Ayaan Hirsi Ali vs. Jon Stewart: Islam, liberals, and the media's dangerous double standard

Progressives entangle themselves in "thickets of idiocy" trying not to judge Islam. Jon Stewart was no exception

Published June 7, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Jon Stewart, Ayaan Hirsi Ali   (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes)
Jon Stewart, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Progressive critics enamored of the semantically fraudulent junk label “Islamophobe” are de facto aiding the assassins of free-thinkers, abetting the oppressors of women, and shielding razor-happy butchers slicing off the clitorises of little girls.  And at no time do they betray the ideals for which they supposedly stand more than when they call ex-Muslims living in the West “Islamophobe.”

To understand why, let’s examine the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  No one exposes the faulty thinking, moral incoherence and double standards pervading the Western liberal reaction to Islam better than this Somali-born, self-professed “infidel” and “heretic.”  Herself a survivor of female genital mutilation, civil war and forced marriage, and, for more than a decade now, the object of Islamist death threats, Hirsi Ali deserves the respect of all who cherish free speech, equality between the sexes, and the right to profess the religion (or no religion) of one’s choosing.

Brought up a Muslim and once so devout she joined the Muslim Brotherhood, Hirsi Ali deserves, to say the least, a fair hearing when speaking of Islam.  Yet in the constitutionally secular United States, Hirsi Ali often finds her views about her former faith treated with suspicion, even contempt.  Her media appearances and publications occasion slews of sanctimoniously ignorant commentary from liberal “Islamophobia” scolds.  The publicity tour she has been making for her recent book “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” is no exception.

Before I proceed, a statement of what should be obvious: Islam is not a race, but a religion, one with universalist pretensions and followers of all skin colors. Understanding this, one easily sees through the linguistic sham that is the essence of “Islamophobia” and “Islamophobe,” terms that inveigle well-meaning progressives to conflate skin color with religion and impute racism to critics of a belief system.  The terms are inherently political, and serve one purpose: to squelch honest debate about Islam.  Islam, though, like all religions, is nothing but a hallowed ideology falling within the purview of free speech. People deserve respect, whatever their ideology.  The ideologies themselves?  Not necessarily.

Back to Hirsi Ali and “Heretic.”  Hirsi Ali summed up her book’s theses in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal.  Radical Islam now motivates terrorism and warfare across the globe, but “by far,” she writes, “the most numerous victims of Muslim violence . . . are Muslims themselves.”  She considers it “foolish to insist, as Western leaders habitually do, that the violent acts committed in the name of Islam can somehow be divorced from the religion itself.”  Her conclusion: “Islam is not a religion of peace.”  (Italics hers.)

Hirsi Ali does not, however, contend that most Muslims are violent.  On the contrary, peaceful followers of Islam “are the clear majority throughout the Muslim world.”  But the jihadi-minded account for, by her conservative estimate, at least 3 percent of the religion’s 1.6 billion votaries, or 48 million people.  The problem, for her, lies in “the call to violence and the justification for it . . . explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam.”  To counter this, she proposes an Islamic reformation, one that would lead Muslims to reject their canon’s calls for violence, as do, by and large, Jews and Christians today.

To enact such a reformation, Hirsi Ali says Muslims need to do five things: reject the Prophet Muhammad’s “semi-divine” status and stop interpreting the Quran literally; learn to value life over death (that is, “assign a greater value to the rewards of this life than to those promised in the hereafter”); renounce Shariah in favor of “the dynamic, evolving laws made by human beings”; abolish the right of “religious police, vigilantes and politically empowered clerics” to enforce Islamic law; and, finally, give up violent jihad, or holy war.

Such overtly secular desiderata are prima facie improbable of realization, as Hirsi Ali admits, but, she writes, “The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here.  If my proposal for reform helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves, I will consider it a success.”  She makes it clear that she does not “seek to inspire another war on terror or extremism,” since “violence in the name of Islam cannot be ended by military means alone.”  She goes on.  “Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.”

Let’s be clear about what Hirsi Ali’s “reformation” would entail: an approach to the Islamic canon that precludes its use to justify violence; an emphasis on living life as an end in itself, rather than as a means to achieve paradise; the adoption of legal codes conceived by people according to their needs; the enforcement of these laws in accordance with modern conceptions of authority; and an end to bloodshed in the name of faith.  I defy any progressive to find fault with these proposals. If they were realized in Muslim countries, they would establish for Islam a status similar to that which Judaism and Christianity enjoy in the post-Enlightenment West.

I trust no liberal will argue for jihad or martyrdom.  But a determination to avoid judgment consistently disorders rational thinking about Islam and draws too many progressives into thickets of idiocy where they entangle themselves in contradictions and assume positions that are nothing short of reprehensible.  Let’s not, they would say, criticize Islam (no matter what atrocities its votaries commit), because Muslims are a minority and are sometimes discriminated against.  Let’s not, in other words, “punch down.”

Such a progressive is, sadly, Jon Stewart.

To promote her book, Hirsi Ali appeared on Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”  Rather than focus on the merits or demerits of her proposals, or talking, as she wanted to, about the emerging movement for reform in the Muslim world, Stewart began by dwelling on her use of the word “reformation,” which he chose to interpret insistently along the lines of the Protestant Reformation (the era beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a Catholic church’s door in Germany), which involved a stiflingly strict application of Holy Writ and a century and a half of religious warfare similar to what is convulsing Islamic countries today.

Hirsi Ali had her own moderating version of reform in mind, of course, and those already working to bring it about.  “I stand with them.  I hope you stand with them.”

Stewart replied, “Right.  No, I mean . . . I think people single out Islam, as though there’s something inherently wrong with it that wasn’t wrong with other religions.” (He would repeat this trope throughout the interview.)

Hirsi Ali declared the self-evident: “The mass of Christians, at least in the Western world, have accepted tolerance, the secular state, the separation of church and state, respect for women, respect for gays.”

Not so fast, said Stewart.  What about violence committed by Christian militias in the Central African Republic?  (He declined to explain that these militias formed only after Muslim Séléka rebels overthrew the Christian president and seized power in a country where eight out of 10 are Christian).  He quickly returned to his idée fixe: “People have somewhat demonized all of Islam . . . this 1.6 billion umma,” when, in fact, most Muslims are moderate.  Even when she adduced the secularist blogger Raif Badawi and the thousand lashes to which Saudi authorities have sentenced him, and pointed out that nothing similar is going on in Christian domains these days, she could not stop Stewart from trying to exculpate Islam.

Stewart then shifted the talk away from Islam to “the power dynamic within the region,” and “humiliation by colonialism” as casus belli.  He rejected the argument that “it’s radical Islam versus just Islam” as a “bait-and-switch” that amounts to blaming Islam as a whole – which would be a supreme evil, in his eyes.  “Muslims are being asked to answer to something” – Islamist violence and ISIS – “that has not that much to do with them.”

(If you share Stewart’s delusion, please read the excellent treatise written by my Atlantic colleague Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”)

Hirsi Ali pressed on, and tried to discuss her book, which she called a “counter-narrative” aiming to separate religion and politics.  Skeptical, Stewart again sought to exculpate Islam as regards ISIS and uttered a blatant Reza-Aslanism: “If you didn’t have religion, you really don’t think man wouldn’t invent another pretext for separating us and causing violence to each other?”

On and on they went, for some 20 minutes, with Stewart the dogged pettifogger thwarting her efforts to make her case and explain how her proposals might help. Mercifully, the clock ran out and spared him further opportunity to embarrass himself.

Contrast the cool reception Stewart gave Hirsi Ali with the gushing enthusiasm he recently showed Reza Aslan (who even got a hug).  Aslan, of course, served his host liberal p.c. pablum he could digest without a burp:

“There’s this misconception that people derive their values, from their scriptures . . . It’s more often the case that people insert their values into their scriptures  . . .  You can read it any way you want to . . .  God does not make you a bigot.  You’re just a bigot!”

Stewart, so inquisitorial toward Hirsi Ali, let Aslan ejaculate this postmodern flapdoodle with impunity, and convivially wiped up after him with blather about non-religious causes for violence in the Middle East.

Hirsi Ali need not appear on a show to provoke censure.  HuffPost Live devoted a half-hour talk segment to how millennial Muslim women practice Islam in the United States.  Two of the four participants wore the hijab; one had her hair hidden beneath a feathery bonnet of sorts; and another, Thanaa El-Naggar (the sole original thinker among them, whose fine, daring Gawker article, "Practicing Islam in Short Shorts," actually occasioned the discussion), chose not to show her face on camera, fearing for her life. (Does that tell you anything about the need for Hirsi Ali’s reform?)

All the women assembled stressed the need for individual interpretation of the Quran; none wanted to be judged, by Muslims or anyone else, for their faith. Racism, stereotyping and “marginalization” came up.  Nothing new.

To conclude, the host announced the following day’s guest, Hirsi Ali, and inadvertently raised a hue and cry of dismissal tinged with disdain from all but El-Naggar.  Hirsi Ali, the others said, played upon Western stereotypes of Muslim women to “marginalize” them, make a name for herself, and increase book sales. She promoted the idea that Western and Islamic values were mutually exclusive, as if Western values were “more progressive than the East.”  This was all “racist” and “problematic,” and amounted to “regurgitating Fox News.” Those who demanded others not judge them summarily tried and condemned Hirsi Ali in absentia – and with no pushback from the host.

Only El-Naggar found “Ayaan’s path . . . just as valid as anyone else’s.”  Again, she chose not to show her face for fear of reprisals.

In a more just world, the host might have pointed out that Hirsi Ali had suffered mightily as a Muslim in ways her collocutors could not presume to know as women practicing their faith in the secular West.  The key word is "secular": Islam is an option for them, but it was not for Hirsi Ali (in the first part of her life), who did not escape her faith with her genitalia intact, and who now has to live under round-the-clock armed guard, enduring slings and arrows of contumely and reproach from her former faith-fellows, including those safely ensconced in the West.

Yet Islam’s non-Muslim posses of liberal avengers are even more merciless, perhaps because they are less coherent. Exempli gratia: the 204 PEN writers who chose to denounce the grieving survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in a letter evincing no understanding of the artists’ cartoons and even less of free speech, to say nothing of human decency.  (One of the writers, the wonderful novelist Jennifer Cody Epstein, has just wised up and bravely repented, earning praise from Salman Rushdie.)  Shouting “Islamophobe!” these posses intimidate and determine public discourse, prompting, for instance, President Obama to declare Islam has nothing to do with ISIS.  Yet worse and entirely unnoticed goes their effect on Westerners of Muslim heritage fighting for the right to speak frankly of the faith they have abandoned.

Unnoticed, until now.  A new star has just arisen to expose Islam’s turncoat progressive guardians, defend Hirsi Ali (and Charlie Hedbo), and stand up for all those would tell the truth -- Sarah Haider, a 24-year-old Pakistani-born American brought up in Texas.  Speaking with evident trepidation at a conference at the American Humanist Association in Denver, Haider, co-founder of the group Ex-Muslims of North America, detailed, in a 38-minute must-watch speech, the hostility, questioning of motives, and name-calling (Jim Crow, house Arab, native informant) she has suffered from “liberal allies on the left” who “pigeonhole anyone who says anything negative about Islam.”  By demonizing ex-Muslims, “leftists,” she said, “align themselves with the Islamic religious right,” and “use anti-Muslim bigotry as an excuse to stifle any criticism of Islam,” leaving reformist Muslims abandoned, without allies.  “As a consequence, an audience on the left frightens me nearly as much as an audience of Islamists does.”

Haider said so much more; please watch the whole speech.  She asked, “What kind of person holds two different groups of people accountable to two different standards of behavior but a bigot?”

A bigot. That is to say, a liberal fond of calling out “Islamophobes.” A liberal who, in doing so, effectively takes up arms in the ranks of assassins, oppressors, and genital-mutilators.

Some liberal.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali Editor's Picks Heretic Islam Islamophobe Radical Islam Reza Aslan