Writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali visits FDU

Ali and Houle

Robert Houle, associate professor of history at FDU, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer and political activist, discuss Islam. (Photos by W. Scott Giglio)

By Kenna Caprio

Writer and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali discussed her views on reforming Islam with a group of students at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus during the first week of the Spring 2016 semester.

Robert Houle, associate professor of history, moderated the event.

Conversation highlights:

Ali, who has expressed critical views of radical Islam, now calls for its reform. “What really changed my mind was the Arab Spring, and people taking to the streets,” she said. Citizens “really questioning the principles” of Sharia law, in which a legal system is framed by Islam, “that gave me hope.”

In her memoir “Infidel,” she said, she divides Muslims into three categories, in accordance with their religious practice: Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims and Modifying Muslims.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali“Fundamentalists follow the Quran the way we follow a GPS or an Ikea manual,” she said. Medina “Muslims need to change their attitude and see it in context.” It’s their “insistence that life after death matters more” and is a more important and permanent world that can lead believers into “accepting violence and jihad,” she added. Mecca Muslims, she said, separate politics from religion, and Modifying Muslims are “looking for a faith more about religion and tolerance” not violence.

“Christianity has gone through enlightenment. That’s what I’m calling for in Islam,” said Ali.

She also expressed dissatisfaction over the oppression of women.

Questioning the hijab — a traditional head covering worn by some Muslim women — Ali asked, “What does it mean to cover a woman’s body?” She pointed out that Muslim women should have the choice to wear a hijab, but worries that the garment can be representative of young men not being taught to value women. “It’s about controlling male behavior through women,” she said.

Instead, she said, men need to know that it’s “not justified for males to attack a woman just because of how’s she dressed.” Women who cover themselves are considered to be modest, she explained, while those who don’t are perceived as immodest. Though Ali said she thinks these behaviors are “extremely difficult to unlearn,” she believes that men must be taught boundaries and respect nevertheless.

Students asked questions about issues of power and control within Islam, about eliminating the divide between modest and immodest, and why some Muslims tolerate violence rather than condemn it. At the end of the program, Student Government President Shi “Porter” Yang presented Ali with a small gift, two FDU crystal glasses and a wood cutout of Hennessy Hall, and thanked her for visiting campus.

The previous evening, Ali spoke at the New Jersey Speakers Series, presented by FDU, and held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J.

Named in 2005 by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is known for her views critical of radical Islam and its suppression of women. Born in Somalia, she sought political asylum in the Netherlands to avoid a forced marriage and later was elected to the Dutch Parliament. Now a U.S. citizen, Ali’s best-selling memoir is “Infidel.”