Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A One-Note Islam Critic
In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
She is as famous as she is notorious. Ayan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian and outspoken critic of Islam (detailed in her new book, “Infidel,” which chronicles her difficult childhood and journey out of Islam), is now a fellow at The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. Ali is a stinging and unrepentant in her criticism of what ails the Islamic world. Yet, she does not blame individual Muslims for this, but Islam itself.
She is a celebrity of sorts among Islamophobes, and I am not sure why. But consider her personal history, the way she tells it: She had a very difficult childhood, being born into the strife of a war-torn Somalia. She moved from place to place, eventually escaping an arranged marriage to the Netherlands.
Ali then became famous with her controversial film “Submission,” which depicted near-naked women with verses of the Qur’an draped across them (and resulted in the brutal death of the filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, who had a death threat against Ali stuck to his chest with a knife).
In the Netherlands Ali rose up the ranks to become a member of the Dutch parliament. But here is where the story unravels: She left the parliament and the country when she was found to have lied on her asylum application about the story of her “escape” from the arranged marriage in Somalia. By that time Ali was known to the world, and after 9/11, she permanently and publicly renounced Islam.
And now her move to AEI has her back in the media spotlight. Why does she garner such interest wherever she goes? Perhaps because these days the world seems to love outspoken critics of Islam, whether or not they have the facts to back up what they’re saying.
In a recent interview with the British newspaper Metro, Ali was asked whether she sees any positive sides to Islam. She replied, “That’s like asking if I see positive sides to Nazism, communism, Catholicism. Of course Islam preaches generosity and kindness and taking care of the poor and elderly and so on—but these values aren’t limited to Islam.”
Ali is an expert on putting a big negative stamp on Islam and finding ways to blame the religion for all sorts of problems that ail the Muslim (and non-Muslim world). Consider some of her incendiary statements:
On NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Ali tried to link the ills of the Muslim world—which have a multitude of causes—with just Islam itself. Of female genital mutilation, Ali admitted that it started “1,800 years before Christ, so it was way before Islam came about.” Then comes the “but”: “If you look at the countries that practice it today,” Ali said, “most of them are Islamic. And one of the things that makes [female genital mutilation] very useful for Muslims is their attitude towards virginity and premarital sex. The Qur’an is very clear and says those who engage in premarital sex should be flogged 100 times, both men and women. But it is, of course, much easier to prove that a woman has had premarital sex. Islam, like some of the other monotheistic faiths, tries to control the sexuality of the woman first.”
When talking about slavery, she highlighted how the fight to abolish the slavery practiced by the West came from within the West itself. In contrast, however, “Today, in the world we live in, slavery is practiced only in Arab/Islamic world ... Muslims are not responding to that,” she said to Neal Conan of NPR.
I guess she’s unaware that according to a report by MSNBC , officials estimate that “more than 200,000 women and girls—a quarter of all women trafficked globally—are smuggled out of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics each year, the bulk of whom end up working as enslaved prostitutes. Almost half are transported to Western Europe. Roughly a quarter ends up in the United States.” But in Ali’s mind, since “slavery is practiced only in Arab/Islamic world,” it must be because of Islam itself.
Ali is notorious for making sweeping generalizations about Islam and Muslims, and she frequently cites information that is incorrect. For instance, on the NPR show she said: “For empirical evidence on whether women and/or the Islamic world is in a crisis, I would like to refer Tony [a caller to the show] to the Arab Human Development report ... in which the writers of that report say the Arab/Islamic world is retarded when it comes to ... three factors: The freedom of the individual, knowledge, and the subjugation of women.”
According to reading, the Arab Human Development report speaks only of the Arab—and not Islamic—world. And her characterization that the Arab/Islamic world is “retarded” was a gross oversimplification. A quick glance at the United Nations Development Program’s website for Arab states clearly shows this.
But what left me truly flabbergasted by that NPR interview was Ali’s statement about the West: “I know that Western societies have had a terrible past from the burning of women as witches all the way to what happened in the Second World War ... that’s one part of the West. But there’s the other part which is really developing institutions that safeguard the life and freedoms of the individual, and it would be a huge pity to confuse the two and to, you know, lump them together and describe the West only as a source of evil.” Yet, she does that exact same thing when it comes to Islam and the Muslim world. Doesn’t this smack of sheer hypocrisy?
As frustrating as all this is, it is nothing new from Ali. She is just the latest in a series of critics of Islam who generalize, stereotype, and mischaracterize the religion. Remember Dr. Wafa Sultan? She is a Syrian-born California psychiatrist who made headlines last year when she criticized Islam in the very same manner as Ayan Hirsi Ali does now.
In the now-famous interview on Al Jazeera just over one year ago on February 21, 2006, Dr. Sultan said: “The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.
“It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings,” Sultan said. The harsh implication of her words was that Islam—and not individual Muslims—was “backward,” “primitive,” “barbaric,” and “oppressive.”
Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan are very similar in many respects. Both are ex-Muslims. Both had terrible experiences with Islam that galvanized their decision to leave the faith. For Hirsi Ali the tipping factor was the brutal attacks of September 11, 2001: “I didn’t question [Islam] seriously until after 9/11. Bin Laden defined the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, and these had to either be converted or killed. I asked myself where I stood after I saw the pictures of people jumping out of the World Trade Center,” Ali told Metro.
“As a Muslim, I had to ask if I agreed with that. I was saddened to see Bin Laden’s citations were from the Koran and were consistent with the Islam I grew up with,” Ali said. “It is just that we were passive until then. Now we had to take sides. I had completed a political science degree and could no longer use ignorance as an excuse. I had to make my own path.”
For Dr. Sultan, the impetus to reject Islam was her witnessing the murder of her medical school professor in Syria in 1979 by Muslim gunmen shouting “God is great.” Of this, Dr. Sultan said: “At that point, I lost my trust in their God and began to question all our teaching. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another God.”
Their experiences are real, and their choice to leave Islam is theirs to make. But the problem is that both women make very similar one-sided accusations and generalizations about the evils of Islam and how this religion is the sole reason for the depressing state of the Arab and Muslim worlds. They seem to be reading from the exact same playbook, and it’s getting annoying.
I’m not saying that there is nothing wrong with the Arab and Muslim worlds. There are awful extremists in the Muslim world who have committed the vilest acts that I have ever seen. The Arab and Muslim worlds are ripe for real, true reform. But that does not make it right, proper, truthful, or honorable to malign the faith of 1.2 billion people who derive strength and comfort from that faith.
It is wrong for Ali to say on NPR: “The whole idea is for 1.2-1.5 billion people living in the world to start thinking, at least, I mean exercising some sort of intellectual activity, which we haven’t been doing because in our own countries, in our own societies. If you do that you’ll run the risk of being killed…”
Really? All 1.2 billion Muslims are unthinking idiots? All 1.2 billion Muslims are liable to get killed if they exercise some sort of intellectual activity? True, there are some Muslim societies that are repressive, where freedom of speech can be a danger to one’s health. (Take the recent conviction of an Egyptian blogger who was sentenced to four years in prison for “insulting Islam” and insulting “the President” of Egypt.) But it is a tall order to say that “the whole idea is for 1.2-1.5 billion people living in the world to start thinking.”
I am not alone in the criticism of this critic. Muslim feminist Asra Nomani recently told Newsweek magazine: “I wish people had been nicer to her. But I don’t blame Islam. I blame really messed-up people who’ve used religion to justify their misogyny.” This is my point exactly. It is possible to speak out against the injustices committed in the name of Islam—and unfortunately they are far too many—and still remain faithful to the deeply spiritual tenets of Islam.
In fact, we need much more of this. Muslims really need to take a hard, close look inward and try to improve their own situation. The Qur’an says this directly: “Verily God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. (13:11)” Of the many, many things Ali says with which I disagree, this is one thing she says that I concur with: Muslims need to reform themselves first.
Even author Irshad Manji—whose past criticisms of Islam were very similar to those of Ali’s- has amended her viewpoint. Talking about her upcoming documentary “Faith without Fear,” Manji said: “This film began not as a critique of Islam but as a quest for the beauty in Islam. I soon realized that to find the beauty of my faith, I needed to have basic questions addressed: Is the problem religion itself or the manipulation of religion?”
I believe the answer is the latter. Unfortunately, however, there is no shortage of “ex-Muslim” critics who will stop at nothing to claim the former, and there are too many people who are willing to believe what they say. And our unity and mutual understanding as a people are liable to suffer because of it.
This column was published on Beliefnet.