I have the greatest respect for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who details in her two autobiographical memoirs her brave escape from a life of religious oppression in Somalia to her eventual life as a United States citizen working for the conservative think tank American Enterprise International.
A staunch critic of Islam, Hirsi Ali has spoken out passionately against female genital mutilation, forced and arranged marriages of girls as young as ten years old, and the culture of violence that permeates radical Islam. However, her neo-con views on politics and war are troublesome, to say the least.
Hirsi Ali spoke at the Central Congregational Church in Providence Friday night as part of the Darrell West Lecture Series on Religion and Politics. The event was held under somewhat tight security and local police scrutiny because Hirsi Ali has lived under a fatwa, an Islamic sharia law decision, mandating her death due to a film she authored that was critical of Islam. The director of the film, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in the streets of Amsterdam by a man who shot him repeatedly, slit his throat and stabbed him.
The murder of her friend did not silence Hirsi Ali, but has instead motivated her to speak out even more forthrightly against Islam, though not always in the politically tactful or necessarily constructive way. Speaking to the libertarian magazine Reason, Ali called for the defeat of Islam:
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.
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.
Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.
Hirsi Ali, to my knowledge, has never backed off from this rather extreme and militaristic claim. Indeed, when given multiple opportunities to walk back her comments by interviewer Roger van Bakel, she instead doubled down on them.
At her appearance in Providence, Hirsi Ali was more careful with her words, refraining, for instance, to repeat the statement, “If the Prophet Muhammad went to bed with a nine-year-old, then according to Dutch law he is a pedophile” and instead talked around her statement, while still conveying its full meaning to the audience. She also better defined her view of Islam, expanding somewhat on the differences between “religious” and “political” Islam as two different, yet intertwined points of view.
None of this controversy seemed on the minds of the 300 or so people who turned out to hear Hirsi Ali speak at the Central Congregational Church, most of whom knew Hirsi Ali from her books, where she portrays herself as a woman who has overcome great obstacles and escaped a life of religious oppression. The only controversy Hirsi Ali addressed during the one hour presentation was the Brown Daily Herald’s opinion column by Suzanne Enzerink that called into question the wisdom of an atheist, conservative anti-Islamist speaking in a liberal Christian Church. Enzerink maintained:
The location of her speech conflates the narrative and the surroundings too much. Holding her speech at a church introduces Christianity into a lecture that could otherwise have fairly straightforwardly engaged with why the political incarnations of Islam — think jihad and sharia law, though neither defines the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims — are at odds with Western values and culture.
But because Hirsi Ali is speaking at a church, her message automatically comes to carry the stamp of religion. It seems to be delivered with the approval of a Christian institution, transforming the discussion into a clash of religions.
Hirsi Ali began her talk by directly acknowledging Enzerink’s critic but not answering it, saying that she was “…extremely comfortable as an atheist with a giant cross behind [her] to come and speak to you about what many people in the West find incredibly uncomfortable to speak about.”
This gets to the heart of my critique of Hirsi Ali’s politics. During her talk Hirsi Ali made the case that the Western European powers are dealing with a massive influx of Muslim immigrants who, rather than quickly assimilating into western culture, are instead forming small enclaves within which they are demanding special exceptions under the law regarding Islamic customs and Sharia Law. She specifically cites efforts by clerics to lower the legal age at which girls can enter marriage to fourteen and the establishment of secondary Sharia courts and educational systems for Muslim immigrants, and of course both of these are outrageous violations of human rights.
However, Hirsi Ali sees this as a problem with Islam, but not necessarily as a problem with religion itself. She very often gives a free pass to Christianity, even going so far as to say that oppressed Muslims should convert to Christianity because even though there are radical, oppressive Christian groups, these are not the kinds of Christianity she has seen. Note that she can talk about the defeat of Islam, and treat the religion as a monolithic enterprise, but is willing to give Christianity a break on its radicalism. I’m sure the gay population of Uganda, fighting to prevent their sexual identities from becoming a crime punishable by death due to extremist, United States based Christian proselytizing, would beg to disagree.
Hirsi Ali does not mind standing in front of a cross in a liberal Christian church, because in her view Christianity has become civilized under the Enlightenment, which is only somewhat true. The Christian religion is only acting more civilized today because it has been constrained by Enlightenment views. Note that Evangelicals and Catholics maintain dozens of organizations and pump millions of dollars into undermining the Enlightenment values of freedom of conscience and separation of church and state in an attempt to impose their religious views on the rest of us.
This is why women’s reproductive rights and the human rights of the LGBTQ community are under attack in the United States. This attack has nothing to do with Islam, radical or otherwise. The same goes for many of what most of us consider to be more trivial issues such as crosses popping up on public lands, prayer banners in schools, legislative prayer, “Choose Life” license plates funding religious anti-abortion centers, and the faux “holiday tree” controversy during the “War on Christmas.”
During her talk Hirsi Ali said that secular America, with it’s long, proud tradition of separating church and state, stands as a model for how the Western European powers should deal with the cultural invasion of Islam, and I agree. However, the United States did not achieve whatever level of success it has had in this regard by favoring Christianity over its cultural competitors. The favoring of Christianity in our culture counts as a failing, not standing up for our Enlightenment values.
Every time we carve out exceptions for religion, whether it be churches not paying taxes, clergy leading our legislator in prayer, the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance or special religious exceptions for religious institutions under the Affordable Care Act, we are carving out special exceptions for theocracy. When Muslim clerics see these kinds of exceptions being made, they are perfectly right to demand similar exceptions for their religious views, if for no other reason than fairness.
Under theocracy, people suffer. Gays, apostates, unbelievers, women and children are brutalized under all theocracy, whether the theocracy is Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist or any other religion in nature. When religious privileges are given to religions that are not our own, we recognize the injustice and if we feel that the religious privileges granted to one religion are somehow superior to religious privileges granted to another then we are engaging in religiously based bigotry.
Maryam Namazie, human rights activist and another Muslim woman apostate called Hirsi Ali out on the neo-con roots of her positions when she said,
As an atheist herself, Ayaan must know full well that all religions are misogynist. How can one advocate for others what one does not want for oneself?
Also as I have said a million times before, Christianity only seems tamer because it has been dealt with by an enlightenment. To the degree it has been weakened – that is the degree to which people and women have more freedoms and rights. It’s not because of Christianity but because of the resistance against it.
A minimum precondition to safeguard women’s rights is secularism – the separation of religion from state, educational system and judicial system. But then I guess Ayaan can’t really say that because that would be like advocating Marxism amongst her friends.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a bestselling author and a high profile speaker to bring to the Darrell West Lecture Series, and has the ability to, as they say, put butts in the pews, but her views on Islam are clouded by her conservative and militaristic values. Hirsi Ali’s advice for dealing with radical Islam is a moral and human rights dead end. A more enlightened Enlightenment view can be found in the works of Maryam Namazie or Sikivu Hutchinson, to name just two prominent atheist women of color.
Darrell West, please take note.