Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born U.S. citizen who is known -- among other things -- for her radical views on Islam. Her supporters consider her a leading critic, while many others believe she is guilty of Islamophobia and bigotry. I think she is a perfect case to educate people on the difference between the two.
Hirsi Ali immigrated to the Netherlands in 1992, claiming to escape a forced marriage. There, she rose to become a member of the House of Representatives in 2003. However, she was forced to resign from the Dutch parliament when her biographical details were challenged and publicly exposed as a chain of fabrications. She admitted to the lies and decided to move to the U.S. Just recently, Hirsi Ali was in the news again when Brandeis University, which had earlier nominated Hirsi for a honorary degree, decided she was not a fit candidate for the honor. "We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values," the university said. It added, "For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of Ms Hirsi Ali's record of anti-Islam statements."
There is certainly all freedom to hold a different opinion within Islam or about Islam. Intellectual criticism leads to dialogue, which in turn leads to better understanding. However, there is a difference between critiquing Islam and spreading irrational fear of Muslims. There is a difference between intellectually commenting on a religion and inciting hatred of its adherents.
For better or worse, Muslims are not one unified community. As such, attributing the beliefs and acts of one extreme minority group -- like the Taliban -- to the whole community of Muslims worldwide is dishonest. Hirsi Ali is guilty of exactly this. She disregards the interpretation and practice of Islam by moderate Muslims and insists the interpretation of the terrorists is the only correct one. She contends that Islam is "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death" that must be defeated at all costs.
In an interview with Reason magazine, this became clear when the interviewer asked if by "defeating Islam" Hirsi Ali meant, "defeating radical Islam?" She replied: "No. Islam, period." When the reporter asked her to further elaborate what she meant by "defeat Islam" she replied: "I think that we are at war with Islam. And there is no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways... 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."
The interviewer then asked, "Militarily?" Hirsi Ali replied: "In all forms."
Hirsi Ali's defenders point out that she did not refer to militarily attacking Muslims but attacking Islam -- that it is kosher to attack an ideology as long as people were not affected. When pressed to explain how Islam would be "militarily crushed," if not by military action on Muslims, they finally conceded that Hirsi Ali was in fact speaking of radical Muslims. This is all good, except that the only person who does not make that important distinction between radical Islam and moderate Islam is Hirsi Ali herself when she claims the threat is not from radical Islam but from "Islam, period."
This dangerous xenophobia against Muslims is not surprising. Hirsi Ali has been stroking an irrational fear of Muslims amongst western audiences for the last many years. This has led to increased intolerance, even violence. Andres Breivik -- who went on a killing spree in Norway in 2011 -- praised Hirsi Ali in his manifesto, stating that she deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. Hirsi has supported anti-immigration policies that target Muslim communities in the west. She has also suggested that the U.S. constitution be amended to restrict Muslim civil liberties. She has called for closure of all Muslim day schools in the U.S.
Imagine Hirsi Ali using the exact same words for Judaism, i.e., that Judaism is "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death", which must be militarily crushed. Imagine her advocating the closure of all Jewish day schools in the U.S. Imagine her saying the same things about any other religion or philosophy.
I decided to carry out an experiment to see if Hirsi's defenders were indeed right and there was nothing wrong in saying what she did. I put "atheism must be crushed in all forms, including militarily" as my Facebook status. Reactions came in fast and I was labelled "against the spirit of secularism," "sad soul," "intolerant and insane," "no different from the Taliban," etc.
I agree. Hirsi is not very different from the radical extremists she ought to be really targetting. She gives them credibility by claiming their version of Islam is the only correct one and others, like me, are "bad Muslims." Like the Taliban, Hirsi is rigid in her views and is judgmental. Like them, she speaks to curtail the civil liberties of fellow citizens and inspires intolerance and violence. We must not encourage such behavior with honorary degrees. Her bigotry must be condemned in all forms -- except militarily.
This post was originally published in Pakistan's The Daily Times.