Last week, liberal fascists claimed another victim, as students at Brandeis University compelled their school to withdraw an offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali was born in Somalia, where at the age of five, she was forced to undergo female genital mutilation. She was granted asylum from the Somalian Civil War by the Netherlands in 1994. She later served in the Dutch parliament, until revelations that she’d actually been residing in Kenya at the time of her asylum request, forced her resignation.
She wrote the screenplay to Theo Van Gogh’s 2004 film Submission, which juxtaposed passages from the Qu’ran with images of an Islamic woman being abused. The film got Van Gogh assassinated by a Muslim extremist, and sent Ali into hiding. She now runs a foundation that aims to protect American Muslim women from abuse by their religion’s traditionalists.
The change.org petition that cost Ali her honorary Bachelors, acknowledges the legitimacy of her grievances with Islam, but condemns the “hate speech” through which she expresses them. The petition quotes her as saying:
“Violence is inherent in Islam – it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder…the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it’s not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself….”
Ali told Reason Magazine in 2007, “There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.”
Ironically, Bill Kristol’s piece accusing Brandeis of applying an outrageous double-standard that allows for hateful criticism of Judaism, but not a fair critique of Islam, exemplifies the very opposite hypocrisy. Kristol notes that the University bestowed an honorary degree on playwright Tony Kushner in 2006, despite the fact that Kushner had “called the creation of Israel as a Jewish state ‘a mistake” and attacked Israel for ethnic cleansing.” He also noted that Brandeis had seen fit to provide Desmond Tutu an honorary degree, despite Tutu having characterized the “Jewish lobby,” as “too powerful.”
Tellingly, Kristol does not excerpt and explicitly defend Ali’s comments. Likely because placing Ali’s condemnations of Islam as “a nihilistic death cult”, next to Kushner and Tutu’s critiques of AIPAC and Zionism, would reveal how categorically different the two sets of statements are.
Yet it’s not just Bill “I grind Iraqi bones to make my bread” Kristol who obscures the violence of Ali’s rhetoric by equating it to Kushner’s. Even the sporadically reasonable Andrew Sullivan complains of Brandeis’ supposed hypocrisy:
“Kushner was challenging his own ethnic group just as powerfully as Hirsi Ali is challenging her own. But here is the question: why is he lionized and Hirsi Ali disinvited? Why are provocative ideas on the “right” less legitimate than provocative ideas on the left?”
If our national discourse didn’t privilege the voices of religious Jews and Christians, while vilifying those of Muslims, it would be obvious that no political bias is required to distinguish Kushner’s statements from Ali’s.
Whatever one’s opinion on the necessity of a Jewish state, it is a fact that a portion of the Jewish community has been opposed to state Zionism for centuries. Whatever one’s feelings on Israel, it is a fact, confirmed even in the work of Zionist historians like Benny Morris, that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes by Israeli soldiers in 1948. Thus Kushner’s statements align him with a minority position in the Jewish community, and assert an historical fact. Ali’s statements assert that no form of Islam deserves our tolerance, because inherent to the religion is a violent fascism that must be defeated. Far from equivalent, the statements are hardly comparable.
Ali argues that Islam is incompatible with pluralistic democracy, because inherent to its ideology is an absolute “submission to god’s will.” And it is certainly possible to observe the pathology of the faith’s emphasis on submission to authority, in the acts of misogyny and violence perpetrated by its most extreme adherents. But it seems to me as simple to argue that Judaism is fundamentally immoderate, because inherent to the religion is an idea of ethnic supremacy, its ideology built around the notion of a “chosen people,” an in-group defined by matrilineal bloodline, endowed by God with a higher moral status than all others. One could confirm such a view by pointing to the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, or that of African migrants seeking refuge in Israel.
This claim is, of course, absurd. Great numbers of Jews find in their faith an obligation to honor the moral worth of all human beings. The same is true for a great many Muslims.
I am not arguing that in our present moment, fundamentalist Judaism presents as great a threat to egalitarian democracy as fundamentalist Islam. Rather, I submit that every ideology, whether religious or secular, is capable of inspiring violence and oppression. It’s plausible that Islam is especially vulnerable to such interpretation, but not that it is uniquely so.
In her past rhetoric, Ali exceptionalizes Islam, defining the faith by the violence it inspires. According to the petition, when an interviewer noted the role Christianity had played in bringing about social progress, exemplified by its role in the American abolition movement, and then asked Ali whether Islam could ever inspire such change, she replied, “Only if Islam is defeated.” When asked if she meant radical Islam, she responded, “No. Islam, period.”
By defining every sect of the world’s most popular faith as an enemy of progress that must be destroyed, Ali expresses precisely the sort of violent, absolutist ideology she seeks to condemn.
In his book “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” Chris Hedges writes, “The danger is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion. It is the human heart—the capacity we all have for evil. All human institutions with a lust for power give their utopian visions divine sanction.”
Hedges’ book warns that in positing religion as the one true source of human atrocity, new atheists like Sam Harris “externalize evil.” And once evil is no longer understood as a tendency inside all of us, which must be stifled through scrupulous self-reflection, it becomes a quality peculiar to them, whom we must destroy by any means. This externalization of evil is what allowed Harris to defend torture as a tool for the protection of human rights, and Hitchens to defend the illegal invasion of Iraq as a way of protecting a liberal world order.
Ali’s rhetoric articulates the logic that allows our government to routinely violate the civil rights of its Muslim citizens, and to name every brown boy killed in a drone strike an enemy combatant. She argues that because some of the Qu’ran’s rhetoric legitimates violence, everything associated with the book is poisoned. It seems only fair then for her opponents to apply the same logic to Ali herself. Because when neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and John Podhertz defend Ali, they aren’t defending the prerogative to call a violent ideology what it is. They are defending the sanctity of their own jihad.