In the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali v. Brandeis University (not a real legal case, at least not yet), I am on Team Brandeis. Though I’d never dispute that Hirsi Ali has the right to express her views on Islam, I don’t think those views should be legitimized with an honorary doctorate, and I also don’t think Brandeis violated the overarching principle of free speech by rescinding it. They extended an invitation for her to speak on campus, which strikes a fair balance.
Those of us who’ve expressed concern over Hirsi Ali’s views have been accused, frequently, of being afraid to criticize religion. I can obviously only speak for myself, but I think this is a facetious accusation. I opposed Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree because she repeats the same tired, Orientalist “clash of civilizations” myth that has so disastrously influenced Western relations with the East for centuries. I further opposed her degree because she blamed advocates of multiculturalism for driving white supremacist Anders Breivik to commit mass murder, and believes Christians should forcibly convert Muslims.
I have been told I should excuse those statements because of her personal experiences with Islam. There’s some evidence she fabricated much of her background, but I am not particularly concerned with the sanctity of national borders and therefore don’t care if she lied to receive asylum or not. At minimum, it seems clear she did undergo female genital mutilation, which is a deplorable violation of her human rights.
Like Hirsi Ali, I consider myself a women’s rights activist. You won’t find me apologizing for FGM, or indeed for any practice that restricts women’s rights, regardless of whether or not religious arguments are used to justify it. I am not a cultural relativist.
Still, I think Hirsi Ali’s statements about Islam cross a red line, and this forces me to consider another question: how do we criticize religion?
This is so obvious that I’m depressed it even has to be mentioned, but make sure your criticisms are accurate. For example: there is absolutely nothing Islamic about FGM. Grab a Quran and look for it. You won’t find anything about FGM in it. You also won’t find anything justifying forced marriage, or mandating veils.
It’s certainly true that the above practices are common in some predominately Muslim countries. It’s also true that imams often participate in perpetuating these practices. But as I witnessed over and over again in Christianity, and for that matter in atheism, people have never hesitated to abuse a belief system to justify their own prejudices. The root of the problem is human nature, not Islam.
In the case of FGM specifically, the practice is not limited to Muslim communities. According to Forward, a British human rights organization, it’s also practiced by Christians, animists, and even non-believers. Contrary to what Hirsi Ali would like you to believe, it’s not in any reasonable sense an Islamic practice. And it happens to pre-date Islam.
It’s fair to criticize Muslim leaders in some communities for not doing enough to combat the practice. It’s inaccurate to claim that Islam, or even religion itself, is the source of the problem. Religion doesn’t enjoy an exclusive monopoly on misogyny.
Understand The Implications
As reported by Religion News Service today, atheists and agnostics experience the lowest percentage of hate crimes in the United States. This could be because of their low numbers; regardless, it seems obvious from the data that anti-atheist violence isn’t particularly prevalent in the US.
Muslims and Jews, however, experience much higher rates given their numbers, and Muslims and Sikhs are most likely to become victims of bias-motivated manslaughter and homicide. This is probably because these groups are most visibly religious–and non-white. Atheism in the United States is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men, and as a result, privilege is at play.
Much has been made of a 2012 Gallup poll that revealed 43% of Americans would choose not to vote for an atheist. The same poll showed that 40% of Americans would avoid voting for a Muslim candidate. That’s a statistical dead heat once you control for margin of error.
There’s certainly still discrimination against atheists; I don’t intend to erase that fact. Nevertheless, I think it’s false to claim that atheists are a persecuted minority in the US. The available data just doesn’t support it. That claim is much more applicable to the American Muslim community (and I’m focusing on this community, rather than another minority faith, due to the context of the Hirsi Ali controversy).
The consequences of repeating inaccuracies about a marginalized group can be severe. This contributes to prejudice and that in turn can lead to violence. At the very least, it gives the impression that atheists are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of anti-Muslim violence. How rational are we, really, if we can’t bring ourselves to admit the facts?
In a global context, repeating inaccuracies is similarly damaging. There seems to be a prevailing misconception that in Islamic states, Muslims are privileged over everyone else, and this is only partially true. In Bahrain, for example, the Sunni minority is privileged over a Shiite majority. In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims are accused of blasphemy right alongside Christians and atheists.
The reality is that in Islamic states, as in all states, the ruling class is privileged over all others and ultimately, this has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the construction and maintenance of power. To cosign Hirsi Ali’s sentiments is to endorse a dangerously simplistic perspective on the world. This does not assist the project of advancing human rights. Rather, it restricts it.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Proceed with caution. If you’re truly invested in advancing human rights, including women’s rights, make sure your critiques are accurate. Do your research. Know your history. Take the time to talk to people who practice the faith you’re about to criticize; you lose nothing by hearing another perspective.
Your enemy is not faith. Your enemy is fundamentalism, in all of its forms. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s better to criticize specific practices and the individuals directly responsible for perpetuating them rather than an entire faith. It’s more accurate, and when we’re discussing issues this sensitive and this important, accuracy is to be preferred.
And finally: if you’re willing to cosign a sweeping attack, especially one put forward by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on an entire belief system you have some immediate soul-searching to do. The facts are simply not in your favor.