Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brandeis: Some Thoughts

The name Ayaan Hirsi Ali first entered my consciousness on Wednesday, November 3, 2004, however, at the time, I barely took note of it. The morning of the day before, Theo Van Gogh, a portly, forty-seven year old, Dutch filmmaker was riding his bicycle to work through a comfortable neighborhood in Amsterdam when a man shot him several times. Two bystanders were also hit. Now on foot, Van Gogh fled his attacker and collapsed on the other side of the street crying, “Mercy, mercy! We can talk about it, can’t we?”

The assassin, a twenty-six year old bearded man, Mohammed Bouyeri, walked up to the man lying on the ground and shot him several more times. He then cut the dying man’s throat and tried, unsuccessfully, to decapitate him. Then, with the thrust of a knife, pinned to his chest a note. The note long, rambling and barely coherent, begins with

Open letter to Hirshi Ali

In the name of Allah – the BeNeficent – the Merciful

Peace and Blessings from the head of the Holy Warriors

Then, a little later, it says,

This letter is Insha Allah (God willing) an attempt to stop your evil and silence you forever.These writings will Inshallah cause your mask to fall off.

It continues, with some antisemitic paranoia and apocalyptic language.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali had conceived of the film, Submission for which van Gogh had been killed, and was the writer. Submission Part 1 is a monologue in which a devout Muslim woman who is going through a difficult time personally seeks guidance from God. Hirsi Ali, at that time, was also a member of Parliament and a Somali immigrant.

I’m not sure when next again I heard of Hirsi Ali. She was soon in the newspapers again.

Checking the New York Times to find what it might have been, I found she was briefly mentioned in an article written in 2002 by none other than Salman Rushdie.

Finally, let’s not forget the horrifying story of the Dutch Muslim woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has had to flee the Netherlands because she said that Muslim men oppressed Muslim women, a vile idea that so outraged Muslim men that they issued death threats against her.

It seems that Hirsi Ali began receiving death threats before making Submission, before running for Parliament, when she was still a researcher and analyst affiliated with the Labor Party.

In April 2005, she was the subject of a lengthy profile in the New York Times Magazine. A year later, she was in the paper again when she the Dutch government threatened to revoke her citizenship. She “would resign from Parliament… and speed up her intended departure for the United States.” Whatever the reason, I became familiar with her name. As I mentioned in a previous post, difficulty reconciling various conflicts of interest arising from multiculturalism is a large part of what led me to a political view that could better be described as liberal rather than leftist, a view which emphasizes the individual rather than the group. Needless to say, in this context Ayaan Hirsi Ali held great interest for me. Shortly after her book came out, I headed over to the library to borrow it.

Infidel is an extremely well written autobiography and a great pleasure to read. Hirsi Ali is best known as a defender rights of women and girls, especially those from immigrant backgrounds. She is not, however, a white savior. The culture that she criticizes is the one in which she was raised. Some of the things against which she fights, like forced marriage and genital mutilation were done to her. Born in Somalia, she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, as well as the Netherlands, and is now a citizen of the United States.

Her description of her childhood and adolescence is vividly described and a large part of what makes the book so enjoyable, but it is the actions that take place in the Netherlands that have made her famous. Due to the various moves she made during her life, Hirsi Ali arrived in the Netherlands speaking five languages and would soon acquire Dutch as well.

She… worked as a translator for immigration and social-service agencies. She interviewed Muslim women married off to reprobate cousins because they had lost their honor (virginity) and no one outside the family would have them. She interviewed battered wives and women infected with the AIDS virus who were under the impression that Muslims could not contract it.

She eventually received a Master’s degree in Political Science. As a politician and a member of Parliament in the Netherlands, she referred to Muslim women as “my issue.”

Hirsi Ali’s legislative work on women’s issues has certainly been substantial. Last year, she drew up a plan to better enforce the law against genital mutilation, which passed the chamber. She has spent recent months trying to stiffen enforcement of laws against ”honor killings,” prevalent among certain Muslim immigrant groups, especially those from Turkey. She wrote a legislative paper on the economic integration of Muslim women and has urged closer scrutiny of new Muslim schools before they are accredited.

But she prefers to describe her legislative achievements in broad terms. ”I confront the European elite’s self-image as tolerant,” she says, ”while under their noses women are living like slaves.”

She has been cast by many as a conservative due to her work for the American Enterprise Institute, but it is worth noting that she applied for a job with the Brookings Institute as well. It was the American Enterprise Institute which offered her a job when it appeared that her Dutch citizenship would be revoked.

Over the years, Hirsi Ali has received many honors and awards. This year, Brandeis University offered Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree. According to theNew York Times:

At first, it was bloggers who noted and criticized the plan to honor Ms. Hirsi Ali, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Within a few days, a Brandeis student started an online petition against the decision at Change.org, drawing thousands of signatures. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, took note, contacting its members though email and social media, and urging them to complain to the university.

Brandeis withdrew its offer, stating “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” One is left with one of two conclusions, either Brandeis does not know to whom it is giving honorary degrees or the school buckled to the pressure of people who would like to shield Islam from the same criticism that we make all the time of Christianity.

Although Brandeis did not speculate exactly which words of Hirsi Ali’s it had in mind, it has been widely speculated that it was from an interview in Reason, a magazine with a libertarian bent. Certainly what Hirsi Ali says is strong, but it should be read in context.

Reason: But do you feel at all uncomfortable with that heavy emphasis on religion in American public life?

Hirsi Ali: Yes. And the good thing is—and that’s what I’ve tried to tell all my European friends—I’m allowed to say so.

Keep in mind these are the words of someone who lives under a very, believable concrete death threat, who has lived in hiding and who has fled one country for speaking her mind on the subject of the abuse of Muslim women.

I accept that there are multitudes seeking God, seeking meaning, and so on, but if they reject atheism, I would rather they became modern-day Catholics or Jews than that they became Muslims. Because my Catholic and Jewish colleagues are fine. The concept of God in Jewish orthodoxy is one where you’re having constant quarrels with God. Where I come from, in Islam, the only concept of God is you submit to Him and you obey His commands, no quarreling allowed. Quarreling or even asking questions means you raise yourself to the same level as Him, and in Islam that’s the worst sin you can commit. Jews should be proselytizing about a God that you can quarrel with. Catholics should be proselytizing about a God who is love, who represents a hereafter where there’s no hell, who wants you to lead a life where you can confess your sins and feel much better afterwards. Those are lovely concepts of God. They can’t compare to the fire-breathing Allah who inspires jihadism and totalitarianism.

After reminding her of some positive statements she made about Islam in her autobiography,

Reason: Should we acknowledge that organized religion has sometimes sparked precisely the kinds of emancipation movements that could lift Islam into modern times? Slavery in the United States ended in part because of opposition by prominent church members and the communities they galvanized. The Polish Catholic Church helped defeat the Jaruzelski puppet regime. Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

There’s an interesting note here which many people seem to have missed. She mentions mystical Islam and sees it as being something different.

There are subjects on which I do not agree with Hirsi Ali. I do not have a strong, well-developed opinion as to whether or not Islam can be compatible with modernity, which inherently includes a degree of secularism. However, I feel obligated to read her arguments, the arguments that have been called Islamophobic, in the context of the life of the woman who made them. We are talking about a woman who has lived under a death threat, a credible one made by people who took the life of someone she knew and sent her into hiding. Were I living under a death threat, I do not think I would feel complaisant towards the people who made it or anyone who fails to condemn it. To regard the event of Brandeis’ withdrawal of its honor without the context distorts it in a way that is entirely unfair to Hirsi Ali.

The oppression of women has hardly been unique to Muslim cultures. During the past couple of centuries there has been a great deal of change in the position of women in Western countries. Many of the people who have resisted that change have done so while citing religion, culture and tradition as their justification. Many of the people today who would like to drag us backwards come from the politicized Christian Right. I’m failing to find a quote right now, but Hirsi Ali should note that some Fundamentalist Christians have articulated a desire to undo the achievements of the Enlightenment. There are atheists in the West who wonder if Christianity will always revert to its harshest form or if our current secular government can be maintained with a large number of believers.

I also believe that she is too alarmed regarding the fate of Western culture in the face of Muslim immigration. Western culture is not as fragile as she believes. We must, however, continue to hold strong regarding our values of freedom of expression.

I wanted to get into the subject of freedom of speech, censorship and some related issues. However, this has already gotten rather long.

In closing, I would like to say that it is rarely, if ever, advisable for outsiders to try to change a culture. For this reason, critics of Islam who are or were adherents of the religion are invaluable. With this in mind, it’s concerning to see people try to cancel showings of the Honor Diaries, a film Hirsi Ali recently helped to produce. The women in the film are all from countries with Muslim majorities. Some are still practicing Muslims. They have a diversity of views. These are the people whose voices need to be heard. There is no progress without criticism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali may not be right about everything, but hers is an important voice to hear in the discussion. Certainly, dismissing her as an Islamophobe accomplishes nothing.

Silence Ayaan Hirsi Ali

  1. I like the thoughts presented in this post. Very articulate

  2. cynicalatheist said:

    Reason: …Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?

    Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

    Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

    Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

    I can certainly understand where Hirsi Ali is coming from, as she was a target of actual Islamist terrorism in the murder of her friend Theo Van Gogh, and given her long fight to escape from religious oppression by her family. I don’t discount her personal experience, but her statements about Islam apply globally. Here is more of that “Reason” interview with her:

    Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?

    Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

    Reason: Militarily?

    Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

    When you include the rest of the interview, it’s pretty clear that she’s calling for a Western war on Islam. She says she wants to stop “infiltration of Islam in schools & universities”. She also includes using the military. One cannot stop “infiltration of Islam” in a culture without attacking civil rights. A military response to Islam would seem to include missiles, drones, troops, and black ops.

    So I am happy to take her words in her subjective context. I can appreciate the extreme experiences that shaped her worldview. But she’s speaking in a global context. Her statements have specific meanings that go beyond harsh criticism of Islam. She’s calling for the West to abandon respecting Muslim civil rights in order to stop their “infiltration”. She’s also calling for a military response to the existence of Islam, which cannot be tamed until it’s “defeated”. Please consider what an actual global war between The West and Islam would look like, and how it might proceed.

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