Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

03 February, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali @ the Union Theatre


(Photo lovingly horked from The Badger Herald.)


Ayaan Hirsi Ali finally appeared onstage about an hour late as some 1,300 people had to pass through metal detectors before entering the Union Theatre last night. She had braved the snow and cold to speak about feminism and how certain stripes of Islam put women in chains. Numerous campus groups, some very much in opposition, filled out a long list of sponsors of the event. While various feminist groups got some loud cheers when their names were mentioned, the student Objectivist group seemed to have but a backer or two in the audience.

Ali was formally introduced by UW sociologist Chad Goldberg who placed her in the Enlightenment tradition of Liberalism or, what we here in the States refer to as Classical Liberalism. That is, she celebrates and advocates for the primacy of the individual in the same way that John Locke did. When Ali finally took to the stage, she was greeted very warmly by most but with a few shouts of “Allahu Akbar” as well. She explained that it means "God is great" and is often said by Muslims when they begin some kind of trial or ordeal. She added, “I’m not going to say God is great.”

She began her talk by giving a brief account of her life. Born in 1969, she was raised as a Muslim. In 1992, she fled to Holland seeking refuge from an arranged marriage. There she learned to speak Dutch and spent considerable time helping fellow Somali women who had emigrated there. After getting her degree, she worked for a think tank and wrote on issues of Muslim assimilation into Dutch society. Ali ultimately concluded that Islam and Western democratic ideals were incompatible. A 3-year term in the Dutch parliament followed as did a collaboration with filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the film Submission which portrayed how Islamic women submitted to the wills of others in their faith. For this, van Gogh was killed (shot and decapitated) and his corpse left with a note threatening Ali pinned to it with a knife.

From this point, she proceeded to inveigh against Islamic doctrine which condones the subjugation and maltreatment of women. Even in Western Europe, Ali noted, Muslim girls are pulled from school at a young age by their families and Muslim women suffer confinement and violence. Even here in the U.S., she claimed, Muslim women have violence perpetrated against them that is sanctioned by Islam. The first step in ending this was to recognize that fundamentalist Islam is the biggest offender and that concerned individuals must bring intelligence and reason to bear upon the problems encountered by women.

Ali asked for a show of hands as to how many people know about Sarah and Amina Yaser Said who were killed in Texas by their father who found that their dating habits offended his Islamic sensibilities. She counted only 6 or 7 amongst the 1,300 of us there. If these girls had been white with Christian parents, the story would have gotten more play, she argued. When Westerners sweep forced marriage, confinement, etc. under the carpet in the name of not demonizing a minority, we become indifferent to the plight of these women.

That, in a nutshell, was Hirsi Ali's case. Western societies need to stop being indifferent, to stop looking the other way. We must confront the issues head-on by creating an environment where Islam can be probed, confronted, and criticized. The basic tenets of Islam should be examined in the same way that we examine the tenets of anything else.

During the Q&A which followed Ali's speech, Asifa Quraishi, a Constitutional law professor here at the UW gave some examples of the rights of women here in the United States being abrogated and said that, if you thought her examples represent all of US law, then you are wrong just as Ali's examples don't represent all of Islamic law. She finished her remarks by saying, "I advise all of us to take a pause and think that maybe there is a little bit more to this story than we have heard tonight."

While I took her point, I couldn't help but wonder exactly what more to the story there could be which would justify the subjugation of women in Islam – the arranged marriages, the confinement, etc. For her part, Ali gave her own rejoinder: "Do you think you could have an honest debate on abortion or gay rights in Saudi Arabia and get away with it?" Furthermore, she noted, marital rape is legal in Iran and Saudi Arabia. We may never know what more there is to the story that Ms. Quraishi thinks could ameliorate that situation.

While thanks must go to the University for bringing Ms. Ali here to speak, shame on the students for having first rejected her for being too controversial.

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali's name was first mentioned as a possible speaker at UW-Madison this semester, she was rejected as too controversial.

Students first voted against bringing Hirsi Ali because they didn't want to be seen as supporting her agenda, said Reid Tice, chair of the Distinguished Lecture Series committee. But when a scheduled speaker, sportswriter Rick Reilly, fell through, the committee reconsidered Hirsi Ali.


Courting controversy is one of the functions of a university. You take the ideas and then subject them to some rigorous sifting and winnowing. Ali echoed this sentiment during the Q&A when she said that the West must emancipate itself from its fear of criticizing Islam and to protect the rights of those who think aloud, whether they be Muslims or not.

The president of the UW's Muslim Student Association, Rashid Dar, expressed concern that Ali's words would cause the audience to be suspicious of Muslims.

"Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a speaker who attributes certain rather negative qualities to the Islamic faith as a whole," Dar said, adding that he's worried "everyone would leave thinking Islam is a little bit suspicious, something that we need to worry about and, by extension, Muslims are something we need to worry about as well."

Instant Islamophobia. Just add Ayaan Hirsi Ali. How insulting, Mr. Dar. The crux of Ali's message was that many women suffer under Islam as it is practiced in various parts of the world, including right here in the States, and that we should not be afraid to talk about this. I didn't find her to be spreading Islamophobia. She was imploring discussion.
|| Palmer, 2:19 PM

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