From Selma to Tunis: When Will We March Against the Segregation of Our Own Time?

03/23/2015 07:56 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015

This year, with good reason, Americans have celebrated the moment 50 years ago when the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans reached a decisive moment: the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery. The movie Selma won an Oscar. President Obama went to Selma and gave one of his finest speeches.

Recent racially charged incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere have prompted a near-universal reflexive response of black anger and white guilt. Despite the achievement of the generation led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in sweeping away the complex of laws that underpinned segregation in the South, racial prejudice continues to taint the United States like some kind of original sin. But the president was right to push back against the idea that nothing has changed since 1965.

Not only has the situation of African-Americans improved in many respects but, as Obama put it, the civil rights movement also swung open "doors of opportunity" for women, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays and the disabled. And it continues to offer inspiration for those fighting for freedom around the world -- in Obama's words, from "the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine." If anyone has the right to make this point, it is our half-African president.

Yet what the president failed to point out is that, around the world, segregation is making a comeback -- including in the streets of Tunis, where the proponents of today's segregation spilled blood last week.

Fifty years ago there were a host of legal impediments to equality between black and white Americans -- just as there were in countries such as South Africa and Rhodesia. Today, a different group is the victim of comparable legal discrimination that imposes segregation on them and denies them equal civil and political rights. What is more, their number is vastly larger than the number that was affected 50 years ago by segregation and apartheid. And that number is growing, because, unlike in the 1960s Alabama, the prevalence of discriminatory legislation outside the liberal West is actually increasing.

The system of law I am talking about is sharia law, the body of legislation derived from the Qur'an, the Hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence. And the discriminated group I have in mind is women, though I could also reference Jews, Christians and gays.

No group is more harmed by sharia than Muslim women -- a reflection in part of the patriarchal tribal culture out of which Islamic law emerged. Repeatedly, women are considered under the code to be worth at most "half a man." Sharia subordinates women to men in a multitude of ways: the requirement of guardianship by men, the right of men to beat their wives, the right of men to have unfettered sexual access to their wives, the right of men to practice polygamy, and the restriction of women's legal rights in divorce cases, in estate law, in cases of rape, in court testimony, and in consent to marriage. Sharia states that women are considered naked if any part of their body is showing except for their face and hands, while a man is considered naked only between his navel and his knees. Finally, although Muslim men may marry Christian or Jewish women, Muslim women may only marry Muslim men.

Segregation, in short, is central to sharia -- a fact that no amount of contortion by self-styled Muslim feminists can get around.

True, not all Muslim-majority countries apply sharia. In Tunisia, after a heated internal debate, the Islamist Ennahda Movement -- which came to power following the Arab Spring -- opted last year not to make sharia the basis for the country's new constitution. But that is precisely the kind of moderate policy explicitly targeted by whichever jihadist gang carried out the Tunis museum massacre. And the troubling thing is that, worldwide, sharia is gaining ground. In Brunei, for example, the Sultan announced the introduction of sharia law last April. The advance of organizations like Islamic State and Boko Haram mean the most brutal application of sharia on a rising number of women and girls.

There seems to me only one possible way to react to this trend toward sharia and that is to resist it. Perhaps that is more obvious to me than to most; having lived under sharia when I was a young girl in Saudi Arabia I know just what it means to be a second-class citizen. Yet many Western liberals seem to struggle with the obvious point that if they were against segregation and discrimination in the 1960s they should be against gender segregation and discrimination now.

My most recent book is an argument for a Muslim Reformation. It proposes a fundamental five-point modification of Islamic doctrine designed to remove the various incitements embedded in the Koran to engage in intolerance, oppression and violence. The book is addressed mainly to Muslims who are reluctant to follow me all the way to apostasy, but who are prepared to acknowledge, if only to themselves, that there are fundamental incompatibilities between their faith and modernity. But I am also addressing Western liberals -- and not only those at Brandeis University who last year saw fit to rescind their institution's offer to me of an honorary degree.

In their letter denouncing me, 87 Brandeis faculty members accused me of suggesting that:

violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus [and]... the hard work on the ground by committed Muslim feminist and other progressive Muslim activists and scholars, who find support for gender and other equality within the Muslim tradition and are effective at achieving it.

Seriously? "Support for gender and other equality within the Muslim tradition"? As for Muslim feminists "achieving" greater equality, the evidence, as we have seen, is that women's rights in the Muslim world are being rapidly eroded by the spread of Islamism.

Calling Western feminists: People like me -- some of us apostates, most of us dissident Muslims -- need your support, not your antagonism. We who have known what it is to live without freedom watch with incredulity as you who call yourselves liberals -- who claim to believe so fervently in women's and minority rights -- make common cause with the forces in the world that manifestly pose the greatest threats to just those things.

I am now one of you: an American. I share with you the pleasures of the seminar rooms and the campus cafés. I know we Western intellectuals cannot lead a Muslim Reformation. But we do have an important role to play. We must no longer accept limitations on criticism of Islam. We must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently "racist." Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.

Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture's intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women's rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on that spurious ground.

Martin Luther King's address before the Alabama state legislature on March 25, 1965, was defiant. "We are here," he declared, "and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, 'We ain't goin' [to] let nobody turn us around.'" But King's message was also nuanced. Racial segregation, he argued, was not "a natural result of hatred between the races." Rather it was a political ploy by the Southern elite to drive a wedge between former slaves and poor whites -- directed as much at the Populist movement as at African-Americans. "The southern aristocracy," said King, "took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man." Segregation was the "last outpost of psychological oblivion."

I believe the same can be said today of the increasing segregation of the sexes in Muslim communities here and in countries like the ones I grew up in. The leaders of the Muslim world -- political as well as religious -- know that they have no answer to the problems of poverty and unemployment that afflict many Muslim communities, including those in the West. But there is one thing they can offer to young Muslim men -- one last outpost of psychological oblivion. And that is not Jim Crow but sharia law: a psychological bird that tells him that no matter how bad off he is, at least he was a man, better than a woman.

I want to echo Martin Luther King. Yes, we Muslim reformers are on the move and no bogus charge of Islamophobia can stop us. The burning of our offices will not deter us. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. The beating and killing of our leaders and young girls will not divert us. The wanton release of known terrorists would not discourage us. We are on the move now. Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.

My question to the liberals of 2015 is this. You are very sure about what side you were on in 1965. But whose side are you on today?

Will you march with us for Muslim women's civil and political rights? Or will you wait half a century -- for the movie of our march?


Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, is published on March 24 by HarperCollins. She is a Fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Visiting Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.