Victor Davis Hanson

She grew up a Muslim, but ultimately rebelled at the fundamentalist practice of arranged marriage and gender apartheid — and the threats directed toward anyone who questioned such seventh-century intolerance.

When Westerners, especially conservatives, criticize radical Islam on these grounds, they are often libeled as Islamophobes or written off as illiberal. But Hirsi Ali has shown the world that a liberal woman can teach us first-hand about Islamic extremists — their intolerance of religious diversity, subjugation of women, and bullying of moderate Muslims in their midst.

Hirsi Ali has been attacked from every direction, and yet still won’t keep quiet. Traditional Middle East fundamentalists, of course, have tried to bully and threaten her. But many secular, liberal Dutch haven’t been much better. At first, they thought that this third-world celebrity fit their ideal of the black emancipated feminist. Now, even as she’s damned by radical Islamists for being Westernized, she’s equally damned by liberals in her country and elsewhere for acting as if she were some conservative cheerleader of Western values.

Hirsi Ali demands from Muslims the same scrutiny of their religious brethren as other religions do of their own. Theo van Gogh, director of “Submission,” a documentary film about women in Islam that Hirsi Ali wrote, was murdered by an Islamic terrorist. Yet Ali has not let threats on her own life impede her mission.

What do all these mavericks who have changed the status quo have in common? First, they not only followed their beliefs with action, but also were willing to endure the inevitable criticism to follow. Second, although they have strong beliefs, none are overtly partisan; all instead seek a common good.

The conservative Sarkozy appointed a socialist as his foreign minister. To this day, partisans can’t figure out whether Gen. Petraeus is a Republican or Democrat. Hirsi Ali wants equality for women and greater tolerance of diverse opinion in the Muslim world — and thereby a better understanding between the West and Islam.

Fearless iconoclasts like these three really can make an enormous difference. They remind us that history is not faceless, but can still be changed by just a few brave people after all.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.