It pains me to write this. I have long been an admirer of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and a critic of her critics, especially her academic critics who spurned this fearless defender of the values of Western civilization while elevating apologists for militant Islam.Her story is a heroic one. She left her native Africa and gained political asylum in the Netherlands, where she rose to become a Member of Parliament. She wrote a screenplay for a film about the maltreatment of women under Islam, produced by Theo Van Gogh, the distant cousin of the famous artist. For this he was killed, and the assassin pinned to his chest a threat against the life of Hirsi Ali herself.Eventually she emigrated to the United States to become a member of a prominent conservative think tank, though she herself was quick to explain that she is not a conservative but a “classical liberal.” The author of three books, she also created a foundation to protect women and girls around the world from forced marriage, honor killings, and female genital mutilation.For good reason, Brandeis University selected Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree—and Harvard selected her to be a Fellow of the JFK School of Government—but, in apparent response to complaints from CAIR, an organization that purports to be a Muslim version of the Anti-Defamation League, and from faculty1 and students, Brandeis cancelled the honorary degree. Now, Brandeis stands accused of appeasement and censorship.Brandeis probably shares with much of the academic world an allergy to intellectual diversity even while making daily pronouncements about the benefits of diversity. But there is a problem with Hirsi Ali. In a now infamous interview in 2007 with the libertarian Reason magazine, she stated unambiguously that “we are at war with Islam.” The interviewer gave her a chance to clarify, to distinguish between “radical Islam” and “Islam” but she left no room for misinterpretation: “there is no moderate Islam,” she said.The interviewer offered as a counterpoint the words of President George W. Bush that “we are not at war with Islam.” He’s wrong, she said. The interviewer also offered the words of the conservative Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, who once said “Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution.” He’s wrong, too, she said.One could give her credit for independence of mind but her statements are not only wrong, they are counterproductive in the extreme.If we accept that Islam is the enemy, what are the implications for our relations with the 57 Muslim-majority countries around the world? With countries as diverse as Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world; or Egypt, whose signature on the peace treaty with Israel brought an end to Israel’s conventional wars with her neighbors; or Saudi Arabia, whose alliance with the US has been crucial to the economic health of the Western industrialized world; or Morocco, whose King (a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, according to tradition) epitomizes moderation and religious tolerance; or Kosovo, whose population is said to be among the most pro-American in the world (with streets named after Presidents Clinton and Bush)?And what about the 2 million or more Muslims who are citizens of the United States? Or the 160 million Muslims in India, who, though a minority, constitute the third largest Muslim population in the world? Are they all enemies?Statements such as hers can succeed only in turning friends into enemies. It is the height of irony that if she wins adherents to her way of thinking, she will in effect do what bin Laden dreamed of—turn all Muslims into enemies of the West.It might be said that liberals confuse criticism of Islamism, the ideology, with criticism of Islam, the religion. At the same time, some conservatives (or “classical liberals”) seem to confuse Islam with Islamism. Those who miss that crucial distinction do a great disservice to the West, and only serve to multiply the reserve forces of Al Qaeda and its ilk.Academia often seems to cultivate in people an inability to distinguish good guys from bad guys. Sadly, it’s particularly hard for all of us to make those distinctions when the good guys (or gals) act like bad guys, and bad guys consequently benefit from the opportunity to masquerade as good guys.
1The faculty letter urging cancellation of Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree almost persuaded me—unintentionally—that honoring her was the right thing to do, for among the “offenses” it cites is her acceptance of “the triumphalist narrative of Western civilization.” To me, that is her virtue, not her vice.