Seeing Europe for the first time, a young Somali
woman was dazzled by its order and cleanliness and its ingenious efficiency. It
was "like a movie." Düsseldorf "looked like geometry class, or
physics, where everything was in straight lines and had to be perfect and
The buses in Holland were
"sleek and clean; their doors opened by themselves." She was spooked
by their "eerie punctuality." Policemen were courteous and helpful, not
ominous. Garbage collection was an elaborate minuet performed by
citizens--"you had to put the garbage containers out at the proper time,
in the proper way. Brown was for organic waste; green was for plastic; and
newspapers were something else entirely, some other time"--and government,
which, if you did your part, "came the next morning and whisked it all
away for recycling."
Her first weekend in the Netherlands,
this newcomer, who had lived in Somalia,
Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia,
stayed with the cousin of a friend. Her hostess walked her around the
All the houses were alike, and all the same color, laid out in rows like
neat little cakes warm from the oven. They were all new homes with flouncy
white lace curtains, and the grass in front was all green and mown evenly, to
the same height, like a neat haircut. In Nairobi,
except in the rich estates, colors were garish and houses were completely
anarchic--a mansion, a half-built shanty hut, a vacant lot all jumbled
together--so this, too, was new to me.
It was 1992, and this young woman, transiting Europe
en route to Canada
and a forced marriage to a distant cousin, had bolted to Holland
almost on the spur of the moment after hearing of its lenient policies toward
asylum seekers. Her wide-eyed wonder at her surroundings calls to mind a
passage from a much earlier memoir in which a young man recounted his own
experience of stepping into a new world.
In September 1838, a newly escaped slave walked the streets of New
Bedford, Massachusetts. A
product of the plantations of Talbot County, Maryland,
and the shipyards of Baltimore, this young man marveled at the display of
wealth and industry, at the mighty ships and granite warehouses. He noticed,
almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with
what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore.
There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading
ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping
of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his
work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened
the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his
own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange.
Proceeding from the wharves to explore the town, he would remember,
Every thing looked clean, new, and beautiful. I saw few or no dilapidated
houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and bare-footed
women, such as I had been accustomed to see in Hillsborough, Easton,
St. Michael's, and Baltimore. The
people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland.
I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by
seeing extreme poverty. But the most astonishing as well as the most
interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many
of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men.
I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer
houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average
of slaveholders in Maryland.
Born a little over 150 years apart, Frederick Douglass
(1818-1895) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 1969) both had the experience, on the
threshold of adulthood--he was 20, she 22--of fleeing the culture they'd grown
up in and entering another. For both, it was a run toward freedom. In each
case, a short train ride and a name change to foil pursuers were the fateful
turning points in a remarkable life they would recount in bestselling memoirs.
Both, growing up, were subjected to various forms of violence and family
disruption, and frequently witnessed the degrading treatment of others. Both
found in books intimations of a different way of life. Both claimed their inner
freedom in a climactic act of self-assertion. For Douglass, this came several
years before his escape, when, in a two-hour struggle, he fought off an attempt
by the "Negro breaker" Edward Covey to tie him up and flog him. For
Hirsi Ali, it came months after her flight, when she quietly faced down a
council of ten Somali tribal elders who had found her in Holland
and had come to return her to the fold.
Both were eventually thrust onto a wider stage when they spoke up
extemporaneously in a public meeting. Gifted with intelligence and unusually
handsome physique, each would become a sought-after speaker--he a leading
abolitionist and one of the great orators of the 19th century, she an agitator
for the rights of Muslim women in Europe and a sharp
critic of Islam. Yet however prominent, both would long remain in physical
danger--she in mortal danger--and would more than once cross the Atlantic
in search of safety.
Books, of course, were not supposed to play a part in the life of any slave.
But the young Frederick Bailey--the name he carried until his escape from
slavery--learned to read. Sent from the plantation to Baltimore
when he was eight to live with relatives of his owner and look after their
young son, he was welcomed by his new mistress, Sophia Auld, who had never
before had a slave. She treated him kindly, read him Bible stories, and taught
him hymns. When he asked her to teach him to read, she did. Proudly showing off
Frederick's accomplishment to her
husband, she was smartly informed of the error of her ways.
In phrases that became a touchstone for Frederick,
Hugh Auld explained to his wife that to teach a slave to read would "unfit
him for slavery." The formal lessons ended, but the child already had the
rudiments. Over the ensuing years, unobserved in his loft above the kitchen, he
practiced reading and taught himself to write, studying Webster's speller and
copying between the lines of his young charge's old exercise notebooks from
When he was 12, with 50 cents saved from polishing shoes, Frederick
bought a copy of one of the most widely used school anthologies of the day, The
Columbian Orator, first published in 1797. This book became his entire
curriculum. He studied it, he later recalled, every chance he got. It could
hardly have been better designed to prepare him for his calling.
An anthology of speeches, poems, sermons, and dramatic excerpts from eminent
authors and now-forgotten contemporaries, The Columbian Orator exposed Frederick
to Socrates, Cicero, Milton,
Washington, Napoleon, William Pitt, and
more. It was compiled by Caleb Bingham, a Boston
abolitionist and pious Congregationalist, who interspersed among the selections
numerous dialogues and short articles of his own devising, the whole intended,
Bingham wrote, to "inspire the pupil with the ardour of eloquence, and the
love of virtue."
One of the first items to catch Frederick's
eye was Bingham's "Dialogue Between a Master and Slave," in which a
master confronts a slave who has been caught making his second attempt to run
away. With his answers, the slave exposes slavery as an institution resting
purely on force: the coercion required to steal from a man the freedom for
which his "soul pants" and to reduce him to a beast. If a theme can
be said to arise from Bingham's anthology it is the nobility of upholding above
any other loyalty God's wisdom and justice and the natural rights of men.
The young Frederick was just as
deeply influenced by the Bible, which he said fueled his hunger for knowledge.
Converted at 13, he found a spiritual mentor in an old black man named Lawson,
who told the young man that God had great plans for him and would put his
talents to use. They prayed and read scripture together, and Frederick
"saw the world in a new light." He wrote that he "loved all
mankind--slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than
ever." He does not say when he owned his first Bible, but a hymnal was
among the few possessions he carried with him on his train ride north.
Between them, The Columbian Orator and the Bible armed Frederick with
fundamental principles contrary to slavery, as well as with models of reasoned
argument, vivid narrative, and powerful use of rhetoric that would nourish his
mind for years to come.
For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was not one book, but rather a kind of book--Western
fiction, both high and low--that stirred her aspirations beyond the horizons of
a typical Somali woman. At school, she read 1984, Huckleberry Finn,
The Thirty-Nine Steps, Wuthering
Heights, Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde, and Cry, the Beloved Country. She read Jane Austen and
Charlotte Brönte and "Russian novels with their strange patronymics and
snowy vistas." And after hours, there were "the sexy books" that
circulated among her school friends, by Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel.
Both the classics and the romances, as she tells in her memoir, exposed her to
a world of "freedom, struggle, and adventure." In these books,
individuals wrestled with moral dilemmas, women were independent actors, mutual
attraction preceded union, and the man and woman who chose each other often
were shown achieving shared satisfaction in love and in partnership for life.
During these teenage years, Ayaan's peers were dropping out of school one by
one, to be married to men chosen by their fathers--sometimes men whom they had
never met. The Somali girls, who had undergone the customary clitoral excision,
described to her wedding nights that were scenes of fear and pain, as their new
husbands forced open their scars. Somali women were taught that submission to
their husbands, as to Allah, and unquestioning service to family and clan were
their lot in life.
Ayaan, though, had observed some alternatives. An aunt became a nurse and
rose to the post of director of the Mogadishu
hospital where Ayaan was born. Her own mother left her first marriage, then met
Ayaan's father and married him for love. But the marriage soured. Her father,
who had studied at Columbia University,
had a modern outlook in some things. He insisted that his daughters go to high
school, and it was against his express wish that their grandmother had them
circumcised. Yet he took a second wife without so much as informing the first
and, in due course, would force Ayaan to marry against her will.
For much of Ayaan's childhood, her father was in prison for opposing the
Somali dictatorship of Siad Barre. After he escaped (and a clansman who helped
him was caught and executed), he was often in hiding or away organizing.
Ayaan's mother was embittered by her struggle to manage three children without
their father, scraping by on handouts from the clan. The family fled from Somalia
to Saudi Arabia
when Ayaan was eight, and moved twice more, first to Ethiopia
and then to Kenya,
both countries where Muslims were a minority. Ayaan's mother loathed living
among non-Muslims. She became tyrannical and increasingly violent towards her
children, frequently tying them up and beating them. Finally, Ayaan's father
stopped coming back and married the third of his eventual four wives.
Amid this familial and relational chaos, Ayaan was drawn to an Islamist
teacher, Sister Aziza, who projected serenity and confidence. She took to
wearing a headscarf and a loose black gown over her clothes. She read Muslim
Brotherhood literature and joined an Islamic discussion group, admiring the
universality of a faith open to people of every tribe. She knew young men who
left for Egypt
or Saudi Arabia
to study the Koran and advance the cause of Islam against the godless West. But
she was torn. She kept asking impertinent questions about the equality of the
sexes. She was uneasy witnessing a book burning after the Ayatollah Khomeini
issued his fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1989.
What's more, she had boyfriends in secret, and she kept devouring those novels
that were a window on a world where women were as free as men.
By his late teens, Frederick,
after a stint as a fieldhand, was back in Baltimore,
working as a caulker in the shipyards, though forced to turn over his wages to
his master. A group of free black caulkers befriended him and let him join
their debating club, the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society. He met a
free black woman working as a domestic, Anna Murray, and courted her. And he
plotted his escape.
For the getaway, he dressed as a sailor, in keeping with the identification
papers he carried, obtained from a free seaman. He took the train to New
York, where Anna joined him and they were married,
before pushing on to New Bedford.
The black man who took in the young couple there helped Frederick
select a new last name, which they chose from the poem he happened to be
reading, Scott's "The Lady of the Lake." The
newly minted Douglasses found work, she as a household servant, he sawing wood,
digging cellars, rolling oil casks on the wharves, and working in a candle factory
and a brass foundry. They rented a two-room apartment and joined a small black
Methodist church, where Douglass was soon teaching Sunday school and preaching.
And they found something else: abolitionist agitation.
Within months of his escape, Douglass had become an avid reader of the
Liberator, edited by William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist of
the day. "I not only liked--I loved this paper, and its
editor," he wrote. He "never felt happier than when in an
anti-slavery meeting" among his friends, and for his first vacation he
decided to attend a large convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society
on the island of Nantucket.
Walking into Nantucket Town
from the ferry, Douglass was spotted by a Quaker who had heard him speak in New
Bedford. This man greeted him warmly and urged him, if
he felt so moved, to speak up and share his experiences at the convention that
night. Douglass did. Mastering his acute embarrassment at addressing a large,
and mostly white, crowd for the first time, he electrified the audience.
Garrison, clearly inspired, followed with a speech Douglass would remember as a
"very tornado." The young runaway was a sensation, and before the
night was out an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society had persuaded
him to sign up as a speaker with the society. The initial agreement was for
three months, but Douglass would never again earn his living with his hands.
His career as an orator "pleading the cause of [his] brethren" had
It was August 1841, not three years after Douglass's escape. By contrast,
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's apprenticeship in Holland
would last nine long years.
After her flight by train from Bonn to Amsterdam, Ayaan Hirsi Magan applied
to stay in the Netherlands using her grandfather's last name, Ali, and lying to
the immigration service to establish the requisite fear of persecution (which
would come back to haunt her). Within three weeks she was granted permanent
residence. Refugee Aid gave her a secondhand bicycle and one Dutch lesson a
week; a volunteer lent her the money for three more lessons. She worked as a
cleaner at an orange juice factory and packed cookies at a biscuit factory.
And all the while, first informally, then as a certified employee of the
state, she worked as an interpreter. Even before she knew Dutch, her knowledge
of English enabled her to assist speakers of Somali, Arabic, Swahili, and
Amharic. Over the next six years, she translated at refugee intake centers,
women's shelters, prisons, abortion clinics, police stations, and courts of
law. Even as she was riding her bicycle between jobs and lessons, making new
friends and soaking in Dutch ways, she was continually being exposed to the
struggles and pathologies plaguing Holland's
rapidly growing population of Muslim immigrants. And the more she saw, the more
intrigued she became by the contrast between orderly, generous Holland
and the other countries she had known.
Slowly, an ambition formed in her mind: to go to university and study
political science. "I wanted to understand why life in Holland
was so different from life in Africa," she would
write. "Why there was so much peace, security, and wealth in Europe."
What was wrong with us? Why should infidels have peace, and Muslims be
killing each other, when we were the ones who worshipped the true God? If I
studied political science, I thought, I would understand that.
She proceeded one step at a time. Once her Dutch was adequate, she took a
two-year course in social work in order to obtain the propadeuse degree
required for university admission. This introduced her to subjects like
psychology, "a story with no religious roots," and child development,
with its novel idea that children needed explanations, not just blows. She was
admitted to Leiden University
and with energy and joy threw herself into the study of European history and
political philosophy. She discovered empiricism and the beauty of rational
argument and fell in love with the Enlightenment. She still thought of herself
as a Muslim. Yet she had long since abandoned the head scarf, put on jeans, and
moved in with a boyfriend. Half-consciously, she postponed the reckoning she
knew would be needed to reconcile her new views with the old.
Hirsi Ali was awarded a master's degree in political science in September
2000. She had just become a researcher on immigration issues for the Labor
party's think tank when 9/11 occurred. She was riveted by the commentary on the
attacks and dismayed by the general unwillingness of the Dutch, especially in
Labor party circles, to admit the role of religious belief in the motivations
of Osama bin Laden and his ilk--"a little like analyzing Lenin and Stalin
without looking at the works of Karl Marx." She was confident "that a
vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the
infidel enemies of Islam." But she also felt personally challenged.
Listening to bin Laden quoting the Koran in reruns of old interviews, she
dreaded to ask herself: "Did the 9/11 attacks stem from true belief in
true Islam? And if so, what did I think about Islam?"
That November, she attended a public debate on the subject "The West or
Islam: Who Needs a Voltaire?" The first three speakers called for a new
Voltaire in the West, a rational reformer to counter Western arrogance and
neocolonialism and consumerist decadence. Only the last speaker, a refugee from
Iran who taught
law at Amsterdam University,
spoke up for the "critical renewal" of Islam.
During the question and answer period, comment was heavily supportive of the
first view. Finally Hirsi Ali raised her hand. Here is what she said as she
recalled it in her 2007 memoir, Infidel:
Look at how many Voltaires the West has. Don't deny us the right to have our
Voltaire, too. Look at our women, and look at our countries. Look at how we are
all fleeing and asking for refuge here, and how people are now flying planes
into buildings in their madness. Allow us a Voltaire, because we are truly
living in the Dark Ages.
Heads turned. Who was the well-spoken exotic beauty so passionately out of
step with correct opinion? After the discussion, an editor of the newspaper
that had sponsored the panel invited Hirsi Ali to write for his pages. The
process of obtaining clearance from her think tank superiors for a piece
critical of Islam was an education in itself, but the article ran. Letters
poured in, and so did invitations to speak and write and participate in
conferences. Each such opportunity forced Hirsi Ali to further define her
position. There was no turning back. She was launched on the journey that would
lead to her embrace of atheism in the spring of 2002, to death threats from
Islamic extremists, and within 14 months to her election to the Dutch
LIVING WITH DANGER
All his long life as a free man, Frederick Douglass was subject to an endless
succession of slights, humiliations, and exclusions. In tolerant New
Bedford in 1838 with its integrated schools, the white
caulkers in the shipyard where he sought employment refused to work with a
black man, and so Douglass took unskilled jobs at half the pay. In 1865, after
attending Lincoln's second
inauguration, he walked down to the Executive
Mansion--as the White House was
known in those days--and waited with the crowd for admission. The only black
man in line, Douglass was barred entry; practiced at such confrontations,
however, he managed to make his way in to congratulate the president. Decades
later, as an old man addressing the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, he
was so provoked by jeers and insults from race-baiters in the audience that he
threw down his prepared text and spoke extemporaneously out of his fury for
over an hour--by the end, to thunderous applause.
Sometimes hostility rose to the level of violence. A mob attacked an outdoor
abolition meeting in Pendleton, Indiana,
in 1843. Douglass was nearly killed in the melee; his right hand was broken and
never fully recovered. In 1850, in New York City,
he was dragged off and beaten by a white gang for escorting two white women.
More than two decades later, the house in Rochester,
New York, where the Douglasses had raised
their five children and had lived for nearly 25 years, was burned to the
ground. The authorities attributed the fire to arson, though no perpetrator was
And twice, danger caused Douglass to seek safety abroad. In 1845 and again
in 1859, he found a haven in Britain.
In his early days as an antislavery speaker, Douglass withheld his real name
and that of his owner. But increasingly, he found his bona fides challenged.
People said he was too articulate for an escaped slave. So when he put his
story into writing to reach a wider audience, he sought to enhance its
credibility by revealing many particulars for the first time. In doing so, he
opened himself to greater danger of pursuit.
His associates in the abolition movement deemed this a good time for
Douglass to leave the country. They had long wanted him to make contact with
the vibrant antislavery movement in Britain,
so in 1845, just as his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was
appearing, he embarked for Liverpool. His 21-month
speaking tour of the British Isles was a blessed
reprieve from danger and discrimination. And it was more. The friends and
supporters he discovered there raised £150 to buy his freedom, laying to rest
the fear of capture. And they supported him, too, in his new ambition: to have
a newspaper of his own. When he returned to the United
States, British friends helped him buy a
Fourteen years later, in one of the stranger-than-fiction episodes in his
eventful life, Douglass sailed again for Liverpool to
avoid arrest. He was wanted in connection with John Brown's raid on the federal
arsenal at Harper's Ferry on October
16, 1859. Intended to touch off a slave rebellion and the founding
of a free black state in the Appalachian mountains, the
raid had ended in Brown's capture and the capture or death of all 22 of his
confederates. A note from Douglass was found among his possessions.
Like many in abolitionist circles, Douglass knew John Brown. Just the year
before, Brown had drafted a constitution for his imagined state while staying
at Douglass's house. Most damning of all, Douglass had traveled to a
clandestine meeting with Brown at a quarry on the edge of Chambersburg,
Pennsylvania, shortly before the Harper's
Ferry raid. That Douglass had tried strenuously to dissuade Brown from a
suicidal venture did not deter the governor of Virginia
from pursuing him for "inciting servile insurrection." Douglass
sailed in November, and on December 2, John Brown was hanged.
Again, Douglass was warmly received in Britain,
though this second stay was briefer, cut short by word of the death of his
11-year-old daughter, Annie. By the time he reached home in April 1860, the
threat of charges against him had dissipated.
How mild the danger to Douglass seems by comparison with the threats that
have forced Ayaan Hirsi Ali to live with bodyguards and occasionally in hiding
for over five years. Ever since she began pointedly criticizing Islam in public,
extremists have been promising to kill her. By October 2002, the threats were
sufficiently oppressive that she flew from the Netherlands
to California for a few months to
remove herself from the public eye.
It was while she was there that a prominent figure in the Dutch Liberal
party persuaded her not only to switch allegiances--trading Labor for a party
more in tune with her emphasis on personal freedom and individual rights--but
to run for parliament on the Liberal slate. She did, and won. The new parliament
was seated on January 30, 2003.
Hirsi Ali calls herself a single-issue politician, and her issue is the
rights of Muslim women. But the more outspoken she became about this--urging,
for instance, that "honor killings" of wayward females by their
families or clans be registered as such by the police so that the extent of the
problem could be determined--the more virulent became the threats against her.
Then on November 2, 2004,
the danger level sharply rose.
Seeking to use the visual media to advance her cause, Hirsi Ali wrote the
screenplay for a short art film called Submission: Part I. She aimed to
dramatize the bind in which pious Muslim women found themselves when they were
abused, yet were called to submission by their faith. The film, which aired on
television, showed verses of the Koran, such as one ordaining the physical
chastisement of disobedient wives, written on women's bodies. When an Islamist
fanatic murdered the film's director, Theo van Gogh, in broad daylight on an Amsterdam
street, he stabbed into the corpse a letter warning that the next victim would
be Hirsi Ali.
At once, security agents of the Dutch government sequestered her at a
succession of undisclosed locations--the most surreal, a forlorn motel on the
outskirts of Portland, Maine.
She was incommunicado for 75 days. After her return--even after her resignation
from parliament amid a controversy over her (long-since disclosed) false
statements to immigration authorities, then her decision to accept a position
with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.--the need persisted
for constant precautions to ensure her safety.
A MAN IN FULL
Frederick Douglass has been dead for over a century. Not only are the 77
years of his life complete, but we bring to them the perspective made possible
by time. After surprising neglect in the first half of the 20th century, his
papers are receiving due attention from scholars, and biographers have combed
over his life. His three memoirs are in print, and some of his speeches are a click
away on the Internet. He belongs to history, and we are free to make of him
what we will.
There is about his life's work an impressive coherence, a unity. Mobilized
by his experience of slavery, he devoted his chief energies to overturning that
institution and fighting its hateful legacy. Even his secondary
interests--temperance, women's rights--are traceable to that same source. His
relationship with his hearers was straightforward: He was an American
addressing (mostly) Americans, in his native language, appealing to his
audience on the basis of religious and political principles the majority
already claimed to share. His method was to insist that black and white,
created equal, already stood on common ground.
From childhood, Douglass saw that slavery was wrong and that it was
incompatible with true Christianity. From his earliest writings, he excoriated
the fraudulent religion of the outwardly pious, privately heartless masters he
had known. The offense, though, went deeper than cruelty. He chose as the
epigraph to his second memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), a
quotation from Coleridge:
By a principle essential to Christianity, a PERSON is eternally differenced
from a thing; so that the idea of a HUMAN BEING, necessarily excludes the idea
of PROPERTY IN THAT BEING.
Not just slavery, moreover, but any form of racial differentiation in the
church or in political and social life he understood to be at odds with human
beings' equality in God's sight. He scandalized many when, after the death of Anna,
his wife of 44 years, he married a woman who was white.
Douglass traced his commitment to temperance to his revulsion at the use of
alcohol to keep slaves stupefied in their rare leisure, especially at
Christmas, and so diverted from improving themselves or organizing against
their masters. His interest in women's rights grew naturally out of his
alliance with women abolitionists. The motto he chose for his newspaper, the
North Star, was: "Right is of no Sex--Truth is of no Color--God is
Father to us all, and we are all Brethren." In 1848, Douglass attended the
seminal women's rights convention held at Seneca Falls,
50 miles from his home in Rochester,
and the North Star published its proceedings. The only one of the
convention's resolutions that was controversial--women's suffrage, still a
radical idea--passed by a narrow margin thanks to the leadership of Frederick
Douglass was slower to recognize the value of American political
institutions. As a young runaway under the wing of the Garrisonians, he went
along with their view that the Constitution was hopelessly compromised by
slavery. But after he struck out on his own as an editor, he reconsidered.
Forced to do the continual "reading and thinking" of journalism, as
he put it, working week after week to respond to events and answer the
arguments of his critics, he changed his mind. In 1851, he broke with the
American Anti-Slavery Society and embraced the Constitution as capable of being
made consistent with "the noble purposes avowed in its preamble." He
called the Constitution, when properly interpreted, "a Glorious Liberty
Document"--Lincoln would call
it the "great charter of liberty"--and demanded that it "be
wielded on behalf of emancipation." Douglass campaigned for Abraham
Lincoln in 1860 and from then on never wavered in his active support for the
Douglass's rhetorical vigor was matched by an instinct for action. In surely
the finest illustration of this, he early urged the necessity of black men's
participation in the struggle for their freedom. When in 1863 the government
finally permitted blacks to enlist in the Union army, Douglass called it a
"golden opportunity" and instantly threw himself into recruiting for
the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. He personally signed up 100 men in the first
six weeks--starting with his own sons Lewis and Charles--and his speech
"Men of Color, to Arms!" was widely reprinted. Later Douglass went to
Washington to press Lincoln
to push through equal pay for black recruits and equal chance for promotion.
(Equal pay would be granted retroactively in 1864.) In the end, 180,000 black
soldiers served--immeasurably strengthening the case for full black citizenship
after the war.
To be sure, Douglass's career was not all heroic. Some have observed that in
the decades after the Civil War--when the freedmen faced overwhelming
difficulties, and segregationist governments were coming to power in state
after state, welcoming Jim Crow and tolerating new forms of violence against
blacks--Douglass, distant from working men, concentrated not on combating these
evils but on securing political equality. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and
Fifteenth Amendments were added to the Constitution, but the equal citizenship
they promised did not ensue. Douglass moved his family to Washington
after the Rochester fire and held a
succession of sinecures with the federal government. In his last job, as U.S.
minister to Haiti,
his biographer William S. McFeely suggests, Douglass may have allowed his
partiality for a nation born of a successful slave revolt to blind him to
atrocities committed by a black tyrant.
Yet Douglass never really left the trenches. A year before he died, he
delivered a great oration on the subject of lynching, then at its height, at
the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, five blocks from the White House.
The very morning of his fatal heart attack, he attended a women's rights rally
and was escorted to the podium by his old friend Susan B. Anthony. He and his
wife expected to go to a meeting at a black church in Anacostia that night.
At the time of his death, he was planning to retire to a house on the Chesapeake
Bay, with a view across the water to the Eastern Shore
where he was born. Instead, closure took another form. There was a public
funeral in Washington; the black
schools of the District of Columbia
were shut in his honor. Then his widow and children took his body, by train, to
Rochester. It lay in state at City
Hall--where 30 years before citizens had gathered spontaneously after news
arrived of Lincoln's assassination,
and Douglass, stunned and bereft, had been prevailed upon to speak. Now,
another memorial service was held, before the family buried Douglass beside
Annie and Anna.
All the physical and spiritual ills that scarred Douglass's formative
years--ignorance of his (white) father and almost total deprivation of his
mother; hunger and cold and filth; exposure to scenes of sadistic cruelty;
deprivation of education; the experience at the age of nine of being examined
and assessed as chattel, along with horses and cattle and swine, as part of an
estate being divided among three heirs; his mental suffering as a teenager from
the knowledge that he was unfree for life--all these flowed from one
cause: slavery. There is no comparable single source of trouble in Ayaan Hirsi
Ali's early life.
Who can trace all the reasons a family falls apart, or explain why it is
cursed with a woe like the mental breakdown and early death of Hirsi Ali's
sister? If those are imponderables, the cultural ground on which her family's
disintegration played out was patently a minefield--of tribalism dislocated by
modernity, folk Islam, postcolonial misrule, civil war, and Islamist agitation.
As a child, Hirsi Ali was taught by her grandmother to recite her ancestry back
800 years and to defend at all costs the clan that controlled her destiny. As
an adult, now 38, she is a free agent, unmarried and self-supporting; indeed,
sending money to her mother. When she leapt continents and cultures, she leapt
centuries as well.
An expatriate three times over growing up, she put down roots in the
friendly soil of Holland, where she
lived and grew and assimilated for 14 years--only to exile herself again, with
her open-ended move to the United States
in the fall of 2006. Her rejection of Islam sealed her separation from her
origins, even as death threats encumbered her with notoriety and bodyguards,
and robbed her of the normal enjoyment of everyday life.
Notoriety, however, also handed her a megaphone. Hirsi Ali has used it
deliberately. A strong believer in the power of individuals to influence the
course of history, she has sought to use such power as has been given her to
combat coercion and violence in the lives of Muslim women, and more generally
to press for a critical reevaluation of Islam. As an apostate, she cannot
command a Muslim audience. She has placed herself outside any intra-Muslim
discussion of renewal. Yet she can be a provocateur at the margins. By
addressing Western audiences--giving her European and American readers and
hearers an insider's view of Islam, coupled with her unsparing indictment of
it--she can not only inform the ignorant but also prod Islam's apologists to
Hirsi Ali has chosen not to shield sensitivities, but to shock consciences--as
Douglass did with his gripping memoirs. In the essays collected in The Caged
Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam (2006), she
described the Islam she was taught. There was the conviction, for instance,
that non-Muslims were "antisocial, impure, barbaric, not circumcised,
immoral, unscrupulous, and above all, obscene." There was her family's
prayer five times a day for the extermination of the Jews. The Prophet Mohammed
was held up as the preeminent moral example. Why, she asked, was it forbidden
to rationally examine his life? In particular, she pointed to the consummation
of his marriage to Aisha, his favorite among his many wives and concubines,
when he was 54 and she was 9. In Holland,
she pleaded for public policies to protect females against forms of abuse,
including genital mutilation, regarded as private family matters in the
communities that practice them. She is no less forthright about her own atheism
and libertarianism. Honesty is to her the hard-won prize: It is what liberty is
Not least, Hirsi Ali has used her platform to challenge Westerners about
their own inconsistencies. Having come late to the political culture of
individual rights and the rule of law, she was astonished by the willingness of
many in the West to cast a blind eye to gross violations of rights so long as
they occurred among foreigners. The multiculturalism that guided Dutch policy
in the 1990s sprang from a desire to respect difference, but in practice it
meant tolerance for what, if undertaken by native Dutchmen, would be crimes.
"People in the West swallow this sort of thing because they have
learned not to examine the religions or cultures of minorities too critically,
for fear of being called racist," she wrote. "It fascinates them that
I am not afraid to do so."
"Human beings are equal, cultures are not," she told a New
York audience last year:
A culture that celebrates femininity is not equal to a culture that trims
the genitals of her girls. A culture that holds the door open to her women is
not equal to one that confines them behind walls and veils. ... A culture that
encourages dating between young men and young women is not equal to a culture
that flogs or stones a girl for falling in love. A culture where monogamy is an
aspiration is not equal to a culture where a man can lawfully have four wives
all at once.
If her outsider's perspective equips Hirsi Ali to expose the abdication of
judgment that is cultural relativism, it also heightens her gratitude for the
opportunities opened up to her by life in the West. Among the most memorable
passages of Infidel are those where she expresses this gratitude to the
many people who helped her, above all her "Dutch family."
Responding to a notice on a church bulletin board, a young couple named
Johanna and Maarten volunteered to give Hirsi Ali an hour of conversation a
week when she'd been in Holland
just a year. They gave her much more. They were the first husband and wife she
ever saw consulting each other and helping each other with chores. While they
provided for their two children "a very structured life," she says,
they disciplined them without hitting and listened to their opinions. Johanna
became "like a mother" to Hirsi Ali, teaching her to be Dutch--how to
economize and look people in the eye and deal with problems squarely.
"Most important," she writes, this couple took her in and showed her
"openness and love." They are no doubt partly the basis for Hirsi
Ali's most striking conclusion: that "life is better in the West because
human relations are better."
Now, Hirsi Ali has come to America.
It is a country less tidy and orderly than Holland,
with cruder manners, perhaps, though no less warm, and equally dedicated to the
open society. She may find us more conscious than our secular European cousins
of the pre-Enlightenment roots of our liberty, in the rights of Englishmen and
the Puritans' intoxication with the Bible. Still, she should fit right in. She
can take inspiration from her curious points of kinship with Frederick Douglass,
a quintessential American. In him as in her, Africa, Europe,
met. He was born a stepchild of Western civilization, she an outsider to it,
yet both made that civilization their own. Both are notable less as original
thinkers than as moralists and reformers. Both grappled with the meaning of
human equality in difference, whether difference of race or difference of sex.
His life story, like hers, was in itself a creative accomplishment compelling
to others. His history vindicates Hirsi Ali's conviction that individuals can
sway events. And it may encourage her in another way.
Douglass lived to see his chief goal realized: slavery abolished. Yet in the
decade of his death, there were over 1,000 lynchings. Blacks were mostly frozen
out of politics, and their educational and economic advance was glacial,
hindered on all sides. A generation and more would pass before the tempo of
progress picked up, after World War II, with the Civil Rights revolution. Even
today, our reality falls short of the ideal--as Douglass put it, "a solid
nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms,
based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality." Yet the country of Oprah
Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, and Barack Obama has come far.
No one knows what lies ahead 50 or 100 years hence for the Muslim
communities of Europe--whether Islamist convulsions,
increasing assimilation and secularization, a comfortable pluralism with rights
mutually respected, or, as some fear and others intend, Eurabia. But Douglass's
story may reinforce Hirsi Ali in her willingness to take the long view.
If "human relations are better" in America,
it is partly because, before our grandparents were born, Douglass and others
risked all to remove an institution that was an absolute obstacle to sound
human relations--and because in doing so they held onto their humanity.
Douglass's religious views evolved in a liberal direction in the course of his
life, but he never lost the basic orientation he adopted at 13. The same
principles that caused him to abhor slavery also disposed him toward
forbearance and charity.
In a gesture that Hirsi Ali will appreciate--she considers the date of her
escape to freedom her "real birthday"--Frederick Douglass marked the
tenth anniversary of his escape in a special way. He published in the North
Star an open letter to his former owner, Thomas Auld, one of the
slaveholders whose religious profession he deemed a travesty. It is a most
unusual and highly charged communication, and this is how it ends:
There is a postscript that cannot be omitted. Twenty-nine years after
writing this, Douglass was invited to return to Talbot County, Maryland, for the first time
since he had been a slave there. Thomas Auld, over 80 and dying, heard of his
presence in the neighborhood and sent for him. Douglass records that he was
ushered straight into the bedroom, and the two old men were overcome with
emotion. Neither showed malice. Each acknowledged ways he had wronged the
other. They "conversed freely about the past" and parted reconciled.
I will now bring this letter to a close; you shall hear from me again unless
you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to
assail the system of slavery--as a means of concentrating public attention on
the system, and deepening the horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of
men. I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the
American church and clergy--and as a means of bringing this guilty nation, with
yourself, to repentance. In doing this, I entertain no malice toward you
personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and
there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I
would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege to set you an
example as to how mankind ought to treat each other.
I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.