FFRF honors Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Photography by Brent Nicastro

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker introduced award recipient Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

The Foundation has bestowed the Emperor Has No Clothes Award on many admirable public figures who have made known their dissent from religion, from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg to Ron Reagan, the son of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. But Ayaan Hirsi Ali has catapulted into public fame in a way that truly sets her apart.

Her memoir Infidel eloquently recounts her progression from an outwardly submissive young Somali Muslim to an international critic of Muslim treatment of women. She’s an ardent foe of Islamist sway in laws and in government. Even in the U.S., many nonbelievers are closeted, afraid to speak publicly about their dissent from religion, their criticism of religious domination of U.S. culture.

But Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in the face of the threat of assassination by Islamist critics, which is a part of her daily existence, does not hesitate to speak out publicly as an infidel, as an atheist, holding those patriarchal Muslim feet to the fire. Ayaan does this with extraordinary balance, beauty, courage, wit and determination.

Look at her sincere challenge to the Muslim world to join the enlightenment as a young, displaced immigrant in Holland. She showed remarkable determination in earning an M.A. from Leyden University and served in the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006, until the assassination of her friend, Theo van Gogh, as they were collaborating on a short film called “Submission,” which was critical of Quranic teachings about women. She has since founded the AHA Foundation to protect and defend the rights of women in the West, the rights of all women, against militant Islam. Her newest book, Nomad, reflects on and analyzes in more detail her experiences with Islam.

It’s our very great pleasure to offer Ayaan Hirsi Ali this award for her courage, her determination, her dedication to freethought, and for fighting for freedom from patriarchal religious subjugation.


Thank you so much. If the emperor looked like this, I think he would be on Oprah Winfrey’s show and would be confessing a number of things, such as how he got duped into walking about naked, which is obviously more profound, but probably also talking about what diet he might want to follow!

I am really honored, really privileged to be here, and to say that a little girl who was born in Somalia is standing before you, speaking to you in the English language, about how I found my way through the darkness of what it means to grow up in a religion, in a tribal context, and in all kinds of superstitions. To be somehow rescued from all that puts me in a position where I continually have to pinch myself. And it gives me confidence. It gives me hope in the fact that human reason is going to prevail over all those superstitions.

You’re familiar with religions in general, and monotheistic religions in particular. The difference between monotheistic and polytheistic religions is monotheistic religions have gods that are extremely jealous and just can’t stand other gods, which, by definition, makes them unpluralistic.

My mother lives in fear and terror. Every time I speak to her on the phone, she says to me: “But are you not afraid that you’re going to be burned?” If I tell her what I think, she will be upset. What I actually want to say — which I’ve said once, but she got upset and hung up on me — is, “When I die, I’m going to rot.” I got the quote from Bertrand Russell from his essay on Why I Am Not A Christian. My mother shrieked and squealed and screamed.

I just love the name of the story that this award is based on: The Emperor’s New Clothes. So what I did was go and read the fairy tale. Hans Christian Andersen was Danish. Think of the Danish cartoons — they must have something there in the water!

The swindlers are trying the “new clothes” on the emperor, and they say, “Does it please Your Majesty now to graciously undress that we may assist Your Majesty in putting on the new suit before the large looking-glass?” The emperor undressed completely and the swindlers pretended to put the new suit upon him, one piece after another; and the emperor looked at himself in the glass from every side. “How well they look! How well they fit!” said all, not only him, but everybody who was looking on. “What beautiful garments! What fine colors! That is a magnificent suit!”

What does it say to you about the emperor and the swindlers? You can blame the swindlers all you like, but the emperor wanted to be swindled. The group wanted to be swindled. Being human is to want to be swindled. According to Andersen, the swindlers said, “If you do not see the clothes that we are making, you are unpardonably stupid or you are unfit for office.” You want to believe in this nonsense. You want to believe that you are not unpardonably stupid. You want to believe that you’re fit for office.

Allah’s 99 names

I’m going to share with you a little bit of my life history, to say there were times when I made the same commitments, from childhood onward. And who were the swindlers? Well, swindler set No. 1 were my parents and my Quran teachers. The first thing that I was taught about was Allah. He is just this amazing superhuman being. If you want to understand who Allah is, just Google his 99 names, or his qualities. I used to recite them as a child.

That’s what I was taught by my own parents and by my teachers, as a child, by the people I trusted the most, that Allah, this figure that I hadn’t seen — they didn’t see him, nobody saw him — was the beneficent, the merciful, the sovereign, the lord, the holy, the source of peace, the guardian of faith, the protector, the mighty, the compeller, the majestic, the creator, the evolver, the fashioner, the forgiver, the one who subdues, the one who bestows, the provider, the opener, the all-knowing, the judge, the all-hearing, the all-seeing. Have you ever picked up Roget’s Thesaurus? When I’m looking for adjectives, and I look at this, I think, “Gee, they exhausted it.”

Then I was introduced to the revelation of Islam. The revelation is: Allah picked this man who can’t read or write, and he sends an angel — another invisible being — to bully him in some cave. God sends this invisible creature who tells him, “Read! Read! I said, read!” Muhammad says, “But I can’t read!” The angel pulls him by the collar and demands again, “Read!” “But I can’t!” “But you must. Read! Read! Read!” the angel thunders, and he clasps him, embracing him in a death grip. (Great god, isn’t he?)

“What shall I read?” says Muhammad, desperately. This is the opening chapter of the Qur’an: “Read, in the name of thy lord who created man from a clot, read. And your lord is the most gracious, who taught with a pen.” Now, as a child in Mecca, I wanted to ask my teacher, at that point, my father: “Why didn’t Allah just make him read? Why did he need an angel? Why did he need to terrify him?” But I didn’t ask the question. (Muhammad was made to read, but did he write? I don’t know if the whole school concept was completed.)

Females must submit

The second concept in my childhood that fascinated me, continues to fascinate me, is the concept of submission. Now think of a god with all of these qualities: He can make you do anything, yet he demands complete and full and utter submission from those beings he created. Why doesn’t he just create submission in you? Everything is predetermined, yet he wants complete submission. He picks an illiterate guy, he forces him to read, through some kind of angel that nobody can see, and then there are all these polytheistic Arabs, very independent-minded, very free, and they’re supposed to give up their gods and go along with him.

Question: Why didn’t he just make them go along? It’s instilled in me, “Just submit. Don’t ask questions. If you ask questions, there’s Satan in you. Allah created not only good beings, but he also created Satan, and you have to be careful, even though it’s predetermined, where you’re going to end up. Don’t ask these questions. Asking questions means you are contaminated with Satan.” So I didn’t ask.

The next thing that struck me, as I grew up and became a teenager and a woman, was male sexuality and male insecurity. Muhammad, before the revelation, is married to a woman who is much older. He is 25 years old when he marries her. She proposes to him. She is the daughter of this noble, powerful, honorable man who was killed in battle.

That’s what the Arabs used to do at that time, just battle.

Her husband dies. She’s left with all this wealth, and Muhammad works for her as a merchant. He goes off and he makes her a lot of profit, and she is impressed. In the time that he is married to Khadija, he is faithful. We are told that by the time she is 40 years old, they have seven children? A small detail. Let’s just say they miscalculated. Maybe she was 30 when they married, and he was 15?

They have three boys and four girls. The three boys die; all four girls survive. Maybe that’s why he has something against girls. He was an orphan to begin with, and Khadija is this powerful woman. Anyway, it was all before Steven Pinker. Maybe he would be able to explain why Muhammad has this ridiculous, contradictory attitude toward women.

Allah says to Muhammad, after Khadija dies, that he can go now, have whomever he wants. While he was with Khadija, no. She dies, then he has his own harem. Allah tells him, “O prophet! Lo, we have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries.” He can just buy a woman.

“And those who thy right hand possesses slaves of those who Allah has given thee as spoils of war.” Great. Just make sure you are not the spoils of war. “And the daughters of thine uncle on the father’s side, and the daughters of thine aunt on the father’s side, and the daughters of thine uncle on the mother’s side, and the daughters of thine aunt on the mother’s side.” That’s really very specific. There are all sorts of people who want to reform Islam, but they always are confronted with these kind of explicit specifics.

“And a believing woman, if she give herself unto the prophet and the prophet desires to ask her in marriage, a privilege for thee only, not for the rest of the believers.”

I’ve been in America since 2006, and I completely understand that political leaders have privileges. So Muhammad has the privilege of having an endless number of women, as long as he doesn’t sleep with his direct sister or his daughter. And no age limit, whatever. “But you men who follow me, you’re permitted to have four wives.”

Then there is the temporary marriage. Only the Shias took on that. If you are a male and you want to have a wife — in those days, they were too PC to use the word “sex,” so they would just say “have a wife” — they would draw up some contract and say, “Just be together.” You could have a relationship for three nights and then break off, without complications. So if you want to follow that, you still have to think about protection.

Most Somalians are Sunnis, but being Sunni, being Shia, sometimes it’s all about convenience. If it’s in the Quran, it’s in the Quran, and you can just say, “You know what, I’m not a Shia, but it’s in the Quran and I’m going to follow it.”

Think back to that Allah whose names I learned, the 99 supreme names. Why would he do that, if he was just and he was of great judgment? Why would he allow that sort of thing? And why, if he allowed it to men, would he not also allow it of women?

I was confronted in the Netherlands as soon as I came into parliament, by a man wanting to change the Dutch Constitution to lower the age of marriage from 18 to 15, because in Morocco — they were Moroccans — they were allowed to have child brides. They wanted an exception because their religion allowed it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. What does the religion say?

Well, it says, “We follow the example of the prophet Muhammad,” and the prophet Muhammad married a 6-year-old and consummated the marriage — that’s the PC word for sex — when she was 9. Do you want to do that in Holland? If you do that, you’re going to end up in jail.

Maybe you will think, “These are just all scriptures. We read them in the Jewish bible, and we read them in the Christian bible, and we read them in all these old books.” It’s true: the Quran was written in the seventh century. It belongs in a museum. But why is it that in the 21st century, in the United States of America, in superbly liberal countries, secular countries in Europe, women are converting to Islam?

The latest, most famous case is Lauren Booth, who is the sister-in-law of Tony Blair.

She converted to Islam in a context where Sakineh Ashtiani — I don’t know if you heard the story about this 40-year-old woman — was about to be stoned. That sentence is, for the time being, suspended. She may not be stoned. She may be executed by being shot.

Booth converted in the context where this guy is developing a bomb to get rid of another country, in this context where gay men are hanged in public, in the context where Ahmadinejad, the leader of Iran, came to Columbia University and declared, “We don’t have gays in Iran.” We killed them all! And if he didn’t kill them, then they’re not going to come out and say that they’re gays. And in that context, a privileged, middle-class, educated, rational human being who is female converts to Islam. How do you answer that?

I remember once talking to a Muslim woman about the Quran, chapter four, verse 34, which, to paraphrase: “If men are the maintainers of women, if you fear disobedience, warn them, leave them alone in their beds, beat them.” She said, “That’s not in the Quran.” I showed it to her. She looked at me. She blinked her eyes. Then she said, “Yeah, but it’s only for bad women, for disobedient women.”

I remember having a conversation like that with my half-sister, but my half-sister was more honest. She didn’t deny that the verse was there. She acknowledged that she agreed with it, and  said, “Ayaan, this verse is for women like you.”
Which is great, because at least I know where I stand with Muhammad, and where I stand with my half-sister, which is more urgent.

Jailed for being raped

Then there’s rape. The rape verses were revealed by Allah the omniscient, the judgmental. Muhammed and Aisha were on a caravan, wandering through the desert. Aisha went for a bathroom stop and she didn’t come back. There was gossip about her having a lover.

The question never gets resolved, because a revelation drops from heaven, saying that if Aisha had an adulterous stop instead of a bathroom stop, there had to be four male witnesses who actually saw the act. That’s in the Quran. And that has become the testimony for rape in Islam.

How many of you men here, just put up your hands if you’re going to watch an actual rape, the four of you, take place, only because you know you might be called on jury duty? That’s, of course, nonsense.

The testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man, so as a woman, if you are raped, if you can’t produce four male witnesses who can acknowledge that they watched you being raped, then you are all set. You go to jail.

Look at countries like Pakistan: 87% of women in prison in Pakistan are victims of rape, and they’re in prison for being raped, because they couldn’t produce four male witnesses who actually saw the act. I knew this before I left Islam, and this is why The Emperor’s New Clothes is so interesting. I didn’t protest against it. I didn’t dare do anything. Why? Because I wanted to belong. Because I didn’t want to rock the boat. Then there’s the concept of war. All is fair in peace and war. There are rules for believers, and there are rules for unbelievers. The rules for believers are to help one another, the usual. I’m sure if we were all Muslim believers, especially for you gentlemen, life would not be so bad.

But for unbelievers, it’s OK to lie to them, to use all means available: lying, stealing, murdering, etc. There is a Quran verse, chapter 14, verse three, which says: “Those who love the life of this world more than the hereafter, who hinder men from the path of Allah and seek therein something crooked, they are astray by a long distance.”

That’s the definition of the enemy: those who love the life of this world more than the hereafter. Who here loves the life of this world more? Just put up your hand if that applies to you. So you have a problem! Like me, you have a problem, because there is no hereafter, and declaring there is no hereafter, you’re going to rot, is asking for trouble.

Another verse, Quran chapter nine, verse 111: “Allah has purchased (Why does he need to purchase anything? He made us! Talk about irrational!) of the believers their person and their goods. For theirs, in return, is the garden of paradise.”

You’re all good, and you make it to heaven. The Quran tells us what you’re going to get in chapter 78: “Voluptuous women of equal age.” Now, I’m looking at this audience — OK! There’s going to be another promise. “Modest gaze with lovely eyes.” “Fair women, with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes.” “You look into those eyes and they look like rubies and coral, and you’re going to be joined with them. There’ll be maidens, chaste, restraining their glances, and those women have not been touched by man or by djinn.” A djinn is a kind of spirit. “And Allah has made them virgins.”

Dates, but not with hunks

Now, do you understand why I got frustrated with the Muslim paradise? There was no promise of hunks! Nothing! There were no Brad Pitts, no George Clooneys, not even Christopher Hitchens. There were no men!

Do you know what we women got promised? We would get grapes. Grapes! And we would get dates. Not “dates,” but dates as in the fruit. When I first came to Holland, I saw this marketplace, with a Turkish side, and there were so many dates (as in the fruit) and grapes that I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Hmm, I don’t really have to die to get that. All I need are two guilden 50 every Saturday.”

Now, back to Hans Christian Andersen and that question: Why do rational, intelligent, well-placed humans delude themselves? Why did Tony Blair’s sister-in-law convert to Islam?

The swindlers, when they begin their deception, play on a part of human nature that Andersen saw very well. They created a buzz that they could manufacture the finest cloth to be imagined. Their colors and patterns were not only exceptionally beautiful, but the cloth possessed a wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who is unfit for his office, or unpardonably stupid.

Think of the scene when the old, honest minister is sent to the weavers by the emperor. When he enters the room, he looks at the looms and they’re empty. That moment of sshock is a beautiful confrontation between cool, dispassionate observation, and emotional crisis. He thought, “If I see no clothes on the loom, I must be unfit for my office, and unpardonably stupid.”

So as a matter of self preservation, the minister pretended he could see something that wasn’t there. Now, what harm would have come if he had looked at those looms and, seeing nothing, had gone back to the king and said, “Your Majesty, I resign. I am stupid.”

That would have spoiled a good story. The true hero, without any effort at all, was the child who pointed to the king and who said — this is all he said — “But he has nothing on at all!”

My father’s religion makes sure that at the stage of childhood, you get to say that once, but never again. Never again. It’s groomed out of you. It’s terrorized out of you. It’s beaten out of you. It’s ostracized out of you.

As a child, you never get to say, “But I can’t see Allah.” I belong to one of those few, lucky individuals, in the 21st century, who have said, “I don’t see it at all.”

I thank you all for being here tonight, for giving me this award, for giving me this opportunity to say, “I don’t see it. I tried, but I don’t see it.” I hope that we go beyond not just pointing and saying we don’t see it at all.

This is a fellowship, tonight, here, but it’s not a fellowship of believers in a super, almighty god. This is a fellowship of people who recognize human reason, with all its frailties. We don’t claim supremacy. We are not supreme. We are not perfect. We are human. What we want for other humans is simply that recognition.

Today, the challenge is Islam. But it’s any kind of irrationality, be it religious, be it secular, that tries to capture human reason and make it to submit to whatever is the superstition of the day. I hope we can carry on. I hope this is just the beginning and that we succeed.

Freedom From Religion Foundation