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A fellow traveler?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be coming to Christ in an unexpected way

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In your travels have you ever met strangers who gave off a certain vibe or overheard conversations with key words that tipped you off: He (she) is one of us? Walls come down, personal space dissolves, blessings and sometimes phone numbers are exchanged. Meeting fellow believers in foreign places is like passing through the dry Valley of Baca that suddenly flows with fresh water.

I’ve followed Ayaan Hirsi Ali ever since she emerged as an outspoken critic of radical Islam, a brave stand that could easily have cost her life. Her confession on the UnHerd website, “Why I Am Now a Christian,” both lifted my heart and puzzled my brain, a reaction common to believers and skeptics alike. Her spiritual journey is both common and hers alone. After her family fled political persecution in Somalia to settle in Kenya, she joined the Muslim Brotherhood to parrot anti-Semitic diatribes and burn Salman Rushdie novels. But sent off by her father for an arranged marriage in Canada, she gave up on Islam, jumped ship in Germany, and sought political refuge in the Netherlands.

A famous essay by Bertrand Russell called “Why I Am Not a Christian” helped her let go of religion altogether and seek meaning in politics. While a member of the Dutch Parliament, she collaborated with filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a documentary called Submission: Part 1, in which four young Muslim women reveal their sexual abuse by male relatives. For this, van Gogh was shot to death on an Amsterdam street, a fate the assassin promised for Ali. She escaped to the United States, where she eventually married Niall Ferguson, the Scottish-American conservative author and commentator.

In Ali’s confession, I heard only some of what I wanted to hear. As many Christians have observed, her newfound faith seems more pragmatic than personal. She recognizes Christian teaching as the basis for Western freedom and order. She understands that skeptical rationality is powerless against religious extremism. She acknowledges the God-shaped hole in humanity and that she can no longer live without some sort of spiritual solace. “I have much to learn about Christianity”—but where is Christ?

The comments below her essay leaned toward the skeptical, most wishing her well, with the inevitable but: Wasn’t she just exchanging one irrational system for another? Isn’t the spiritual solace she hungers for merely a crutch? Can’t her thirst for social order be found in Enlightenment reason?

“All that the Father gives to me will come to me,” Jesus said (John 6:37), but He doesn’t say how they will come, and there may be as many ways as there are comers. Does His Spirit touch our hearts first, or our heads? I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis, who, when intellectually convinced that there was a God, became “the most reluctant convert in all of England.” The joy he was seeking came later. On the other hand, Christians who were excited about Kanye West’s showy, emotional conversion a few years ago must have felt some disappointment when he went off the deep end. That’s not to say that one way is better than another. The gospel seed falls on many types of soils, and even the fertile kinds produce in their own way.

But something has happened to Ali. In a Thanksgiving reflection published in The Free Press, she says, “Last year, this time, I was in a place of darkness. I felt small, scared, and alone. I shrank away from love. I trusted no one. I felt lost and longed for oblivion.” Her husband and children supported her through this dark time, but “Most important of all it took surrender to God to get here, to allow myself to feel at peace with Him.”

From Submission: Part 1 to sweet surrender was a long journey, and she’s not arrived yet. Nor have any of us. May she go from strength to strength, through the valley to the sunlit uplands, where “each one appears before God in Zion” (Psalm 84:7) and all travelers meet.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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