THE BLOG
04/22/2014 06:49 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

A Tale of Brandeis, Islam, Feminism and the Left

There are certain subjects that progressives tend to shy away from for their own ideological reasons. Concerned lest it provide ammunition to the right, the left downplays many retrograde practices associated with political Islam. In a sense, such a development is hardly surprising: for years the left has criticized U.S. foreign policy and American sponsorship of Israel, and doesn't want to encourage Washington to launch more foreign adventures. In light of recent history, including U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such concerns are not altogether misplaced. However, by adopting such a rigid mindset, the left becomes a bit vulnerable and sets itself up for criticism.

Recent controversy involving a woman speaker on the campus of Brandeis University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, underscores the left's dilemma. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women's rights and a fierce critic of Islam, was invited to speak at the university and to receive an honorary degree, a chorus of groups lobbied to block the event. After coming under pressure from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as Change.org, which launched an online petition, Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence caved and rescinded the university's invitation to Hirsi Ali. "We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values," the college remarked in a statement.

A Harrowing Past

It's not the first time Hirsi Ali has courted controversy. A native of Somalia, she has written extensively about her experiences as a Muslim girl growing up in East Africa, including horrific genital cutting and her family's efforts to oblige her to marry a man against her own desires. Hirsi Ali has also spoken out against so-called "honor killings," and applications of Sharia Law that justify forms of domestic abuse like wife or child beating.

As a young woman, Hirsi Ali moved to Holland and was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She also helped to establish a foundation which worked to protect and defend the rights of women and girls in the West from religious oppression and culture. The organization works to help women control their own bodies, ensure access to education and secure independent jobs and income.

Even more provocatively, Hirsi Ali wrote a screenplay for Submission, a 2004 film which criticized treatment of women in the Muslim world. Tragically, Hirsi Ali's collaborator and director was shot and stabbed repeatedly by a Dutch Moroccan radical Islamist on the streets of Amsterdam. After murdering the man, the attacker pinned a note on the victim's body threatening to kill Hirsi Ali as well.

Inflammatory Debate

In light of such advocacy, why would progressives seek to block Hirsi Ali from speaking at Brandeis? The story is a bit thornier than it might seem at first, since Hirsi Ali has at times made inflammatory statements against Islam itself. She has for instance called the Muslim faith a "destructive, nihilistic cult of death" and remarked that "violence is inherent in Islam."

Hirsi Ali has furthermore advocated the closing of Islamic schools in the West and at one point stated that "Islam is the new fascism." In one interview, she even said "I think that we are at war with Islam," adding that it must be defeated. When she was asked to clarify whether she meant a military defeat, Hirsi Ali responded in the affirmative. "It's very difficult to even talk about peace now," she declared. "They're not interested in peace."

Writing in Time magazine, however, the anti-Islamic activist defended her record by claiming "my critics have long specialized in selective quotation -- lines from interviews taken out of context -- designed to misrepresent me and my work." Speaking on Fox News, Hirsi Ali added that her critics "tie all these things together to fit their own narrative." However, according to liberal Think Progress, Hirsi Ali has "never explained how her comments have been taken out of context."

Hirsi Ali's statements may lead some to wonder whether she has gone "over the line." Isaac Chotiner of the liberal New Republic has scoured through Hirsi Ali's quotes, and calls some of the activist's statements "thoughtless and dumb." Nevertheless, he adds, "nothing she has said...seems to rise to the level of hate speech...A lot of diehard atheists have said nasty things about many different religions, and I don't think comments which call various faiths stupid or dangerous or even evil should be considered beyond the pale, or should require that we shun the people who made them from polite society."

Over-Generalizing the "Islamic World"?

Others charge that Hirsi Ali over-generalizes when criticizing Muslim societies. Over at similarly left-leaning Alternet, Josh Holland writes that Hirsi Ali's arguments about Islam are "essentialist in nature, and like all essentialist arguments, they're ahistorical and lacking in context... She minimizes or denies the existence of the political, cultural, economic or other factors that fuel various conflicts in the Muslim world -- for her, they all arise from Islam's demand that its followers yield themselves unquestioningly to its teachings."

Holland continues his broadside against Hirsi Ali, remarking "there is no doubt that many (but not all) predominantly Muslim countries have serious political and social problems, but there's no evidence of a direct relationship between those problems and Islam. The plain fact is that much of the Islamic world is plagued by poor governance -- little or no democracy, insufficient respect for human rights and the rule of law, and a failure of governments to address the needs of their citizens -- and those issues are in no way limited to the Islamic world."

For her part, Hirsi Ali dismisses such liberal explanations. While she freely admits that Muslims live in very different circumstances in individual countries, nevertheless "when it comes to the relationship between men and women, in all these countries there is a red line of the woman being subordinate to the male. And most Muslim men justify this subordinacy with the Qur'an."

The Right Pounces

Not surprisingly, the Brandeis imbroglio has stirred political passions on the right. Over on Fox News, which is hardly a bastion of women's rights, commentators have leapt on the controversy by hyperbolically claiming that Hirsi Ali has been a "victim of an honor killing, Brandeis style." The conservative Telegraph joined in for good measure, accusing Brandeis of "extraordinary cowardice." "You would think that an American university would be a staunch defender of Hirsi Ali's right to free speech and wouldn't capitulate to a mob of politically correct Muslims at the first sign of trouble," the paper went on.

Rather opportunistically, conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby takes to the pages of the Boston Globe to score some points against the left. No one, writes Jacoby, should argue that the issue of women and girls in Muslim cultures ought to be "excused or neglected out of a misplaced cultural sensitivity or political correctness." Journalist Andrew Sullivan chimes in, noting "there seems to be an assumption that public speech must seek above all else to be 'sensitive' rather than provocative, and must never hurt any feelings rather than tell uncomfortable truths. This is a terrible thing for liberal society as a whole and particularly terrible for a university campus, where freedom of thought should be paramount (although, of course, the hard academic left every day attempts to restrict that freedom)."

Slightly more surprisingly, the right has been joined by centrist Jewish publication Tablet, which says Brandeis' decision "is yet another shameful reminder of how limp the commitment of Jewish institutions to open discourse has grown... The blame here lies squarely at the feet of University President Fred Lawrence, who apparently has no idea who Louis Brandeis was -- a passionate American progressive whose deepest emotional, moral and intellectual commitments were to free and open discourse."

Political Football and "Free Speech"

In the wake of the Brandeis scandal, Hirsi Ali has played the victim, remarking that "when Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution's distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students." Then, Hirsi Ali lets Brandeis have it by playing the free speech card. It's deplorable, she says, "that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles."

Despite such proclamations, it's not so clear that Brandeis exercised total censorship in this case. As Chotiner of the New Republic points out, "this controversy isn't about shunning someone from polite society. It is about giving a person an honorary degree. I certainly don't think she was deserving of a degree in the first place, so... once the university realized its mistake, correcting it was reasonable."

Moreover, it's not as if Brandeis arrived at its decision in an undemocratic manner: Thousands of students signed the petition against Hirsi Ali while dozens of faculty members signed a letter booting her off the list of honorary degree recipients. What is more, Brandeis President Lawrence has extended himself to Hirsi Ali by inviting her to engage in future on campus dialogue.

Hirsi Ali and the Neo-Cons

In light of such arguments, then, it's not entirely clear that progressives are entirely guilty of squelching free speech. What is more, the left has called attention to Hirsi Ali's strange evolution which raises questions about the activist's political trajectory. Hirsi Ali is a visiting fellow at American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. The outfit is libertarian in outlook while fervently advocating for "free competitive enterprise" and downsizing of the liberal state. According to the Washington Post, Hirsi Ali has been a big boon for AEI, and "neoconservative, middle-aged white men... tend to swoon when she walks into the room."

AEI proudly touts its links to intellectual heavyweights of the political right including Irving Kristol, father of William Kristol of the Weekly Standard. In the wake of the Brandeis imbroglio, many from the pro-Israel community came to the defense of Hirsi Ali, including Kristol himself. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, "those in the hard-line pro-Israel community have become the chief public voices of a pervasive anti-Muslim bias." What is more, AEI is linked to prominent neo-conservatives such as Dick Cheney who sits on the group's board of trustees.

Hirsi Ali's husband, historian Niall Ferguson, has been accused of defending the historic record of British imperialism in Africa, and his emergence as an advocate for colonial adventurism coincided with the rise of the neo-conservatives [Ferguson himself supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq]. Hirsi Ali meanwhile tends to frame the relationship between the Islamic and western worlds in civilizational terms. Indeed, the anti-Islamic activist is an admirer of political scientist Samuel Huntington, who coined the phrase "clash of civilizations."

Over at AlterNet, Holland worries that Hirsi Ali's sweeping theories will "validate already disturbingly common narratives about the perfidy of Islam, and she'll tout the vast superiority of Western thinking in stark terms that would be shocking coming from a more traditional (read: white, Christian) right-wing commentator. As long as the concept of a broken and dysfunctional Muslim world is used to justify Western militarism in the Middle East and Central Asia, Hirsi Ali will have a cushy sinecure somewhere within the right-wing media establishment, ready to be rolled out as exhibit A in the case against whatever country is that day's enemy-du-jour."

The Anti-Semitism Conundrum

And yet, if one manages to get beyond Hirsi Ali's political baggage and questionable statements --- which is admittedly very difficult to do --- the anti-Islamic activist addresses some worthwhile topics. Take, for example, anti-Semitism, an issue which many on the left tend to sweep under the rug. As a girl, Hirsi Ali grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her teachers, mother and neighbors would tell her "practically on a daily basis that Jews were evil, the sworn enemies of Muslims whose only goal was to destroy Islam. We were never informed about the Holocaust."

Hirsi Ali adds, "Later in Kenya, as a teenager, when Saudi and other Gulf philanthropy reached us in Africa, I remember that the building of mosques and donations to hospitals and the poor went hand in hand with the cursing of Jews. Jews were said to be responsible for the deaths of babies, epidemics like AIDS, for the cause of wars. They were greedy and would do absolutely anything to kill us Muslims. And if we ever wanted to know peace and stability we would have to destroy them before they would wipe us out."

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Hirsi Ali remarks that "not a day passes, in Europe and elsewhere, when radical imams aren't preaching hatred in their mosques. They call Jews and Christians inferior, and we say they're just exercising their freedom of speech. When will the Europeans realize that the Islamists don't allow their critics the same right?" The anti-Islamic activist adds "Today, in the name of Islam, synagogues are vandalized... There are incidents of Jews being harassed, beaten, even killed. All this is met with grim silence and rationalizations that it's not really anti-Semitic but anti-Israel."

Islamism in Turkey

In addition to tackling anti-Semitism, Hirsi Ali addresses other topics commonly ignored by the left. Take, for example, the issue of rising fundamentalism in Turkey. For years, Prime Minister Recep Tayyit Erdoğan's so called "moderate" Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party or AKP has supported policies aimed at compelling women to adopt conservative dress and customs. Meanwhile, the misogynistic prime minister turns a blind eye to Turkey's backward child-bride practices and domestic violence.

With the situation confronting Turkish women steadily eroding, you'd think the international left would pay more attention. Yet, when he was asked to comment about the relationship between Islam and secularism in Turkey, noted MIT professor Noam Chomsky was curiously evasive. "I am in no position to hand out grades for good and bad behavior," he remarked. "It is for the people of Turkey to make their country a model that others may seek to follow, insofar as it is appropriate for them."

Hirsi Ali on the other hand disdains such political correctness, remarking that "Secular and liberal Turks have had a rude awakening from years of deep slumber. Kemal Ataturk's heritage is about to be destroyed -- not by an invading power but from within, by fellow Turks who yearn for an Islamic state." Hirsi Ali urges secular folk to take back Turkish society, though interestingly she has some words of advice for liberals. "Bringing back true secularism does not mean just any secularism," she declares. "It means secularism that protects individual freedoms and rights, not the ultra-nationalist kind that breeds an environment in which Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is a bestseller, the Armenian genocide is denied and minorities are persecuted."

Taking Islam to Task

Not stopping there, Hirsi Ali then takes on the controversial issue of so-called "moderate Muslims" and their place in society. She notes that elite clergy "make a show" of modernity but ultimately "have no interest in true reform." Moreover, she notes, such figures "make a case for a peaceful Islam, ignoring the many passages inciting violence, such as those verses which command the death of apostates."

Hirsi Ali draws attention to the case of Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer who has defended women's rights in the Islamic world. After fleeing Bangladesh, Nasreen settled in India but there too Muslims pursued her and placed a 500,000 rupee bounty on her head. Then, for good measure, Nasreen was assaulted by Muslim militants in Hyderabad. "Where are the moderates?" Hirsi Ali asks. "Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these?"

For good measure, Hirsi Ali also brings attention to Muslim persecution of Christian minorities. "The portrayal of Muslims as victims or heroes is at best partially accurate. In recent years the violent oppression of Christian minorities has become the norm in Muslim-majority nations stretching from West Africa and the Middle East to South Asia and Oceania," she states. Over the past decade, she adds, politically correct constituencies have persuaded many to think of each and every instance of anti-Muslim discrimination as "Islamophobia." Yet "a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends," Hirsi Ali writes, "leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other."

Hirsi Ali points to exhibit A of Nigeria, a nation where Islamist radicals have sought to provoke tension against the country's Christian minority. Boko Haram (which literally translates as "Western education is sacrilege") Muslim rebels seek to establish Sharia in Nigeria, and the group has stated that it will kill all Christians in the country. Shouting "Allahu akbar," Boko Haram militants burn churches and employ everything from guns to machetes to gasoline bombs in their attacks. Recently, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a massive rush hour explosion which ripped through a bus station in Abuja, killing 75 people. Meanwhile, 234 girls are missing in the wake of an apparent Boko Haram attack on a local school.

Who Speaks for the Enlightenment?

On the surface at least, it seems like Hirsi Ali should be taking on her issues from a leftist perspective. Just how did she wind up on the right of all places? After leaving Africa, the campaigner worked with the Dutch Labor Party. After 9/11, however, she became an outspoken atheist and her controversial statements about immigrants, multi-culturalism and Islam led to a fall out with her party. Perversely, she then joined the right wing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, winning a seat in Parliament.

Over the years, notes Holland, Hirsi Ali has become a "poster girl" for aggressive atheism typified by the likes of Richard Dawkins. For Dawkins and the like, Hirsi Ali "is a living testament to the idea that rational liberal interventionists in the post-Enlightenment West have a moral duty to wage a new crusade against the Muslim world." Hirsi Ali sees herself as the true heir of the Enlightenment, which sought to rid itself of the stifling influence of the clergy and superstition. Other commentators meanwhile refer to Hirsi Ali as a "liberal jihadist" or an "enlightenment fundamentalist."

Holland worries that Hirsi Ali's criticism of Islam has the potential to unite "the Islamophobic right with an increasingly vocal secular movement." If recent events are any indication, Holland may be correct in voicing concern: during the recent controversy at Brandeis, president of American Atheists David Silverman defended Hirsi Ali. "Brandeis has caved to religious intolerance masquerading as political correctness and uninvited a valuable voice in the discussion of religion in public life," Silverman declared.

Islam and Feminism

Meanwhile, Hirsi Ali has thrown down the gauntlet when it comes to feminism. "Many left-leaning thinkers," she says, "focus only on socioeconomic variables to explain the terrible plight of most non-Western women." However, she adds, "Those who are passionate egalitarians need to broaden their agenda from social and economic issues and find the courage to identify the cultural factors that often cause all sorts of poverty -- not just material poverty but also intellectual poverty, cultural poverty and moral poverty."

Western feminists, she adds, have accomplished much and today women can pursue their own destinies. Yet there's a "price" to pay for this victory, which Hirsi Ali calls "cultural relativism" or the inability to empathize with women in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Feminists, she argues, ought to be wary of the celebration of cultural diversity "unless they want to inadvertently celebrate polygamy, child-marriage, marital rape, honor killings, wife beating, selective abortion of female fetuses and other traditions that are now legitimized in the name of culture." "The best we can hope for," she adds, "is a neo-feminism that reminds women in the West of the initial phases of their liberation movement. Those phases not only highlighted the subjugation of women, they set out to dismantle the foundations of their cages."

Splitting the Left?

Should the left be concerned about people like Hirsi Ali, a rather questionable spokesperson for liberal values? The campaigner has written that "In certain countries, 'left wing,' secular liberals have stimulated my critical thinking and that of other Muslims, but these same liberals in Western politics have the strange habit of blaming themselves for the ills of the world, while seeing the rest of the world as victims." In the long run, Holland is concerned that the power of Hirsi Ali's arguments for western feminists and others on the left may be "undeniable."

Journalist Bill Weinberg raises significant questions about Hirsi Ali, noting for example that her political allies "Cheney and the neocons may oppose the Islamists, but they are no friends of feminism, gay rights and civil liberties. As should be painfully obvious." Nevertheless, he adds, the campaigner "deserves creds" for "asking tough questions about the Muslim establishment." Why, he asks, is the anti-imperialist left so reluctant to address compromisers within moderate Islam?

And meanwhile, what of the liberal Nation magazine which has long addressed feminism and the left? In a column, Katha Pollitt notes that her publication has given Hirsi Ali some bad press. On the other hand, she writes, Hirsi Ali is a secular atheist with a harrowing personal story. "I'm as dismayed as anyone by Hirsi Ali's rightward trajectory," Pollitt remarks, "but I admire her all the same. Maybe we leftists and feminists need to think a bit more self-critically about how the AEI... managed to win over this bold and complex crusader for women's rights."

From Hirsi Ali to Malala

Needless to say, Pollitt never says what the next "self-critical" step ought to be for the international left. Perhaps, Weinberg notes, progressives should look elsewhere within the Muslim world where other courageous young women are fighting against Islamic fundamentalism. Take, for example, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who stood up for education and nearly paid with her life when she was later shot by a Taliban assailant.

Though the Taliban has accused Malala of being an agent of western political interests, Pakistani blogs show the young girl speaking at a leftist political event of the International Marxist Tendency. What is more, Malala personally took Obama to task on drone strikes during a private meeting, and has received support from Pakistani secularists.

Weinberg adds that the left has precious little to say about Malala, noting "If only progressives in the West could realize it, Malala is ours -- not the neocons', not the neoliberals', not Hillary Clinton's. She is our ally, and has displayed a heroism that puts the best of us to shame. We have a responsibility to loan her vigorous support -- not only because basic human solidarity mandates it, but also because shrewd tactics demand it. We cannot allow her legacy to be usurped by the war-mongers."

To be sure, leftists don't want to encourage the political right which has its own opportunistic and underhanded agenda in the Middle East. Yet, by sweeping controversy under the rug and not engaging in key debates, the left opens itself up for attack. Perhaps, instead of wringing their hands over what to do about Hirsi Ali and her growing notoriety, leftists should do more to identify and make common cause with natural allies in the Islamic world.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.