I went to hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies last week. Very anti-climactic since the politically correct machinery had managed to smother the real import. Indeed an uninformed person, like the Harvard student sitting next to me who came just to see if there was something important that Ali had to say that might occasion some serious rethinking, could walk away from the event without a clue as to what the real problems were or even where the disagreements lay. But much was going on was under the surface. So the following presentation of the event is peppered with an additional analysis (in italics) of what did not get made explicit.
Apparently she lived up to her reputation for brilliance and courage earlier in the day at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. For accounts her more outspoken presentation and the largely hostile and condescending questions of America’s “best and brightest,” see Miss Kelly who was there for the second half, LFG reader Brigitte and Michelle Malkin reader Michael S.
Ali joined four other people on her panel and the moderator at a long table. Instead of standing and speaking, she sat. Her “talk” was largely answers to five (rather uninspired) questions that she had been asked beforehand.
1. Is immigration really a problem in Europe?
2. Is the Netherlands an open society?
3. Who are the true victims?
4. Which solutions have been tried?
5. And how have they worked?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Her responses were very measured, almost bland.
1. Is immigration really a problem in Europe?
She pointed out that Europe had become, for the first time in its existence, an “immigration continent.” In the past Europeans had emigrated (to colonies like the Americas and Australia), but that in the last few decades the situation had reversed dramatically. Europe these days is taking in about 1.3 million immigrants a year, of which the serious majority (about 800,000) are Muslim. And this is only the legal immigrants. Illegal immigration, by its very nature, unknowable, unquantifiable, may double these figures. Moreover, these immigrants fill the “lower statistics” of the countries they come to: poverty, crime, drop-outs from school, juvenile delinquency, etc. In particular Muslim immigration is proving a problem for welfare states (the proud product of “moral Europe”) on which the Muslim immigrants depend (I’d say prey) heavily.
Many migrants do well, even Muslims. But among those who don’t do well the Muslim population is prominent. Muslims in turn complain that they have become increasingly stigmatized (especially since 9-11). Indeed, they argue, “why should we assimilate? We do not want to participate in Dutch society. Not only is it corrupt with modern sins, but it’s hypocritical. They claim to be an open society, but they stigmatize us.”
Ali then went on to question accusations of stigmatization. The most reliable evidence for stigmatization she argued was economic, the job market. Here she pointed to the exceptional efforts of the Dutch state to integrate the Muslim immigrant population into the economy. Between 1979-2000 they spent 16 billion Euro (not sure where such a statistic comes from, especially since the Euro didn’t exist before 2000, but okay). Given these exceptional efforts, Ali argued, the claim of “stigmatization” is unfair. (This Muslim complaint is what I’d call a demopathic argument, since if anything it’s the Muslims who have stigmatized the Dutch as unbelievers. On the other hand, there is a case to be made that whatever the Dutch government has done, the Dutch people have not shown a lot of interest in socializing with their Muslims immigrants. But I’m sure there are many cases where this is not true.)
The problem, Ali pointed out, is that there’s no way of knowing what happened to this money. In fact there’s no evidence that this money had any positive effect. (Same thing with the money the Europeans threw down the Palestinian money-pit. It has to do with culture of poverty, and is the reason why “Marshall Plans” for the Palestinians don’t work.) Indeed, the evidence suggests that those who benefited most from this state largesse did not integrate, and those who integrate do so because of contact with the Dutch, not state programs. (This brings us back to the problem stigmatization judged by state or individual behavior.) Overall, Ali argued, the 16 billion Euros hindered rather than helped integration.
2. Is Holland an open Society?
Yes. The state does not unnecessarily curtail individual freedoms and in fact takes an active role in trying to help its citizens. Holland’s problems come not from its not being open, but from its being too open. Indeed, its greatest problem comes from its excessive tolerance of crime. It doesn’t enforce the laws that are on the books. This started with “soft” drugs, but now includes either no prosecution or very light sentences for petty thefts, even for break-ins. And what “worked” for the Dutch in the later 20th century, is proving an invitation to crime across the boards for the immigrant population. (In other words, Dutch society is so open its brains are falling out.)
The question we need to ask, however, (and should have been asked by the organizers, who carefully left Islam out of the list of questions), is: Is Islam compatiable with open society? To this Ali answered yes and no. The behavior of many Muslim immigrants – petty crime, dropping out of school, welfare, criminal activities – are not caused by Islam, which is opposed to such behavior. But political Islam is definitely not compatible, and political Islam is perfectly capable of indoctrinating petty thieves into thinking that plundering Europeans is a form of Jizya (tax on unbelievers) that they can take in good conscience as Muslims. Here, she argued, was a dogmatic source of self-segregation. One that took the natural tendency of a foreign culture to stay apart from the host country’s culture and turn it into a principle. This, she insisted, was not in itself inherent in Islam, but for many Muslims it appealed to a primitive mindset. And the distinctive dress, from the burkas to the beards, was a way of advertising the separation: “look at me, this is my religion.”
The Dutch reaction to these immigrants has been a combination of indulgence, indifference and incomprehension. We ignore you, we leave you alone to do what you want, and when you complain we say, “let’s talk.” But if the other side doesn’t want to talk, Ali commented, the talks lead nowhere. And when the talking stops, the violence starts. So the Dutch keep saying, “let’s talk some more.”
3. Who are the true victims?
Here Ali distinguished between individual and group rights. Women and children are the first victims to those who argue “group rights.” They insist that the state does not respect their religion, and it should stay out of communal affairs. In the meantime, these same men play by a set of rules the, by the standards of an open and liberal society, deny women and children basic rights. In this clash of cultures one side is wrong: either the state for intruding on the community, or the community for violating the basic state-assured rights of some of its members. (In my language this is a clash between the values and practices of a prime divider society and a civil society. Historically the norm is civil societies as enclaves in a sea of civil societies [Jews, medieval urban communes, apostolic movements], but here it’s the opposite, tribal prime-divider patriarchies in the midst of advanced, egalitarian, civil societies.)
More and more, Imams are insisting that in all social matters God’s authority is indisputable, and more and more, when given a choice between a liberal and a radical Imam, young, highly educated Muslims in Holland prefer the radical Imam. (Ali did not elaborate on this, and no one picked up on it in the question-and-answer session, but it sounds like the kind of phenomenon that historians and sociologists have long noted, namely that when a society produces more educated people than it can employ – or more ominously, whose expectations it cannot meet – then these unemployed and disappointed individuals become the core of revolutionary movements. In other words, like money, education is not a clean “solution” to the problem of extremism.)
4. and 5. What solutions have been tried and which have worked?
Here Ali waxed ever-so slightly mordant when she said, “lots of talk… lots of money.” And although the effects can’t be measured, they don’t seem to have helped much. On the contrary, they may have contributed to the problem. There problems are both in the public and the private sphere. For a long time it was private: domestic violence against women and children, something the state has a hard time with. If you empower women, teach them to defend themselves, then it makes it impossible for them to live in their own cultures. Thus women’s shelters, where women come to flee abuse, become mere “time-out” zones before they go back to a system that will not accommodate any changes that favor the rights of the women.
But recently, and increasingly, it has become a problem of public space, in which people, especially women, do not feel safe in public. This is an immense problem. People must feel safe in public, Ali insisted. But so far, things have been going increasingly out of control: the state’s attitude is this “benign” neglect of its own laws, of tolerating intolerance, of letting people increasingly infringe on the laws regulating public peace so as not to create still more violence. And when things get worse, the Dutch response is, “let’s talk.” (Note here that this response – let’s talk, let’s negotiate without violence, “we can work it out…” – is part and parcel of “moral Europe’s” self-definition whereby they are superior to the American cowboys and the Israeli neo-colonials.)
So far, no solution has worked. The state must enforce the law and protect individual rights.
Ali did not go on because the moderator, Allen Counter, cut into her talk at about 40 minutes, invoking the importance of having the other members of the panel speak, and giving her 60 seconds. (I must confess here to a certain astonishment. I would never cut off a speaker without giving at least five minutes warning, much less the featured speaker, a guest from abroad.)
Ahmed Sobhy Mansour
The next speaker, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, presented himself as a Muslim sheikh, that is, the equivalent of a rabbi (a rather dubious claim), but he was a friendly and gentle man and I don’t think anyone begrudged him his comparison. He proceeded to give us a quick tour or Islam, speaking of three branches – Sunni, Shi’i, and Sufi, and claiming that the vast majority of Muslims belonged to the moderate mixture of Sunni and Sufi. Sunnis without Sufism, however, are the fanatics.
His basic message was optimistic and somewhat simplistic, but something any “liberal” audience would like to hear: He explained that in his life he had learned three major things: 1) Islam is something different from Muslims; 2) radical Muslims are a tiny minority; and 3) It is easy to defeat radical Muslims in the war of ideas. “I did it myself with just a pen.” Islam, he explained is naturally moderate. It doesn’t work to fight it with guns which only encourages the radicals. Rather, fight it with words. His message of moderation, for example, had so upset the radicals that they had to arrest him. (Later it turned out that one of his friends had been assassinated by Egyptian Islamists.)
He explained the meaning of Islam. The word comes from a double root – submission (taslim) and peace (salaam). The proper formula, he insisted, was “submission to God and peace with your fellow man.” (That is a winning “civil society” formula, demotic religion at its best. He didn’t go into the Islamist alternative: “peace” with God (i.e., doing what you think God wants), submission of your fellow man. That’s a classic formula for prime-divider, authoritarian theocracies.) Islam is the enemy of radical Islam, the same enemy that America faces. By using Islam we can defeat the enemies of America. But instead we are fighting with weapons, and making things worse.
While his comments about Islam – were they true – would be most welcome, the fact is that he is so far out of the mainstream as to be inconsequential. Indeed at a number of points in his talk he referred to how one must work only with the Quran and not the hadith, which is a position so radical from a Muslim point of view as to make him a heretic. His “easy victory” over Islam sounds more like a “legend in his own mind” than “in his own time,” and for those who paid close attention to his and his friend’s fate as dissidents, the victory he preached sounded hollow. Indeed, he sounded very much like Hirsi Ali’s “talking” Dutch… full of confidence in the ability to solve these issues with the pen alone and not the sword.
Then came Swanee Hunt, Director of Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s JFK School of Government, a co-sponsor of the talk. Hunt spoke easily with a big smile, as if this were one more “just us progressives here” gathering. She started by expressing her understanding for the problem of fundamentalism and her awareness that it was not just a Muslim problem by recounting her own experiences growing up as Southern Baptist in the south. “This whole business about fundamentalism is not just about Islam. Has anyone read Leviticus lately? It’s just awful about women. Leviticus makes Kandahar look progressive. And it’s in our Bible.”
(Now as far as I can make out, the person who hasn’t read Leviticus lately is Swanee Hunt. The only passage in it that discriminates against women concerns the length of time a woman is impure after giving birth – twice as long for a girl as for a boy. Now to compare that with Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, who threw acid in the face of women who did not wear the burkah, strikes me as more than slightly grotesque. But I think it reflects a tendency among “progressives,” in which a) they self-deprecate by belittling their own religious traditions, and b) they let Islam off as lightly as possible. And furthermore it reflects a classic tendency of Enlightenment post-Christians to belittle Judaism. Indeed, with her remark, “and it’s in our Bible,” Hunt sounded very much like the Gnostics of the 2nd century who wanted to get rid of the “Old Testament” from the Christian Bible.)
Hunt then went on to show empathy for the fundamentalists. “Such beliefs are comforting. It’s a warm fuzzy feeling to think that God is on our side. One has a sense of saving the world. Evangelical fundamentalism, which I grew up with, gives a sense of direction.” She then proceeded to sing, “Does it make any difference to you if a soul dies in sin, God has called you to win…” “When I was in High School,” she continued, “I’d be in the lunch line and think, ‘Okay, before I get to the macaroni and cheese I’m going to tell someone about Jesus.’ So you can see, I’m rather sympathetic with all this.”
She then changed her tack and presented us with her “solution” to the problem. After 9-11 she wrote a letter to the State Department about how to deal with the problem. “Don’t take this head on first in militaristic way. Spend money elevating the role of women in Islam – do mid-level enterprise for women. The place of women is degraded…” She paused, realizing that this characterization was a bit harsh (after all, she was talking about Islam, not Judaism), “I say degraded, maybe minimized.” She continued with her train of thought: Try to deal with the religious radicalization through helping women.
She then gave us the benefit of her observations of her many travels over the past year. In one European country (Sweden?) she talked with women parliamentarians who told her that in the past few years the Parliament had gone from 12 to 45%. And even the women who had been part of the original 12% now acted differently. They dressed differently, talked differently, voted differently. She then asked us if we knew how many women there were in the US Congress? 14%! “Would we have made the decision to go into Iraq if we had had more women in politics? Imagine the societies where women in politics dominate?” She then told a series of hopeful stories about where women have been empowered, like post-genocide Rwanda, and the ways that getting women into politics had improved the situation… “wonderful, wonderful stories about how to raise women’s voices. Our problem is not about religion, but how people use religions to keep other people down.”
(As I listened to her speak, I began to realize that she had just switched her religious evangelism for a secular feminist variety. Salvation lay with the empowerment of women. This was the solution to all our global problems including Islamism. All presented with the glowing enthusiasm of the true believer.
It also occurred to me that she had no idea what the problem was, that although she had sit next to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and listened to her talk, she either did not know about the terrible death threats that Ali lived under, nor the lengths to which the men Hunt herself planned to dispossess of power with her projects would go in order to fight back. Of course anyone who thinks Leviticus is worse than Kandahar apparently knows nothing of Kandahar. And anyone who thinks that what we need is more anti-war politicians, determined not to resort to force under any conditions because talking and legislation will work their modern wonders, is not living in the same universe as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Here was an irony worth pondering. To anyone listening to this exchange between Ali and Hunt without an independent sense of what the stakes were, might think they agree. They would have no idea that they were actually worlds apart. Ali was aware of the incredible difficulty of trying to empower women – hence her remarks on the conflicts between community and individual rights. Hunt’s evangelical optimism suggested that we go full speed ahead in iceberg-laden waters. In the same way that her religious cousins are invading the 10/40 window and creating enormous hostility, her brand of political empowerment for women is a guaranteed way to stir the pot of violence. But she seems to have no idea of what kind of a life Ms. Ali lives in a democracy, much less what kind of a life women who try to “get into politics” live in Kandahar. And if she does, what on earth does she think she’s telling us with her optimistic smile and lively patter? And in any case, how will she process the cognitive dissonance of policies that backfire?)
(Scanlon’s remarks were largely abstract, all good, but, as he mentioned at the outset, he has led a sheltered life. His remarks, accordingly, were solid statements about the importance of freedom of expression, but far from the reality of the violence that lurked in the wings of this polite panel discussion.)
You can’t make offensive speech illegal, he commented, among other things because it’s too easy to take offense. One can’t legislate against such matters, if only because in order to pass such legislation you have to have a free discussion in which the offensive speech is voiced. (Not, of course, in a world where PC makes it possible to pass such legislation without discussion.)
“If religion is important people need to talk about it. What could be more offensive than to listen to arguments why your religion is not good. Oscar Wilde once remarked that “blasphemy is not a word of mine.” Since blasphemy means words meriting a form of condemnation, and he did not believe anything merited condemnation, it was not part of his vocabulary. Critics of publication of the cartoons, critics of Ali and Mansour are wrong.
Taking a philosophical turn that stepped inside religious discourse, he is important is not religion of individual sensibilities, but the true religion. Even if one restricted the discussion to one religion, not between religions, one still needs to leave open the possibility for discussion. One cannot consistently hold that the definition of what the true religion is about not be up for discussion. Otherwise one gives the power to a certain group of maintaining control over others. (No duh! That’s the point of Islamists.)
Of course, being the scrupulous thinker he is, Scanlon pointed out that this principle cuts both ways: while such a law allows us to criticize the fundamentalists, it also stops people who want to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from taking over the communities.
The first question came from a woman with a crewcut.
“As a politician did you ever considered the crime you have committed against the immigrants? Is there any difference between the murderer and you who provoke?”
(To unpack the question, she was essentially saying that by criticizing Islam, Ali was victimizing the poor immigrants, and that in so doing, she was as responsible for the death of Theo van Gogh as the Dutch-born Moroccan immigrant who killed Van Gogh in broad daylight in a street in Amsterdam and attached a letter to Ali with a knife through his chest. She was clearly not an observant Muslim, and may not have been a Muslim at all. After all, her position was classic PCP2: Western colonialists were always to blame; Third-World victims always innocent; violence a legitimate recourse for the wretched of the earth. I hope Swanee Hunt was taking notes on what kinds of positions women were capable of taking, but somehow I doubt it.)
Ali responded clearly:
There’s a huge crime against women going on in Holland. I responded to the call. That is not victimizing people. We would not be able to live a free life if we say that others are responsible for their behavior. Our single rights have been trampled. I’m against stigmatizing anyone who draws attention to the crimes done in the name of religion. (Simple lesson in the ethics and psychology of freedom from an Muslim African Dutch immigrant to an elite Western radical. Woman to woman. Transmission interrupted.)
The gentleman sitting next to me, apparently knowledgeable about the situation asked why Ali made her movie with Van Gogh.
“Islam, I was taught – was about the relationship between God and individual, one of master and slave. But not people with people. So I wanted to use women to expose the position of women, and the way in which Muslims force women to submit to their husbands. I took the worst verses in the Quran about women (including the one on beating them) and wrote them on women’s bodies. What enraged the Muslims about the movie Submission was that I put verses from the Holy Quran on women’s bodies. They were more worried about the fact that the verses were on the bodies of women, than the content of the verses. The purpose was to raise questions and create debate. But after the murder of Van Gogh it was buried by security concerns. After the murder the movie was not shown again.”
(Violence, apparently, works.)
Another question came from a woman wearing an orange veil, and was directed to Ahmed Mansour: “What do you think of Ayaan Hirsi Ali whose clear message is different from yours, that is, that source of problem is the Prophet and Quran, not Muslims. Why aren’t you not coming out and attacking her? Instead, you are failing the Muslim world and its values. She is an apostate.”
In his response, Mansour argued that within the Quran there is no such penalty (death for apostates) in Islam. On the contrary Islam gives unlimited freedom of speech and thought for everyone. Submission to God is up to every individual’s choice, and each one will have to answer to God on the Day of Judgment. No one has authority to judge you. Thus, while he might disagree with her, Ahmed felt no need to attack her for her position, on the contrary felt she had every right to express it. (Such a comment, from a committed Muslim, was a rare and pleasant sight for this liberal’s sore eyes.)
Final Comments: The evening was a huge disappointment, but also a lesson in the power of the PC police to neutralize the most powerful kinds of threats. By insisting that Ali appear on a panel with three others, including – de rigueur – a Muslim, and giving her prepackaged questions that did not include, for example, what do you think will be the fate of Holland? the organizers managed to wrestle this extraordinary woman’s message into the ground.
Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of the panel was the vast gap between herself and Swanee Hunt, despite appearances that they were both fighting the good fight for women’s rights. One, but only one, of Ali’s complaints was a Dutch liberal world in which the answer to violence is more talk. “Let’s talk… we can negotiate… we can work it out.” Swanee was the epitome of “we can talk,” filled with empathy, quick to “self”-criticize, and show sympathy. Her ability to smile her way through a situation as tragic as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, to deal with a threat as menacing and merciless as Islamist Jihad with the panacea of women’s political involvement left me stunned.
Ali, perhaps intimidated by the scene, concerned not to make any statements that might be taken as outrageous, was low-key and largely ineffective. We could have just as easily had a talk from some cautious, politically correct sociologist picking his way through treacherous terrain. A fine Muslim with a heretical view of the Hadith, a progressive feminist with evangelical fervor, and an honest, if rather abstract, philosopher of religion… all chains around her neck. No discussion of Global Jihad, of Eurabia, no details on the gruesome violence that increasingly spills out from the Islamic enclaves into the public streets of Europe.
And in the end… my guess is, most people walked away none the wiser, unaware that they had just witnessed one of the most dignified and courageous voices of true progressivism, a voice, moreover, that comes not from the hot-house civil societies of the West, but from the world of African Islam.
Postscript: The latest news from Holland is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not only being kicked out of her house, but possibly out of her country.
Christopher Hitchens notes:
But here is the grave and sad news. After being forced into hiding by fascist killers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali found that the Dutch government and people were slightly embarrassed to have such a prominent “Third World” spokeswoman in their midst. She was first kept as a virtual prisoner, which made it almost impossible for her to do her job as an elected representative. When she complained in the press, she was eventually found an apartment in a protected building. Then the other residents of the block filed suit and complained that her presence exposed them to risk. In spite of testimony from the Dutch police, who assured the court that the building was now one of the safest in all Holland, a court has upheld the demand from her neighbors and fellow citizens that she be evicted from her home. In these circumstances, she is considering resigning from parliament and perhaps leaving her adopted country altogether. This is not the only example that I know of a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction, but I hope at least that it will shame us all into making The Caged Virgin a best seller.
On the effort to expel her from the country:
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch legislator who has championed the rights of Muslim women, is returning from a book tour to a firestorm for lying on her asylum application when she fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage.
Hirsi Ali, 36, said Saturday she was puzzled by the uproar since she publicly acknowledged the false refugee application when she stood for parliament in 2002.
“Have they all gone mad?” she said, accusing her rivals of a political vendetta.
“Yes, I did lie to get asylum in Holland. This is public knowledge since at least September 2002,” she said in a telephone call from Hamburg, Germany.
Political opponents want her stripped of her Dutch citizenship and deported. Others say she should be expelled from parliament.
For the most recent post, with links to others posting on this issue, see the Liberty and Justice, and the predictably cogent analysis at Peaktalk.