It could also be said to be cut through with bigotry. Hirsi Ali seems to latch onto the trope of men of color threatening virtuous white women, a particular kind of fearmongering with a long and ugly history. European colonists saw their endeavors not simply as extractive, but as civilizing; to make that work, they doubled down on the idea of African and Arab men as sexually aggressive and uncontrolled, and white women their desired victims. European settlers worried about “the Black peril” of African rapists, which was also used to justify colonialism and the pervasive racist violence that went with it. During the French occupation of Germany after World War I, German newspapers sounded the (false) alarm about a “Black plague” of mass rapes and murders by Senegalese troops in the French Army. (Hitler, true to form, blamed the Jews for bringing in the Africans.) And Hirsi Ali, who emphasizes the importance of assimilation and now lives in the United States, is surely not ignorant of this country’s own history. “Make any list of anti-Black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of Black rape,” Jamelle Bouie wrote in 2015, after Dylann Roof murdered nine people in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and reportedly told the Black congregation, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Donald Trump, the most xenophobic American president in living memory, often used the threat of white girls being raped by immigrant men to justify his draconian immigration policies.
Hirsi Ali does skew this old narrative just a bit: Instead of being virtuous for their submissiveness, maternity or innocence — the usual rendering of white women in need of protection — European women in “Prey” are virtuous for their liberal feminist values, and also vulnerable because of them. But this is where Hirsi Ali gives away the game. After spending much of the book portraying herself as a defender of these very values, by the end, she’s ready to give them up if it means keeping certain immigrants out. Her proposed solutions include ramping up policing, harsher criminal penalties and intrusions into personal privacy. Even as she says she has “thought deeply about the seeming paradox of using illiberal means to achieve liberal ends,” she ultimately decides that the ends indeed justify the means — even “privacy-obsessed Germans,” she posits, could be persuaded to accept the use of video surveillance, artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology in “troubled neighborhoods.”
Hirsi Ali suggests scrapping the current asylum program, which offers safe harbor to those facing persecution, and instead proposes that European nations adopt immigration policies where “the main criterion for granting residence should be how far they are likely to abide by the laws and adopt the values of their host society.” In Hirsi Ali’s estimation, that means assessing whether immigrants have the skills to work for pay — a requirement that could curtail granting legal status to a great many female asylum-seekers and refugees, who tend to be less educated than their male counterparts.
Whether Hirsi Ali herself, who wore the hijab as a teenager and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, would have qualified for asylum under her rules is an outstanding question. Yet this is where her illiberalism truly shines through. “All liberal institutions are predicated on this idea,” she writes approvingly, that “the individual, whether male or female, is recognized as a decision-maker responsible for his or her behavior.” Central to this concept of liberal individualism is an antagonism to collective punishment, and the idea that individual responsibility means one person’s wrongdoing doesn’t implicate his family, his entire race or his religious group. No such concept of individual rights and responsibilities exists in the Muslim world, she says, where group identity takes precedence. It’s why, she writes, Muslims have a “victimhood complex” when sex crimes laws, which they believe are invalid in the first place, are enforced against Muslim men: “Because the individual is inextricably linked to the group, condemnation of the individual is considered vilification of the group.”
It’s Hirsi Ali, though, who does exactly this: She finds stories of individual Muslim immigrants who commit heinous crimes, and by suggesting those stories are broadly representative, uses them to justify curtailing the opportunities afforded to the whole group. This is not, as she suggests, a feminism of standing up for the rights of women. It is a feminism of reaction — and one that would undermine the very liberal values Hirsi Ali begs feminists to protect.