On Tuesday night, I attended Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s talk “Refuse to be Silenced: Feminism Today” as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Distinguished Lecture Series. This series aims to generate constructive dialogue around controversial issues. I was hesitant to go to the lecture because I was aware of her story and her attitudes towards Islam; however, I decided to go and listen to hear what she has to say.
Ali is a Somali and Dutch writer, politician, and critic of Islam. She was born to a Muslim family in Somalia and in the early part of her life was a practicing Muslim. In 1992, she arrived in the Netherlands and was granted political asylum. She has written that the reason for her fleeing to the Netherlands was a forced marriage. However, it came to light in 2006 that she had given false information on her asylum application, so the exact events that led to her arrival in the Netherlands are unclear. She was voted into the Dutch parliament in 2003 and later resigned as a result of the asylum controversy. In 2002, Ali left Islam and became an atheist.
Ali’s comments and work have made her very controversial. For example, her screenplay for the film Submission, which was connected to the assassination of Theo van Gogh, unfortunately has led to death threats. While I do not agree with her opinions, I definitely do not believe that she should have to live in fear.
Listening to the lecture on Tuesday, I was not surprised. Much of what she spoke about echoed what I knew of her. She was highly critical of Islam’s stance towards Muslim women, but in a manner that was very offensive. She made reference to passages in the Qur’an that she argued not only condoned–but in fact called for–violence towards women. However, she did not cite specific verses and suggested things that are simply untrue. For example, she said there are verses in the Qur’an that permit rape. I have never seen these and I am sure other Muslims would say they do not exist. In fact, in Islamic law, there is a harsh punishment for a rapist–not the other way around.
Listening to Ali was also frustrating because she used terms interchangeably and made highly problematic comparisons. For example, she began the lecture using terms like “radical Islam” and “militant Islam” to refer to the system that threatened personal liberties, but by the end of the lecture she was using the single word “Islam” in the broadest sense to say things like “Islam sanctions a special kind of hatred towards women.” Why is that kind of sweeping generalization accepted? Moreover, if that were true, how does she account for all the educated Muslim women who are heavily invested in Islam and do not share her conclusion about the faith?
She also compared radical Islam to Nazism. Besides the problem of how she was using terms, this comparison is not parallel. Radical Islam, whatever that is exactly, while an ideology found in some areas more than others is not identifiable with one nation and its consequences are still different. The biggest problem with this comparison, however, is it could lead people to see Islam as simply a political philosophy rather than a religion with a very rich spiritual dimension.
Finally, Ali stated that Islamic values are incompatible with democracy. In other words, Muslims should make a choice between following these values and being American, French, British, etc. First of all, she did not define what she means by Islamic values except through limited examples, like that of an Egyptian man in Texas who killed his two daughters for having boyfriends, a man who neither followed Islamic nor American values. She also assumed a very narrow definition of American and European identity. Second, her assessment is simply wrong. Many Muslims in Western nations find no problem reconciling the two and become involved in the political process. Lastly, she adds to the negative perception of Islam by highlighting that Muslim citizens are different and in order to be accepted should give up an important aspect of their identity. Isn’t this against the personal freedoms that she supports?
It seems to me that what Ali should really be criticizing is not Islam as a faith, but rather the group of adherents who violate the principles of that faith. She is right that there are very problematic interpretations of Islam, like in all faiths, that lead to abuse and violence. Those interpretations, as she argues, should be engaged and critiqued. However, the conclusion should not be that Islam as a whole is inherently bad because that is not what the history of the faith shows.
While Ali is right that there are very problematic interpretations of Islam that do impact women negatively, there are several reasons why I have a hard time accepting her claim that she is just trying to help Muslim women. First, she does not recognize the fact that many Muslim women are highly committed to Islam and feel that it empowers them. However, she alluded to the fact this is a result of lack of education. Second, Ali plays right into the hands of the extreme which keeps saying Islam is a threat and from her lecture she sees no problem with that; thus, her motivations for me are highly questionable. Finally, she is not responsible with her statements. To say that there is no self-reflection by Muslims or to make sweeping generalizations is simply wrong. Many Muslims, men and women, engage in a continual process of self-reflection or critique. She must not really be looking. Ali, I think, ends up speaking to a very different audience than she claims to be.
Did you hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak? What did you think about the lecture? Have you read her work? Do you agree or disagree? Please share your comments below.