Among atheists vilified by other atheists, a list that of course include Sam Harris, we find an unlikely candidate: Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is in fact on the list of “The 5 Most Awful Atheists” compiled by the bottom-feeding site Alternet. (The others are Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, S. E. Cupp, and of course Sam.) While I might be persuaded to add Cupp based on her politics (she’s an atheist who “aspires to faith” and has said she’d never vote for an atheist President), I’m sure there are many atheists far more awful than these five, and several of them—including Hirsi Ali—should be on the list of “Most admired atheists.”
I was thinking about why Hirsi Ali is so reviled by atheists and yet Malala Yousafzai (henceforth called “Malala,” as she’s widely known) is not only a hero, but also won the Nobel Prize. And yet they have some notable similarities: both are or were Muslims, both are famous for defending the rights of Muslim women, and both are under threat of murder from enraged Muslims who hate their activism (Malala was in fact shot in the head). I admire both of them, but why is Hirsi Ali reviled and Malala extolled?
One reason, I think, is that Hirsi Ali is strongly anti-Islam—she’s an apostate, while Malala remains a Muslim. Because of the liberal double standard, in which Muslims get a pass because they’re “oppressed” (that is, they’re people of color), Malala’s adherence to faith (one of whose forms almost killed her) isn’t criticized. Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, goes after Islam very often, and that doesn’t sit well with many atheists—again because of the double standard. Since Muslims are supposedly oppressed—although many of them oppress women, gays, apostates, Christians and Yazidis—while Christians are not, it’s far less acceptable among liberals to criticize Islam than to criticize any other faith.
As I believe Sam Harris said, Hirsi Ali should be a poster child for liberals. She’s black (of Somali origin); she had her genitals mutilated when young; she was once a pious Muslim; and, at great personal cost, she fled the faith and an arranged marriage, becoming a refugee in the Netherlands. There she educated herself and worked her way up to being a member of Parliament, only to flee after her collaborator on the film “Submission”, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered by an Islamist terrorist, leaving a note warning that she would be next. Hirsi Ali has continued to live under armed protection, now in the U.S., yet continues to speak and write tirelessly about the perfidies of extremist Islam and its oppression of women in particular—including genital mutilation. Now at Harvard, she’s written three excellent books, all of which I’ve read: Nomad, Infidel, and Heretic. The last is her program for the reform of Islam, which, although I see as unrealistic, bespeaks a determination to stop the terrorism through changing the way Muslims perceive the Qur’an and its dictates.
Why is she reviled? There are two reasons. One is simply that she’s married to the right-wing Niall Ferguson and previously worked for a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. These criticisms are irrelevant, and made only by those who wish to slander her. You can marry someone whose politics don’t jibe with yours (Mary Matalin and James Carville are a notable example), and Hirsi Ali worked at the AEI simply because nobody else offered her a job. (Where were you, progressives?). She’s now, as I said, at Harvard, at the Kennedy School of Government.
More important, she has occasionally said things that were unwise, and also has her words taken out of context. While she’s famously called for “crushing Islam”—and she did—she’s also called for a reform of the faith from within, as in her latest book Heretic, and she’s also made the distinction between hating a religion and hating its adherents as people. For those who go after her for wishing the extinction of Islam, read Heretic before you speak further.
She’s often criticized for having “defended” the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, but that is a misconception easily dispelled if you read what she said and her explanation for her words (see the post by Dan Arel on this issue). And, unlike Malala, she’s constantly calling out the problems with even moderate Islam, and that doesn’t sit well with some unthinking progressives, who repeatedly see the criticism of faith and faith-inspired acts as “Islamophobia.” I’m convinced that if Hirsi Ali spent her time criticizing right-wing Christians, she’d be far more admired.
Hirsi Ali has experienced the same kind of atheist-shaming as has Sam Harris: a few words, phrases, and thoughts are lifted from their work, and then used to denigrate their whole career, their whole body of work. I’m also convinced that if people really read their books and didn’t concentrate on such sound bites, the denigration would be considerably tempered. But people are either lazy don’t want to do that work, or they’re determined to dislike these people for other reasons, and won’t be swayed by the facts. I’m pretty sure that many people who attack Hirsi Ali haven’t read a single one of her three books. And I’m convinced that some prominent atheists who attack them are motivated in part by jealousy of their fame and their effectiveness.
Weigh a few phrases, even poorly-considered ones, against Hirsi Ali’s entire life and body of work. Again, she’s a black woman who worked her way out of fundamentalist Islam into a progressive point of view and political success, and who fights tirelessly for women’s rights. And have a look at the short (11-minute) film she wrote, “Submission,” which resulted in director Theo van Gogh’s death and her having to live under constant protection from fantatics sworn to kill her. I find the film immensely moving. I’m sure she knew what she would face when the movie became public.
Nobody is perfect, and as one commenter said on my recent post about Salon and Sam Harris, some nonbelievers tend to denigrate other atheists by quote-mining: taking words out of context without having read or understood (willfully or not) those words as they were intended. And, of course, all of us say things that don’t quite convey what we mean, are clumsy in our thoughts (that’s why I don’t tw**t), or are simply unthinking or make bad judgments. For those acts we can be faulted, but the tendency of atheists to denigrate other atheists by quote mining, and failing to judge someone’s work in its entirety, is an act of either laziness or mendacity. It’s time for atheists to get some perspective before we start eating our own.
Note: I’ve defended Hirsi Ali previously on this site, but wanted to continue the discussion.