Bill Maher and Fox News's Muslim feminism: How Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani embrace the soft Islamophobia of Western expectations

Hannity loves their criticism of Islam, NPR their personal triumph. But two voices must not define modern Muslims

Published July 13, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Albert Gea/HBO/Janet Van Ham/AP/Shiho Fukada)
(Reuters/Albert Gea/HBO/Janet Van Ham/AP/Shiho Fukada)

In his Nobel lecture on Dec. 11, 1950, British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power.” Noble motives, he added, deserve our inquiry, for they’re often but façades.

The revival in recent months of public appraisals of Islam has thrown this type of charade into sharp relief. The Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Texas, organized by the brassy anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, was billed as an honorable exercise of free speech. When police killed two would-be Muslim ambushers, though, even her fellow right-of-center travelers questioned her intentions. With few exceptions, the mainstream media did too. Geller’s obsessive bellicosity toward Islam made her First Amendment shtick appear rather one-dimensional.

On the whole, flamethrowers like Geller bear negligible influence. They crawl out of the bowels of the Internet, set things on fire, and then ebb back into nonexistence. They’re not so much movers and shakers as they are nuisances whose rhetoric about Muslims, while popular among dwellers of their dark online world, raises the eyebrows of others who find its content and delivery fantastically jarring.

More worrisome when it comes to Islam are those whose brand of prejudice is of a milder variety. A popular cadre of feminists is one such group. Their personal stories of trauma to triumph, and their overtures of liberalism and reform have captivated Western audiences over the past decade. Yet dampened as it is beneath the acoustic theme songs of public radio programs or the applause lines of late-night talk show audiences, their message is virtually identical to that of their more strident colleagues: Islam is a uniquely problematic religion and Muslims worldwide must embrace the ideals of the West to drag it out of its deep and dreadful slumber.

In recent weeks and months they’ve reemerged, harnessing violent flashpoints from groups like ISIS as an occasion to lament once more the everlasting failure of Muslims to measure up to American and European values.


When Somali-born author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali appeared on "The Diane Rehm Show" in late March to discuss her new book, "Heretic," the Peabody award-winning host began the program by asking her to recount her childhood experiences in Africa and how they shaped what she calls her “journey away from Islam.” It was a comfortable point of departure for the 45-year-old immigrant, who says plainly in her controversial new manifesto, “Islam is not a religion of peace.” The grim tale of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and escape to Europe is a staple of her interview repertoire, and the linchpin of her sustained public appeal. It’s a story that lines the pages of her five books, is featured in dozens of articles and profiles, and, with each new memoir, is repackaged to deliver the same sense of shocking intrigue it did with the release of her second book, "The Caged Virgin," 11 years ago.

Hirsi Ali narrates the events of her adolescence with a calm delivery typical of NPR programming — pregnant pauses, crisp “S”s, and measured cadences that never swell into emotional crescendos but glide along gently in mezzo piano at andante pace.

She was born in Mogadishu, and raised in a Muslim family. At the age of 5, her grandmother, who wore amulets and couldn’t read or write, summoned a village elder to perform female circumcision. Her father, an imprisoned political figure, opposed the practice but couldn’t intervene. After his escape, they fled to Saudi Arabia where they lived for one year. There, she witnessed a version of Islam that was radically different from that which she had come to know. The Muslim religion was not a personal journey as much as it was a ubiquitous ideology — one that, in her words, is “taking over the world today.”

At every juncture, Hirsi Ali saw examples of Islam’s alleged malaise. Her family settled in Nairobi, Kenya, until 1992 — the year her father arranged for her marriage to a distant cousin in Canada. While en route to wed, she hopped a train to the Netherlands and started life anew. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, came eight days into her job with a Dutch Labor Party think tank. It was, for her, a confirmation of apocalyptic proportions: Bin Laden’s version of Islam was true.

“Everything that was revealed about the motives of the 9/11 perpetrators resonated with me, to my shock.” she told Rehm. “To my shock, I thought, my goodness, I used to believe in that.”

In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, a time when Americans and Europeans searched for answers to their questions about the hijackers’ motives, Hirsi Ali was a welcomed explainer. Her world — haunted by what she saw as Islam’s ever-present threat — was also one that the West was coming to see as its own.

Hirsi Ali was elected to Dutch parliament in 2003 on a platform of combating the oppression of Muslim women in the Netherlands. It was a catapult of sorts for the activist and writer. Suddenly, she was a national figure with an audience that was gripped by the 21st century’s fierce entanglement with political Islam. Atop her new dais, diffidence yielded to attacks on the Muslim faith. It was a “backwards” religion, she declared, one that had “failed to provide a moral framework for our time.” She described Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, as a pedophile and a “despotic, narrow-minded, and violent man.”

Her words were tame compared to those of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, whose monikers for Muslims included “goat fuckers” and “the Prophet’s pimps.” With the bawdy relative of the famous painter, Hirsi Ali wrote “Submission,” a sensational 10-minute flick that critiqued Muslim misogyny by pummeling viewers with images of naked women, their bodies branded with Quranic verses and bloody lacerations. In late November of 2004, a Dutch Muslim man slaughtered Van Gogh in broad daylight. On the filmmaker’s chest, a butcher’s knife fastened a five-page warning to Hirsi Ali, who went into hiding.

Behind a wall of armed guards, her profile rose. In 2005, Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and shortly before her move to the United States, Reader’s Digest baptized her European of the year. “Hirsi Ali believes passionately that showing Europeans what goes on in some Muslim homes in our midst will kick-start a process of emancipation,” the monthly publication wrote.

* * *

There is something undoubtedly stirring about personal stories of repression, rescue and reform. There is something even more stirring about them when women tell them. Especially when it comes to Islam. It seems only human to writhe with each detail of despair, celebrate each step toward liberation, and echo calls to rectify the wrongs that they’ve suffered. It’s something we’ve done for a long time, and today these frisson-inducing biographies remain a powerful part of our conversation about the world’s second largest religion.

Stories like Hirsi Ali’s are extraordinarily popular today, though they’re not new. Rather, they’re modern-day versions of hoary captivity narratives. Popular during the time of the Barbary Wars, these oft-contested personal accounts of white women tormented by brown Muslim men resonated with Americans, who had recently cast off the yoke of British colonialism and faced, for the first time, a Muslim foe: North African pirates sailing through Mediterranean trade routes. Maria Martin, the daughter of a well-to-do Boston businessman, described her kidnapping, torture and forced domestic servitude in a book, "The History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin, Who was Six Years a Slave in Algiers: Two of Which She Was Confined in a Dark and Dismal Dungeon, Loaded with Irons." The spurious tale of chattelhood, printed in 12 different editions by nine different publishers until 1818, confirmed for many the supposedly barbaric nature of the Muslim male and the Islamic faith.

Nearly 200 years later, they’ve taken a new twist. Protestant heroines from New England are now Muslim immigrants from Africa and Asia whose awful experiences with their co-religionists have rendered them sufficiently expert to explain religion to Western audiences. Somehow, the brown-skinned Muslim “other” is less foreign and more credible when she’s telling us in the pages of her latest paperback thriller: I have seen the real Islam, and it ain’t a pretty thing.

In recent decades, these anecdotes-cum-sermons have formed their own genre. Despite slight differences in their approach, Canadian author Irshad Manji ("The Trouble With Islam"), Syrian-born physician Wafa Sultan (A God Who Hates), and most recently Sri Lankan native Rifqa Bary ("Hiding in the Light") navigate a path of literary sensationalism that was carved out by radical feminist pioneers like Egypt’s Nawal Al-Saadawi ("The Hidden Face of Eve") and Morocco’s Fatema Mernissi ("Dreams of Trespass").

If Hirsi Ali is one of the West’s more visible figures advocating Islamic reform, the former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, who has reemerged in recent months with soft-ish critiques of the religion, is not far behind her. Their trajectories are similar: Immigrants raised in traditional Muslim homes, worn by matrimonial woes and weakened by the murder of dear colleagues; compelled to document their agonies in films and books, broaching projects of reform that are spurned by the very group of people they seek to change.

An Indian immigrant to the Mountain State, Nomani moved to the United States and grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her parents, whom she describes in her first book, "Tantrika," were a devoutly religious couple and shaped her early encounters with Islam. At Muslim gatherings, she recounts, the men sat downstairs and spoke in loud Arabic, while the women, veiled, were ushered away into a small second-floor bedroom where food from the main dishes arrived in casserole pots. Even in her home, Nomani remembers, there were no public displays of affection. “I never saw my parents kiss, let alone hold hands,” she writes. “Couples arrived and left in the same cars, but, mostly wed in arranged marriages, they skirted nimbly around each other as if they had conceived their children through divine intervention.”

Nomani’s Muslim-meets-America story weaves from teenage heartbreak to the sexual exploration of adolescence; from self-doubt to feminist awakening. Each rocky event in her life is an occasion to reflect on the values of Islam and America, and offer some conclusive statement about a relationship of conflict between the two. In an essay called “My Big Fat Muslim Wedding,” she describes her first nuptials with dramatic prose that one would expect to find in a bygone legend of a damsel in distress. “The journey had begun when I was a little girl, growing up in a Muslim family in the city of Hyderabad in southern India,” she says. “As a girl, I had learned to live by the hudood, or sacred boundaries, of traditional Muslim society: I never dated, and I never went to the junior high school dances.” Her Pakistani husband was passionless in bed, she tells us, and reckless with her feelings — qualities that, from her presentation, seem to be less a matter of personal flaws than religious ones. They divorced and she later married a U.S. Army officer, breaking away from Islamic marriage traditions that she says control women through love.

Her close friendship with journalist Daniel Pearl remains an understandably vivid flashpoint of her life. In 2002, Nomani was traveling with the foreign correspondent in Pakistan when al-Qaida militants abducted and later beheaded him in a grisly crime — one that, with the emergence of ISIS more than a decade later, is all the more palpable.

Where Hirsi Ali occasionally delivers stinging rhetorical blows — she once called Islam a “nihilistic cult of death” that should be defeated militarily — Nomani avoids them altogether. But like her Somali counterpart, she buffers her criticism by serving up a dish of Western cosmopolitanism that she demands Muslims the world over swallow whole. For liberals and conservatives equally, it’s appealing; the former find something to champion in calls for equal gender rights and the like, while the latter find evidence for Islam’s seemingly perpetual deficiency.

It’s the “soul” of Islam that concerns Nomani, who explains in her most recent book,"Standing Alone," that it’s not the entire religion she aims to change, but rather a defective spiritual core. Her experiences led her to take up the banner of Islamic feminism, pushing for women-led prayer in mosques with a resolve that the New York Times once described as “Rosa Parks-style civil disobedience.” Her documentary, "The Mosque in Morgantown," chronicles her return to the timbered mountains of Appalachia where, as a single mother abandoned by her Pakistani lover and haunted by the slaughter of her comrade, she finds yet another tragic example of Islam gone bad: chauvinistic Muslim men who don’t take kindly to her orders for change.

In recent years, some in the American Muslim community have criticized Nomani for feeding into the stereotypes and prejudices they face. Tapped as an expert witness for Peter King’s controversial House hearings on “radicalization” within that community, she wrote in the Washington Post: “It’s about time.” In that paper two years later, she made the case that, in light of the 2013 attacks on the Boston Marathon, Muslims should admit that they “have a problem,” an early indication of which, in her view, is an increased use of religious expressions like the Arabic version of “God willing.”

As is characteristic of the fanaticism she so loathes, though, Nomani, too, bristles at dissent. In a Washington Post Op-Ed earlier this year, she dismissed her detractors with the neologism “honor brigade,” saying they care not about her message of feminist reform but about bullying her into silence — a claim she repeated in April in Time, after Duke University rescinded, and then re-extended, a speaking invitation. Some who once supported her progressive program have, more recently, found themselves at odds with her positions. When Duke professor Omid Safi wrote about her drift in the direction of Islamophobia, she accused him of instigating a lynch mob of profanity-laced attacks that even targeted her child. When author Reza Aslan identified the oddity of Islam-bashing Bill Maher’s enthusiasm for her work, she played the gender card and charged Aslan with disrespecting women.

* * *

“I would like to be judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim,” Hirsi Ali writes in her 2007 autobiography, "Infidel." It’s a rational plea, though one that neither she nor her supporters appear to embrace fully. Arguments, after all, require evidence and while she points to numerous examples around the world to support her claims about Islam and its supposed need for reform, the credibility of her judgment is ultimately premised on her sufferings.

Pain must surely plague Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani. Yet as scholar Lauren Wispé once wrote, “A concern for sympathy should not blind us to the stronger human potential for malice and destruction.” While their lived experiences may rattle our emotions, they risk conferring authority on their arguments, in this case that there is something especially wrong with Islam that must change. With every act of violence committed in its name, those views — and their presumed expertise — become more entrenched.

It’s not the marriage of cherry-picked verses and literal fundamentalism — the usual modus operandi of Islam’s harshest critics — that is of greatest concern here. Instead, it’s the way in which their calls for reform morph into a sort of liberal religious jingoism. The idea that there’s a right way to do religion is far too simplistic, and Hirsi Ali and Nomani appear not to see that. Their didactic spiels offer to Muslims one of two options: their allegedly enlightened brand of Islam or the flawed version of the masses. Any hesitancy to adopt the former suggests wholesale acceptance of the latter.

The values they claim to champion — gender equality, nonviolence, rationality, and self-critique — are virtuous for sure, and ones that, in their view, any reasonable human being should welcome. The problem, though, is that they elevate themselves above the rest of the Muslim community and, looking down upon it from their throne of high morality, delineate the acceptable parameters of practicing religion. It is against their world and its paradigms that all followers of Islam must measure themselves.

What Hirsi Ali offers in her new book is the religious equivalent of a “get slim quick” guide in grocery store checkout aisles. She suggests five things that Muslims should change: their belief in the “semi-divine” status of Muhammad; the supremacy of life after death; the prioritization of Islamic law over manmade secular laws; the right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law; and the imperative to “wage jihad.”

Not all Muslims support these things. But that's not really the point. Rather, they don’t all support them in the way that Hirsi Ali describes them. Her checklist is an exercise in unyielding interpretation. She insists that Muslims modify how they read and digest the teachings of their religion, yet employs a dogmatic view of it herself. Jihad, for her, comes in one flavor: Bin Laden’s. Sharia does, too. Of rewards in a heavenly afterlife, Hirsi Ali again sees but a single possibility: Muslims hastening their death to get there. The false dichotomy she sets up ignores the possibility of a middle path, where the majority of the faithful flock.

Nomani’s campaign to advance the values of Islamic feminism has also resulted in moralizing instructional guides that are deeply rooted in her hardships. In 2004 she drafted the “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques.” The document enumerates ten basic liberties that she believes should be granted at Muslim houses of worship. Channeling the reformist zeal of Martin Luther, she nailed it to the door of her masjid. Among its demands are the right to mixed-gender prayer, the right to be greeted and addressed cordially, and the right to exemption from gossip and slander. The following year, she trotted out the “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom,” which calls for, among other things, “respectful and pleasurable sexual experiences” and the right to refuse a husband’s request for a second wife.

Here again are honorable suggestions when taken at face value. It’s the assumptions that are packed into them, though, that have a tendency to tint our view of Islam by reinforcing the idea that the mistreatment of women in mosques is a quotidian affair. For Nomani, mixed-gender prayer may be the holy grail of progressivism. But by claiming it as a right that she advocates for on behalf of all Muslim women, she unknowingly strips away the agency of those women who might prefer tradition or who don’t believe that praying alongside their male counterparts is the critical missing element of societal advancement.

Her directives on bedroom behavior imply that what happens between the sheets of Muslim couples is usually disappointing if not deplorable, and can be chalked up to a normative culture of sexual degeneracy. The sum of all of this is a confirmation of longstanding stereotypes of Islam as a patriarchal religion, the women of which are second-class citizens who kowtow to the despotic mandates of their husband-masters.

* * *

Shortly before he pledged $100,000 to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation last month, Google boss Eric Schmidt told the activist, “I don’t see how anyone who believes in the rule of law and the rights of women could do anything other than support efforts to end female-genital mutilation, forced marriage, and honor-killings.” His donation helped the group meet half of its fundraising goal for the spring, and prompted its organizers to issue an online challenge that leveraged the Silicon Valley muscle to attract the remaining dough.

There is a certain magnetism of charities that claim to navigate a path out of morally fraught terrain, and Hirsi Ali’s has unquestionably brought attention to wicked issues. The patronage of a man who is arguably one of the Internet’s most powerful players brings to those issues — and the knotty premises that give them life — a thick layer of credibility.

Institutional buy-in is a key ingredient of Hirsi Ali and Nomani’s influence. As universities, think tanks, and media outlets extend their platforms, an arena of moral certitude is established that reinforces their narrative of an Islam-West divide, and thus grows the idea that the Muslim community should join the rest of the freethinking and edified world.

The two are propped up by the plush New England cushion of Ivy League schools. For Hirsi Ali, it’s Harvard University that furnishes an academic veneer. The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs lists her as an “expert” fellow whose research focuses on Islam and the West. For Nomani, it’s Yale, where she served as a journalism fellow in 2005, before her move to lead the “Pearl Project” at Georgetown two years later. Hirsi Ali also enjoys the backing of the Council on Foreign Relations, of which she is a member, and the American Enterprise Institute.

However bolstered by the hallowed towers of academia and the urban drab of Washington think tanks, it’s in the mainstream, not the insular rills of bluestockings and nerdy nine-to-fivers, where Hirsi Ali and Nomani swim. On the set of HBO’s “Real Time” with Bill Maher in May, the former, quietly couched between the other guests, bided her time. When the conversation turned to Islam, she smiled, and assuming the role of validator, told the liberal host, to this great pleasure, precisely why he was right about the religion’s especially nasty character. “You’re my hero,” he doted. Last month, her song and dance were nearly identical at the other end of the political spectrum where she nodded along and offered an occasional “absolutely” to Sean Hannity’s assessment that “women in Islam are treated like property.” The appeal of their message is precisely how a figure like veteran Boston journalist Dan Rea, who interviewed Nomani on CBS’s "NightSide" last month, can plead with women to call into the program and have their “eyes opened” to “how women are treated in this religion, and how they actually should be treated in this religion.”

Those types of conversations bleed into other areas. The politicization of Islam in recent decades has created a thorny middle ground that joins theological discussions with political ones. The result within the media is the idea that knowledge of one necessarily denotes knowledge of the other. Thus, Nomani, called upon in February by MSNBC to comment on ISIS, convinces liberal host Lawrence O’Donnell that because the group inaugurated their video with a Quranic recitation, it’s foolish to pretend that their maniacal violence is anything other than “a reality of Islam in the world today.” At the Daily Beast, where she is a contributing writer, she wades into psychoanalyses of Osama Bin Laden and dissections of American foreign policy in the Middle East where, like Hirsi Ali’s 2010 Newsweek cover story on the Arab Spring’s “Muslim rage,” nuance and context are distilled into a simpler and always-reliable explanation: Islam, bête noir.

* * *

At the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month, the Bradley Foundation, a philanthropic group that donates tens of millions of dollars annually to conservative causes, awarded Hirsi Ali the Bradley Prize. “Her devotion to freedom, human rights, and particularly the protection of women is inspiring and is deserving of this honor,” the group’s president wrote. One of four recipients, the accolade came with a $250,000 payday and placed her among a group of beneficiaries  — Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney and David Horowitz — whose anti-Islam outfits have raked in more than $5 million in donations from the charity in recent years.

The soft Islamophobia of Western expectations, to paraphrase a Bush speechwriter’s axiom — is luring. It is tempting to lust, hastily, after the values of liberalism without considering how the process of arriving at those values may undermine them altogether, in this case barreling so headstrong into the winds of Islamic reform that the voices of Muslims worldwide, who can articulate their desire and plans for such things if they wish, are lost as Hirsi Ali, Nomani, and their supporters buzz by them with a new and improved version of their religion.

The idea that reform is necessary has a haughty ring to it, anyways. It’s premised on the idea that there’s something wrong with Islam, and while examples of reform within the tradition do exist, Muslims who find meaning in their religion as it is shouldn’t be compelled to change their beliefs at the whims of others. In the case that some Muslims choose a path of reform, it won’t be because activists with books to plug go on cable television and lay out their preferred rules of play. It will be because those Muslims decided that such a thing was needed to begin with, and then, on their own accord, determined the religious path that best reflects their values.

The message of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Asra Nomani, and their troupe of fellow reformists presents to Americans and Europeans an opportunity to confirm their place in the global hierarchy of good values, and reinforce the woeful plight of Muslims who, in their view, would do well to adapt a verse from Psalms: Taste and see that the West is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in it.

It’s a variation of the words in the Book of Matthew, though, that best sum up this group of activists:  “Watch out for false prophets. For they come to you in sheep’s clothing, but they’re not sheep at all.”

By Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the research director at Georgetown University's new project on Islamophobia, the Bridge Initiative. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, "The Islamophobia Industry."

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