While promoting her new book, Heretic, on a March 23 episode of “The Daily Show,” Somali-born author and anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali made a staggering claim: “If you look at 70 percent of the violence in the world today, Muslims are responsible,” she told host Jon Stewart.
Stewart did not demand any evidence and Hirsi Ali provided no citation. However, she made a strikingly similar statement in a March 20 essay previewing her new book for the Wall Street Journal: “According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies,” Hirsi Ali wrote in WSJ’s Saturday Essay, “at least 70% of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims.”
I contacted the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a leading British foreign policy think tank, to inquire about the source of Hirsi Ali’s statistic. According to IISS Media Relations and Communications Officer Kat Slowe, IISS did not explicitly state such a figure in its research.
“I have spoken to a number of our experts and they cannot identify where this statistic may have come from,” Slowe told me.
“Their best guess is that the journalist in question [Hirsi Ali] may have access/a subscription to the [IISS] Armed Conflict Database and may have calculated this statistic independently. There are some concerns that it could be misleading as, without Syria (near 200,000 total deaths, and almost half of last year’s global conflict deaths) the figure would look massively different (and of course, this conflict did not have its root in religion),” Slowe added.
Hirsi Ali’s AHA Foundation did not respond to my request for a citation on the statistic, nor did the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute that employs Hirsi Ali as a resident scholar. My email query to Hirsi Ali’s personal account at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she serves as a fellow, also went unanswered.
Around 24 hours after my initial query, Hirsi Ali publicly backed off her claim that Muslims are “responsible” for most of the violence in the world. “Depressing that 70% of fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims,” she declared on her personal Twitter account.
Hirsi Ali linked to a survey of casualties in global conflicts by IISS’ Hanna Ucko Neill and Jens Wardenaer which made no reference to Muslims or religiously inspired violence. Apparently Hirsi Ali calculated the statistic on her own by using an IISS report that documented fatalities in conflicts in territories from eastern Ukraine to sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East to Mexico, where drug gangs fueled widespread killing. The IISS’s Slowe noted that year’s surge in conflict-related deaths occured thanks to the fighting in Syria, explaining that Hirsi Ali’s claim “could be misleading” because “this conflict did not have its root in religion.”
Instead of responding to my question about her statistic, Hirsi Ali’s AHA Foundation forwarded my email query to the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing publication with its own history of Islamophobic tall tales and hoaxes. In a currently un-bylined article about the query, the Free Beacon accused me of anti-Semitism.
History of fraud
Hirsi Ali’s highly suspect statistic is only the latest deception by one of the world’s most prominent opponents of Islam. While other anti-Muslim activists like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller have marginalized themselves on the fringes of the far-right, Hirsi Ali remains a darling of the American mainstream media. In Heretic, a polemic recycling many of her past arguments against Islam, she calls for the emergence of a Muslim Martin Luther — the authoritarian 16th-century zealot who called for burning down the synagogues of Jews, whom he compared to a gangrenous disease. With the book’s release, Hirsi Ali has been welcomed with open arms by the BBC, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and a relatively accommodating Jon Stewart. ABC News has even run an excerpt from Heretic, while the New York Times Book Review hosted her for an interview filled with hardball questions about her favorite children’s books.
Hirsi Ali’s power to persuade lies in her dramatic personal story and the public persona she has constructed. She has marketed herself as a expert native informant who has emerged out of the dark heart of radical Islam and into the light of Western civilization. Her tale is an uplifting, comforting one that tells many Westerners what they want to hear about themselves and their perceived enemies. With anti-Muslim attitudes at their peak across Europe and the US, her sweeping critique of Islam as an endemically violent faith has enormous cachet. The only problem is that like her writings on Islam, much of what she has told the public about herself is questionable.
In May 2006, the Dutch television program Zembla thoroughly debunked the dramatic story Hirsi Ali had told to advance her career, concluding that Hirsi Ali had sold the Dutch public “a story full of obscurities.”
Born Ayaan Hirsi Magam, she migrated to the Netherlands in 1992, changed her name to Hirsi Ali, and lied to Dutch authorities about her past. Contrary to the story she told the government, she arrived in the Netherlands not from war-torn Somalia, but from Kenya, where she lived in a secure environment and under the protection of the United Nations, which funded her education at a well-regarded Muslim girls’ school. Though she told immigration authorities and the Dutch public she had fled from civil war in Somalia, she left that country before its war broke out. Indeed, she did not live through a war there or anywhere else. Thanks to her fabrications, Hirsi Ali received political asylum in just five weeks.
Hirsi Ali told astonished audiences on Dutch talk shows that her supposedly devout family had forced her to marry a draconian Muslim man, that she had not been present at her own wedding, and that her family had threatened to kill her for offending their religious honor. However, Zembla told a drastically different story. Hirsi Ali’s brother, aunt and former husband each testified that she had indeed been present at her wedding. It turned out that Hirsi Ali’s mother had sent her brother to a Christian school, not exactly an indication of Islamic fanaticism.
“Yeah, I made up the whole thing,” Hirsi Ali admitted on camera to a Zembla reporter who confronted her with her lies. “I said my name was Ayaan Hirsi Ali instead of Ayaan Hirsi Magan. I also said I was born in 1967 while I was actually born in 1969.”
Hirsi Ali’s claim of honor killing threats also appears to be empty; she remained in touch with her father and aunt after she left her husband. In fact, her husband even came to visit her in the Dutch refugee center where she lived after leaving him. Even though he had paid her way to Europe on the grounds that she would join him in Canada, Hirsi Ali’s husband consented to the divorce she sought. (Watch the full Zembla program on Hirsi Ali.)
Fabrications that toppled a government
In 2003, just a decade after gaining political asylum in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament on the ticket of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. VVD leadership knew that the story Hirsi Ali told on her immigration forms was a gigantic lie — she had told them as much — but covered up the fraud and even advanced it to propel her career.
“She’s witnessed five civil wars in her youth, and has fled with her family many times. She’s made of iron and steel,” the VVD’s Neelie-Smit Kroes said of Hirsi Ali at the time, reciting claims her party knew were false.
A year after joining the Dutch parliament, where she said she attempted to ban Islamic schools in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali teamed up with Dutch director Theo van Gogh to produce a documentary called Submission. The film portrayed violence against women in Muslim communities as a logical result of Islamic belief, relying on actresses to portray abused women and featuring semi-nude, niqab clad women with Quranic verses scrawled across their torsos. Van Gogh, a filmmaker and columnist who had taken to calling Muslims “goat fuckers,” was gunned down and stabbed to death soon after the film’s release by a Dutch Islamist radical. Before fleeing the scene, the killer pinned a note to van Gogh’s body threatening Hirsi Ali with death. Hirsi Ali’s persistence in the face of the episode helped earn her hero status across the West, particularly in post-9/11 America, where Time magazine named her one of its 100 Most Influential People in 2005.
Zembla’s revelations of Hirsi Ali’s lies in May 2006 interrupted her ascent and threw the Dutch government into chaos. No one was more damaged than her friend and close party ally, Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk. Nicknamed “Iron Rita” for her ruthless anti-migrant crackdowns and her demagogic appeals to xenophobia, Verdonk was shamed by the revelations of Hirsi Ali’s deceptions. When she announced her intention to strip Hirsi Ali of her citizenship, however, she was skewered in parliament and forced to relent.
Days after Zembla aired its exposé, Hirsi Ali announced her plans to leave parliament and take up a position with the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington-based think tank that housed many of the neoconservatives who helped orchestrate the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the furor she caused, Verdonk introduced the so-called “Law on Integration,” one of Europe’s harshest anti-immigrant bills. Only one member of the Dutch House of Representatives opposed it. However, the governing coalition soon collapsed because of the scandal Hirsi Ali’s deceptions inspired. With a new coalition seated in February 2007, and without Verdonk and Hirsi Ali in power, the government was able to adopt a more tolerant approach to immigrants.
Winning a Harvard fellowship, defending Breivik
Upon her relocation to the US, Hirsi Ali was embraced by a coalition of liberal interventionists, neoconservatives and “New Atheists” like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Bill Maher. With extended appearances on the Christian Broadcasting Network of Pat Robertson, who blamed homosexuality for the 9/11 attacks, self-proclaimed feminist Hirsi Ali won droves of fans among the Christian right. Despite her views on Islam, which she called a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” or perhaps because of them, she received a fellowship from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
As she rose in prominence among America’s intellectual elite, Hirsi Ali’s history of lying tumbled conveniently down the Orwellian memory hole. In promotional material for her best-selling 2007 memoir, Infidel, Hirsi Ali’s publishers at Simon & Schuster have pushed the discredited claim that “Hirsi Ali survived civil war.” More recently, conservative pundit Peggy Noonan glossed over the reasons behind Hirsi Ali’s flight from the Netherlands, writing, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali got death threats and eventually fled to America.” Few, if any, American outlets have noted that Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands as her public credibility collapsed and her anti-immigrant party fell into crisis.
With support from across the American ideological spectrum, Hirsi Ali sharpened her rhetoric against Muslims. In a candid 2007 exchange with Reason Magazine, she declared that the religion of Islam had to be “defeated.” “Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful,” Hirsi Ali stated. “It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now….There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”
Junketed to Berlin in 2012 to receive the Axel Springer Honorary Award from the right-wing German publisher, Hirsi Ali appeared to blame liberal defenders of multiculturalism for the killing spree committed by the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik, claiming they left Breivik with “no other choice but to use violence. (Breivik cited Hirsi Ali’s work in his 1,500 page manifesto explaining his plans to commit a series of terrorist attacks across Norway.)
“[T]hat one man who killed 77 people in Norway, because he fears that Europe will be overrun by Islam, may have cited the work of those who speak and write against political Islam in Europe and America – myself among them – but he does not say in his 1500 page manifesto that it was these people who inspired him to kill. He says very clearly that it was the advocates of silence. Because all outlets to express his views were censored, he says, he had no other choice but to use violence.” (Her words were met with an extended standing ovation.)
When Brandeis University canceled plans to award Hirsi Ali an honorary degree in April 2014, it appeared that her increasingly vitriolic tirades against Islam and its adherents had caught up with her. But then came the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, a seemingly clarifying moment that Hirsi Ali and fellow anti-Islam activists seized on as confirmation of their darkest prophecies. Two months later, she released Heretic.
Having rebranded herself a brave “reformer” following in the footsteps of the Selma marchers, Hirsi Ali has found her way back into the mainstream limelight. While American media demonstrates an endless appetite for her polemics about Islam, holding her to account remains taboo.
Editor’s Note: Cat Slowe’s official title with IISS has been clarified — her official title is Media Relations and Communications Officer.