1980s. The fact that she left provides invaluable first-hand insight. The reason is that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to Islamise non-Muslim countries. In the west in particular this would be by deceptive means, appearing to do so non-violently from below.
Ali published a book about her struggles to live as a woman under Islam in the Netherlands in 2004. (This was published in English as ‘The Caged Virgin’ in 2006.) The script for the film ‘Submission’ came out of that book, criticising how women are treated under Islamic law, and its director was Theo Van Gogh. For this Van Gogh was murdered by a man called Mohamed Bouyeri in the same year. He left a note pinned to Van Gogh’s chest warning that Ali was the original target. Indeed she was already a high profile figure due to being an elected member of the Dutch Parliament. This forced Ali to flee the Netherlands for the USA. A few years later she was revealed to be on the Al-Qaeda hit list. As a result, she has to live with round-the-clock protection from bodyguards. This surely has been a major test of character. In 2005, Hirsi Ali was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Encouraging Christian mission among Muslims
Even before her personal spiritual turn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali had encouraged western churches to evangelise Muslims. Part of the motive seemed to be concerned that women should be able to find a better quality of life and sense of meaning by adhering to a religion.
We can talk about whether this is too utilitarian a view of faith. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that even her pragmatic advocacy of Christian mission to Muslims shows up the reality that Christians and Muslims do not in fact worship the same god.
Western churches and Muslim converts
The news that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has turned towards Christianity and started attending church weekly raises some uncomfortable questions for churches in the western world. How many actually reach out to and welcome people who want to leave Islam or who have left Islam? The fact is that not all do, as the cost can be high if the person involved is a target for persecution.
More Christians need to be familiar with Christian apologetics on Islam, and with the Qu’ran and other texts deemed authoritative in Islam. More Christians also need to learn about Islamic campaigners’ real intentions, namely to Islamise non-Muslim societies. This would have a disastrous effect on the treatment of women and girls among other things.
The predictable taunt of Islamophobia
Unsurprisingly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been attacked relentlessly on the grounds of Islamophobia. In her case it is important to realise how cruel this is, given that she was put on an Al-Qaeda hit list. Her critics should pause to reconsider whether their accusations collude with her enemies.
Interestingly in 2015 Christian journalist Mike Dobbins apologised for smearing Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an Islamophobe. He had looked more deeply into the topics she was tackling and concluded that she and other critics of Islam were right.
The best story for Islamophobia Awareness Month
By sheer coincidence Ayaan Hirsi Ali has shared her story during Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM). Admittedly Ali lives in the US and Islamophobia Awareness Month is a British movement. This year’s IAM theme is ‘Muslim stories’, where British Muslims share their personal stories. The purpose of this movement is to normalise Islam in Britain. It is therefore suitably ironic for Unherd, a British magazine, to publish the latest part of Ali’s personal story at this time.
This really matters because Ali spent many years calling for a reform of Islam to remove the seeming divine sanctioning of violence and control, especially against women. She tried to do this by writing autobiographical books about her personal life story and the people she met and worked with. One of her recent books is called “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now”. She had become an advocate for female victims of abuse in the Netherlands, and most of those were Muslims. I reviewed her recent book “Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.” After emigrating to the USA she continued her advocacy work through her own charity, the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation.
Looking to the future
It is clear that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s journey from Islam to Christianity has been a very slow one, via the New Atheism. A key turning point was 9/11, specifically facing up to the fact that those responsible believed in the same god as she did. This only encouraged her to wrestle more broadly with her life as a woman in the Islamic faith. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become famous as an advocate for ex-Muslims especially women. The publicity surrounding each controversy in which she has been involved has helped raise awareness and support for such people in the west, but at a very high price.
Because she had to flee the Netherlands and even now lives under 24/7 protection, it is easy to forget that she was able to leave Islam and live because she came to the West. For most people this cannot happen, indeed it would be totally impractical. The big question then is; how can Christian mission not only touch but transform people’s lives for good in Islamic countries?
Relevant resources from Christian Concern
Tim Dieppe and Beth Peltola, Questions to Ask Your Muslim Friends. London: Wilberforce Publications, 2022.
Sam Solomon with Atif Debs, Not the Same God: Is the Qur’anic Allah the Lord God of the Bible? London: Wilberforce Publications, 2016.
Is Islam a Religion of Peace?
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