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The controversial Ayaan Hirsi Ali says that the civilized world needs to identify the "core" of Islam before hoping to defeat threats like the Islamic State.
Delivering a lecture at Yale University Monday entitled, "Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West," Hirsi Ali said there is a serious problem with Islam itself, not merely the radical interpretation of it that leads to the kind of violence the world is seeing in Iraq, Syria and parts of her native Africa.
Leaders around the world, including President Obama, have recently made statements about the Islamic State not being truly Islamic. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that to counter the Islamic State, part of the strategy is to try to defuse the ideology behind the conflagration.
Speaking with reporters in Paris after meetings with world leaders, Kerry said that part of the coalition’s work is to “start major efforts to delegitimize ISIS’s claim to some religious foundation for what it’s doing and begin to put real Islam out there.”
It’s questionable whether Hirsi Ali’s version of the "real Islam" would find a place in Kerry’s worldview or not. Indeed, many have impugned her judgment and disputed her authority to pronounce on the matter.
So much so that Brandeis University decided to disinvite her from its commencement this past April and reneged on its decision to grant her an honorary degree.
The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale was determined not to let something like that happen again.
Still, when the program announced that Hirsi Ali would be coming to kick off its 2014-15 speaker series, a coalition of student groups, led by the Muslim Students Association at Yale, protested. In a letter co-signed by 35 other campus groups and student organizations, the Muslim Students accused Hirsi Ali of “hate speech” and expressed concern that she “is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so.”
But judging by the applause of the 300 or so members of the audience, the Somali native and former Muslim swayed enough people to her basic thesis.
Aleteia reached out to members of the Muslim Students Association, but did not hear back.
In an email the day after Hirsi Ali’s lecture, Lamin Sanneh of Yale Divinity School wrote, “I stood in line yesterday evening but failed to get in. I was intending to challenge Ms. Ali on her extremist views of Islam.”
Reportedly, the line of people turned away when the hall reached capacity stretched down a long New Haven block.
Pressed further on his remark, Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity and a member of Aleteia’s Board of Experts, offered this statement:
But I remain puzzled by her general view that what happened to her is what Islam represents for Muslims as Muslims, and that contesting her charge of a repressive and nefarious Islam is proof that the religion is a religion of intolerance. If her judgment is based on that kind of reasoning, it is hard to think of any cultural tradition that could pass muster. As a Catholic, I would have to be the first to surrender any claim to innocence on that score. There has to be another way to be critical that includes the duty to be self-critical.
Sanneh is the author of, among others, "Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in ‘Secular’ Britain," and "Piety and Power: Muslims and Christians in West Africa." He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with Muslims. A native of West Africa, he grew up a Muslim.
Hirsi Ali’s controversial stance on Islam has certainly won her many admirers, though, particularly among conservatives such as the Buckley Program crowd. But her strong support of women’s rights has also put her in good stead with feminists. She herself was a childhood victim of female genital mutilation and has been outspoken against the practice, which she said predates Islam but finds its greatest welcome today in the Islamic world.
Her railing against the dismal treatment of women in at least some sectors of the Muslim world has also led to death threats, most notably the note left on the body of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, with whom she had collaborated on the film "Submission," about the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. A radical Islamist shot, stabbed, and tried to decapitate van Gogh on an Amsterdam city street in 2004.
On Monday evening, Hirsi Ali arrived with a security detail of her own, and New Haven police had a healthy presence, along with a black labrador retreiver, presumably a bomb-sniffer.
Hirsi Ali, whose father was a politician in Somalia, served in the parliament of her adopted country, the Netherlands. But Holland ended up revoking her citizenship over controversy about her asylum application. She has since become an American citizen—in her talk at Yale, she repeatedly and comfortably referred to Barack Obama as “our president.”
Rehearsing a litany of recent world events in which Islam has played a major role, including Boko Haram’s kidnapping of several hundred school girls, and the threatened state execution of a Sudanese Christian woman, Hirsi Ali at last focused on the Islamic State, which has terrorized Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and, experts warn, could be plotting terrorist attacks in the West.
“We’re being moved to action by the graphic beheadings of James Foley and Steve Sotloff, fellow Americans,” she said. “And that has brought our president, and Washington in general, to say, ‘We need to eradicate this cancer.’ Does that mean we resort to war? Is this a clash of principles and ethics, a clash of philosophies of life and death between the West and Islam?
"I don’t blame our president for showing the restraint that he does," she continued. "The West is familiar with war and understands that clashes with civilizations like this can be very, very long. We want first to explore ways of fighting this cancer without resorting to war. But who and what are we fighting?”
Hirsi Ali finds at least part of the answer in her own childhood in Somalia. In her early adolescence, as she recalls, members of her family and community took their Islamic faith seriously and devoutly, but it was that—a faith.
“Some people broke the rules some of the time. Some people neglected to fast, some people ate meat that was not slaughtered in the way it was supposed to be, some people ate pork and others drank alcohol,” she recalled. “In those days, if you neglected your religious duties, you were left alone.”
She acknowledged that even today “Millions of Muslims live like this. They … think of themselves as peaceful, loving people. And they are.”
But her world changed in 1985, when she was 16. “A different kind of teacher entered my life,…who came to tell us that neglecting one’s religious duty makes you an infidel,” she said. “I call him the Preacher Teacher. … He encouraged us to not only read the Quran and Hadith but he encouraged us to use it as a driver’s manual. This preacher teacher came with a language that was new to our ears: ‘jihad.’ We were to wage jihad…. ‘Martyrdom:’ the best thing that could happen to us would be to die fighting for Allah. We were to strive to establish sharia law in our society…We were to aspire to destroying the Jews—all Jews, not only the ones in Israel.”
The scenario, she said, has been repeated over and over in various parts of the Muslim world, leading to the radical vision of groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram.
“This preacher teacher is the cancer our president was talking about,” she went on. “This preacher teacher is active in our communities here in the US and in the UK. This preacher teacher is embedded in homes, mosques, and schools and colleges and Muslim centers.”
To counter the ideologues, she insists, it is not enough to get rid of the “preacher teachers” but to reform the core belief of Islam itself. Reformers and dissidents already exist, she said, counting herself among them, although she now considers herself an atheist. “They are convinced that the core creed can be bent to suit their conscience….in the hopes of delegitimizing the extremists like ISIS. The dissidents make a choice between what their conscience tells them and the commandments of the core creed. They go with their conscience. Instead of merely submitting to Allah, they stand up to him.”
This approach, of going to “the core text” of Islam and changing it is important, she said, because “ISIS will not be delegitimized as long as they insist that they are simply carrying out what Allah says.” It’s also important, she added, because without this approach, another group will spring up after ISIS is gone, just as the Islamic State has sprung up after the US and its allies supposedly defeated al-Qaida.
“We’ll go after them, but unless we have a Plan B and a Plan C, there will be chaos, and that creates conditions for the next flood of jihadis,” she said. “Sooner or later we are going to get to the core. I hope that we get to the core before we kill more people or before ISIS kills more people.”