True progressives really should get around to constructing a Doric-columned Hall of Shame to memorialize, for all to revile, the imbecilities, curios of casual hypocrisy, and artifacts of outright intellectual and moral treason the benighted diehards of the regressive left choose to display as a matter of pride these days when the subject is Islam and former Muslims, especially former female Muslims. The contrast between the lofty liberal ideals espoused by such leftists and their sordid output should concern us all, though, of whatever political persuasion. They have largely succeeded in squelching forthright, reasoned discourse about Islam and Islamist terrorism, which jeopardizes national security and the lives of some of some of the most vulnerable, including women who have left the faith, or who, rightfully or wrongfully, are accused of disrespecting it. For in de facto alliance with regressive leftist denouncers of “Islamophobia” — a semantic swindle of a noun equating criticism of Islam with bigotry against Muslims as people — stand assassins, as the late Elsa Cayat of Charlie Hebdo, the late Farkhunda Malikzada of Afghanistan, and countless victims of honor killings would attest, were they still alive.
That this is no laughing matter has not stopped regressive leftists from doing their utmost to look ridiculous, if in a sinister sort of way. In attempting to discourage criticism of Islam — a faith they mostly do not profess — they de facto defend the right of one group of humans to oppress another group on the basis of their religion. Their talent for tragicomic perfidy shines through most clearly in their prodigious efforts to take down one woman in particular — a woman whose life story, by any rational, humane standards, should win encomia from, and the admiration of, decent people everywhere — the courageous, Somali-born author, human rights activist, and public intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In the space of four decades, Hirsi Ali suffered genital mutilation, donned the hijab and joined the Muslim Brotherhood, escaped a forced marriage and fled Africa for Holland, mastered Dutch and earned a graduate degree from a prestigious university, abandoned Islam after the 9/11 attacks awakened her intellectually, got herself elected to the Dutch parliament, publicly denounced the abuse suffered by immigrant Muslim women in Holland, wrote the screenplay for a short film about misogyny in Islam (for which its director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamist in Amsterdam and for which his killer condemned her to death as well), found herself (following controversy over her asylum status) immigrating, in 2006, to the United States (where she was welcomed by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick as a “very courageous and impressive woman”), and established a foundation to protect women from honor killings and aid women’s development globally. She is now a fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Death threats have shadowed her since 2002, when she first started speaking out against Islam, and even today she requires round-the-clock armed guards. Yet, undaunted, she continues to write, publish, and make her voice heard about the faith she once professed so fervently, but left for atheism and the values of the Enlightenment.
During a recent Skype conversation, she summed up those values for me as being legal equality between the sexes, the right of a woman to be master of her own body, and the right of gays to marry — “classical liberal positions” in her words. She is, however, “very hawkish on national security” — especially where Islamism is concerned. “I do not believe that the appeasement of evil is the answer to that.”
The circumstances surrounding how Hirsi Ali won asylum in Holland do not really merit discussion here, for they bear no relation to her stance on Islam, the matter that has outraged regressive leftists and endangered her life. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Hirsi Ali herself had already admitted, in 2002 (during a background check conducted by her political party as she was entering parliament, in an interview with the magazine HP/De Tijd, and elsewhere), to providing false information to Dutch immigration authorities when she arrived in the country a decade earlier. The 2006 controversy over her asylum application (which brought down the government, and prompted her to quit parliament and depart for the United States) resulted from a purported exposé (actually, a tabloid-style hit job) aired on the Dutch television show, Zembla. The information “exposed” was already in the public domain. What changed were the politics of the moment.
Make no mistake about it, though: for rejecting a seventh-century ideology ordaining second-class status for women, death for apostates and gays, inferior temporal status and damnation in the hereafter for non-Muslims, and sanctioning the genital mutilation of which she herself is a victim, turncoat pseudo-liberals have striven to discredit Hirsi Ali as an extremist hate-monger, and even slur her racially. Their body of work — or at least representative samples of it — is my subject here today.
Those in line for honorable mention in any proposed Ayaan Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame include well-meaning journalists who really should know better, chief among them, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof often covers violence against women in developing countries, so you would expect him to deal fairly with Hirsi Ali. To an extent, he does. In reviewing her 2010 memoir Nomad, he calls her “clearly intellectually brilliant,” acknowledges that “her critique of Islam was leading to death threats,” and quotes her refusal (thought out but not enunciated) to her mother’s plea to return to Islam: “Allah is full of misogyny . . . I am feeble in faith because Allah has reduced you to a terrified old woman”). He even admits that “the repression of women [in Islamic countries], the persecution complexes, the lack of democracy, the volatility, the anti-Semitism, the difficulties modernizing, the disproportionate role in terrorism — those are all real.”
Nevertheless, he upbraids Hirsi Ali for denouncing “Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry,” and for condemning “a variegated faith that has more than one billion adherents.” His reportorial globetrotting, he says, has shown him that “To those of us who have lived and traveled widely in Africa and Asia, descriptions of Islam often seem true but incomplete.” There is more in his review to object to, but the last quote instantiates the problem with his reprimand. Hirsi Ali criticizes the ideology of Islam and the injustices to which it leads (and of which she herself is a victim), matters about which she knows first-hand as a former Muslim born female and brought up in a Muslim country. Kristof can travel as a journalist all he likes in the Muslim world, but his gender will assure him of an “Islamic” experience entirely different from that of Hirsi Ali, whose body will ever bear the scars to prove it.
The grander problem with Kristof’s criticism of Hirsi Ali lies in his confusion of Islamic doctrine (as evidenced in the Quran and the Hadith) with its often only nominal observance in Muslim countries. Obviously, not all Muslims implement the faith’s more retrograde tenets, which is what he implies by referring to Islam as “variegated.” However, if, say, (moderate) Morocco is not (Wahhabi) Saudi Arabia, an 83-percent majority of Moroccans nevertheless favor Sharia and hold a host of other highly illiberal beliefs originating in the Islamic canon. Lest we forget: Islam derives from the Quran, a sacrosanct text that, along with the Hadith, “radicals” may perpetually mine for commandments to commit acts of violence to defend and spread the faith. How can Kristof, a liberal, reproach Hirsi Ali for “stridency” in objecting to the troublesome (illiberal) spirit and contents of this canon, and its manifestations in behavior, which especially victimize women? From what sort of moral blindness does he suffer?
Kristof’s review of Nomad should be reprinted in full (perhaps laser-etched in obsidian) at the entrance to the Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame. A footnote might accompany the text warning progressive journalists to privilege the truth and those, like Hirsi Ali, fighting for it. Islam, after all, is no truer than the other two Abrahamic creeds.
The horrid roster of punishments laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy of the Old Testament and Jesus’ frequent rants about hellfire the New demonstrate that ghastly pronouncements are hardly unique to the scriptures of Islam. But, after much bloodshed, oppression, and warfare, both Judaism and Christianity have undergone reforms and reformation and have largely been forced out of the halls of earthly power in favor of secular governance — an achievement of the Enlightenment we should cherish and guard with the utmost vigilance. Such is not the case, for the most part, with Islam.
Some are working to reform it, though. Hirsi Ali has tackled the project herself in her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. (More on this below.) Unfortunately, Heretic’s publication leads to the comedian Jon Stewart’s (entirely dis-)honorable mention in the antechamber of the Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame. Stewart, who gushed over Reza Aslan (a high-end peddler of Islam-related untruths), invited Hirsi Ali on his show only to turn Torquemada on her, subjecting her to an Inquisitional interrogation I have already described at length here. Without repeating myself, I’ll note that in response to his opening question about why Islam needs to change, Hirsi Ali answers “Because unfortunately too many people are dying in the name of Islam. Too many women live under oppression. Too many Jews are being demonized for it. Too many gays are being killed in the name of Islam. Too many Christians are being killed in the name of Islam.”
She could have offered him no more persuasive, succinct justification for writing Heretic. Stewart’s subsequent line of questioning — the above-mentioned Torquemadan grilling — involved his deliberate confounding of her plan to make Islam more moderate with both the (fundamentalist) Protestant Reformation and the violent, back-to-basics Islam of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and culminated in his utterance of a breathtaking, Islam-exculpatory banality: “The root of the people is people, not the text” [of the Quran].
Hirsi Ali told me she was “disappointed” and “saddened” by Stewart’s regressive interrogation, if not surprised. She could hardly have been more charitable.
Now onwards to the Hall of Shame proper. Onetime Guardian Middle East editor Brian Whitaker deserves representation therein, if only for his nasty, offhanded dissing, in his 2006 article False Prophets, of Hirsi Ali (and Irshad Manji, another woman reformer of Islam) as “native informants,” or, as “Issandr el-Amrani of the Arabist blog” calls “them, ‘courageous reformist Arab personalities (CRAP).’” With such puerile verbiage he forfeits any pretense of objectivity, and his piece goes downhill from there.
After the racist insult and schoolboy taunt, Whitaker informs us that to avoid “serious damage to [his] blood pressure” he has heretofore not written of Hirsi Ali (and Manji). He will risk a minor bout of hypertension, though, by telling us that “Editors and TV producers love ’em [Hirsi Ali and Manji]. Their strident views make for entertaining television and, of course, the things they say are generally what the US public wants to hear,” despite being so “simplistic and confrontational and so insensitive towards the culture they are trying to change that it does more harm than good.” The result: “their credibility is virtually zero” among Muslims. (He justifies the latter claim with no quote, no link, no source.) But in any case, they are just in it for the money: “Being a CRAP is quite lucrative — Manji reportedly charges $7,500 (£4,000) an hour for giving a talk.” He thereby impugns the motives and character of both Hirsi Ali and Manji (while referring only to one of them) and announces (“reportedly”) his failure to do minimal due journalistic diligence. Remuneration, though, has nothing to do with the soundness of their arguments, which he never addresses.
Any Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame would have to include Nathan Lean. The author of a book on “Islamophobia,” Lean directs research at the “Pluralism, Diversity and Islamophobia” project at the Saudi-financed Prince Alaweed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University — a telling job description that appears nowhere in the biographical note beneath his 2014 Huffington Post blog entry about Hirsi Ali. Lean used her invitation (and disinvitation) to Brandeis University to receive an honorary degree at its 2014 commencement ceremony as an excuse to accuse her of “crossing the line” into “extremism,” though of exactly what sort he does not say.
About the Brandeis scandal. A communiqué from the university announced the decision to cancel plans to award Hirsi Ali a degree. It called her a “compelling public figure,” but added that “certain of her past statements . . . are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Brandeis discovered this unpardonable inconsistency only post factum, via a change.org petition (created by a certain Sarah Fahmy) attacking her for “pure hate speech” against Islam, and “extreme Islamophobic beliefs” which are “hurtful to the Muslim students and the Brandeis community who stands for social justice.” (Hurtful. Brandeis might have asked Hirsi Ali, an FMG survivor, what is truly hurtful).
Which “core values” was Brandeis shielding from Hirsi Ali’s malignant presence? The communiqué doesn’t say, but respect for free speech, to say nothing of courage, must not, obviously, be among them.
Lean seconds as the “right decision” Brandeis’ betrayal of its mandate to foster critical thought by linking to a 2007 Reason interview in which Hirsi Ali takes Western governments to task for their waffling reaction to the totalitarian message at the core of Islam, a faith proclaiming jurisdiction over all humanity and recognizing no boundaries between the political and the religious. Lean describes her as being “for defeating Islam (not extremists, but the entire faith) by military means if necessary,” which comes “dangerously close to advocating genocide.” Furthermore, he accuses her of obliquely vindicating Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik and coming “dangerously close to justifying” his slaughter of seventy-seven people. He believes it is “unclear how Hirsi Ali can be an advocate for Muslim women while simultaneously calling for the outright defeat of their faith.” He denies she is a “genuine” critic of Islam, calling her, rather, “neither a ‘critic of Islam’ nor a true advocate of women’s rights.” The potential effect of her speech, he contends, is to “fuel violence towards veiled Muslim woman” in the United States and Europe.
Lean’s case against Hirsi Ali is a stew of misrepresentation and nonsense. Hirsi Ali has publicly backed military operations against Islamists and thus advocates policies with, like it or not, bipartisan support. In her Reason interview she calls for defeating Islam “in all forms,” including militarily, but within the context, domestically, of a struggle (obviously non-military) against the imposition of the faith in the public sphere. “It’s about power, and Islam is a political movement . . . . the Christian powers have accepted the separation of the worldly and the divine. We don’t interfere with their religion, and they don’t interfere with the state. That hasn’t happened in Islam.” This is a truism, not a summons to genocide. No honest critic could interpret anything she says here as “genocidal.” Nor has she in any way supported Breivik’s atrocity: listen to her speech for yourselves, and you will hear her recounting his stated motives, not endorsing them, all the while arguing for free speech about Islam as an antidote to “the siren song of jihad, of martyrdom, of Sharia law, of hatred and self-exclusion” for which far too many people, both in Muslim immigrant communities in Europe and elsewhere, are falling. She is waging her own battle, though, in the realm of ideas — hence her dogged insistence on the primacy of free speech about Islam.
Free speech about religion enjoys constitutional protection, as does the freedom to profess the religion of one’s choosing or to profess no religion at all. Hirsi Ali, born into Islam, has every right to address female members of her former religious community, and advocate for them by urging the abandonment of the faith that, inter alia, generally values men more than women in matters of inheritance, instructs husbands in wife-beating, sanctions the barbaric practice of FMG, and ordains the punishment of rape victims. There is no evidence that such free speech foments “violence against veiled women.” To support his last point, Lean cites a 2013 article (that shows no such link) in The Guardian about a study restricted to the United Kingdom. But check out the stats for the U.S.: as ever, by far the majority of religion-motivated hate crimes were anti-Jewish — four times more than hate crimes against Muslims. The Southern Poverty Law Center attributes this to ISIS terrorist attacks, not to critiques of Islam by Hirsi Ali or anyone else.
Remember: Islam is not a race, but a self-identifying ideological community whose members may quit the fold at any time, especially when exposed to critical speech about their beliefs. Women who manage this often subject themselves to exclusion and even physical danger.
A comic-relief side room might befit our Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame. In it, we could enshrine Australian-born CJ Werleman for his clumsy, bilious, yet altogether silly attempted takedown of Hirsi Ali, which he published in April 2015 in Middle East Eye. Popularly associated with a falsified video purporting to show Israeli soldiers torturing a Palestinian prisoner (in reality, all were Guatemalans) and with demonstrated instances of plagiarism in pieces he wrote for Salon and AlterNet, Werleman, an atheist, takes on “New Atheists” Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher, as well as Hirsi Ali, by assailing them with a barrage of innuendo, question-begging, and fatuous rhetorical flourishes entitled “Is New Atheism an anti-Muslim, white supremacy movement?” No surprise: for Werleman, “It’s become a pro-white supremacy movement. New Atheism is anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bigotry dressed up with a thin veneer of fancy sounding words.”
Space prohibits me from addressing more than a few of Werleman’s most flagrant nonsensicalities regarding Hirsi Ali. He allows that New Atheists can be “good people,” even, strangely, as they “not only espouse white supremacy but . . . also speak in a language that is every bit as crude and racist as fascist, neo-Nazi, movements.” (One wonders where he encounters these “good” white-supremacist fascists and neo-Nazis.) “Moreover, New Atheists enthusiastically, and often unintentionally, promote western imperialism, and any individual who supports an erroneous narrative (‘clash of civilisations’ is the theme of New Atheism) that, by design, attempts to justify western intervention in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia is, ergo ipso facto, a white supremacist.”
Werleman provides no links or quotes for this “ergo ipso facto” gobbledygook. In the next graph, he laments that Hirsi Ali “was the keynote speaker at the largest annual gathering of atheists – the American Atheists convention [in 2015], despite the fact both her fictitious biography and anti-Muslim bigotry are well documented.“ Documented by whom? By Werleman himself, it turns out, who links to another of his own Middle East Eye screeds. (Don’t let his drivel dissuade you from watching Hirsi Ali’s speech, though, about refusing to be silenced.)
All New Atheists in the United States know of Hirsi Ali, says Werleman. To launch his attack on her, he cites a Facebook post from a certain Sam Charles Hamad, a “journalist” who possesses “great expertise on the Middle East and US foreign policy,” yet who, nonetheless, appears to have published (at least on line) only one piece (of unremarkable, tu quoque content) for The Daily Beast. It would save the reader nothing to summarize the errors in Hamad’s jeremiad against Hirsi Ali, so here they are, classified according to genre and numbered for clarity: (1) racial denigration, (2) unsubstantiated assertion, (3) falsity, (4) begging the question, and (5) utter nonsense —
You’ll find that the vast majority of Ali’s fans are white males who hate Muslims  and, in her, have found a perfect little brown-skinned conduit for their bigotry [1, 2]. I’m not a racist or prejudiced, they can say as they spout racism and bigotry [2, 4]. I’m a big fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The fact that she’s a complete fraud [2, 4, 5] making a shitload of cash [2, 4] at the expense of these slobbering white bigots  would be rather funny if she also didn’t appeal to genuine fascists and demonise Muslims in such a fascistic and potentially dangerous manner [1, 2, 3, 4, 5].
Werleman strives to outdo even this doggerel balderdash by finishing with three lines, the sentences of which may simply be semantically inverted to make them truthful: “New Atheists are the secular equivalent of the Christian Right. They too must be overcome. A civil, pluralistic, secular society depends on it.”
Semantic inversion: “Atheists, who have existed since the time of the ancient Greeks and beyond, espouse no ideology comparable to any Abrahamic creed, but simply reject, for lack of evidence, belief in a deity or deities. They have a constitutional right to speak freely. Suppressing that right would destroy the basis for a civil, secular society and religious freedom for all, believers and nonbelievers alike.”
With comic relief behind us, we now turn to Hirsi Ali’s most ambitious and controversial (among — note the confluence — regressive leftists and Islamists alike) work, Heretic, a synopsis of which we need in order to scrutinize the Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame’s final exhibit. The title gets at the straits she finds herself in as a former Muslim addressing believers, for whom she is an religious outlaw, both for leaving Islam and for how she proposes modernizing it. (For convenience’s sake I will quote from her Wall Street Journal editorial covering the same subject.)
In Heretic, Hirsi Ali outlines a five-point solution that involves amending or doing away with the aspects of the faith that are its most troublesome yet also its most emblematic: Muhammad’s semi-divinity and the Quran’s putative status as “the literal word of God”; the valuing of life after death more than life itself (that is, the fixation on Paradise inspiring terrorist acts of martyrdom); Sharia (which has to be replaced with “evolving laws made by human beings”); the right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law (“There is no room in the modern world for religious police, vigilantes and politically empowered clerics”); and “the imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.”
Such revolutionary changes amount to a tall order, practically speaking, and would constitute blasphemy from a theological viewpoint. Hirsi Ali understands this: “I know that this argument will make many Muslims uncomfortable. Some are bound to be offended by my proposed amendments. Others will contend that I am not qualified to discuss these complex issues of theology and law. I am also afraid — genuinely afraid — that it will make a few Muslims even more eager to silence me.” (Emphasis mine.) A “few,” she says, not all. The “clear majority” of Muslims, though “loyal to the core creed,” are “not inclined to practice violence.” Her main point, as she told ABC, is that, “it is now time to look at and reform the religion of Islam so that we get to a place where we have peace. That is the message of this book.”
We now turn, finally, to what purports to be a serious effort to engage Hirsi Ali’s Heretic – an essay Carla Power wrote for TIME presumptuously entitled “What Ayaan Hirsi Ali Doesn’t Get About Islam” – that nevertheless offends reason and our perceptions of equity, and therefore deserves a place in the Hall of Shame. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her memoir If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran who has earned praise from Oprah, Power sets out to disqualify Hirsi Ali from tackling Islam, and betrays, in the process, an unseemly pro-faith bias one would not expect to find in a mainstream publication. The unintended result is to lead us to the crux of the debate progressives should be having about the faith, but are doing their best to avoid.
Power objects straightaway to Hirsi Ali’s proposal to strip the Quran and God’s messenger of their hallowed status as “unthinkable,” since “Muslims revere the Quran as the word of God, as revealed to their beloved Prophet Muhammed [sic] in 7th century Arabia.” Worse, this is “an evisceration of Islam’s fundamental principles, akin to taking a giant eraser to the bits about justice and liberty in the preamble to the American Constitution.” (The juxtaposition of a religion and the world’s first secular fundamental law is jarring.) For Power, moreover, Hirsi Ali’s plan is “not so much a proposal as an imperial decree, a tone-deaf declaration rather than an opening of a conversation.”
And that’s it: 205 words into a 786-word essay, Power shuts down the “conversation” and dispenses with Hirsi Ali (who is surely the only reason anyone would read her piece), and launches into happy talk about reformers already hard at work changing Islam. There is nothing more therein worth critiquing here, but this sample will serve to give you an idea of the faith-deranged twaddle that ensues:
Earlier this year, the conservative scholar Mohammad Akram Nadwi reversed his acceptance of child marriage – a practice generally allowed in medieval Islamic jurisprudence – after two of his female students told him of the ways they’d seen the practice ruin girls’ lives.
Well, hallelujahs and hosannas for Nadwi, a resident of the twenty-first century who has finally emerged from the Middle Ages!
Except, who is Nadwi? And who cares? The vast majority of Muslims favor sharia, not whatever version Nadwi or similar reformers come up with.
Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Apparently for Power, coming out against child marriage is progress, at least where Muslims are concerned. For what other religious group would we set standards so abysmally low? This is an insult to Muslims, who deserve to be addressed as equals, not condescended to.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Hirsi Ali “gets” a fact about Islam that Power either denies or disbelieves: just like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a man-made belief system concocted to explain the cosmos and our role in it and provide a means of controlling and exploiting human beings (especially women). Power may herself be a Muslim, but, at least in an ideal world, she should not expect any nonbeliever to grant her license to prattle on about divinity and holy texts without encountering rationalist resistance. We do not, however, live in an ideal world, as the regressive leftist attacks on Hirsi Ali, the almost universal reluctance to shy away from criticizing religion, and TIME’s decision to print Power’s jejune essay demonstrate.
We may now exit the Hirsi Ali Hall of Shame and take a breath of fresh air. So-called progressives who denigrate Hirsi Ali for criticizing a faith they themselves do not profess traduce reason and every ideal of the Enlightenment, to say nothing of common sense. Theirs is not a principled opposition, but, rather, either a stance based on confusion or a cowardly retreat from uncomfortable truths about absolutist Islamic doctrines engendering violence and oppression, a retreat made under cover provided by assassins — the very assassins who imperil Hirsi Ali. Most likely, it is both. When in doubt, always better to be on the side of those with guns.
“For me,” wrote Hirsi Ali, “there seemed no way to reconcile my faith with the freedoms I came to the West to embrace. I left the faith, despite the threat of the death penalty prescribed by Shariah for apostates. Future generations of Muslims deserve better, safer options. Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.”
Hers are progressive aspirations, ones all who believe in freedom of religion (and non-religion) should support. To those who mouth liberal shibboleths but assail Hirsi Ali belongs the shame.
Perhaps no hall is big enough to encompass it.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, Topless Jihadis — Inside Femen, the World’s Most Provocative Activist Group, is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.