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Human Rights Activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Bring Message of Islamic Reformation to Santa Barbara

Amid escalating violence by Muslim extremists, author and free speech champion calls on West to wage ‘War of Ideas’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born human rights activist, points to the Arab Spring as an encouraging sign of a potential move toward secular governance in the Islamic world. She will be speaking at The Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara on May 23.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born human rights activist, points to the Arab Spring as an encouraging sign of a potential move toward secular governance in the Islamic world. She will be speaking at The Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara on May 23. (AHA Foundation photo)

A Somali-born women’s rights activist and free speech champion who has been a high-profile and vocal critic of Islam will be in Santa Barbara next month to talk about her new book.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, best-selling author of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, is herself a former Muslim who left her faith for atheism. In her latest book, she outlines the need for Islam’s reform so the religion can exist peacefully in the modern world.

Ali will be speaking at The Granada Theatre on May 23.

As a young child, Ali was subjected to female genital mutilation, and she later sought political asylum in the Netherlands after her father arranged for her to marry a distant cousin.

She eventually was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she worked on issues central to preventing violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation, which persisted in the Netherlands’ Muslim immigrant community.

Ali was thrust into international headlines after the 2004 assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had worked with her on a short film called Submission, which was critical of Islam’s teachings about women and their mistreatment.

Van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, and a note pinned to his chest with a knife declared that Ali would be next.

Ali documented Van Gogh’s assassination and her prior life in the book, Infidel. The death threats against her as a result of her work mean she must live with a constant security presence.

Noozhawk spoke with Ali last week about her newest book, which is less about her personal journey and more about a global idea that Islam is in need of reform.

People are asking whether Islam can be a religion of peace, she said. Ali, 45, has been more critical of the faith in the past, but witnessing events such as the Arab Spring have helped her envision a move toward secular governance as a possibility.

In her book, Ali identifies five key precepts that could help accomplish this on a wider scale, one of which is abandoning the idea of jihad altogether and doing away with a literal interpretation of the Koran, which Ali maintains justifies violence against women.

As an example, she pointed to the horrifying case of a 27-year-old Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob last month in Kabul after she had allegedly burned Islam’s holy book.

“I’ve concluded that, no, you don’t necessarily have to leave it,” she said of Islam, but that treatment of women and girls is something that must be addressed by reformers.

Ali said her message is important now because “it’s a message of peaceful change.”

She cites the “obscene violence” by extremist groups such as ISIS, which are pursuing an Islamic caliphate amid a lack of leadership in the Muslim world.

“You have to ask yourself what options are on the table right now?” Ali reasoned.

“For the U.S., it’s military options,” she said, as well as a “very incoherent framework” to deter Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

“A lot of Americans say, ‘Let’s get out of the Middle East, let them sort it out,’” she noted.

Ali opined that, perhaps, there’s a third way moving forward.

“We haven’t reached a War of Ideas,” she said, suggesting that the United States engage in one as it did with the then-Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Hirsi said she’s visited Santa Barbara before, and called it “the kind of place that makes you forget that the world has problems.”

She added that dialogue is key right now.

“We have to start talking about it, because it’s escalating,” she said of Islamic extremism.

Sheridan Rosenberg, chief operating officer of Santa Barbara Aviation, is working to coordinate Ali’s appearance in Santa Barbara. She said her work addresses a reality that is often painful to think about.

The abusive treatment of women and girls — and attacks on Christians and other religious groups like the recent massacre at a college in Kenya — is something the Santa Barbara community is largely unaware of, she said.

“It’s a community of activists who don’t have any information,” she said.

Rosenberg said the idea to host Ali emerged from a conversation with like-minded friends around her kitchen table.

“We said we have to do something,” she recalled. “It is a humanitarian crisis.”

She said she began reading Ali’s work, and called it important “because she’s making room at the table for Muslims who want to be heard.”

Rosenberg pushes back on the assumption that people questioning the Islamic faith are bigoted or biased, and said that a conversation about human rights needs to take place.

“This is not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong,” she said. “Right now, there is a lot of anxiety and suffering in the world, and confusion and obfuscation around the subject. I think it’s a good start to get people more involved in the issue.”

Ali’s talk begins at 7 p.m. May 23. Tickets range from $28 to $58 and can be purchased at The Granada Theatre box office at 1214 State St. Click here to purchase tickets online.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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