“Neutrality is at times a graver sin than belligerence” – Louis Brandeis
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s appearance at Yale in New Haven was preceded by the usual fuss. But she did appear, and that in itself was a minor triumph. An earlier appearance at Brandeis at which Hirsi Ali was to receive an honorary degree was shut down by protesters who argued that the speaker was anti-Islamic, and Brandeis, a university named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, covered itself in dishonor by acceding to the protesters.
Louis Brandeis, whose path to the Supreme Court was littered with anti-Semitism, knew that those opposed to free speech usually succeed in their aims by stirring up fear: “Fear of serious injury alone cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”
Indeed, loosening the bonds of fear was one of the reasons Brandeis University was instituted, and naming the university after Brandeis was a brash defiance thrown in the faces of those who knew not the man. The founding of Brandeis University was the fitting capstone to a life dedicated to justice, education, open government, and Judaism.
Yale is not Brandeis. The William F. Buckley Jr. Program atYale, which had sponsored Ms. Hirsi Ali’s appearance at the university on Monday, September 15, was pressured by petitioners to allow experts on Islam to commandeer the event, but the group stoutly refused to allow Ms. Hirsi Ali’s message to be massaged by the usual suspects. Signatories to the petition were:
The Women’s Center
Asian American Student Alliance (AASA)
Black Church at Yale (BCAY)
The Slifka Center
Council on Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)
Yale Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA)
Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship
Hindu Student Council (HSC)
St. Thomas More Undergraduate Council
Youth Evangelical Fellowship
The Arab Students Association (ASA)
Black Student Alliance (BSA)
Yale African Student Association (YASA)
Jews and Muslims at Yale (JAM)
Korean American Students at Yale (KASY)
South Asian Society (SAS)
Yale Friends of Turkey
Nepali Association of Yale-Undergraduate Affiliates (NAYA)
Yale Friends of Israel (YFI)
Japanese American Student Union (JASU)
Yalies for Pakistan
Students of Nigeria
Chinese American Student Association (CASA)
Albanian Students at Yale College
Dominican Student Association
Taiwanese American Society (TAS)
Women’s Leadership Initative (WLI)
Students for Syrian Relief
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)
Asian American Political Action and Education Committee (PAEC)
J Street U
The Muslim Students' Association (MSA)
A recent graduate of Yale, John Masko, who was a staff opinion writer for the Yale Daily News, winced when he saw the Yale Women Center topping the list of those petitioning Yale to allow credentialed scholars of Islam to paint their own picture on Ms. Hirsi Ali’s canvass.
“Ayaan Hirsi Ali,” he wrote, “is one of the world’s most tireless advocates against the physical abuse of women and the practice of female genital mutilation, and she focuses her research and activism on cultures in which these practices are all too common.
“Considering the Women’s Center’s enthusiasm for women’s advocacy, its joining the protest against her visit is surprising, to say the least. More than that, its co-signing the MSA’s [Muslim Students' Association] e-mail (which glibly dismisses Hirsi Ali’s childhood abuse as ‘unfortunate circumstances’) is positively astounding.”
After Ms. Hirsi Ali had been denied a rostrum at Brandeis, she wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, “Here's What I Would Have Said at Brandeis," a suppressed testimony to the courage of women in various countries who had lain under the lash of a sometimes misogynistic Islam:
“When I see millions of women in Afghanistan defying threats from the Taliban and lining up to vote; when I see women in Saudi Arabia defying an absurd ban on female driving; and when I see Tunisian women celebrating the conviction of a group of policemen for a heinous gang rape, I feel more optimistic than I did a few years ago. The misnamed Arab Spring has been a revolution full of disappointments. But I believe it has created an opportunity for traditional forms of authority—including patriarchal authority—to be challenged, and even for the religious justifications for the oppression of women to be questioned.”
In the course of her remarks at Yale, Ms. Hirsi Ali answered the objection lodged by those who first attempted to shut down the event and later argued that Ms. Hirsi Ali was not fit to make general pronouncements on Islam because she was insufficiently credentialed. Ms. Hirsi Ali, the author of "Nomad: My Journey from Islam to America," is a fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard's Kennedy School and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
There are two possible rebuttals to the objection. If only registered Imams were to be permitted to pronounce on Islam, the critics of Islam would shrink considerably in number; the objection itself is a bloody gag forced into the mouths of the victims of what Hirsi Ali called in her remarks “the preachy teachers” that invaded her native Somalia and changed irremediably the long observed peaceful relationship between the practitioners of Islam and the practitioners of other religions.
The inevitable consequences of “preachy teaching” have played out recently in Syria and northern Iraq, where ISIS – not neutral in the matter of apostasy – has attempted to sweep their future caliphate clear of opposition. There the armed “preachy teachers” of Islam managed to make their points with the sharp edge of a knife. Ms. Hirsi Ali spoke at Yale only a few days after “Jihadi John” had sawed off the heads of two American journalists and a British worker who had sought to make life among the poor in Syria less onerous. The gruesome executions were expertly filmed and edited by the propaganda arm of ISIS. The videos were then parceled out to social networking sites and shown around the world.
If Islam is, as advertised, a religion of peace, how does it happen that the Islamic call to the religious life on both the flag of Saudi Arabia and ISIS -- "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God” – is underscored with a sword, Ms. Hirsi Ali asked?
During her remarks, Ms. Hirsi Ali chose to stress a different rebuttal to the charge that she was not an authority on Islam and therefore had best confine her remarks to her own personal experience. She named several other Islamic scholars who had been persecuted by the “preachy teachers” for having professed a more enlightened version the Qur’an and hadith. Unlike her, these scholars could not reasonably be accused of lacking proper credentials. Yet they were imprisoned, beaten, driven from positions of authority in their societies, ostracized and occasionally executed for having had the courage to protest that an unreformed Islam implanted from the 7th into the 21st century may lead to social eruptions and the slaughter of innocents.
Ms. Hirsi Ali’s address was not devoted entirely to her own harrowing personal experience with militant Islam.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s flight from Somalia to the Netherlands, tortuous and full of dangerous twists and turns, was an intellectual pilgrim’s progress from the 7th to the 21st century.
Her family, devout Muslims all, sought political asylum in Kenya after her father, who had studied in Italy and the United States, had openly opposed Siyad Barre, the president of Somalia. Hirsi Ali’s father also opposed the Somalian practice of female circumcision, but her grandmother had the girl circumcised at five years old when her father was abroad. Promised in marriage by her father to a distant Canadian cousin, Hirsi Ali, while traveling from Kenya to visit family in Düsseldorf and Berlin, Germany, fled to the Netherlands instead of Canada.
Filing under a false name, Hirsi Ali (nee Hirsi Magan) was given political asylum and received a resident permit. Owing to a civil war and a serious famine in Somalia at the time, refugees were routinely granted asylum on humanitarian grounds and, on the advice of her aunt, Hirsi Ali told the authorities that she had come directly from Somalia, though she had been a resident of Kenya for eleven years at the time she applied for asylum in the Netherlands.
Once her feet had touched free land, Hirsi Ali took root and began to put forth flowers. She was offered a position in parliament by the conservative VVD party and qualified for a seat in January, 2003. On November 2, 2004, film maker Theo Van Gogh, a relative of the artist Vincent Van Gogh, was found shot to death on a street not far from his office. Dutch Moroccan terrorist Mohammed Bouyeri had murdered Van Gogh and thrust a knife through his chest. Pinned to Van Gogh’s chest by the knife was a rambling, six page religious manifesto.
VanGogh was murdered because he had committed the unpardonable sin of assuming he was a free man in a free country, shaped by the same Enlightenment period that here in the United States had produced a Tom Paine and a Thomas Jefferson. VanGogh had made a film, “Submission,” that dramatized the plight of women in Islamic culture. The knife in the chest and the rambling manifesto, addressed to Hirsi Ali, were radical Islam’s answer to the perceived insult. Following the murder of VanGogh, the notorious Hofstad Network vowed that Hirsi Ali, Submission’s author, would meet the same fate.
One day Hirsi Ali was eating at a restaurant, surrounded by body guards, when she was approached by young student, a recent convert, who tapped her on the shoulder.
''I turned around,'' she recalled in a New York Times magazine story, ''and saw this sweet, young Dutch guy, about 24 years old. With freckles! And he was like, 'Madam, I hope the mujaheddin get you and kill you.' ''
Hirsi Ali handed him her butter knife and said, “Why don’t you do it yourself.”
Before her appearance at Yale, the premises were swept by the police and a bomb sniffing dog, for obvious reasons. The lecture hall was crowded. Around 300 people attended the event. Following the presentation, Ms. Hirsi Ali entertained questions from the audience for a half hour after she had finished delivering her prepared hour long remarks, the central perception of which was that, having been installed in the 21st century from the 7th and never having been touched by reform or the Western Enlightenment, the central core of Islam is irremediably antagonistic to Western perceptions.
The very last question from the audience was in the nature of a compliment. The writer, apparently not a member of the groups protesting Ms. Hirsi Ali’s appearance at Yale, wrote, "You are my hero. Your ideas have changed my world and informed my feminism. You've inspired me to dedicate my life to fight religious extremism. Thank you for being brave."