We need a new diversity—not one based on biological characteristics and identity politics but a diversity of opinion and worldviews

AYAAN HIRSI ALI is a women’s rights activist, champion of free speech, and bestselling author. As a young girl in Somalia, she was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). When forced by her father to marry a distant cousin, she fled to Holland and claimed political asylum, working her way up from being a janitor to serving as an elected member of the Dutch parliament. As a member, she campaigned to raise awareness of violence against women, including honor killings and FGM, practices that had followed her fellow immigrants into Holland. In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film Submission, a film about the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin left a death threat for her pinned to van Gogh’s chest. This tragic event is chronicled in her bestselling book, Infidel. She is also the author of Caged Virgin, Nomad, and most recently the bestseller Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, first published in 1945. I’d often give this to my politician friends when I was in politics, and now I give it to students. One of the biggest lessons for me from this book is that so many bad ideas that lead to authoritarian consequences begin with good intentions. This is timeless wisdom.

When I was in politics in the Netherlands, I was surrounded by politicians with wonderful intentions. They wanted to do good and involve the government in every aspect of life by expanding programs, yet these good intentions would lead to controlling more and more of people’s lives. One example was childcare. We debated whether the government should provide free childcare. It sounds great and came from good intentions to support parents continuing their careers. But in practice it would mean the government replaces the spouse or partner. It would require parents to divulge personal information to the state, it would dictate how people’s money was spent and how children should be raised. The price of ceding the authority of parents to government was simply too high. That’s just one small example but it illustrates how government loves control. Popper would not have liked that idea.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“We need a new diversity—not one based on biological characteristics and identity politics but a diversity of opinion and worldviews.”

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? Students should go to college with an open mind. I advise them to ignore all the absolutism around them, both in terms of ideas and people. When they’re told that some people or ideas are wrong, hateful, or offensive, a light bulb should go off in their heads. That is the moment their curiosity should be piqued to find out for themselves whether it is indeed a “bad” thing. Adopting an attitude of critical thinking is most crucial in learning anything.

Many students come to me full of wonderful intentions hoping to change the world; they plan to spend their time helping the poor and disadvantaged. I tell them to first graduate and make a lot of money, and only then figure out how best to help those in need. Too often students can’t meaningfully help the disadvantaged now, even if it makes them feel good for trying to. I have seen so many former students in their late 30s and 40s struggling to make ends meet. They spent their time in college doing good rather than building their careers and futures. I warn students today to be careful how they use their precious time and to think carefully about when is the right time to help. It’s a well-worn cliché, but you have to help yourself before you help others. This is too often lost on idealistic students.

I am often asked whether one should work in the private or public sector. I always advise working in the private sector, and wish I did this before entering politics and the public sector. The private sector teaches important skills like entrepreneurship that can then be applied to any area of work later on.

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