On Ayaan Hirsi Ali, atheists, and free speech

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2006.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2006. Photo by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Controversy over Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s rescinded honorary doctorate continues, with many framing it as an unforgivable insult to a prominent women’s rights activist. Sarah Jones says the reality is a bit more complicated.

  • James W

    Well-argued and reasonable — thank you for this important perspective.

  • Eshto

    Couple of things.

    1. Yes some of her views seem problematic. I won’t fault any of my friends who vehemently disagree with her, because they’ve articulated their arguments quite well and I see their point.

    2. Then again, the university should have known this already before even extending the honor. Have they not heard of google? It’s not like Ali’s career and views are difficult to assess.

    3. I find plenty of views by other atheists to be incredibly hateful, but I note that when I question those, I get shouted down. These especially include ideas coming from the drama blogger contingent. I’ve read some pretty horrifying things by so-called liberals, including smear campaigns against people they have personal grudges against, and yes, sexism and homophobia. Not to mention all the horrendous things routinely written about religious people. Yet those atheists still speak at conventions and deflect criticism by accusing everyone who disagrees with them of being bigots and trolls.

    Question everything, right?

  • I’m sorry to read of this. Ayaan Hirsi Ali appeared in Oklahoma a few years ago and I admired her bravery. I would say this further’s Chris Hitchen’s book title, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

  • Eshto, I agree. Is Brandeis, or was it, that clueless? And, if you’re talking about the “SJW” types, maybe Brandeis can give Rebecca Watson an honorary degree?

  • Ibrahim

    Agree with the author and the article.

    In my earlier days as an atheist, I used to mock the quantity of simpletons on the religious fundamentalist sides. Sadly, as the atheist crowd grows, it too has developed a a segment with a herd mentality that shouts opinions without processing the facts.

    I’m an atheist. I enjoy debates and critiques of religion. I understand the need to speak up against fundmentalism. I defend the rights of any critic of Islam, and any other religion, to voice their objections without any kind of censorship.

    What Ayaan Hirsi Ali does is quite beyond that. She’s explicitly stated she believes in a need for a war against Islam, categorically. When asked if that included militarily, she simply replied “using all available means”. She’s supported politicians who’ve called for a ban on the Quran. She’s supported policies against immigration of Muslims. She said that there are no moderate Muslims, and that any Muslim who wasn’t violent wasn’t actually a Muslim at all. She joined a think tank that advised the US government to escalate the war in Iraq. Her hatred isn’t just for the faith, it’s for its people. Her opposition isn’t to individuals who take faith to the extreme, but any adherent of the faith at all. If someone held precisely the same views on Jewish people, attachment of the label “anti-semite” would be a no-brainer.

    I may not be religious, but many of my friends and family are. None of them have done anything to deserve the policies she supports against them. None of them deserve her judgements against them. The university was right to reconsider their honor to her, on further examination of what she stands for.

    I’m a bit disheartened by the support she’s gotten during this controversy from the likes of Dawkins and Harris. I had thought better of them. I had wrongfully believed that a community of people freed from the shackles of religion would have more regard for critical examination and understanding. That they’d have better odds of being enlightened. Too many have proven that stepping out of faith doesn’t mean that at all.

  • Chas Stewart

    Can you link to examples of Muslims using the precepts of Islam to advocate for LGBTQ rights?

  • Miles

    When the extremist wing outweighs the progressive wing by several orders of magnitude (as is the case with Islam) a smattering of liberals doesn’t make criticism of the ideology as a whole unjustified. There were probably “progressive” Nazis and KKK members, but nobody thinks twice about making generalizations about those organizations, and Islam is a far more intolerant and hostile ideology than either of them. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of Muslims who manage to cobble together a more progressive, though heavily cherrypicked, version of Islam, but 1) they are far outnumbered by the ones who don’t ignore all the awful parts of the religion, and 2) that doesn’t change the fact that the Qur’an and hadith are still overflowing with barbarism, xenophobia, misogyny, ignorance, etc.

  • S.Gugg

    About the golden age of Islam. It is interesting that this happened just after the Muslims invaded, ransack and stole everything they could find in India. The Arabic numbers should actually be called Indian numbers. ‘’Islam destroyed ancient Universities of India’’ on you tube gives a good explication.
    Liberating Islamic woman may be difficult it seems many of them have ‘’Stockholm Syndrome’’

  • Ibrahim

    This is a severely unintelligent comment. The KKK and the Nazi parties are organizations based on fixed positions on the issues they stand for. To say Islam is “far more intolerant” than the KKK is an absurd hyperbole that could only be agreed by the pool of similarly undereducated simpletons.

    The worst bits of Islam that the anti-Islam folk bemoan, are the bits it inherits from the Bible. Islam is actually liberal compared to the Bible. They’re all fictional of course. Point is, Muslims can “cobble together” a modern, liberal grasp of their faith just as easily as Jews and Christians can. And the vast majority do.

  • Jim Heller

    This article is ridiculous, uninformed, PC crap. Islam isn’t so diverse. There isn’t a single school of Shia or Sunni Islam that doesn’t condemn apostates and blasphemers to death or reject the promise of paradise for the martyr who does in jihad. In other words, death cult. Plain and simple. That doesn’t mean that all Muslims accept the the mandate Muhammad clearly imposes on believers – to subjugate the world, either forcing infidels to convert or live subdued, servile lives of second class “dhimmitude”. But that’s what Islam calls for. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has the courage to risk her life to tell the truth that you aren’t brave enough to even learn about.

  • Ibrahim

    The golden age of Islam usually refers to the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. This was around 1250 AD. India had nothing to do with it.

    There’s truth to the Islamic empires using the wealth and knowledge taken from conquest, and developing on them. This is just as true as how Europe is the power it is entirely because of its empires and colonies. Most historians would argue that the British rule over India was far more cruel and exploitative than the Mughal empire.

    A bit hypocritical to bemoan Islamic rule in India and ignore how much worse Christians have done throughout history. Nothing in Islamic history compares to what the Spanish did in the Indies.

  • Miles

    “To say Islam is “far more intolerant” than the KKK is an -accurate assessment- that could only be agreed by the pool of -people able to read an opinion poll taken in a Muslim majority country and/or a newspaper-”


    “The worst bits of Islam that the anti-Islam folk bemoan, are the bits it inherits from the Bible” — on that, we fully agree. The Old Testament is without a doubt the most barbarous book ever written. That said, you aren’t going to find a Jewish or Christian majority country that favours stoning people for adultery or working on a Sunday. Even Christian fundamentalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews ignore the really nasty parts of Mosaic Law, whereas all the worst aspects of Sharia are still engrained in the legal codes of many Muslim countries, and are still popular with their inhabitants. There is really no non-Muslim equivalent to a Saudi Arabia or an Iran in terms of rampant theocracy. Then there’s the small fact that Christians gave up on crusades centuries ago, while LARGE numbers of Muslims either agree with or wage jihad.



  • L.B. Pearson

    I can appreciate what the author of this piece is trying to say – Support the ability to broadcast a message, but denounce the message if you don’t agree with it.

    I agree wholeheartedly – this is what we call Freedom of Expression and Speech – you are entitled to it and so is AHA. Your arguments will stand or fall based on their merits.

    However what I get out of this article is more of an understanding about the author than about AHA. It seems that the author is using her limited experience in North America to formulate her opinion than what is actually happening in societies where the Islamic population rises above a “cringing minority” level (as so stated by Christopher Hitchens. His words, not mine).
    I would challenge the author to travel to the East London Mosque and live in the surrounding neighborhoods to witness first hand what an Islamic culture that does not integrate with western society looks like. I challenge the author to try to live through a Sharia counsel decision on why its OK that your husband beats you and your kids – all prophetically announced to be OK in the Qur’an itself.

    A decent society is measured on how well it treats its minorities – All Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Christians etc. etc. deserve exactly the same HUMAN rights. When someone like AHA has lived through the horrors of what Islamism brings and is outspoken against it to the degree she does, it would be hard for someone like the author of this piece to completely understand what she’s lived through.

  • real horrorshow

    Nonsense, the imperial nations of Europe did not become powerful by acquiring empires, they acquired empires by being powerful. Scientifically and technologically powerful.

    Also, it is not true that “most historians would argue that the British rule over India was far more cruel and exploitative than the Mughal empire.” A few, modern revisionists make claims like that, but they don’t stand up to analysis.

    As George Orwell (an anti-imperialist) pointed out, the British Empire ruled “a quarter of the world’s surface [with] fewer armed men than would be thought necessary by a small Balkan state”. If you’re going to be cruel and exploitative, you need more force than that.

    I’d refer you to V.S. Naipaul’s views on the effect of British rule in India too.

  • Mark Edwards

    I think there is a big point being missed here – freedom of speech is not guaranteed anywhere and anytime for everyone. It is a guarantee that the government will not prohibit the free expression of ideas and opinions. Private and non-governmental organizations are not required or constrained by such laws. This is not a freedom of speech issue – apart from any academic institution’s stated value of protecting the free and open exchange of ideas. There is a big difference between the two. Brandeis was in fact, either negligent or incompetent in extending this honor initially. But to retract it for the reasons stated is not unreasonable.

  • real horrorshow

    “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.” – Noam Chomsky.

    Of course this is a freedom of speech issue. Muslim groups on the campus don’t like what Hirsi Ali has to say, so they don’t want her to come there and say it.
    Western and especially American academia is full of hypocritical Thinkpol. Just because your ‘No Platform’ or ‘Hate Speech’ policy doesn’t violate the letter of the law doesn’t mean you’re not trampling on the principle behind it.

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  • Afrege

    “One person’s individual experience with Islam” – is rather missing the point. There are around 20 countries where Ali faces either the death penalty or extended periods of imprisonment, for nothing more than being someone who was a Muslim but is now an atheist. Recent surveys showed significant majorities in these countries in favour of harsh punishments for apostates, and even more worrying, the same opinion was expressed by 30% of Muslims in the UK. These are official state sanctions, not some extreme mavericks within these societies. It is absolutely true that there are prominent, dissenting voices within Islam against this interpretation. But it is demanding a lot (too much) of a person whose life is put as risk, not by individuals but official state law, to talk mainly of the small group of dissenters and not the ones who want to kill you.

    “believes that Muslims should be converted to Christianity”. Well, Christians in general believe that Muslims should convert to Christianity. And Muslims, believe that Christians (and even more so Atheists or animists) should be converted to Islam. Does this make them ALL “hateful” and unworthy of public recognition, ever? Most religions still see themselves as making competing truth claims, and aim to win the debate (which means, also defeating the other truth claims) only a handful of postmodernists think of religion as similar to a preference for ice-cream flavours. Ali takes these truth claims serious and with that gives religion arguably more credit than its postmodern “defenders”.

    “and has blamed multiculturalists for being “advocates of silence” that drove Anders Breivik to slaughter seventy-seven people” That is an utterly disingenuous distortion of the truth. She made an argument that is commonly found when the question of outlawing extremist groups of speech are made – that it creates the danger of driving them under ground, makes them more difficult to police and can radicalise them. That is not a justification, just a pragmatic evaluation of what works. Has Breivik spewed his hate publicly, security services might have stopped him before he put thoughts into actions.

    To be sure, I don’t share Ali’s vision of Islam, I do think her aggressiveness is counterproductive, I can emphasise with those Muslims who feel unjustly hurt, and I think she was for these reasons a poor choice for an honorary degree. But her opinions are not beyond the pale to merit a public humiliation like the one she received from Brandeis, not by a long stretch, or excused Brandeis from breaking their word.

    “I have to wonder why you need to diminish the good work of progressive people of faith to make your point”. Well, an old Marxist would say because these “progressive people” are at best the opium for the people, they support involuntarily the existing exploitation by providing a fig leaf for the oppressors while in reality changing absolutely nothing. They provide excuses for not acting. Or as another commentator in another bog said: “if someone comes with a sharp implement after my private parts, I want help NOW, not some idealist sprouting theories about “agency”, and how my attacker just might, in a few decades, see the error of his ways”. I’m worried, and appalled, by the me-too-ism of oppression that came from some of the Brandeis staff and which also taints your post. “How dare this woman talk about girls being mutilated in far away countries, instead of fighting against the builder who wolf-whistled me today” Yes, there is misogyny, oppression and often open violence against woman and minorities in the US as well. Yes, fighting it is a noble cause people may take up. BUT that does not in any way diminish the value of the fight of those who challenge official, state endorsed oppression elsewhere. If you can never challenge one evil without challenging them all, and if you are never allowed to make this decision by prioritising oppression that is of the highest quality, then nothing will ever be done.

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  • I am sure Brandeis is not being apolitical or outrageously moralistic in its rescinding the degree, Saudi money is flowing like water into the West, especially the U.S.. This is less about principles or religion than about geopolitical power over resources. As Afrege stated well above, there are distortions in some media (religiously biased?) about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s stands.

    “Can’t we all just get along” seems the popular academic slogan today in the U.S. as far as religion and liberation from it are concerned. Progressive Muslims, like progressive Roman Catholics, are oxymorons by definition. Usually it refers to a person with one foot in each of two boats flowing in opposite directions. The inevitable torture of that position makes for illogical and fear-based positions, as opposed to bedrock commitment to skeptical thinking about everything in life.

    You can reach peaceful coexistence with just about anyone who is not determined to do you personal violence, but peaceful coexistence may be temporary as long as the pull of hateful indoctrination lies dormant, to be stirred up at any time under duress. The current goal of peaceful coexistence at the cost of quelling dissent and plain speaking among the ‘enlightened’ in Academia is just another manifestation of simple conservatism in the well off, in my opinion

  • Simon Heng

    Anders Breivik is also a product of Islam. It is very rare. He kill because he does agreed with multi culuralist that brought the menace of Islam to hi country. There are more than thousand of Islamist that will act like Anders Breivik.
    Anders Breivik kill seventy seven people, there are adult, not children. Since then, we have not seen another case of non islamists mass killing based on religious ideology. . There are more than hundred islamists killing thousand of people based on Islamic ideology.

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  • John

    *Crickets*. However there are PLENTY of stories about what happpens to LGBT people in Islamic ran nations.

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  • chaz


  • jay

    Dangerous? Dangerous is silencing a person with cheap and easy claims their ideas are dangerous.

    Once upon a time the Jews in the ACLU defended the Nazis marching through Skokie, and you want to talk about danger.

  • NoGodsPlease

    So, you’re accusing Ayaan Hirsi Ali of a “no true muslim” fallacy?
    If you don’t have the balls to call a spade a spade, then step aside. The fact is, as was so effectively pointed out by Hitchens, that the moderates of a religion only serve to lend a cloak of respectability to the radical fundamentalist. Anyone who doesn’t think that Islam is at war with the West simply has their head buried. In today’s world, this can only be called willful ignorance.

  • DCMediagirl

    “One person’s individual experience with Islam, traumatic and awful as it may have been, cannot and should not outweigh the perspectives of progressive Muslims who use Islam’s precepts to fight for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) rights…” Such as? Cite examples please.

  • DCMediagirl


  • Grant

    “One person’s individual experience with Islam, traumatic and awful as it may have been, cannot and should not outweigh the perspectives of progressive Muslims who use Islam’s precepts to fight for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) rights, gender equity, and racial justice in their own communities.”

    From what I understand her experience is not uncommon. If you want to go by shear numbers I am sure their more women in Islam that have suffered from misogyny than there are progressive Muslims.

    “But my experience with Christianity is not definitive. It took me years to be able to acknowledge that, yet acknowledge it I must. After all, I strive to be a rationalist. I am interested in the truth.”

    Good for you, but a person does not have to come to this point for them to speak about their experience as struggle with it. Should we disregard pre-1964 Malcolm X or others who struggle to cope with their oppression.

    “If you’re willing to ignore the structural inequalities in your own community in order to point the finger at someone else’s, I have to wonder why that is. I have to wonder if your goal is to promote reason or simply to score points. I have to wonder why you need to diminish the good work of progressive people of faith to make your point.” Who are we to say who is her community? Her nationality is Somali and I am pretty sure that is a pretty important part of her identity. Go to Somalia and find a 100,000 progressive Muslims. That is if you’re not stone to death.

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