THE BLOG
04/14/2014 07:07 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

Who's Afraid of Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Cultural Imperialism and Islamophobia

Brandeis University has withdrawn the honorary degree promised Ayaan Hirsi Ali
after realizing that Ali has criticized Islam in the past. In fact, criticising Islam was the focus of her best-selling memoir Infidel. The petition to reject her was written by a barely literate undergrad peeved that the university would honor someone who is "an outright Islamophobic." Oh dear. Views are Islamophobic. People are Islamophobes.

But despite the ill-conceived reaction, there is a tension here. It's one thing to point out that, generally speaking, Islamic cultures worldwide tolerate what non-Islamic people would call misogyny more than other cultures. Female genital mutilation, child brides, violently enforced dress codes for women are more prevalent in Islamic societies than in non-Islamic societies. This is true, and needs to be said.

But it's quite another to say Islam itself is misogynistic. Ali has pointed out that the Quran mandates harsh punishments for women and described the religion as a "cage." Her message is that Islam oppresses women. She has said, "I think we are at war with Islam."

It is lazy and unhelpful to take the craziest, worst people/aspects of a religion or ideology and use them to critique it as a whole.

It's lazy because it lacks nuance and understanding. Islam is the fastest-growing religion on the planet. It's been around a while and is practiced in a multitude of ways throughout the globe. To say it is necessarily anything, other than maybe monotheistic, is necessarily to stereotype and overgeneralize.

And it's unhelpful. Because Islam isn't the enemy, misogyny is. Calling Islam misogynistic makes Islam the enemy, which makes the Muslims who love it and hold it dear the enemy.

You simply cannot decry an entire religion and then expect to be considered a credible source on how to make it better. Defeating the misogyny lurking in how many people practice Islam is best done by first understanding Islam, its context, and its history.

It's when people fail to do this that they are charged with "cultural imperialism." And as culture reformers, it's important to recognize the real threat it poses. There is an imperialist element (and history) to Western desire to go and tell the rest of the world how they should live. It is presumptuous, at the very least, to assume "our way" is better. That doesn't mean we're wrong. It does mean, however, that we should be careful.

"Here's how it might benefit you to do Islam this way," is an easier, less problematic sell than "Islam is bad."

However, we cannot be so afraid of cultural imperialism, as Brandeis appears to be, that we refuse to point out, or listen to those who point out, the ways the current practices of many Islamic communities are major human rights violations.

We need a healthy fear of cultural imperialism. But we cannot let that fear silence cultural critique. We must remember that respect for culture is needed to understand culture, which is needed to critique culture, which is needed to improve culture.

Our opinionated petitioner said, in full:

But it's not just the Muslim community that is upset but students and faculty of all religious beliefs. A university that prides itself on social justice and equality should not hold up someone who is an outright Islamophobic.

While there is a tension, and we must beware of cultural imperialism and making enemies out of Muslims, that tension is not best dealt with by silencing Islam's critics. The way to rebut Ali's claims that Islam is fundamentally misogynist is to bring in Muslims who agitate for female equality. Because ultimately, a university which prides itself on social justice and equality should not be so afraid of charges of Islamophobia that it squelches critiques aimed at improving life for women and girls throughout the globe.