The recent furore in the University of Yale for inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to deliver a speech has been for me the most unsettling of all the controversy that had Hirsi Ali in it. The thing about Hirsi Ali is that she is representative of the dichotomy that ex-Muslims in general, and ex-Muslim women in particular, have to go through, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority. One is to be seen as a traitor of one’s community for speaking out against the atrocities committed within and other is to be seen as an apologist for speaking out against unwarranted and bigoted suspicion and fear with which Muslims are seen by the majority. Kenan Malik has spoken about this in his article “Is There Something About Islam?“, in which the following anecdote is very telling.
The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”
Ayaan chose to not be that real Muslim and chose to be the traitor. For which she became the darling of the conservative and the right, while attracting the scorn of liberals and leftists from privileged classes.
And it is this dichotomy that unraveled at Yale, once she was invited to speak. There are two things to be considered here. First is the academic freedom of Hirsi Ali as an ex-Muslim woman. Michelle Goldberg in the Nation have put this matter very well, by comparing Hirsi Ali’s and Steven Salaita’s cases.
… it’s worth recognizing that arguments privileging “respect” and civility above freedom on campus are always double-edged. If you believe that Hirsi Ali shouldn’t be allowed to speak because she denigrates Islam and makes many students uncomfortable, then it’s hard to see how you can simultaneously claim that Salaita, a professor who has tweeted, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” deserves a place in the classroom.
Second is the expectations that are put upon ex-Muslims when they choose to criticise Islam and the practices within their respective communities. Here is the letter by the Yale Muslim Students Association, where the following statement is something that I found to be extremely repugnant.
While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.
Not only does the above statement have the implication that they are being generous by not denying her her experiences, but they expect her to limit her expression to her experiences and “expertise”, read she’s not qualified to speak on Islam. So she is allowed to express herself but not allowed to interpret her experiences with Islam. Similar arguments were made by Hindu apologists against Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit ex-Hindu writer and academic, for his trenchant and passionate criticism of Hinduism. In fact as a friend once pointed to us in Nirmukta, Hirsi Ali’s and Ilaiah’s experiences parallel each other. Both are denied the right to be passionate and also denied the right to hate the very institution that was the cause of their experiences. Despite being much close to oppression than privilege they are denied to opine and interpret on the same institution in the manner they deem fit.
But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the statement by the Yale Humanist Community, one of the signatories of the above letter,
As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience.
True, she may not represent the totality of the ex-Muslim experiences, but her experiences do belong to that totality. Her experiences and interpretations of the same constitute the larger ex-Muslim experience, and she has every right to be taken as seriously as any other ex-Muslim in that regard. One may disagree with plenty of her opinions, especially ones regarding minority rights of Muslims, but one simply doesn’t get to trivialise her experience by making such patronising statements as saying she does not represent the whole.
Another argument that comes against Hirsi Ali is that feeds the anti-Muslim/Islamophobic frenzy of the right and the conservative. But how fair is it to police her speech and expression by putting the blame of bigotry of the, well, bigots on her? Bigots have historically appropriated and misconstrued sane arguments for their own agenda, many a times even by going against the original intentions. How fair and constructive is it to point fingers at her, instead of engaging her?
Such policing and patronising of resistance within Islam while bringing down the credibility of secular humanism, greatly harms the larger struggle for a tolerant and secular future. Excluding the likes of Hirsi Ali will do none of us any good.