The Blog

 

Atheism | Ethics | Politics | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | Violence | May 8, 2014

Lifting the Veil of “Islamophobia”

A Conversation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali

burkas

(Photo via Getty Images)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu in 1969. The daughter of a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship, she lived in exile, moving from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Like 98 percent of Somali girls, Ayaan was subjected to female genital mutilation. She embraced Islam while she was growing up, but eventually began to question aspects of the faith. One day, while listening to a sermon about the many ways in which women must be obedient to their husbands, she couldn’t resist asking, “Must our husbands obey us too?”

In 1992, Ayaan was married off by her father to a distant cousin living in Canada. In order to escape this forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and then citizenship. In her first years in Holland she worked in factories and as a maid—but she quickly learned Dutch and was then able to study at the University of Leiden. She soon began working as a translator for Somali immigrants, where she witnessed firsthand the clash between liberal Western values and those of Islamic culture.

After earning her M.A. in political science, Ayaan began working as a researcher for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation in Amsterdam. She eventually served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in parliament, she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation—practices that had followed Muslim immigrants to Holland. In her three years in government, she found her voice as an advocate for an “enlightened Islam.”

In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film, Submission, depicting the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin, a radical Muslim, left a death threat for Ayaan pinned to Van Gogh’s chest.

In 2006, Ayaan was forced to resign from parliament when the Dutch minister for immigration revoked her citizenship, arguing that she had misled the authorities at the time of her asylum application. However, the Dutch courts later reversed this decision, leading to the fall of the administration. Disillusioned with the Netherlands, Ayaan then moved to the United States.

Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security.

In 2005, Ayaan was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” one of the Glamour Heroes, and Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. She is the author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad. She is now working on Short-cut to Enlightenment, a dialogue between Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and three of her favorite Western thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek. 

A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” [NOTE 5/11/14: This wonderful sentence seems to have been wrongly attributed to Hitch (who was imitable after all). I’m told these words first appeared in a tweet from Andrew Cummins. Well done, Andrew!]

The following text is an edited transcript of our conversation.

 
 

Watch the above video. (Then watch it again.) And then read the (unedited and uncorrected) description of this footage written by the organizers of this Muslim “peace conference”:

 
 

Atheism | Ethics | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | Violence | War | October 11, 2013

No Ordinary Violence

Malala Yousafzai

A young man enters a public place—a school, a shopping mall, an airport—carrying a small arsenal. He begins killing people at random. He has no demands, and no one is spared. Eventually, the police arrive, and after an excruciating delay as they marshal their forces, the young man is brought down. 

This has happened many times, and it will happen again. After each of these crimes, we lose our innocence—but then innocence magically returns. In the aftermath of horror, grief, and disbelief, we seem to learn nothing of value. Indeed, many of us remain committed to denying the one thing of value that is there to be learned.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, a journalist asked me, “Why is it always angry young men who do these terrible things?” She then sought to connect the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers with that of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. Like many people, she believed that similar actions must have similar causes.

But there are many sources of human evil. And if we want to protect ourselves and our societies, we must understand this. To that end we should differentiate at least four types of violent actor.

 
 

mecca

(Photo by Camera Eye)

I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does. The symptoms of this blindness can be quite shocking. For instance, I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:

 
 

Ethics | Politics | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | April 2, 2013

Dear Fellow Liberal

An Exchange with Glenn Greenwald

I’m up against a book deadline and have had to step away from blogging for a few months. One of the benefits of this time, as well as one of its frustrations, is that I’ve had to ignore the usual ephemera that might have otherwise captured my attention. For instance, in recent days both Salon and Al Jazeera published outrageous attacks on me and my fellow “new atheists.” The charges? Racism and “Islamophobia” (again). Many readers have written to ask when I will set the record straight. In fact, I consider both articles unworthy of a response, and I was quite happy to have a reason to ignore them. But then I noticed that the columnist Glenn Greenwald had broadcast an approving Tweet about the Al Jazeera piece to his fans (above).

I’ve had pleasant exchanges with Greenwald in the past, so I wrote to him privately to express my concern. As you will see, I came right to the point. I was simply outraged that he would amplify this pernicious charge of racism so thoughtlessly. However, I am even more appalled by his response. The man actually has thought about it. And thinking hasn’t helped.

Here is our unedited exchange:

 
 

The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled Innocence of Muslims. Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.

 
 

Ethics | Debates | Religion | Islam | Self-Defense | Terrorism | May 25, 2012

To Profile or Not to Profile?

A Debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier

Osama profiling

(Photo by Anxo Resúa)

I recently wrote two articles in defense of “profiling” in the context of airline security (1 & 2), arguing that the TSA should stop doing secondary screenings of people who stand no reasonable chance of being Muslim jihadists. I knew this proposal would be controversial, but I seriously underestimated how inflamed the response would be. Had I worked for a newspaper or a university, I could well have lost my job over it.

One thing that united many of my critics was their admiration for Bruce Schneier. Bruce is an expert on security who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and other major publications. His most recent book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Bruce very generously agreed to write a response to my first essay. He also agreed to participate in a follow-up discussion that has now occupied us, off and on, for two weeks. The resulting exchange runs over 13,000 words.

 
 

Debates | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | War | May 8, 2012

The Trouble with Profiling

A guest post by Bruce Schneier

stormtroopers

(Photo by JD Hancock)

Bruce Schneier is a highly-respected expert on security who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and other major publications. His most recent book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.

At the suggestion of many readers, I invited Bruce to set me straight about airline security on this page. The following is his response to my controversial article, “In Defense of Profiling.” Bruce and I will discuss these issues in greater depth in a subsequent post.—SH

 
 

911 terrorism

(Photo by Slagheap)

I recently wrote a short essay about airline security (“In Defense of Profiling”) that provoked a ferocious backlash from readers. In publishing this piece, I’m afraid that I broke one of my cardinal rules of time (and sanity) management: Not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I learned this the hard way once before, in discussing the ethics of torture and collateral damage, but this time the backlash has been even more unpleasant and less rational.

 
 

burkas

(Photo by Basetrack )

I recently had a very enjoyable three-hour conversation with Joe Rogan on his podcast, where the topics ranged from jihad to probability theory to psychedelics. But I subsequently received a fair amount of abuse online for a few things I said about Islam and our adventures in the war on terror. For instance, I appear to have left many viewers with the impression that I believe we invaded Afghanistan for the purpose of rescuing its women from the Taliban. However, the points I was actually making were rather different: I think that abandoning these women to the Taliban is one of the things that make our inevitable retreat from Afghanistan ethically problematic. I also believe that wherever we can feasibly stop the abuse of women and girls, we should. An ability to do this in places like Afghanistan, and throughout the world, would be one of the benefits of having a global civil society and a genuine regime of international law. Needless to say, this is not the world we are living in (yet).

The ferocious response to my discussion with Rogan about the war on terror has, once again, caused me to worry about the future of liberalism. It is one thing to think that the war in Afghanistan has been an excruciating failure (which I believe), but it is another to think that we had no moral right to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. A significant percentage of liberals seem to hold the latter view, and consider President Obama to be nothing more than a neocon stooge and Islam to be an unfairly maligned religion of peace. I regularly hear from such people, and their beliefs genuinely trouble me. It doesn’t take many emails containing sentences like “The United States and Israel are the greatest terrorist states on earth” to make me feel that liberalism is simply doomed.

 
 

image

(Photo by H.koppdelaney)


Over at Truthdig, the celebrated journalist Chris Hedges has discovered that Christopher Hitchens and I are actually racists with a fondness for genocide. He has broken this story before—many times, in fact—but in his most recent essay he blames “secular fundamentalists” like me and Hitch for the recent terrorist atrocities in Norway.

Very nice.

Hedges begins, measured as always:

The gravest threat we face from terrorism, as the killings in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik underscore, comes not from the Islamic world but the radical Christian right and the secular fundamentalists who propagate the bigoted, hateful caricatures of observant Muslims and those defined as our internal enemies. The caricature and fear are spread as diligently by the Christian right as they are by atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Our religious and secular fundamentalists all peddle the same racist filth and intolerance that infected Breivik. This filth has poisoned and degraded our civil discourse. The looming economic and environmental collapse will provide sparks and tinder to transform this coarse language of fundamentalist hatred into, I fear, the murderous rampages experienced by Norway. I worry more about the Anders Breiviks than the Mohammed Attas.

The editors at Truthdig have invited me to respond to this phantasmagoria. There is, however, almost no charge worth answering in Hedges’ writing—there never is. Which is more absurd, the idea of “secular fundamentalism” or the notion that its edicts pose a greater threat of terrorism than the doctrine of Islam? Do such assertions even require sentences to refute?

However, Hedges’ latest attack is so vicious and gratuitous that some reply seemed necessary. To minimize the amount of time I would need to spend today cleaning this man’s vomit, I decided to adapt a few pieces I had already written. But then I just got angry…

 
 

image

At certain points near the extremity of human evil it becomes difficult, and perhaps pointless, to make ethical distinctions. However, I cannot shake the feeling that detonating a large bomb in the center of a peaceful city with the intent of killing vast numbers of innocent people was the lesser of Anders Behring Breivik’s transgressions last week. It seems to me that it required greater malice, and even less humanity, to have intended this atrocity to be a mere diversion, so that he could then commit nearly one hundred separate murders on the tiny Island of Utoya later in the day.

And just when one thought the human mind could grow no more depraved, one learns details like the following:

After killing several people on one part of the island, he went to the other, and, dressed in his police uniform, calmly convinced the children huddled there that he meant to save them. When they emerged into the open, he fired again and again. (“For Young Campers, Island Turned Into Fatal Trap.” The New York Times, July 23, 2011)

Other unsettling facts will surely surface in the coming weeks. Some might even be vaguely exculpatory. Is Breivik mentally ill? Judging from his behavior, it is difficult to imagine a definition of “sanity” that could contain him.

 
 

image
Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam rally to condemn the killing of Osama bin Laden in Quetta, Pakistan on Monday, May 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Arshad Butt)


President Obama has announced that the U.S. government will not release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. I don’t know which fact is more alarming, that this appears to have been a very difficult decision or that the head of the CIA believes that these photos will leak in any case. Officially placating the conspiracy theorists of the Muslim world would have been fatuous in the extreme. Let them waste their lives chasing bin Laden’s ghost. But the idea that we cannot contain a few photos beggars belief. Which member of Seal Team 6 is going to put them on his Facebook page?

Of course, catering to the doubts of conspiracy theorists wouldn’t have been as craven as the pains we took to bury bin Laden in compliance with shariah law. Apologists for Islam insist that bin Laden was a terrible Muslim who represented no genuine strand of the faith. One wonders, therefore, who would have been offended if we had just kicked his corpse into the sea without a word. Indeed, one might wonder why our government wasn’t afraid to grant this ghoulish man full Muslim honors. Shouldn’t this have offended the true adherents of so peaceful and tolerant a religion?

In any case, it is time we ignored the fathomless depths of Muslim “sensitivity” on such matters. Anyone provoked by our denying bin Laden his last rites would have thereby declared himself an enemy of civilization. Why not allow such people to step forward so that they can be photographed (as above)?

And we should not let the hopefulness of this moment go to our heads. Thomas Friedman has grown so manic as to imagine that bin Laden was never very popular among Muslims in the first place:

Very few Arabs actively supported Bin Laden, but he initially drew significant passive support for his fist in the face of America, the Arab regimes and Israel. But as Al Qaeda was put on the run, and spent most of its energies killing other Muslims who didn’t toe its line, even its passive support melted away (except for the demented leadership of Hamas).

Here, Friedman has taken flight on the fairy wings of false nuance. Support for bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the practice of suicide bombing—passive or otherwise—was shockingly high in almost every Muslim community where one could safely conduct a poll in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. Yes, these terrifying sentiments are on the wane in most places. How could they not be? As Friedman points out, Al Qaeda has done little more than slaughter innocent Muslims in the meantime. But current levels of admiration for bin Laden are still appalling. Let’s hope the downward trend continues and that someday a mere 10 percent of Muslims support global jihad. Today, this would equate to 150 million people. Winning the war of ideas to this degree would represent extraordinary progress. But the existence of 150 million friends of bin Laden, spread over scores of countries, would still be no small problem for the rest of us.

 

 
 

image

The New York Times reported today that at least ten UN aid workers have been murdered by an Afghan mob. This senseless savagery occurred in Mazar-i-Sharif, “one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan,” in response to news that a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, finally made good on his threat to burn a copy of the Koran. Pastor Jones and the members of his tiny congregation in Gainesville appear to be religious crackpots of the first order, but anyone tempted to condemn them for provoking this violence has lost the plot. As I wrote previously in defense of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders (“Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks”):

Wilders, like Westergaard and the other Danish cartoonists, has been widely vilified for “seeking to inflame” the Muslim community. Even if this had been his intention, this criticism represents an almost supernatural coincidence of moral blindness and political imprudence. The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.

There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for “racism” and “Islamophobia.”

Will moderate Muslims defend Pastor Jones’s right to burn the Koran?

 
 

image

The prognosis on the war in Afghanistan seems increasingly dismal. In his review of Bing West’s new book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, (which I have not yet read), Dexter Filkins discusses the challenges posed by Afghan culture and religion:

Time after time, West shows the theory of counterinsurgency scraping up against the hard and jagged ground of the real Afghanistan. In one instance, he examines the work of a group of American soldiers and civilians, known as a provincial reconstruction team, whose job was to provide development assistance to Afghan locals in Asadabad (A-Bad to the Americans) in eastern Afghanistan. It was overseen by a battalion known as the 1-32 and commanded by a lieutenant colonel named Mark O’Donnell. In June 2009, after the reconstruction team had been working there for three years, an American supply truck blew a tire on the main road. A crowd of Afghans gathered, and then suddenly a grenade exploded, killing and maiming several Afghans. A riot ensued. “Kill the Americans!” the Afghans shouted. “Protect Islam!” Only later did a videotape of the incident show clearly that an Afghan had tossed the grenade.

About this, West writes:

“For three years, the provincial reconstruction team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. The P.R.T. had paid over $10 million to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a platoon from 1-32 patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of O’Donnell’s soldiers — whom they knew personally — suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.”

Is Afghanistan a lost cause?

 
 
See all Posts