The Muslim Face – on policing the resistance from within

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.


  1. says

    This is such a complicated issue.

    There are many points here that I completely agree with. As someone who is very critical of Hinduism and of South Asian cultures in general, I get shut down a lot by well-meaning but stupidly ignorant white western people who read this as racist and an airing of “my” dirty laundry in “public”, and it’s endlessly frustrating how patronizing and western-centric that is. I find white western liberals much too eager to throw intersectionality to the wind in the effort to avoid being called racist. Who gives a shit about standing in solidarity with Indian women? All that matters is nobody say anything that might possibly construed as racist by someone in USA. Hirsi Ali is falling victim to the same thing. The only people who are willing to hear her and give her a platform are people who don’t give a shit about being called racist….

    … and you can see what a double edged sword that is. One one hand she gets a platform and support that she so completely deserves, but on the other she is willingly in bed with outright racists and Islamophobes. My problem with Hirsi Ali begins when she panders to them. Her message has gotten successively more radical over the years. The white right in USA uses her as its mouthpiece for saying things that would get literally them charged with inciting hatecrimes if they said it themselves, and the tragedy is that she willingly lets them. She says the things they want her to say, and only those things. She must, if she wishes to keep her funding and her platform. She’s made a deal with the devil.

    I understand where Hirsi Ali is coming from. I have been in that place of burn-it-to-the-ground anger against the culture of your birth that brutally oppressed you once and attempts to oppress you still through the network of family and childhood connections. She is completely and utterly entitled to that anger.

    But not even she is entitled to the blanket condemnation and aggressive demonoization of an entire subset of humanity consisting of 1.5 billion people. And particularly she is not entitled to do this while in the pay of people who are using her rhetoric to justify carpet bombing millions of people within that subset literally AT THIS MINUTE. Her failure to learn what intersectionality means is costing lives. She is complicit in their murder.

    It is unfair to put the burden of judiciousness in expressing anger onto the shoulders of the oppressed. But it is dangerous not to. And as far as we live in an unequal and unjust world it is futile for the oppressed to expect fairness from it.

  2. the eddy says

    Ayaan Hrisi Ali’s caricature of Islam or Kaancha Ilaiah’s hatred for Hinduism ( I really now don’t know what that nebulous word means) are based more upon bias than true scholarly criticisms. Today while criticising religion ( a Human thing & not divine ) remains important , it is important for those criticisms to be rationalist & not based upon hate-based distortions. Otherwise plz do call that only Anti-Religion activism i.e. pro-Atheism movement & not a Rationalist movement. Firstly , Religion is not just obscure scriptures but a Human belief system that not only influences but is highly influenced by social-cultural & even political stimuli present in a man’s environment . Second , mere atheism or being anti -Religion itself is not rationalism.So one needs to be clear on objectives first.
    Ayaan’s villification of Islam is good for those who hate Muslims but it is an impediment to furthering Religious Enquiry into it : 1) She lampoons rather than provide genuine criticisms of esp. PersoArabic Muslim history , thus she ends up in hating than reasoning.
    2) Muslim is not a race or tribe….What she speaks is it applicable to South Asians & South East Asians or only her African & Arabic cultures. Her works are more than often used by muslimophobics to hate ordinary people. A Hindutvavadi will be more than happy to use her work to villify Indian Muslims .Thus she does not create (what Prof. Salim Mansur says) guilt amongst muslims but shame that creates both fear in muslims but cannot fight their fundamentalisms.

    Similarly goes Ilaiah’s story . He in the name of “Destroying Hinduism ” , fighting Oppresing Hindus often also ends up speaking things to either justify or cover up sufferings of persecuted Hindus.Just search his comments

  3. Hays says

    Try to think about it in non-academic terms. She wants to see change in the society in which she grew up and similar societies that oppress women in the name of Islam. Her visibility as a political figure gives her words the power to influence governmental policy – to potentially put human rights strings on foreign aid packages, to promote equality in our foreign policy.

    She is fighting a battle against a system that represses and brutalizes women. If there is collateral damage to the overall perception of Muslims in western countries, how do we balance the needs of both groups (i.e. women living in Yemen vs. Muslims living in Connecticut).

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