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 precise."
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, and Kenya, stayed with the cousin of a friend. Her hostess walked her around the neighborhood.
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, too, that
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 school.
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, Sheridan, Franklin, 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 begun.
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 parliament.
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 ever identified.
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 press.
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.
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 Republican party.
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 respond.
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 for.
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, and America 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:
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.
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.
Claudia Anderson is the managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.