"Islamophobia" and the failure of American liberalism
Sam Harris: Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security. A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.”
Sam Harris: The last personal issue I want to address is your affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute. Tell me how you came to work at the AEI and why that made sense for you.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Back in 2005, I already knew that I did not want a second term in the Dutch parliament. In my first term, I promised to address the issues of women’s rights and the integration of Muslims into Dutch society, and I felt that going back for a second term wouldn’t add much to what I had done already. In the Dutch system, you address a certain issue in one term and then you move to another issue in the next. But I didn’t want to move on to other issues. And I didn’t want a career in politics.
I reached out to Cynthia Schneider, who had served under President Bill Clinton as ambassador to the Netherlands. I told her that I was going to be in New York, working on a book, and asked if she could introduce me to various think tanks, because I wanted to get back into academia. I also wanted to have a life, because in 2004 and 2005, the level of security that the Dutch government had me under was like living in a prison. It was also accompanied by considerable notoriety. I had paparazzi following me, and I couldn’t walk outside without being recognized. Holland is a very small country. I wanted a quiet life in academia, and I wanted to be safe.
I approached Cynthia, and she took me to the Brookings Institute, and to Rand, and to Johns Hopkins, and to Georgetown—she took me to all these institutions, and there was no interest. They didn’t say it to my face, but I got the feeling that they were uncomfortable with what I had been saying about Islam.
Then, on the last day, just before I left the country, Cynthia suggested that we try the AEI. And I said something like “I can’t believe you’d take me there. It’s supposed to be a right-wing organization.” And she said, “Oh, come on. You Dutch people are too prejudiced against the U.S. Things here are really very different than you think. I was a Clinton appointee, and one of my best friends—one of Clinton’s best friends—Norm Ornstein, is there. So it’s not what you think it is. And it’s definitely not religious.”
We went to the AEI, and I met with Norm Ornstein and a woman named Colleen Baughman, and they were so enthusiastic. They immediately introduced me to their president, who suggested that we talk again in a month. And we just kept talking. I spoke about my work; they told me about what they do. And I didn’t hear back from any of the other institutions that I had solicited.
Harris: So the truly mortifying answer to the question of why you are at the AEI is that no liberal institution would offer you shelter when you most needed it—and when your value to the global conversation about free speech, the rights of women, and other norms of civilization was crystal clear. And ever since, your affiliation with the one institution that did take you in has been used to defame you in liberal circles. Perfect.
Hirsi Ali: Well, it certainly seemed at the time that none of the other institutions were willing to talk about Islam in the way that I do—and specifically about its treatment of women.
Harris: And they still won’t. I consider this one of the great moral scandals of our time. How you’ve been treated reminds me of what many liberals did during the Salman Rushdie affair, blaming him for his recklessness in the face of the hair-trigger sensitivities of the Muslim community. I’m a liberal by nearly every measure. Give me a list of liberal values and prejudices, and I will check almost every box.
Hirsi Ali: So will I.
Harris: But because of your association with the AEI, many people don’t know this about you. I remember what it was like when the Dutch government withdrew your security detail, and your friends—among whom I was very proud to count myself—were faced with the task of raising money to pay for your security. Without the AEI’s help at that moment, it would have been an even scarier time than it was. So the fact that liberals hold this affiliation against you is just shameful.
Hirsi Ali: I find it sad. And you should know that during all my interviews with the AEI and my subsequent years there, they’ve always understood that I’m a liberal. No one within the organization has tried to change my mind about anything—not about Islam, or euthanasia, or abortion, or religion, or gay rights, or any of the other things that many of my colleagues have problems with. They’ve never opposed my atheism or confronted me with anything I have said in public. It’s a wonderful institution.
Harris: As a relevant counterpoint, I should say that when I was raising money for your security, I got in touch with some of my contacts in the “moderate” Muslim community. In particular, I reached out to Reza Aslan, with whom I was on entirely cordial terms. I said, essentially, “Reza, wouldn’t it be great if the vast majority of Muslims who are moderate helped protect Ayaan from the minority who aren’t?” It seems to me undeniable that if people like Reza are going to argue that Islam is just like any other religion, they have a real interest in ensuring that people can safely criticize their faith—or even leave it.
But all Reza did was attack you as a bigot and deny, against all evidence, that you had any security concerns worth taking seriously. His response came as quite a shock to me, frankly. I was unprepared to encounter this level of moral blindness and ill will, especially at a moment when I was reaching out for help.
Hirsi Ali: Here’s the thing, Sam. Some moderate Muslims hate me—and yes, that’s a strong word, but I think what they’ve said supports it—because I make them feel uncomfortable. The things I talk about put them in a state of dissonance that they can’t live with. Many of them seem to hate me more than they hate al-Qaida.
Harris: Let’s explore why that might be the case, and turn to the subject of Islam in general. I doubt there is any daylight between us on this topic, but let’s go into it in some detail.
Hirsi Ali: When I read the work of my critics, whether it’s a blog or an article or a full book, they introduce me as a “controversial figure.” I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what I say exactly that makes me controversial.
Consider my views about the treatment of women under Islam. Where is the controversy? Can anyone argue that women are treated well in traditional Muslim societies? Under Islam, every woman is a second-class citizen. She can inherit only half as much as her brother. Her testimony in court—say, in the case of her own rape—is worth half that of her rapist. A Muslim woman has to ask a male guardian for permission to get married or have a child—in some places to even leave the house.
And all these various oppressions are justified using the core texts of Islam: the Koran and the hadith. I’m amazed by the accusation that something I’ve said on this topic is controversial. It’s simply horrible to treat women like this. Is that a controversial thing to say? Is it controversial to say that men and women should be equal? I would have thought this was the most boring statement a person could make.
Harris: It certainly should be. That’s what is so crazy about this Islamophobia charge. The people who commit the worse offenses—the honor killers, the suicide bombers, the Taliban gunman who attempted to murder Malala Yousafzai—are absolutely clear about their motives and articulate them at every opportunity. They are motivated by Islam. Yes, other religions have problematic doctrines. We can even concede that the Old Testament is the most barbaric scripture of them all.
But Christians and Jews don’t tend to take the worst of its passages seriously, for reasons that can be explained both by the centuries during which these Western faiths have been weathered by science and secularism and by crucial elements of their own theology. Most important, in my view, is the fact that Christianity and Judaism do not have clear doctrines of jihad, nor do they promise, ad nauseam, that martyrs go straight to Paradise. Islam is truly unique in this respect, which helps explain the fanaticism and violence we see throughout the Muslim world. Of course, your focus has been on the plight of women and girls under Islam, many millions of whom live in conditions that are antithetical to the most basic human happiness, as you know all too well. And the rationale for their oppression is drawn directly from scripture.
Hirsi Ali: Absolutely. And when I expose these oppressions, along with their cultural and religious underpinnings in Islam, I’m not doing it just to annoy people. I’m working in the hope that debating and discussing these issues is going to lead to some form of positive change. Even for the people who disagree with me—even for those who call me naïve or stupid—I remain hopeful that their thinking around these issues will change. Clearly, I’m not doing this work for the fun of it. I take absolutely no pleasure in talking about Islam at all.
In the Netherlands, where the debate was a little more intense because I was in Parliament, at some point my critics shifted from discussing the substance of these issues to “It’s not what you say, but how you say it. We agree, Ayaan, there’s this problem with treatment of women under Islam, but we just don’t like how you say it.” So we would get into these absurd conversations where I would say, “Okay. How exactly do you want me to say it?”
How can you say these things in a way that is inoffensive to the very people who think that women are second-class citizens? There is just no way. I am surprised sometimes that we cannot find more common ground. Liberals notice these same oppressions, but they attribute them solely to economics or politics.
Harris: That’s a point I really wanted us to cover. Most liberals think that religion is never the true source of a person’s bad behavior. Even when jihadists explicitly state their religious motivations—they believe that they have an obligation to kill apostates and blasphemers, and they want to get into Paradise—liberal academics, journalists, and politicians insist on looking for deeper reasons for their actions. However, when people give economic, political, or psychological reasons for doing whatever it is they do, everyone accepts those reasons at face value...