New atheist/ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been one of the people of interest to be discussed as of late. After much outcry, she lost an honorary degree that Brandeis University had intended to award her. They cite in their statement that Hirsi Ali’s “past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” That was their politically correct way of saying they did not realize the extent her Islamophobia and bigotry had gone to when they initially wanted to award her that degree.
At the time there was a bit of social media lashing out that came from some figures, particularly among the new atheist crowd. Somehow it was turned into a freedom of speech issue, which it was most definitely not. For others it was a bogus Islamophobia issue – enter Sam Harris.
In spite of the increasing awareness of something wrong taking place in how Islam and Muslims are being viewed by some, Harris and other Islamophobia deniers refuse to acknowledge it as a real thing. They cover their bigotry with a veneer of what they call “justified criticism.” For those who have trouble with the term, a report was released in 1991 in which it was used for the first time to incorporate the following cocktail of attitudes that Hirsi Ali, Harris, and many in their camp most definitely harbour:
- Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities
- Islam does not share common values with other major faiths
- Islam as a religion is inferior to the West. It is archaic, barbaric, and irrational.
- Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism.
- Islam is a violent political ideology.
Individuals like Harris and Hirsi Ali are not concerned to find out any truth. They may pretend to be rational, but they fit a description of the “sham inquirer” as put forth by Susan Haack:
A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth…. A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.
Neither sham nor fake inquiry is really inquiry; but we need to get beyond this tautology to understand what is wrong with sham and fake reasoning. The sham inquirer tries to make a case for the truth of a proposition his commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof.
In response to the onslaught of criticism directed at Hirsi Ali, including the online battle over whether Brandeis University was right to retract the honorary degree she was scheduled to receive, Harris decided to interview his dear friend Hirsi Ali so he can do his part to improve her image and “debunk” Islamophobia. What is great about this interview is that it offers a case study to show the blatant inconsistency and intellectual dishonesty that both Harris and Hirsi Ali bring to the table.
The first part of the interview was dedicated to context. Hirsi Ali was exposed in the past for having lied to gain asylum in Holland. Much of her story and what seems to be an over-dramatized and in certain aspects flat out fabricated family history were a subject of a television documentary. To address this, Harris gave Hirsi Ali all the space and time in the world to provide the circumstances in which she found herself compelled to lie in order to secure her asylum. What is interesting to note here is the patience, excuses, and personal investment Harris has in Hirsi Ali. He does mention that she is a symbol. So it was not surprising to see him pull all the stops to situate her lies in a context that she provides (and we cannot independently confirm by the way) in order to make everyone OK with the fact that she is a liar.
Once Hirsi Ali’s lies are contextualized for the reader, she remarks that her lies are not used against her per se. Rather, they are used as an instrument for a vilification campaign. Interestingly, both Harris and her immediately proceed with a quick use of their own vilification campaign instruments. They make mention of their usual talking points about what they say are problems in Islam: women inequality with men, apostasy, blasphemy, honor killings, denying girls education, denying women to leave their homes without male permission, marriages for girls as young as 9, female genital mutilation, and stoning of homosexuals. These talking points have been addressed more than enough by Muslim figures (just do an honest hour of impartial research to find out how culture can trump religion in the Muslim world) but that does not matter for Harris and Hirsi Ali. They are sham inquirers after all.
Harris then asks Hirsi Ali about the difficulties she faced in pitching her work and why she works with the right-wing neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, a think tank she is criticized for associating with. She went on to outline how she received no interest from reputable institutions for her work, including the Brookings Institute, Georgetown, and John Hopkins. But Harris framed it in a liberal context:
So the truly mortifying answer to the question of why you are at the AEI is that no liberal institution would offer you shelter when you most needed it – and when your value to the global conversation about free speech, the rights of women, and other norms of civilization was crystal clear. And ever since, your affiliation with the one institution that did take you in has been used to defame you in liberal circles. Perfect.
Hirsi Ali tried to peddle the “they know my liberal stances on social issues and my atheism but do not challenge them” bit. The fact that the AEI does not challenge Hirsi Ali is not evidence for the institution’s impartiality. As Harris already mentioned at the very beginning, she is a symbol. What she serves as a symbol for an institution like AEI is far more valuable to them than to let her liberal positions, which they most certainly would have problems with, stand in the way of their greater Islamphobic causes.
When asked about the fierce criticisms she receives from moderate Muslims, Hirsi Ali claims it is a response to her putting them in a state of dissonance by what she says. That is a statement coming from someone who has a grandiose sense of self. The fact of the matter is that she does no such thing. Contrary to how she is popularized by her supporters, Hirsi Ali does not focus her efforts at women’s issues because her primary motive is women’s rights. If they were, she would not have the notoriety that she has today. Her major issue is with Islam (being an ex-Muslim Islamophobe is quite lucrative). She has stated this several times, and this is why she revels in the spot light. She and Harris casually dismiss everyone who does not see Islam the way they do, much the same way that extremists like Al-Qaeda do to other Muslims. Hirsi Ali and Harris are as rational when it comes to Islam, and religion in general for that matter, as any fanatic. The only difference is that they stand on the opposite end of the extremism spectrum. Their minds are fundamentalist minds.
Hirsi Ali wonders why she is always seen as a controversial figure. All one has to see is her inflammatory language, her constant equivocation between Islam as a religion and Muslims as a people, and her insistence at issuing wholesale blanket statements about all Muslims. What is a cause for wonder is her wonderment about why she is considered a controversial figure when she has made statements like, “The battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realize that it is not just with extremist elements within Islam, but with the ideology of Islam itself.” If there should be a picture for the definition of Islamophobia, it should be of Hirsi Ali above this quote.
Like her dear friend Harris, Hirsi Ali also skillfully decontextualizes, and in some instances fabricates juristic rulings and attributes them to Islam. The decontextualization is evident in how she brings up inheritance laws, in which she cites one case where a woman inherits less than a man but ignores other cases where she inherits more (yes, believe it or not, inheritance laws in Islam are quite elaborate and more complicated than Hirsi Ali would like everyone to believe). The fabrication stands out screaming when she claims that under Islamic law, a woman’s testimony against her rapist is worth half of her rapist’s. This is a flat out and unequivocal lie. I do not say this based on my opinion or minority interpretations of Scripture. It is clearly stated in the Quran. But then again, why let facts get in the way?
The only reason people would believe Hirsi Ali’s lies about Islam is because of her sinister ability to equivocate between Islam and Muslims, coupled with sensationalist stories sometimes reported in the media where Muslim women do face much oppression and injustice in Muslim countries. She claims that “all these oppressions are justified using the core texts of Islam: the Koran and the hadith.” What the readers may not pick on is the difference between whether a practice is justified by Scripture, or if Scripture justifies a practice (there is a world of a difference between these two!). Then again, context only matters when we try to justify why Hirsi Ali is a known liar, but not when she and Harris vilify a religion upheld by over 1.6 billion people.
Not to miss the opportunity, Harris then brings in his own contentions about Jihad, making statements about all that fanaticism and violence we see in the Muslim world and how Islam is its ultimate source. Of course, anyone who spends just ten minutes online to look up the different polls conducted will see how Harris is a master at selection and omission. Sham inquiry takes skill after all. That is not to say that religion is not utilized in mobilizing violent forces in conflict regions (which is not all the Muslim world as Harris makes it seem), or even by fanatics who live among us. But the overly simple-minded analysis Harris offers to blame Islam is getting quite tiresome to read.
Let us not completely disregard the fact that there are extremists within Islam who approach Scripture in a deeply problematic way. Religion is an essential component of a Muslim’s life. But for Harris and Hirsi Ali, they only recognize its importance when it suits them, i.e., in the context of violent extremists who cite religion as their motivation to oppress women or commit violent acts. As for the overwhelming majority who cite religion for their peaceful coexistence with and acceptance of others, and even for elevating the status of women and condemning extremism, Harris and Hirsi Ali would readily tell us that these are people who do not take their religion seriously. So indeed, as Harris points out in the interview, the game is rigged. But not quite as he says – it is rigged for his and Hirsi Ali’s benefit.
When Hirsi Ali cites the numerous issues facing American Muslim women with regards to summoning the courage to leave their abusive husbands, for example, she conveniently omits all local efforts and organizations set up by American Muslims themselves to address these problems from within. How she states the case, of course, further vilifies the religion and props her up as the savior. She makes it seem to the readers that it is her efforts finally coming to the aid of “Muslim women [who] have no one to talk to.” (Should point out how she and Harris talk about domestic violence in a way that gives the impression to the reader that it is a uniquely Muslim problem, which it is most certainly not!)
After all this, Harris has the nerve to accuse her critics of being dishonest!
Hirsi Ali then goes on to criticize how Muslims took advantage of the horrific murder of the Iraqi woman named Shaima Alawadi a couple of years ago. Granted, before the case was fully investigated, different campaigns were prematurely underway to pin this as an Islamophobia hate crime. But it ultimately turned out to be the husband who killed his wife. Hirsi Ali cites the reason to be her seeking a divorce and swiftly concludes it was an honor killing. How she could have known that and come to this callous conclusion, which in the context of the interview would pin it to Islam, is yet to be substantiated – not that she really cares to substantiate anything anyways.
The sinister nature of the conversation manifests throughout all of it. In one section, Harris talks about suicide bombing and jihad at the same time, letting the reader equivocate between the two on their own. He then concludes the paragraph by stating that most Muslims support jihadism, which in the mind of the reader would make it follow that most Muslims support suicide bombing.
There is more to say about this pernicious interview. Harris casually makes assertions about what tenets Islam has and which are “central”, including his claim that death for apostasy is one such tenet (I have already discussed this issue in the recent Saudi and Sudan contexts). Hirsi Ali makes the overly simplistic claim that the latest coup in Egypt was because the people did not want to live under Sharia (How she could make this claim as someone who supposedly holds an M.A. in political science is puzzling. But then again, did she lie about her education like she lied about so much else? What can we really believe about her with all her fabrications?). Both Harris and Hirsi Ali position themselves as the concerned rational freedom fighting moral agents who just want to emancipate Muslims from their “harmful religion”. They are none of those things.
The problem is not just in how Hirsi Ali or Harris say things. It is also in what they say. Both of them are academically dishonest. They decontextualize and fabricate. They quote mine and use double standards that suit their purposes. Context only matters for their statements and actions. The extremism Harris and Hirsi Ali espouse is a stealth type. In contrast to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda who they are so concerned about, Harris and Hirsi Ali are among a group of people in the West who rather than personally plan or carry out violent attacks against civilians, they provide the pseudorational framework for those who orchestrate such attacks. Reading the conversation between Hirsi Ali and Harris reminded me of a passage in Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which I will leave you with:
Harris follows the line of least resistance. He does not engage in the hard and laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Self-criticism and self-reflection are a waste of time. Nuance and complexity ruins the entertainment and defeats the simple, neat solutions he offers up to cope with the world’s problems. He does not deal in abstractions. He sees all people as clearly defined. The world as divided into those who embrace or reject his belief system. Those that support him are good, and forces for human progress. Those that oppose him are ignorant at best, and probably evil. He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship. Complexity makes it impossible to speak in absolutes. Complexity spoils the game.
Atheists like Harris, like the Christian fundamentalists, consider themselves the vanguard. They are the chosen few. They see and know the truth. They claim, like all of the elect throughout history, to be able to carry out the will of God or give us the tools that will advance human destiny. They have been given, by their own superiority and insight, the right to impose their vision on the rest of us. This vision is as seductive as it is absurd… Reality cries out against the impossibility of such a vision. But reality is not an impediment to fundamentalists, lured into the warm embrace of a world devoid of intellectual constructs and a confrontation with reality. The utopian dream repeatedly overpowers the intellect because it satisfies deep emotional and psychological longings. It fosters an exalted sense of self-worth. It justifies our indiscriminate use of power. Built on a scaffolding of lies, such beliefs allow the believer to reject compassion and empathy. They eradicate individual conscience. They are hard to resist.
p.s. I got a comment about this piece that I thought may be of interest to the one or two Harris and Hirsi Ali supporters who happen to genuinely be after actual rational inquiry and accidentally read this despite the internet algorithms that keep us enclosed in our own bubbles preaching to our own choirs:
“Hirsi Ali exists in her political form because — and this isn’t something that gets enough attention — there is a wider community who are predisposed to accepting the kind of things she says about Islam. She has a massive white liberal support base who aren’t necessarily openly critical of Islam but whose latent orientalism gets reaffirmed. For them, it matters little that she is contradictory, factually incorrect and has lied in the past. Her veneer of ‘authenticity’ (former muslim) makes it all go away.” – Sahar Ghumkhor