Hirsi Ali, Islam, and Cultural Relativism: The Brandeis Controversy

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Hirsi Ali. Credit: Creative Commons

I write this on Easter Sunday. A little less than a month from now, on May 18, 2014, Brandeis University will hold its sixty-third commencement ceremony. I shall not be there; I am south of the Equator in Brazil. Someone else also will not be there —Somali feminist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I am glad she will not be. An invitation extended to her was withdrawn by the president of the university, Fred Lawrence. Many of the faculty had signed a letter of protest and the Muslim Students Association had added its voice. Yet, the whole episode leaves me with bittersweet taste. I was left with a nagging question. Ross Douhat in the New York Times said that the university should just come out and confess its bias: “I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.” Elsewhere in the media the dustup at Brandeis was portrayed as a speed-bump in the battle over free speech. It was much more. In an age of identity politics can we criticize the formerly colonized or semi-colonized “Two-Thirds World” (in the faculty letter’s terminology)? How to address female genital mutilation in Somalia, slavery in Mauritania and the lynching of gays in Kenya? Especially when such occurrences are clothed with the authority of religion, how do we respond?
I first read Hirsi Ali two years ago while on a trip to Australia. I was initially much impressed. She spoke truth to power. Raised in Somalia, she had been subject to female genital mutilation (“clitoridectomy”). Her education had been in both Kenya and Saudi Arabia. At an early age her family attempted to force her into marriage. She fled to the Netherlands, became a social worker and, rather remarkably, a member of parliament. Subsequently, she moved to the U.S. and became a fellow of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (She is also attached to the conservative American Enterprise Institute). Before she left Europe, in a macabre mockery of Islamic feminism, a fundamentalist group said that, wherever she went, the “sisters” would find and kill her. This odyssey (dare I say hegira) story, full of passion, pain and hope, held me in its grip.
Then the bottom fell out. I read that Ms. Ali had called Islam a “cult of death” and called not for its reformation, but for its destruction. I held on, hope against hope. Then I read in one of her books that she urged the Catholic Church to target young Muslims in Europe. Islam was an old and ossified faith and Catholicism would be a great counterweight. Now, the Catholic Church has been many things historically, but to me as a historian, this is both ahistorical and dangerous. The Church has been no friend of women’s rights on matters well beyond the ordination of clergy — for example reproductive choice. Also, what would I think if someone urged the Catholic Church to launch a new militant campaign to convert young Jews from an old and ossified faith?
In her zeal against Islam, Hirsi Ali has become a crusader, with all that that implies. However, we should be very careful when castigating Africans who speak out against gender and/or sexual abuse. Their oppressors hide behind tradition and religion; we cannot become tacit collaborators in the very abuses we so loudly condemn elsewhere. Out of this brouhaha we can rescue a “teachable moment.” Years ago, as chair of African and Afro-American Studies, I invited former Brandeisian Angela Davis to speak. After the talk a student introduced me to a young Middle Eastern couple. The man had a most earnest demeanor. I shook his hand and he told me that he had greatly appreciated Davis’ message. I turned to his spouse, who was heavily veiled, standing behind him and completely silent. I went to shake her hand. The young man quickly interposed himself and told me that this was strictly forbidden. It occurred to me that, however well-meaning this person might be, he and I were not on the same page. Indeed, we were perhaps on the opposite side of many issues of importance to American progressives. If we are to form coalitions with ethno/religious groups, let’s put everything on the table; for instance, is it necessary that men and women have absolutely the same civil rights in all societies? Can we work with anyone who aims at less than that?
A lion in denouncing abuses in Africa, come what may, has been Wole Soyinka. Two months ago I watched the Nigerian writer help memorialize Nelson Mandela at Harvard. He was sonorous and impressive. I told a Muslim friend about the event and, to my surprise, he angrily said that novelist was Islamophobic. I searched for a verifiable basis for the accusation. I found it. Soyinka has proclaimed that “England is a cesspit. England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist ­Muslims. Its social logic is to allow all religions to preach openly. But this is illogic, because none of the other religions preach apocalyptic violence.” With this statement, we are in Hirsi Ali territory (or perhaps a little beyond it). What is remarkable is that few are going to take on the Noble Prize winning male elder of African letters. He is not Hirsi Ali.
Over fifteen years ago, Soyinka gave the Sakarov Lecture at Brandeis. The title of his speech was “Cultural Relativism and Absolute Rights.” Sadly, the lecture produced little discussion on campus or off. Maybe we should go back to it and begin again- a teachable moment a generation late.