Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Evening With Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Last night I attended a lecture at Yale sponsored by the William F Buckley Program (the goal of the program is "to promote intellectual diversity" at the school) and delivered by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, currently a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  I’d been unaware of the scheduled lecture until reading about a controversy triggered by an open letter from Yale’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) which denounced the invitation to Hirsi Ali because of her alleged history of hate speech and intolerance as well as her lack of academic credentials to speak about the Islamic faith.  The letter backfired on the MSA when a number of the 35 other Yale student groups it claimed had endorsed the letter stated that they had done no such thing.

Since I'd read about Hirsi Ali over the years, though never read anything by her except maybe an op-ed here or there I decided to attend the event to hear her talk entitled "The Clash of Civilizations: Islam versus the West".  And also because I don't like being told what I should or should not listen to and remembered that last spring Brandeis University rescinded an offer to award her an honorary degree at commencement due to pressures from the same groups.

The evening consisted of a one hour talk by Hirsi Ali followed by 30 minutes of Q&A which was limited to questions submitted in writing by the audience.  There were no protests outside and the audience, which included students from the MSA, was polite and orderly.

Below is a summary of my notes which I have not tried to organize or to add my own interpretation except where clearly noted as "My Comment".

Before that, for those unfamiliar with her background; Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969.  Her father was a politician opposing the government who spent some time in exile.  Her family moved to Saudi Arabia in 1977 and shortly thereafter to Ethiopia and then Kenya.  She grew up in a Muslim household and as a girl underwent female genital mutilation, a practice she has decried as an adult.

In 1992, to avoid an arranged marriage she received political asylum in the Netherlands where she obtained a college degree and began learning several languages.  Horrified by the events of Sept 11, 2001 and increasingly dissatisfied with her religion she renounced Islam in 2002 becoming an atheist.  She became politically active and was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003.  In 2004 she worked with the Dutch director Theo van Gogh on Submission, a short film criticizing the Muslim treatment of women.  Later that year, van Gogh was shot, had his throat slit by an Islamist and was left lying dead in the street with a note pinned by a knife in his chest threatening Hirsi Ali with death.  Since that time she has lived with some level of security around her.

In 2005 a controversy erupted over whether her 1992 asylum application was accurate and she resigned from Parliament and a year later moved to the United States.  In 2005 Time Magazine named her as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world and in 2006 her best selling autobiography Infidel was published.  In 2013 she became an American citizen.

The Lecture 

She complimented the President of Yale for his recent statements in support of free speech and contrasted it with Brandeis University’s decision to rescind heraward of an honorary degree last spring.

She spoke of the Brandeis incident and other commencement fiascoes at the same time and said they involved two phenomenon.  The first, which she called self inflicted, an excessive focus on any controversial or potentially offensive (to someone) speakers and second, in her case, the problem with Islam to listen to any criticism which she said takes advantage of the first concern.

Referring to the kidnapping of young girls by Boko Haram she said we (the West) show too much restraint in our response but praised the West’s use of diplomatic pressure to free the Sudanese woman who converted to Christianity.

She spoke about ISIS and said “I do not blame the President for showing restraint” and then said we need to finally figure out how we are fighting and what we are fighting.  Yes, we can militarily take out the ISIS leadership but what will we do about the next group, and there will be a next group.

It was significant that the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US last week wrote in a Wall St Journal op-ed denouncing “Islamic extremism“, a term she said the Arab states had previously avoided.  She called it “a good step forward“.

We need to broaden the tools and methods to deal with this threat beyond just military action and surveillance. [MY COMMENT:  This was a theme she returned to several times].

She then moved to her broader themes.  First she took on those who attacked her for a lack of academics credentials and questioned why her experiences are relevant. [MY COMMENT:  You may find this unbelievable since the Left routinely elevates those with "authentic" experience as ones we simply must listen to, but when it is someone they don't like they are dismissed on those grounds].

In response she moved to what I thought the most powerful part of her talk:

She pointed out what happened to those well credentialed religious academics in Muslim societies who dissented in even minor ways from the historic teachings of Islam.  She ran through a list of 20th century Muslim academics who were exiled, forced to divorce their wives, recant and, in some cases, executed.

Hirsi Ali then spoke at length about her own experience growing up in East Africa.  Her family and community were Muslim but she described it as an Islam that “if you neglected some teachings you were left alone”.  There was not hostility between Sunni and Shiite and they got on well with their Christian neighbors, though she added they did hate the Jews, but they again, they never met any.  She said many Muslim, then and now, are “peaceful, loving people“.

This changed when she was 15 and a teacher (she referred to him as the Preacher Teacher) arrived in their community.  He had been trained somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps Saudi or Egypt and he preached intolerance and a language new to their ears.  He introduced the concepts of jihad and martyrdom, the subordinate role of women and the need to aspire to kill all Jews (not just those in Israel).

This, Ali emphasized, is the indoctrination process that it overlooked.  It must be addressed because this is “the cancer“.  These preachers are not just active in the Muslim world; they are here in the U.S. and U.K. [MY COMMENT:  She never said anything about how to address this other than the West needed to empower Islamic reformers and dissidents].

She then said that there is only one Islam but several different kinds of Muslims:

The first are the Preacher Teachers who focus on a core of Islam (submission to Allah) and preach hatred and intolerance along with their followers.
The second, whom she said are the majority of Muslims, are in cognitive dissonance.  They are horrified by and condemn the atrocities carried out by the first group in the name of Islam but they still believe in core Islamic beliefs.
The final group are the small minority of reformists and dissidents.  Ali places herself in the latter category.  She defined the dissidents as those who when confronted by a conflict between their conscience and the core creed of Islam choose their conscience.

She closed by addressing some questions to the Muslim students in the audience.  These included:
Why don’t you spend your time protesting the Preacher Teachers and their intolerance instead of protesting against people like me?
Why don’t Muslims protest against the image of the Koran sandwiched between two Kalashnikovs (the banner of Boko Haram)?
Why are Muslims silent about the murder of others by the intolerant ones (whether members of different Islamic sects or those of other faiths)?
She ended by saying that every day there is a headline that forces Muslims to chose between conscience and creed.


Q. Is there too much focus on Islamic extremism?  What about colonialism and the evils of the West?

A. Colonialism is not unique to the Muslim world.  The Vietnamese and most African states were colonized but they are not waging jihad in response.  She also reminded the audience that Islam itself once was a colonial empire.

In response to another question (don’t have details in my notes) she again mentioned that using military means may be a necessity but our tools need to be broadened.

In response to a question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflicted she mentioned she had come across Palestinians who sincerely want a state that will co-exist peacefully with Israel but a second group see this as a religious war regardless of how the boundaries might be drawn.  She said the first group was in the minority but she hopes that in light of the other regional threats that the Arab nations might empower this group to seek a real peace.

The last question was why should we consider the problems of extremism in Islam as an indictment of the entire religion?  In her response she makes it clear that any “unreformed” religion is potentially a threat and said that in the West this reform had happened (she mentioned that even the Vatican had to make reforms in recent decades).  She mentioned visiting the Salem Witch Museum and seeing the texts used to condemn people for sorcery.  She said that’s where unreformed religions belong, in the museum.  The problem with Islam is that it is still in the 7th century and that increasing numbers of Muslims view the Koran and hadiths as a driving manual.

The dissidents and reformers must be empowered and must push for doctrinal change in Islam.  She pointed out that the huge demonstrations in Egypt overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood were opposing the imposition of Sharia law as were the 2009 demonstrators in Iran.

She made three final remarks:

Reminded us that her community had no interest in jihad until the arrival of the Preacher Teacher.
We should not be in bed with the Saudis who spread intolerance.
A world not led by America will be a really bad place to live in.” 

MY COMMENT:  Hirsi Ali said both that Islam is in the 7th century and that her community was fine practicing Islam until the arrival of the intolerant Preacher Teacher.  My sense is she would reconcile this by saying that Islam is a good faith "as long as you don't take it too seriously", a belief she would apply to all religions.  The universalist side of her message will make many uncomfortable.  For instance, along with opposing female genital mutilation she would also forbid the male circumcision practiced by Muslims and Jews.  She would also ban religious educational institutions.

I admire Hirsi Ali's courage and while I don't feel knowledgeable enough to comment on her religious critique of Islam it seems to me that her message about the instrumental role played by the fundamentalist preachers is correct.  However, while her message can be effective in the West, as a self described Islamic dissident and atheist it seems doubtful she will have any impact on the Muslim world and it is hard to see how a non-Islamic West can effectively empower Islamic reformers and dissidents.  This is a problem that makes taking on Communism look like child's play. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your well written notes and commentary...I've got to get out more! dm