Who has the "right" to talk about Islam? The question arose thanks to the response of a Muslim student society at an American university.
Last week saw the latest in the apparently interminable efforts to make the Somali-born human-rights activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali into some kind of pariah. Readers will recall the atrocious treatment of Hirsi Ali by Brandeis University earlier this year, when the "liberal arts university" invited Hirsi Ali to speak and then withdrew the invitation at the behest of certain Muslim students and anti-free-speech activists among the university's faculty staff. As said at the time, the university's dropping of Hirsi Ali was a classic case of dropping a firefighter in order to appease arsonists.
The latest round has already kicked off. The William F Buckley Jr Program at Yale University actually asking Hirsi Ali to speak and did not rescind the invitation. On this occasion, an American university managed to hold firm and not bar Hirsi Ali, but the reactions of two types of students were especially intriguing.
First -- and of most interest to the press covering this kind of dust-up -- was that among the usual criticisms of Hirsi Ali, this time the attacks also came from members of the Yale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics society. Ahead of the event, those students posted on Facebook that:
"We do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience... Although we acknowledge the value of her story, we do not endorse her blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam."
It is hard to know which of these witless statements to unpack first. The statement as a whole constitutes a motorway pileup of moral confusion. Just take the first point -- the possibility that Hirsi Ali does not represent the "totality of the ex-Muslim experience." That is true. It is also something that Hirsi Ali would probably be the first to admit to. But it is also true of absolutely everybody. Nobody represents the "totality" of any experience. Yale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics might some day realize that not even they represent the "totality of the atheist, humanist and agnostic experience." Not even among students. In the Yale area.
And then there is the other group who, rather more predictably, complained about Hirsi Ali speaking at all. The Yale Muslim Students Association wrote to the "Yale community" as well as the Buckley program heads and staff in particular to say that:
"Our concern is that Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so. In the past, under such authority, she has overlooked the complexity of sociopolitical issues in Muslim-majority countries and has purported that Islam promotes a number of violent and inhumane practices."
It is important to recognize what is true here before getting on to what is false. It is true that Hirsi Ali has, in the past, pointed to teachings and practices that are violent and inhumane in many Muslim-majority countries. Rather than being part of some intolerable smear-campaign, there may of course be a reason for this: which is that there are a vast number of practices that are indeed violent and inhumane in Muslim-majority countries. Plucking just a couple of examples from the top of my head, I might point to the recent sentencing of a number of young people (of around the same age as the MSA signatories at Yale) in Iran to 91 lashes each for the appalling crime of dancing to the Pharrell Williams song 'Happy'. The sentence was later suspended by Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, on the condition that the young people do nothing so untoward again -- otherwise the flogging will recommence.
One might ask the Yale Muslim students whether the reporting of this story -- in no less an impeccably left-wing source than Britain's Guardian newspaper -- is an example of "overlooking the complexity of socio-political issues." Or is it just the sort of thing that Muslim and non-Muslim students at Yale could do with hearing about, but are probably unlikely to hear about from the Yale Muslim Students Association or from anyone the YMSA believes is sufficiently credentialed?
How about the laws in multiple Muslim-majority countries which punish homosexuals with death by hanging, among other means? What about the laws in many Muslim-majority countries which -- if exercised at Yale -- would see the execution or imprisonment of members of the university's Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics society?
But, as with the other petition, the question is posed as one of authority. Hirsi Ali is not meant to speak about Islam because "she does not hold the credentials to do so." It is an interesting, sly way in which to frame a censor's argument.
It is also untrue. As the great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, says, "Then the only creatures qualified to talk about marine biology are fish?" Even were it not the case that Hirsi Ali has actually lived the Muslim life, with the personal story she has to tell as a result, any independent person would surely recognize that, if anything, she is somewhat over-credentialed. Hirsi Ali has authored multiple books and written hundreds of original and important articles on Islam. She has been published in every major newspaper in the Western world. She has a university degree from one of the oldest and most distinguished universities in the Netherlands. She has held positions at some of the most important universities and think-tanks in the world. As an extraordinary immigration success story, she was elected to Parliament in the Netherlands in her early thirties and one of the most important figures in the debate on integration in Europe as well as America.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks at the St. Gallen Symposium, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, May 2012. (Image source: International Students' Committee/Wikimedia Commons)
If she is not qualified to speak about this subject, then who is? The answer, I am afraid, would appear to be the same were it to come from the Yale Atheists society or the Yale Muslim society. That answer is that the only acceptable, credentialed, totalistic figure they might accept to speak about Islam is someone who does not make any criticisms -- or at least not any meaningful criticisms -- of Islam. It is someone who could deny or perhaps "contextualize" the treatment of women, apostates, homosexuals and non-believers in Islamic countries. Someone who will either deny or refute what some of us have observed with our own eyes, and which Yale students also might be allowed to see were they not limited -- apparently by their own choice -- to a diet of propaganda on behalf of one faith alone.
It is not the qualifications of Hirsi Ali that the Atheist or Muslim societies at Yale objected to, but her criticisms of important elements of Islamic doctrine. In its way, this is the greatest compliment to Hirsi Ali. Because there is a reason why she continually draws -- even in America -- this type of pushback. It is because anti-reformist Muslims everywhere realize that she presents to their literalist faith a type of poison for which they have absolutely no antidote. Her criticisms are often raw because they are true. Able to do nothing about the truth, they try to silence the truth-teller.
One grows to expect this from Muslim associations. But the atheists? If these students truly believe in education and enlightenment, I would suggest they organize a trip around North Africa and the Middle East. Their experiences may never represent the "totality" of anything. But, especially if they wear their society's logo on T-shirts, it might give them a personal insight into one of the many points Hirsi Ali has brought to the world's attention -- a point they might one day see is worth their attention, too.