Ayaan Hirsi Ali advocates social reform in Muslim countries | VailDaily.com

Ayaan Hirsi Ali advocates social reform in Muslim countries

Charlie Owen
Vail CO, Colorado

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s entire life has been a battle of opposing beliefs. She was raised in a strict Islamic household where at a young age she was tormented by the religion’s abusive teachings towards women and violence towards non-believers.

As she grew up, she was tempted by the allure of Western cultures, but had been taught to hate Americans and their alliances with the Jews. When her father told her she had to marry a Muslim man whom she didn’t even know, she was forced to make a choice between submitting to her father and husband ” which she’d been taught her whole life ” or leaving behind all she held dear for her personal freedom.

Finally, on this day, seven years ago, Ali began to steel her will for “the final showdown” in her own head, one more decision she knew she had to make: To denounce her faith in Islam; a religion she now viewed as completely cruel and intolerant, or side with the same religion the hijackers of 9/11 claimed gave them the right to take the lives of American infidels.

“I asked the question that none of us (Muslims) are supposed to ask: Is there a God, is there a hell?” Ali said during her speech at the Vilar Performing Arts Center Monday night.

On this, the seventh anniversary of 9/11, perhaps nothing could be more fitting than Ali’s speech in Beaver Creek. For Ali, turning her back on her religion was no small thing.

She was born in Somalia and spent her childhood living in poverty in third world countries ” Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. She knew letting go of her religion could mean losing her family, spending eternity in hell and possibly even her death. In the end, after all the “mind gymnastics,” she became an atheist.

“There are circumstances that you cannot control in life, but you can learn and figure out what you can control,” Ali said.

After listing the many obstacles in her life that could have prevented her from taking control of her future ” premature birth, an unhappy family life, forced genital mutilation and her rigid Islamic upbringing ” Ali said she promised herself as a teenager she would never end up like her mother.

“By learning to read and write, I did what my mother feared most,” Ali said. “I would go down my own path and do my own thing.”

According to Ali, women are to bow to the wishes of the men in their lives and to Allah and never follow the path to their own fulfillment. Denying herself was what she had always been taught, but would no longer do.

Instead, Ali devoted herself to learning as much as she could about other cultures and studied several different languages. Eventually, she sought political asylum in the Netherlands while trying to escape an arranged marriage. In Holland, Ali earned a degree in political science and became a member of Parliament where she sought to bring attention to the treatment of women in Islamic societies. Now she is a women’s rights activist, best-selling author (“Infidel”) and currently works with the conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Though Ali escaped the third world countries she’d been raised in, she couldn’t escape Islam’s impact on her life. A few months after Ali and her friend Theo van Gogh filmed a movie about the mistreatment of women in Islamic cultures, van Gogh was brutally murdered by an Islamist extremist in the streets. The attacker shot van Gogh eight times and slit his throat before stabbing a letter threatening Ali’s life into his chest.

“I do not regret anything in my life except the death of Theo van Gogh,” Ali said. “Regret is a waste of energy.”

Now Ali lives in America with round-the-clock security and continues to fight for the causes she believes in.

As proof that she inspires people all over the world, even here in Eagle Valley, Ali was the first speaker to ever sell out the Vilar Center.

“We’re very excited and very excited for the Vail Symposium that this is such a successful event and we’re very glad to be able to be a part of making it happen,” said Kris Sabel, executive director of the Vilar Performing Arts Center. “The question is: What was the thing about her that made people jump on this bandwagon?”

Eagle resident Liz Spetnagel read Ali’s memoir, “Infidel,” and decided she had to see the author in person.

“I’m more of a fiction reader and I still managed to read it in a day and a half,” Spetnagel said. “I found it to be very compelling and very interesting and pretty inspiring. She’s a woman my own age and she’s certainly done a lot more than I have.”

Beaver Creek resident Anne Prinzhorn agreed.

“She’s a brilliant women and we often don’t recognize that brilliance in people from different cultures,” said Prinzhorn, who works in Uganda a few months out of each year helping educate the poor.

Other people admired Ali’s bravery.

“There’s been death threats on her life because of the fact that she’s so secular and so political in a way that annoys certain fundamental groups,” said Jay Wissot of Vail. “I think she’s an incredibly brave woman and the fact that she’s able to conduct a public life when her life is under threat engenders a great deal of admiration on my part.”

Does Ali’s appearance mean we’ll see more well-known political and social figures speaking in our community? It’s a possibility, according to Fraidy Aber, executive director of the Vail Symposium, the non-profit that brought Ali to town.

“To me this is not only a success in terms of Ayaan speaking at the Vilar Center, but in terms of the community coming together to support learning opportunities,” Aber said.

Ali wrapped up the evening with a Q-and-A session during which she talked freely about her beliefs on America’s immigration issues (we’re not perfect, but we’re trying), racial profiling to stop terrorist attacks (it’s a way to narrow down information but should never be used to assume guilt) and what she’s currently reading (Les Miserables).

After all Ali’s been through, and the pain that her former religion caused her, she still had one simple desire.

“I wish fellow Muslims would sit here and reason with me,” Ali said, pointing out that to her, the Islamic religion doesn’t hold the answers to all of life’s questions.

And for all she’s been through, she had this to say: “It was worth it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.

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