Ayaan Hirsi Ali chats with Bill Maher: Why do liberals overlook Islamic extremism?

May 16, 2015 • 10:15 am

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a new book out about how to reform Islam: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. I’m nearly done with it, and it’s quite good—except that Muslims will never accept her five suggestions for reforming the faith. (Sample: Muslims must not take the Qur’an literally. That sounds good, but in many Muslim countries it’s a form of heresy punishable by death.) I wish mightily that Muslims would listen to her, but the chances of that are about nil. Nevertheless, it’s a thoughtful book and a good try. It also contradicts her many critics who say that she only wants to wipe Islam from our planet. Perhaps she does, but the book presents a reasonable program of reformation, not extermination.

Hirsi Ali had a conversation about this issue—and about why American liberals turn a blind eye toward Muslim extremists—last night on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” show. One bit is embeddable: the following two minutes. The other five minutes can be seen by clicking on the screenshot at bottom.

The longer clip below, which I recommend, comes from Mediaite, It’s a lovely and civil conversation in which Maher’s snark plays off against Hirsi Ali’s quiet passion. She also summarizes her program for reforming islam. Mediaite‘s summary includes this:

Maher brought up how liberals have targeted Hirsi Ali and may have also had the Muhammad cartoon contest on the brain when he asked why so many liberals, who normally “hate blaming the victim,” do so when it comes to radical Islam.

Hirsi Ali said she’s not sure why liberals do that, and Maher argued that liberals also try to justify so much in a culture that’s decidedly illiberal.

I’m pretty sure why liberals do that: it comes from our long tradition of fighting for the underdog, and Muslims as a group are seen as underdogs. Western incursion into the Middle East, for oil and other purposes, awakens the guilt complex that is latent in all liberals. But of course Muslims aren’t underdogs in places like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

Sadly, in the case of radical Islam, the “underdog” trope conflicts directly with Enlightenment values of judging ideas based on evidence and reason, and somehow our guilt complex has overcome our reason. I guess the palpable evidence of a crowd claiming victimhood (while baying for the blood of heretics and apostates), somehow trumps the more abstract ideas of freedom, equality, and democracy.

To see the longer interview, click on screenshot below and click on the video at the bottom of the linked page:

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.13.59 AM

Say what you will about Maher’s dubious anti-science views, or Hirsi Ali’s erstwhile job at a conservative think tank (the only place that would hire her, for crying out loud), we need these people, for, at least on this issue, they are saying what needs to be said—things that liberals like Ben Affleck or Glenn Greenwald are too obtuse (or cowardly) to recognize.

75 thoughts on “Ayaan Hirsi Ali chats with Bill Maher: Why do liberals overlook Islamic extremism?

  1. Sophisticated Theology for Muslims? Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a step in the right direction.

    But then isn’t Sophisticated Theology for Christianity (or any other ‘extreme’ religion for that matter) a step in the right direction also?

    1. Yep. Still wrong, but a huuuge improvement over people who take their religion literally and (deadly) seriously.

      1. Wrong?
        Are training wheels on kid’s bicycle wrong? Is Father Christmas wrong? I would argue that Sophisticated Theology is useful step towards a lack of theological belief.

        1. I meant “wrong” in the sense of still being incorrect, rather than being immoral or a problem in some way.

          Sophisticated theology, at its core, is no more rational or logical than evangelical belief, but it is a whole lot better in practical terms – i.e. Sophisticated theologians tend not to murder people who disagree with them.

      2. The way I look at we as individuals and collectively have desires (wills). Where these wills come from belong on another thread.

        The question becomes how best to achieve our (collective) desires.

        Regarding incorrect … in a sense our best scientific theories are incorrect, albeit a lot less incorrect than the theological ones. Recognizing this is science’s strength and not a weakness. The science that we practice on bleeding edge by its nature is liable to be incorrect and when ‘correct’ ultimately reshapes how we view our old ‘correct’ science.

        Personally I am comfortable with this scientific uncertainty.

  2. IF you haven’t bought it yet, go get it! Her book is a quick read and pretty educational for someone like myself with little knowledge a-day-in-the-life-of-islam sort of thing. My only complaint was that at times she seemed overly optimistic about the possibility of a muslim reformation or a muslim age of enlightenment.

    I agree that her 5 suggested reformations are the way to moderate islam, but I don’t see how the hell that could ever happen. In truth though, I would have felt the same way about christianity in the 1600’s.

    The question remains, what will be the catalyst for that reformation? What is the enzyme of enlightenment?

    1. Getting sick of all the slaughter maybe.

      Women in those countries getting some rights.

  3. Yes, I have my doubts about the practicality of Hirsi Ali’s project, as well. If you see it more as a clarion call, a modern 5 theses, then it’s merely the start of a conversation.

    As for who it is directed at, well, the liberal Muslims in the west, if you view it globally are not the main problem, nor the ones, I suspect, who will have the main influence on events across the Muslim world where Islam and sharia are in power.

    But things can change: and change within lifetimes. The Egyptian journalist Sharif al-Shubashi notes that in the 50s and 60 Egyptian women did not even know what a hijab (head and chest scarf) was. Its imposition through fear and intimidation dates only from the last 30 years. So that now, according to him, 90% of Egyptian prostitutes wear the hijab and niqab (face veil). In an ironic effect of the hijab and niqab being assumed to indicate feminine virtue and honour.

    Egypt, with its Bonapartist dictatorship, is an unusual, and perhaps temporary source of secular thought. It hosted one of only 4 demos in the Muslim world in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and seems to regularly have liberals appearing on TV, even, in one instance going as far as to promote equal rights for gays. Still, its military caste is in all likelihood committing horrendous human rights violations in the prisons, directed against the Muslim Brotherhood: and Egyptian clerics remain on the airwaves to spout their astonishingly ignorant barbarism. The regime seems to be weighing its options: in that space, Egyptian secularists are for the moment enboldened.

    Allele akhbar x

    1. I saw the clip you’re referring to – it was interesting. I’m not that confident about Egypt though. There are several stories, for example, of atheists going to the Police to complain about being attacked and being arrested themselves. The government has a program to wipe out atheism, and both Christians and Muslims are actively supporting it. However, at least these things are being reported in the media as negative, which is positive.

      1. Neither am I confident at all about Egypt, Heather. That’s what Bonapartism is, playing all groups off against each other, so that the centre can hold. I did not know about your atheists getting banged up info. Thanks. x

          1. I’ll keep in mind the Cairo Post, Heather, thanks. When I was growing up what was the first thing we thought of when we imagined Egypt? Belly-dancing and pyramids. And what now? The Muslim Brotherhood and pyramids. Just like girlie fiction catalyzed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s atheism, maybe atheism is born in a woman’s wobbly abdomen. x

    2. Tangentially–in Iraq under Saddam and in Iran under the Shah, urban women were also much freer, clothes-wise and otherwise.

  4. “I’m pretty sure why liberals do that”

    Well thankfully someone has some sort of an idea of why some liberals are like that. Her response to that rhetorical question was disingenuous at best. But then again if you want to understand why some people feel a certain way, you would be better off asking those who do.
    Then there are those that as westerners just don’t see what is accomplished by attacking other countries/cultures when there is enough to look at and affect change at home. All this putting of muslims down while invading their countries and droning the crap out of them seems a little hypocritical at best.
    The notion that people are defending cartoonists getting killed (blame the victim) is a complete fabrication to be discarded.
    The notion that it takes courage to follow the herd and be supportive of a publication that got targeted by terrorists is also nuts, it probably takes a lot more to be nuanced about it. You can be 100% against the attacks on Charlie hebdo and not see the magazine has being particularly praise worthy. Nuance is not a good thing when you live in fundamentalist times.

    1. Yeah, I believe in criticising people who throw gays off buildings and marry 9 yo girls.

      Call me crazy.

    2. Because in our own country we have injustice, it would be hypocritical to point out injustice in other countries? Really? How about we point out injustice wherever we see it?

      And I really don’t get your point about Charlie Hebdo. Many of those who say Hebdo was racist say that because they think Hebdo brought it on itself, and yes, in fact, are blaming the victim. That is exactly the point of the writers who boycotted the PEN award. And in fact they are completely ignorant about what Hebdo was actually saying. What exactly do you want to be nuanced about?

    3. Then there are those that as westerners just don’t see what is accomplished by attacking other countries/cultures when there is enough to look at and affect change at home.

      If you work at it, you might be able to pack more fallacious reasoning into post, but it won’t be easy:

      (1) We’re multitaskers, I guess; opposing injustices abroad in no way detracts from our ability to do the same at home. In fact, unless one is consistent in one’s criticism concerning injustice elsewhere, your adversaries at home can dismiss you as arbitrarily selective in applying your principles and call into question your credibility.

      (2) Saying the truth about the pervasiveness of extreme interpretations of Islam does not equate with justifying drone attacks. Or is that point too nuanced for you?

      (3) Aw gee, I feel so guilty about “putting down” Muslims who think a “justice” system that flogs or stones adulterers, murders apostates, cuts the limbs off of thieves and demotes women to ‘partial’ citizen status. I will try to work on my nuance.

    4. You can be 100% against the attacks on Charlie hebdo and not see the magazine has being particularly praise worthy.

      Given this statement I assume you can read French fluently, and are familiar with French culture and politics.

      1. Given that French is my second language, and that I had some older friends with piles of old ‘Harakiri’ and ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazines, which I perused, I can say that they lived up to their motto: “Journal Bete et Mechant” (I can’t do the accents on a Qwerty keyboard, Azerty is more accommodating for accents). meaning ‘Stupid and Nasty journal, or stupid and mean’. They were certainly nasty, but I’m less sure about stupid…

        1. Qwerty keyboard diacritics on Word doc
          Ctrl + comma + e = é.
          Ctrl + ` + a = à
          Ctrl + : + i = ï
          Ctrl + ^ + u = û
          Ctrl + & + o = œ


          1. If that doesn’t work, you could try

            alt+130 = é,
            alt+131 = â
            alt+133 = à
            alt+135 = ç
            alt+136 = ê
            alt+138 = è
            alt+140 = î
            alt+147 = ô
            alt+150 = û
            alt+151 = ù

            Various others are given here:

            Mind you this isn’t as straightforward as Dermot’s advice, but I can’t get that to work. Probably typing it in incorrectly.

            1. Yeah, Pete,I could never remember the numbers: the system I use at last has the advantage of being memorable and even predictable. The quicker you press the keys, the more likely the correct diacritic will appear. A matter of practice, really. And kids love its logic. x

              1. Having said which, I got it wrong!

                Ctrl + comma + c = ç
                Ctrl + ‘ + e = é

                Sorry! x

              2. Ah yes, I’ve tried it again & seem to be getting the knack.
                I assume I wasn’t pressing them simultaneously before.

                I’ll practice in Word rather than messing up Jerry’s website.

              3. Yeah Ant: a couple of years back Diane G thought I was having a go at her(summat about 2 cultures separated by a common language). We swapped e-mails and she taught me all I now about these clever little stylistic touches on wordpress. She’s my mentor. Cheers,


              4. @ Dermot

                Omigosh I’d forgotten why I’d contacted you in the first place. Still can’t remember the exact phrase or word I took exception to–probably just as well!

                I do remember I was much more verbose than Ant with my “mentoring.” 😀

              5. Diane, it was my University Challenge joke which went down as flat as an appartment, as pants as trousers, more gas than petrol etc, etc… x

    5. OK, Jack Lewis, I’ll take you up on what you overlook. Why in Islam do you overlook…
      1. The penalty for apostasy being death
      2. The penalty for homosexuality being death
      3. The penalty for…sod it, let’s just list them: armed robbery, blasphemy, burglary, carjacking, aircraft hijacking, drug smuggling, fornication, home invasion, sodomy, lesbianism, idolatry, murder, rape, sedition, sexual misconduct, sorcery, terrorism, theft, treason, waging war on God, witchcraft.
      4. Koranic and Hadith support for slavery
      5. Koranic and Hadith support for theocracy
      6. Koranic and Hadith support for…damn, I’m going to have to resort to another list: executing those who ‘insult’ Islam, assassinating writers who satirize Islam, extortion of money from people of other faiths to support Islam, death for apostasy, forcible conversion to Islam on pain of death, 109 Koranic verses calling for war with unbelievers, suicide bombing, torture, charity relief for Muslims only.
      7. Islam’s disgusting attitude to half the human race, women: the requirement for them to be covered, that they are worth less than a man, that female rape victims can be punished, that husbands are allowed to beat their wives, that a husband can arbitrarily divorce his wife, that men are in charge of women, that a man can marry up to 4 women, that a man can have sex with any number of slaves, that prostitution is called ‘temporary marriage’.

      Go to Pew Research Centre to find out how many actual Muslims view these ideas as reasonable. Unless of course you find something to admire in all this.

      And that’s not to mention the 260 jihad attacks last month, nor the 26 countries they took place in, nor the 2650 dead, nor the 1784 critically injured.

      And one is called ’Islamophobic’ for criticizing their ideas (and the fascists who hold them). What depths of stupidity and hypocrisy must one wallow in even to consider using that slur?

      Yep, if Charlie Hebdo had been Der Stürmer and Stéphane Charbonnier had been Julius Streicher, one should still be 100% in support of CH. No buts. That’s what the liberal defence of free speech means.

      There are plenty of problems in the West caused by theocrats, usually Christians in the US, but refusing to serve a cake to a gay rather pales when Yazidi kids are buried alive by ISIS warriors, fresh from checking which sura told them to do it.

      Allele akhbar x

      1. +1.

        There is no “nuance”. Murder is wrong, whatever the circumstances. There are explanations for the actions of Islamist extremists, but there are no justifications.

    6. I think you’re confused about how to make distinctions.

      “All this putting of muslims down while invading their countries and droning the crap out of them seems a little hypocritical at best.”

      You are connecting a former Muslim’s attempt to reform Islam with “putting Muslims down”, and then connecting that with “invading and droning their countries.”

      There are several steps there — several distinctions — and you’ve passed over all of them and leaped to grouping anyone who criticizes the ideas contained in Islam with racists and militarists.

      You want to see a team of “us” (good Westerners plus the oppressed) vs “them” (racists & militarists & neocolonialists). It’s wrong. What Ayaan Hirsi Ali is trying to do is get reformed/moderate Muslims into the boat with those who promote religious freedom and oppose extremism.

      “if you want to understand why some people feel a certain way, you would be better off asking those who do”

      There’s no need to ask. They say it openly. They want to kill Shiites (/Sunnis), heretics, Jews, Hindus, Christians, atheists…. I’m not neutral or open minded about any of that.

      The values that I hold which oppose that simultaneously oppose racism and defend civil liberties and human rights, including the freedom of religion which fanatics of all variants oppose.

    7. All this putting of muslims down while invading their countries and droning the crap out of them seems a little hypocritical at best.

      You ask for nuance and then speak of Muslims as one monolithic group.

    8. I have been thinking on and criticising bad ideas for many many years.

      They are bad ideas and bad behaviour.

      The criticism is valid and is evidenced by the fact that a lot has been criticised and changed at home.
      And there is still more to do, but, the world is global village and all this vile crap is on our doorstep.

    9. I once got pulled over for going 95 mph in a 70 mph zone. “But officer,” I pleaded, “I don’t see the point in giving me a speeding ticket when there’s likely to be robberies and drug dealing going on at this very moment. Plus, you yourself had to have been doing at least 100 mph to catch me and that’s frankly more dangerous than me going the speed I was going.”

      The officer replied, “You’re right son, plus I didn’t realize, I’m punching down.” And with that, he left.

  5. As conservative think tanks go, AHA’s American Enterprise Institute seems semi-reasonable to me. It’s not as if she joined the Ayn Rand institute or anything.

    1. There really isn’t all that much space between Ayn Rand and the Koch brothers who are fairly characterized as the leaders of a rejuvenated and much more powerful version of the John Birch Society. They are, as far as we can still trace their filthy money, the top sugar daddies of the American Enterprise Institute. That is why the failure of liberals to welcome Ayaan Hirsi Ali is so unfortunate; the American Enterprise Institute is mostly a shitty organization.

  6. I always watch Bill Maher’s show — just finished it on the DVR. Start to finish, it was one of his best. He has great writers, and he handled the interview and the panel perfectly, IMO. His ending comedy riff on why Americans are such suckers for British accents was brilliant.

    1. Speaking as someone from far far away, I find the American accent in almost all its variations much easier on the ear than British.
      I don’t get the American deference to that English accent.

  7. I had a thought a few minutes ago that I will share for what it is worth. I’m interested in knowing what others think as well:

    Maybe the central problem with Islam (which I am told means ‘submission’) is the notion that nothing happens without “God willing”. Therefore humans are just God’s agents on Earth. So the only real responsibility that humans have is to read God’s word as revealed in the Qu’ran and try to observe it. Whatever they do then in the name of God is “God willing,” win or lose, rich or poor. I believe this is indoctrinated beginning from birth.

    This absolves humans of responsibility as long as they feel their actions are “honorable”–meaning, I guess, pleasing to God. There are no offenses that are always against other humans, only offenses against God.

    This idea is not limited to Islam, of course. I think it lies behind all the monotheistic faiths to a degree. So if we blame Islam for Muslim violence on the reasoning that that is where most of it comes from, we have to ask two questions: What is it about Islam that makes it seem more violent than other faiths; and why is the violence not equally distributed among different Muslim countries? Why is there so much violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and little or none, say, in Azerbaijan? They are all Islamic countries.

    My answer to the first question would be that it could be the relative importance that Muslims place on Islam in their lives. They are God-saturated in ways that Westerners are not. This is consistent not only with the way that many Muslim countries are run as well as with the lack of integration into secular societies in Western countries, a feature they share with Orthodox Jews. The more strongly one believes that God wants you to kill as many of the enemy as possible, and take pleasure in doing so, the easier it becomes to overcome any lingering feelings of empathy and do the deed. “God willing.”

    On the second question, taking a look at the HDI (Human Development Index), a composite statistic incorporating “life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators”, suggests that most violence occurs in countries with lower HDIs.

    But right now I think that there are just too many variables that go into terrorism to suggest that Islam is chiefly responsible for it. I think it does give a rationale and a focus for it when combined with economic factors and education level, to name a couple.

    1. Krzysztof1, Ibn Warraq agrees with you about Islam. That Islam, to a much greater degree than Christianity in practice, is determinist. Nothing happens without God’s say-so. Everything has been written in the book in heaven. To act in an Islamic way is merely to follow a set of guidelines for every area of your life. And the motivation for doing that is explicitly the fear of going to hell, not the inconvenience of doing badly by your fellow humans.

      It is outlined in the Koran, as you write, but also deepened and explained in the Sunna. Interpretations of the latter Hadith traditions, in turn, were outlined around 1,200 years ago in 4 main schools of the ‘science’ of sharia. In turn the idea of the infallibility of the ijma or consensus developed, from which the masses were expressly excluded, and this unanimity ossified into something like the Torah’s 613 commandments, which, fortunately, barely any Christian is aware of.

      In this context, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk of Muslim ethics, for Muslim life theologically is the application of God-given diktats to one’s every choice. Free-will in the religious sense barely makes it into Islam. Ibn Warraq’s worth a read.

      It’s a good point about Azerbaijan, and would take a thesis to work out the reason.

      Allele akhbar. x

      1. “Ibn Warraq’s worth a read.”

        And again, so is Hirsi Ali’s Heretic, for a very in depth (but most readable!) description of the strict tenets of Islam.

    1. Two things:

      It is obviously not part of the Sikh religion that they must kill cartoonists who depict Sikhs smoking cigars.

      The protestors misunderstood the cartoon.

  8. I think it’s quite possible Ayaan knows the ideas she has put forth in her book won’t be taken up anytime soon, but it’s something that needs to be said, needs to out there. Hopefully in time it can be seen as a seed for “The New Enlightenment ” or some such, and she will be lionized as a progenitor.

    1. I agree. I’m sure she’s personally quite realistic about the chances for any immediate results to her call for reformation. She’s putting ideas out in the marketplace of ideas, and the more these are promulgated the greater the chance of stirring up some restiveness in Muslim societies. And perhaps even paradigm change amongst liberals!

  9. I will not grant religion underdog status for the simple reason that people are religious because their ancestors were conquered and forcibly converted.

    Religion is an extension of conquest and oppression, and honoring religion is honoring conquest and oppression.

    the “correct” stance is help people understand Stockholm Syndrome.

    1. Good point. I would bet most Christians have no idea how their religion was spread. They probably imagine it happened in a groundswell via inspiration and evangelism. The truth is ugly – full of violence, corruption, murder and more.

  10. I think it’s easy to see why “liberals” are defending Muslims in this case. What we see in the Christian West are Muslims minorities who are marginalised, attacked by the Right as a parasite on society, and subject to the racism that liberals fought against in the 60s and 70s. And all that is very real. Indeed, in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, the Muslim communities in France have been subject to more persecution. The attacks made it worse for the Muslims living peacefully in the country.

    What’s disappointing about those “liberals” is that they hear any criticism as being part of that right-wing reactionary narrative, and see it as more instances of persecution of the marginalised group. Or, at the very least, it contributes to the toxic environment of persecution predominating in our culture by giving a kind of intellectual legitimacy to the hate. So either way, there’s a kind of blindness to the criticism – that to criticise Islam is to make life tougher for all those Muslims who aren’t the few extremists.

    The other unfortunate thing, at least from my perspective, is that the conversation often becomes about theology. That the extremists are reading Islam wrong. Now I doubt there is such a thing as practising Islam correctly because there’s no definitive way to settle disputes of interpretation of religious texts, but it’s people who aren’t Islamic scholars jumping into a theological question for political motivations. The political motivation is to try to say that Islam is as legitimate a religion as any other and it’s just bad people hijacking the faith for their own ends. But it’s a hollow refutation because the people making it simply no not know what’s the correct way to be Islamic, but know what constitutes good citizenry in society.

    It’s amazing how many people fancy themselves armchair theologians when it comes to political matters…

  11. Think I’ve come to understand about Greenwald et al. is that they don’t even believe the things that they say about ‘Islamophobes’. The dishonesty of the discourse of ‘Islamophobia’ can be seen from the selectivity with which it is applied. Sam Harris and Bill Maher can be called ‘Islamophobes’, but Ali Rizvi and Asra Nomani cannot.

  12. Ben Affleck and Glenn Greenwald are hardly liberal spokesman. What I’d like to know is who are all these liberals, apparently horrified by the media’s depredations on hapless Islam, to whom you keep referring?

  13. It is a quandary, the ‘right wing’ is right on Islam, but anything the ‘right wing’ says is anathema to the ‘liberals’. One.
    Moreover, the Muslim immigrants into Europe (don’t know about the USA) were indeed workers at the bottom of the social ladder, hence food for ‘liberals’ to improve their situation: the underdogs. Two.
    Once it became clear that they had been ‘feeding an adder on their breast’, it was very difficult for the ‘liberal left’ to admit that. Three.

    For one reason or other I can’ get further than 17 seconds into these clips, but what Ayaan says should not be dismissed casually. She is one of the brighter minds our world has produced.

  14. Western incursion into the Middle East, for oil and other purposes, awakens the guilt complex that is latent in all liberals.

    I can personally attest that liberal guilt doesn’t hold a candle to conservative Catholic guilt, which in turn doesn’t hold a candle to fundamentalist Islamic executions. The people loudly promoting these illiberal values would probably do well to keep this hierarchy in mind, noting of course the commonality between the last two items (hint, it starts with ‘R’).

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