An Alaska SkyWest Embraer E175 aircraft flies over traffic on southbound Interstate 5 as it approaches San Diego International Airport. (Kevin Carter via Getty Images)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: We Have Been Subverted

What is at stake in our ability to see the threat plainly? Nothing less than the preservation of our way of life.

If you wonder why I—a woman of color, an African, a former Muslim, a former asylum seeker, and an immigrant—look at the antics of today’s anti-Israel, anti-American protesters with such fear and trembling, allow me to explain.

I was born in Somalia in 1969. The country had achieved independence nine years before. But less than a month before I was born—on October 21, 1969—a junior member of the brand-new Somali armed forces seized power with the help of the Soviet Union. The first two decades of my life were shaped by the upheaval that followed that coup. 

The Somalia that gained its independence was a young, optimistic society full of national pride. We had such hope for growth, political stability, prosperity, and peace. But, in a story sadly familiar to many of my fellow Africans, those hopes were dashed. 

What followed was a nightmare. 

For me it is all captured in the earliest memories of my youth: statues of Mohamed Siad Barre, our dictator, sprung up across Mogadishu, flanked by a trio of dark seraphim: Marx, Lenin, and Engels. This particular communist experiment plunged Somalia into bloodshed, mass starvation, and a 20-year period of suffocating tyranny. I recall my grandmother and mother smuggling food into our house. I also remember the whispering: we felt the state was omnipresent. It could hear everything.

My father was thrown into prison. His friends—those other pioneers in pursuit of a democracy modeled on America—were either jailed like him or, in many cases, executed. 

By the time I was eight, my family knew we needed to escape. We left in 1977. By 1990, the country had descended into a civil war from which it has never fully recovered.

I never stopped longing for the kind of freedom my father had taught me about. And at the age of 22, I fled to the Netherlands seeking it. There—and later, in America—I discovered what we’ve come to call “Western” values.

The West’s inheritance springs from a peculiar confluence of habits and customs that had been practiced for centuries before anyone branded them as “ideas.” But they are principles—radical ones—that have given us the most tolerant, free, and flourishing societies in all of human history. 

Among these principles are the rule of law, a tradition of liberty, personal responsibility, a system of representative government, a toleration of difference, and a commitment to pluralism. Each of these ideas might have been extinguished in their infancy but for the grace of God and the force of their appeal. 

Perhaps it is because I was born into a part of the world where these principles were nonexistent that I feel a particular love for them—and an instinct for when they are in danger.

Right now, so many Western nations are under grave threat from the twin forces of cultural Marxism and an expansionist political Islam familiar to me from my youth.

For a time, many refused to believe that anything was actually wrong. The tide of populism was, they insisted, a momentary manifestation of frustration. The decline of each of our institutions was viewed in isolation, as a problem of poorly selected leadership, which could be corrected after the next election or with a changing of the guard. The sense of hopelessness that people felt was explained away as the temporary consequence of the rapid transition away from industrialism and the ushering in of the digital age. 

In this light, though there were problems, they were distinct from each other and would be corrected in time.

Can any serious person believe this now?

People are encountering our current crisis in different ways, though a compelling explanation, let alone a solution, remains elusive. I am reminded of the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. The story goes that a group of blind men, who have never encountered an elephant before, hear that one has been brought to their town. They go to touch the elephant to work out what it might look like. One man touches the elephant’s trunk and thinks it must be like a large snake. Another touches its leg and likens it to a tree. A third who grasps the elephant’s tail says it feels like a rope. A fourth presses its sides, and when it does not budge, compares it to a wall. The fifth touches its tusk and thinks it to be like a spear.

Each of the blind men touches the same elephant and comes up with a different interpretation. Although there is truth in each of their assessments, none is able fully to comprehend the elephant in its totality. Those who feel the decline in Western society are like these blind men, encountering the elephant in their own ways and grasping at explanations in the half-light of dusk.

When the omni-breakdown burst forth in 2020 with the crises the Covid-19 pandemic and the draconian controls that governments imposed, and the George Floyd riots, most of us awoke from our slumbers and behaved like the blind men, ping-ponging around theories with the tremulous (sometimes furious) chatter that heralds the turning of an age. 

As one of those blind men—and surely I, too, am encountering only part of the elephant—my perception is that we are a society subverted. By this, I do not mean that we are subverted in the sense that a few spies and saboteurs are conducting covert operations, blowing up a bridge or an airfield. I mean we are subverted in a more systematic and totalizing way. 

Listen to Ayaan read this essay today on Honestly:

Before I explain who might be doing the subverting, and for what reason, let me first explain what I mean by it. The best description comes from Yuri Bezmenov, who says that this form of subversion is very gradual, but ultimately transformational.

Bezmenov had been a KGB agent promoting foreign subversion when he grew disillusioned with the Soviet system. In 1970, he defected to the West—to Greece, then Canada. The rest of his life was dedicated to exposing the secret Soviet apparatus of subversion in the West.

Living in the West in 1983, Bezmenov gave a lecture in which he explained “Psychological Warfare, Subversion, and the Control of Society.” It begins:

Subversion refers to a process by which the values and principles of an established system are contradicted or reversed in an attempt to sabotage the existing social order and its structures of power, authority, tradition, hierarchy, and social norms. It involves a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system, often carried out by persons working secretly from within. Subversion is used as a tool to achieve political goals because it generally carries less risk, cost, and difficulty as opposed to open belligerency. The act of subversion can lead to the destruction or damage of an established system or government. In the context of ideological subversion, subversion aims to gradually change the perception and values of a society, ultimately leading to the undermining of its existing systems and beliefs.

This kind of subversion is familiar to me because of my background. Somalia wasn’t the only African country subverted by the USSR. And those that were warped by Soviet infiltration—such as Ethiopia and Angola—bear the scars to this day.

One of the key insights Bezmenov expresses about a subverted society is that, for a while, there is only a passing sense that something is wrong. It’s a mood—a vibe. I believe that’s what many of us have been witnessing for several years now, maybe even as long as a decade or two.

The pressure makes society rumble like a volcano, quiet one minute and flaring the next. Then, finally—and seemingly suddenly—the revolution bursts into view. 

When, on October 8, protests erupted across the Western world in support of Hamas—and not the democracy that had been overrun by terrorists—I saw the revolution. When I look at the recent spectacle at Columbia or Yale or UCLA or Harvard or Stanford—students tearing down American flags and raising Palestinian ones; or chanting in Arabic “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—it is hard not to see the fruit of this long process. I hear the same when, week after week, the streets of London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Hamburg ring with cries of “intifada” or open demands for a caliphate or Sharia law in the heart of Europe.

How did it happen?

Bezmenov described the subversion process as a complex model with four successive stages, a diagram of which I have provided. These are, in order: demoralization, destabilization, crisis, and finally, normalization.

Demoralization is the first stage and requires the subverters’ greatest investment of time and resources. Bezmenov claims the process of demoralization can take between 10 to 30 years, because that is the amount of time it takes to educate a new generation.

The demoralization process targets three areas of society: its ideas, its structures, and its social institutions. The targeted institutions include religion, education, media, and culture. In each realm the old ways of thinking, the old heroes, are discredited. Those who believed in them come to doubt themselves and their ability to discern reality itself. 

Think of the cynicism and selective truth-telling young Americans encounter in most classrooms. You know Jefferson owned slaves, right? You know Columbus killed millions? Again, never mind that Jefferson set us on the path to emancipation, or that Columbus knew nothing about epidemiology. A little learning, as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing. 

Once inside, it is very difficult to escape the mosh pit of civilizational self-loathing. Maybe you can climb to the top for a while by being the white person who hates white people most loudly, or the straight person who goes to the most debauched parades. But most people give up.

The ultimate intended outcome is that the afflicted willingly embrace self-destructive behaviors and ideas. Thus, all moral constraints can be eschewed in the pursuit of “just” and “virtuous” causes.

What else can explain the daily displays of moral panic attacks masquerading as righteous activism, from the destruction of artwork to self-immolation? As human life ceases to look inviolable, we might also expect measures like euthanasia to gain steam, not just to help end terminal anguish but to end all manner of non-debilitating hardship. It’s no surprise, then, that we are seeing movements speeding ahead for “assisted dying” in the U.S., UK, the Netherlands, Canada, France, Ireland, and the rest of the West.

Next, the fundamental structures of society—like the rule of law and social relations—are targeted. For example, demoralization in the rule of law would entail undermining our trust in legal institutions and eroding the basis for legal authority. This could be accomplished by presenting the justice system as corrupt or illegitimate and by sowing distrust in the mechanisms of law enforcement. Think of the movements to “defund the police” because of “systemic racism.” Or the conviction last week of the front-runner presidential candidate on 34 counts of obvious political charges. 

As a consequence, citizens lose confidence in the administration of justice, paving the way for untold social disorders, including legal nihilism, where people disregard the law en masse.

In America in 2019, 14 unarmed black men were shot by police—most, apparently, in self-defense. And yet, when polled, most Americans who described themselves as “very liberal” estimated the number at 1,000 or more. A fifth thought 10,000 or more. Were the BLM riots, then, any surprise?

To be sure, this isn’t just a progressive problem. Republicans also demonized the Justice Department, the FBI, and members of the judiciary when it suited them. Conservatives are also losing their confidence in law enforcement, in part because of what they see as the lax enforcement of the law as applied toward groups like antifa, Black Lives Matter, and pro-Hamas demonstrators. 

The subversion here appears to be working, with both sides agreeing: there is a two-tiered police and justice system—one set of rules for me, and another for thee.

The third area—which Bezmenov called “life”—includes core social institutions such as family, health, race, population, and labor. Demoralization of the family is probably a familiar concept to us all. It involves promoting ideas that weaken the bonds between members of the family, promoting narcissistic individualism over family unity, creating financial stressors that discourage family formation, acrimony between the sexes, and the replacement of parental authority with the state.

Thus, the retrograde practice of polygamy is rebranded as polyamory. The natural human urge to create and nurture new human life is treated derisively by “DINKS” with slightly more latte money, or, more seriously, as an irresponsible and selfish choice to make because of climate change. Meantime, parents are told at every turn that they don’t know what they’re doing—and to defer to the experts instead. 

The result is that not only do individuals feel less attachment to family, the fundamental unit of a healthy civilization, but they even end up detached from society itself. As we now know, the breakdown of family is strongly correlated with the epidemic of mental health crisis and explosive rise in violent crime: 85 percent of American youth in prison come from fatherless homes.

The goal of demoralization is to gradually degrade the foundations of a healthy society across all domains by erasing moral lines and exploiting preexisting discontents. What a society used to call abnormal and pathological, subversion normalizes. Just consider, for example, our culture’s attitude toward pedophiles, now rebranded as “minor-attracted persons.” By hijacking the legacy and language of the civil rights movement, nearly any “marginalized” group has a vehicle to try to “mainstream” deviant behavior. Consider the fact that across civilized societies it is not just “wrong” to say that a man cannot become a woman. It is thought to be cruel. So cruel that the Scots have made it illegal.

What’s striking about the demoralization process is that the law doesn’t typically change—at least not initially. Subversion abuses the tolerance of an open culture, forcing the host society to accomplish its aims like a virus attaches to a host.

In the Soviet case, according to Bezmenov, a successful subverter could come to be employed by a major university and teach a class on communism. When professors, donors, and students raise eyebrows, they get labeled as cranks or retrograde. The subverter responds: “Who are you to decide what can’t be taught?” Meanwhile, the subverter works to indoctrinate more young and impressionable minds and to secure positions for allies or useful ideologues. If you oppose this, you are asked: “What do you have against intellectual diversity?” Or “Do you oppose free thinking?” Thus, dissenters are silenced. 

Over time, as the subverters come to dominate an institution, they apply institutional pressure. Curbs on academic freedom, the curriculum, and alterations to the hiring process inevitably follow. Think of the novel instruments to enforce uniformity of thought among academics: DEI statements, now a requirement at universities across America. Repeat ad infinitum.

Even in the cases where subversive activity is clearly illegal, such as with destruction and violence during the 2020 riots and at many anti-Israel protests today, crimes committed in service of some larger goal—like “decolonization”—are presented as righteous. Decolonization is a word that’s become as common these days as social justice. But what does it mean? Gal Beckerman of The Atlantic has written about the Marxist origins of this concept and one of its chief proponents, Frantz Fanon. Fanon, Beckerman writes, is “the patron saint of political violence,” and his “concepts have provided intellectual ballast and moral justification for actions that most people would simply describe as terror.” Listen to Fanon himself: “whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” 

When young people say “resistance is justified,” many—if not most—of them believe they are simply standing up for the downtrodden. But the deeper implications of that statement are about justifying the morally reprehensible. How else to explain that at our most prestigious college campuses, students can be found glorifying Hamas terrorists and openly praising North Korea?

As far as I can tell, we are on our way to being considerably demoralized. If you look at the last few years, standards have declined, and subversive content, like Fanon’s, fills the media and our children’s curricula from K–12 to college and beyond. By beyond I mean even the Girl Scouts: here’s a St. Louis chapter learning to cheer for “the intifada.”

Do most elementary school teachers really want to racially stratify fourth graders? No. I think they dislike the racism of the past and want to do what they can to fix it. Since their betters in college told them that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is the way to go, well, so be it. Likewise, I don’t think your local high school history teacher wants to bring about a Bolshevik revolution. He has simply been told to replace the focus on 1776 with something from The 1619 Project. So he gets with the times. And on and on and on.

We have also come to a place where it is difficult for anyone to dissent for fear of incurring the wrath of the adherents—witting or not—of subversion. So people go along, keep their heads down, and try not to make a fuss.

Destabilization is the next phase. This process is considerably shorter, taking anywhere between five months to two years. With demoralization now reaching its full maturity, society is increasingly paralyzed by harsh domestic turmoil across all sectors. Democratic politics take on the character of a vicious struggle for power. Factionalism takes hold. Economic relations degrade and collapse, obliterating the basis for bargaining. The social fabric frays, leading to mob rule. Society turns inward, leading to fear, isolationism, and the decline of the nation-state itself, leading to crisis

It is important to understand that, at this stage, the process of subversion is largely self-propelled. What once required active involvement on the part of a subverter has now taken root and grows organically. Then, society ruptures all at once in a rolling series of crises as the full extent of the cancer manifests. 

Finally, says Bezmenov, a subverted society enters the normalization stage, which is when the subversive regime takes over, installing its ideology as the law of the land. By then, the enemy has totally conquered the target society—without ever firing a shot.

A view of the Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building in the center, as seen from Crown Heights in Brooklyn on January 18, 2023, in New York City. (Roy Rochlin via Getty Images)

The question, of course, is who is doing the subverting. Who is trying to unravel America and the West? 

Again, I am feeling only my part of the elephant, but I can discern at least three forces.

The first: American Marxists. This category includes old card-carrying communists, red-diaper baby socialists, antifa anarchists, and many of whom we now call woke. Though the Soviet Union collapsed decades ago, the Soviet worldview has found familiar proponents: young Americans and their professors. They are no longer advancing their cause merely through class struggle, but through the fusion of racial, class, and anticolonial struggles. Theirs is now a cultural communism; they lead subversion through the institutions with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the West. 

The thundering socialists of the past (think of poor Bernie) seemed to earnestly care about the working class. Perhaps they did so naively, but at least they loved the poor. Does AOC? Rashida Tlaib? My former countrywoman, Ilhan Omar? 

The second force is the radical Islamists, who are riding the coattails of the communists to power. A good example is the Muslim Brotherhood and its many tentacles. Of these tentacles, some are openly religious, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Students Association, each with chapters in nearly every American university. Other organizations don a secular mask, like the so-called Students for Justice in Palestine. These groups have become increasingly confident over the past months. Anti-Israel Muslim candidates recently won elected seats in countries like England, where imams talk openly about reestablishing the caliphate in Europe.

The third force is the Chinese Communist Party. The most obvious avenues through which the CCP has spread subversion in America is through its numerous Confucius Institutes. These organizations have been vehicles for Chinese espionage within major American academic institutions. Then there is TikTok, an addictive social media app controlled by the CCP, which presents Chinese children wholesome, educational content while wreaking havoc on American kids—polarizing them and feeding them anti-American propaganda. 

I believe Vladimir Putin is currently waging his own subversion campaign by supporting and advancing the three other forces. That is why I do not place him in one particular category.

What unites these enemies? On the surface, they have little in common. We all know what happens to “Queers for Palestine” in the Palestinian territories. Or Muslims in China. We all know what CCP mandarins think of Black Lives Matter activists. Or rather, what they would think, if they deigned to do so.

But they have wisely chosen the same common enemy: the West.

I am not saying that Bezmenov’s formulation explains all that we are seeing. It clearly does not address all the West’s problems. But once I immersed myself in his formulation, many of the topsy-turvy developments in our institutions fell into place. 

The widespread acquisition of useless, aggressively ideological degrees in gender and race, or the claims of the possibility of an unlimited number of genders, or the total racialization and “decolonization” of our political discourse, or the demands to defund the police, the toppling of statues, the defacing of art, the “spontaneous” protests to dismantle our structures, and much else, I now understand as acts of subversion rather than mere expressions of discontent or youthful energy run amok.

It’s important to note that not all activism is subversive. My life would not be possible without the righteous activism of those who fought for women’s rights and civil rights. So how to tell the good activism from the bad? 

I regret to tell you that there is no easy way. One thing to pay attention to is your gut. Another is your mind: be discerning and skeptical of people recruiting you to their cause. Does their cause ask toleration of you or require compelled speech? Are you being recruited to fight for a cause you know nothing about? Is that cause maximalist and uncompromising; does it glorify violence?

Regardless of whether you agree with my interpretation of events, subversion is a risk to all open societies. As Bezmenov says, subversion is a two-way street. A closed society is immune to subversion because it simply tells potential subverters to leave. Free and open societies cannot rely on this defense.

During the Cold War, the United States was able to forestall subversion because its institutions and people had the necessary antibodies to stave off subversive ideas. Doing so is easier when you have a visible peer as an enemy. But when the Cold War came to an end and we declared victory, we mistakenly thought our enemies laid down their arms and that history had ended—so we let our guard down. 

Orwell said that “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Everyone with eyes to see is now scrambling to do just that. 

What is at stake in our ability to see plainly? Everything. What is at stake is nothing less than the preservation of our way of life.

Now is the time for all of us blind seekers to come together. To restore what we have lost will be the work of our lifetimes. Can there be a more important project?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the author of several books, including most recently, Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.

Subscribe to Ayaan’s Substack, Restoration, here. And follow her on X @Ayaan

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