Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Critiquing Islam


Brandeis University offered an honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then withdrew it after protest because on further scrutiny “We cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Absolute shambles whatever your view of Ayaan. The giving then not giving undermines the notion of being “a world-class research institution with the intimacy and personal attention of a small liberal arts college” if they could not work this out for themselves.

Dialogue between ex Muslims and Muslims is important. In a pluralistic society that values religious freedom it is possible to exist and interact with each other. The death threats that Ayaan Hirsi Ali experiences are unacceptable. Bomb threats were made against her, not Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris, when I attended a conference they were all speaking at. As volunteers we were asked if we should cancel, I said no. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali was prepared to speak then we should be prepared to listen.

Which is difficult to hear if you think she demands military action against 1.5 billion Muslims to crush them. A variant of this is doing the rounds on the Internet, taken from an interview in 2007. The person that interviewed Ayaan agreed with Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta’s view:

It takes a very uncharitable interpretation of Hirsi Ali’s words to think her goal of “defeating Islam” means we should commit violence against peaceful law-abiding Muslims or descends into hate speech. Her goal is full-scale reform of Islam, not genocide against all Muslims.

When the quote is reproduced it might be useful to have the context, especially as first paragraph (which I emphasise) of her answer is on a different page, so does not appear in a screen shot of the quote from Reason:

[Bottom page 2:]

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?

[Page 3:]

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.

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.

So no, she does not want all Muslims murdered by Black-Ops, or bombed into submission, nor did she say crush 1.5 billion Muslims. She does employ an atheist carpet bombing critique covering all Muslims. That moderate Muslims are a problem too as Islam lends itself to violent extremism, and by it’s nature looking to dominate society. Islamism rather than something within Islam becomes one and the same thing. This view of all Muslims is justified by this critique because an atheist reading of the Koran is the true canonical definition, as if a literalist interpretation by them is the truth. Any Muslim that promotes pluralism, or questions a literalist or atheist interpretation, is declared to not be a true Muslim. Or one that has been secularised first to be more civilised than the text promotes. In effect fundamentalists are the true belivers. Needless to say, I find such a view horrid, misleading and willfully inaccurate of how most Muslims I meet articulate what Islam means.

For more of a critique on such black and white thinking do read Qasim Rashid’s opinion piece: A Muslim’s invitation to the new atheists: Dawkins, Ali and Harris.

Whether gender segregation at British Universities, the Al-Madinah school in Derby, and the British Government admitting it has not done enough to help tackle Islamic extremism these issues are not that of a bigot to raise. Theses issues concern us all whether Muslim or not. The solution is working together, not targeting Muslims with special measures that amount to discrimination.

The language of the interview above being critiqued does not take into account that Ayaan has evolved in her thinking, and especially expression, from that 2007 interview to now. For example watch this 25 minute debate between her and Tariq Ramadan:

To my mind, she brings out an interesting discussion with Ramadan, and he does well to respond. The sticking point in rhetoric though is that carpet bomb approach to Muslims. It offends by suggesting to people: well you are not a real Muslim are you, because if you were you would be a bigot, racist and misogynist would you not? Ramadan points out that is unhelpful let alone wrong when talking about Muslims in Europe and America.

A much longer panel discussion with Ayaan (about an hour and a half before a local studio discussion of debate) took place in December 2013 featuring Maajid Nawaz and Feisal Abdul Rauf:

Here is more detail about the jurisprudence being up for revision and discussion. Rather than an eternal set in stone idea from God. Maajid comments that reading such scholarly work from about seven centuries ago helped him to renounce his extremism.

The approach that religion and all it’s followers are the issue period, will not work if we cannot take seriously people of faith being secularists and human rights activists. Muslims are at the forefront of tackling Islamism, not atheist best selling authors that cannot read Arabic, let alone have not read a translation of the Koran. They are not the ones on the front line literally laying down their lives.

In turn, vilifying the critics of Islam as islamophobes and haters does not help engage with constructive criticism and legitimate points they raise. Ex Muslims and Muslims have much to discuss as Maajid mentions in the above video. It is going to be painful, perhaps offensive. But it needs to happen if a free society is going to celebrate pluralism and challenge extremisim. Free speech means hearing something and deciding how to deal with what we hear. Making the degree a free speech issue is ludicrous; as the two videos show she is being heard and the university invited her to speak when available in a debate. Thing is, being offended is not a licence to defame back in a discussion.

Brandeis University have not helped that discussion by their actions. Ayaan’s work on FGM and women’s rights is worthy of honor (as I am sure many other people’s are), and an atheist view on religion being the problem is no reason to deny an honor because it is applied to Islam. The icing on the cake is twisting Ayaan’s words as wanting the slaughter of Muslims and seeing all Muslims as blood thirsty savages waiting for the right moment to strike – that to defeat Islam ideologically is code for genocide. Watch the videos above – this is not true.

If the honor had been for promoting secularism then I would concede there is something to be concerned about. Her recommendations on immigration, citizenship, come across as close to  being anti-Muslim rather than promoting freedom of religion. We cannot defend human rights by undermining the very liberties everyone deserves, even to those we may wish to ideologically oppose. Any rhetoric that sounds like war or the battle for civilization is counter productive. I can understand a nonsectarian Jewish sponsored University having second thoughts, though it looks more like they lost their backbone with the protest rather than just found out about statements already available via Google.

The dialogue which is clearly happening with Ayaan is not going to be easy. It will not be welcomed by some. Ayaan has a credible death threat on her head. Disagree with her, agree with her, use the democratic process for that. As protesters of the honorary degree did rather well.

Ayaan has a platform, and watching the videos above the discussion will reach more people because of the engagement by Muslims with her. It is a discussion worth having. Long may it continue, as we learn to understand each other rather than give in to tribalism hate mentality. Because the persecution ex Muslims face is real enough, as is anti-Muslim sentiment.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78

My Huffington Post Blog


Filed under America, atheism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Religion

8 responses to “Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Critiquing Islam

  1. I think you are being far too charitable. If someone had asked me if we should crush 1.5 billion Muslims I’d have said “No”. It is clearly a reference to all Muslims of the world because there aren’t as many as 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. What did Ayaan reply?

    “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars”

    If this is not what she meant, great! But if she hasn’t done so already she needs to prominently release a statement clarifying exactly what she meant, or explaining how she has changed her mind.

    Change the context to that of a middle eastern Mullah talking about Christianity / Hinduism / Judaism would you honestly see it exactly the same way, or would you think that it’s a dangerous thing to say to so many Muslims?

    I understand your point but disagree, I think what she said was awful. In scenarios like this there is no room for imagination, only clarification.

    • Watch the videos – she talks about a reformation and supports what Ramadan and Nawaz are doing. My criticism of her approach is clear enough in post.

      Some atheists talk about destroying religion – I stress very clearly religious freedom and pluralism. It concerns me that these values at times appear not to apply to Muslims as to other religious groups in discourse.

      I make very clear secularism applies to all religion and all people when it comes to rights of citizens.

  2. organic cheeseboard

    Anti-Muslim sentiment is indeed real, it’s alive and kicking in the opinions of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

    Witness her claim that minarets are literally the same as swastikas and as such banning the building of Muslim places of worship in Switzerland is to be encouraged.

    Witness this very recent interview where she claims that all Muslims are the same – they’re all totalitarians incapable of compromise and as such any negotiation with them is pointless – and that Hosni Mubarak is the same as the leaders of Hamas, or something, cos hey, they’re all Muslims innit. http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=10309

    I don’t know what’s more depressing – her ridiculous, nonsensical prejudice, or the fact that so many supposedly ‘rational’ people try to pretend she’s somehow a moderate voice.

    • I agree she falls short of the secularist ideal of religious freedom and pluralism in her pronouncements and by treating all Muslims as monolithic this makes her divisive rather than bringing people of good will together.

      That is what I advocate, while trying to be sincere in my criticism of religion.

  3. Pingback: The Wrong Kind Of Minority | The Syed Atheist

  4. Pingback: Did Christopher Hitchens Say That On Islamophobia Or Someone On Twitter? | Homo economicus' Weblog

  5. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have an opinion on Ayaan Hirsi Ali if it weren’t for people ordering us to support her. For a time, if you raised an objection to anything AHA said at certain places, you could expect to be instantly shouted down as an apologist for genital mutilating and Islamic misogyny. Timothy Garton-Ash got utterly slated for making the very mildest of criticisms, far milder than were merited in my opinion.

    Here’s Ayaan telling the Israeli public that negotiating with the Palestinians is pointless, because the Palestinians are inherently crazy beyond all reasoning – not because they’re aggrieved or prejudiced, but because they’re Muslims.


    Ali said these things in Israel, a country where the nationalist/religious right is extremely powerful, aggressive, intolerant and Islamophobic, and where the Arab minority is receives treatment well below acceptable democratic standards.

    And then, there’s some pretty severe suspicion that AHA has basically invented vast tracts of her biography – quite well supported by Dutch reporting, it is – and the fact that she explicitly backed the highly illiberal Swiss minaret ban, and is now gainfully employed on the outer rim of crazy, belligerent American thinktankery.

    Like I say, I wouldn’t usually go out of my way to have an opinion on people like Ayaan – I’d usually read a few lines in an interview and think, inspirational story, fighting against oppression, entirely admirable. But being commanded to back her by hacks is the kind of thing that makes you want to do a bit of reading, and the reading suggests she might just be a crank and a fraud, and that everyone swooning over her might be a bullshitter.

    • It rather sounds like she is the atheist’s equivalent of Mother Teresa. Others want us to fawn over someone who denied pain relief, hindered the empowerment of women, and economic improvement. The world doesn’t understand this counter view to someone held as a heroine.

      Perhaps instead of heroes we need to always consider scrutiny, and whether words and deeds always measure up to the ideals we hold for anyone. In that sense with Ayaan Hirsi Ali there are too many blinkers and free passes given by the atheist community. Especially regarding her anti-secularist tendencies to pluralism.

      Because we want to believe in her at all times. Free thinkers should be the last people to fall for that, but evidence is this is a human trait in us all.

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