Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali enters an apartment in New York followed by a bodyguard. The 40-year-old, who for the last six years has been unable to turn up at a venue without it being checked by security, is a writer, polemicist and critic of Islam. She is also a Somali immigrant, an ex-Muslim, a survivor of child genital mutilation, an exile many times over, a former Dutch MP, a black woman whose language would not, in places, look amiss in a BNP pamphlet, a remarked-upon beauty and a lady-in-peril, identities that lend her as a figurehead to disparate causes and bring on confusion in the people she meets.

"I'm a serious person," she says, frowning, as the photographer suggests various fashion poses, but she is also quietly, almost coyly glamorous, moving around with fawn-like grace. It's a combination that works particularly well on male polemicists of the muscular left, who can't do enough to defend her: her gentle charm, her small wrists, her big eyes – oh, and her brave commitment to Enlightenment values – in the face of all that extremism.

It was after fleeing an arranged marriage and settling as an asylum-seeker in Holland that Hirsi Ali converted from Islam to atheism with the kind of zeal that usually powers journeys going the other way. She can, she has said, make statements that a white person simply could not: on the "dangers" posed to the west not just by radical, but by regular Islam; on the "backward" nature of the religion; on how "terrible" the Qur'an is; and, in the most startling argument of her new book, Nomad (a follow-up to her bestselling memoir Infidel), how Muslims would do well to learn from Christianity. She is aware of the liberal twitching she causes – what if accusing her of racism is in itself racist? What if her experience trumps all other arguments? In 2004, after her friend Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch journalist with whom she made a film about women and Islam, was murdered, she was put under 24-hour security. (In the US it is paid for by private donors; when she returns to Europe, where she is still a Dutch citizen, she is protected by the state.) Two years later she left Holland following a controversy around her citizenship and for the last three years she has worked in Washington for the American Enterprise Institute, a rightwing thinktank, contributing papers on how the failures of multiculturalism have allowed for the rise of Islamic extremism in the west.