In early April of this year, Brandeis University, under pressure from student activists and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, reversed its decision to give an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a global advocate for women’s rights.
The decision was triggered by Hirsi Ali’s outspoken criticisms of Islam. The Somali-born activist has sounded alarms about the prevalence of extremism in Muslim countries and the misogyny that pervades even mainstream Islam.
During the Brandeis controversy, a CAIR spokesman called her “one of the worst of the worst of the Islam-haters in America.”
But Hirsi Ali’s warnings about Islamic extremism were quickly supported by world events, as just a week after Brandeis rescinded her honorary degree, the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in the first of many such abductions throughout the summer. A few months after the kidnappings began, news spread that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, another terrorist group, was selling Yazidi women into sexual slavery.
In recent years, as part of its efforts to leverage its historical electoral advantage with female voters, Democrats in the United States have promoted the idea that Republicans have been waging a “war on women.” At various times, the term has been associated with politicians who oppose late-term abortions; conservatives who defend the right of religious business owners to decline to provide contraception coverage to employees; and those who question the assumptions behind the statistic that women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. During the 2014 midterm election season, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz even claimed Tea Party Republicans were “grabbing [women] by the hair and pulling us back.”
Many on the Right have responded to this campaign either by mocking the idea that a war on women exists or by challenging many of the claims liberals make to perpetuate the narrative — pointing out, for example, that nearly all of the gender wage gap can be explained by the career choices women make. But the truth is that there is a war on women. It just isn’t occurring where American liberals claim it is, but rather in countries where women are forbidden to leave their homes without a male escort; seen as nothing more than chattel to be sold or abused; killed if they disobey their family’s wishes; mutilated to prevent them from having sex; and attacked with acid when they try to escape.
If American liberals were as concerned about women’s rights as they claim to be, they would have to shift their focus to other countries, but that would mean giving up a cherished narrative about conservatives here at home and acknowledging the threat radical Islam poses to women worldwide.
The real horrors facing women in the world aren’t discussed in America, where those who try to point out what is going on in other countries or criticize the trivial nature of feminist obsessions are sidelined from the public debate.
But recent events have cast a glaring light on the brutal treatment of women by those claiming to act in the name of Islam, posing a challenge to the American Left by creating a conflict between the liberal desire for women’s equality and a multicultural reluctance to criticize other cultures. This philosophical tension gained national attention in October, when HBO’s liberal host Bill Maher noted the connection between Islamic ideology and violence, igniting a bitter argument with celebrity guest Ben Affleck.
Bundled up and fearful of shaking hands because of a cough, Hirsi Ali sat down with the Washington Examiner in November before being presented an award by the Independent Women’s Forum at its Women of Valor Dinner in Washington. She noted that where extremist ideology spreads, death and mayhem flourish.
“That consequence you see today in parts of Iraq and Syria,” Hirsi Ali said. “You see it in what Boko Haram is doing. You’ve seen it with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Everywhere where that idea is implemented it has a sudden pattern.”
Critics have attacked Hirsi Ali as Islamophobic and have argued that the portrait she paints is not representative of Islam at large. But her disagreements with Islam are rooted in her own East African upbringing.
Hirsi Ali was subjected to female genital mutilation at the age of 5 in her home country, Somalia, while her father, who opposed the traditional practice, was in prison. Her father escaped and moved the family to Saudi Arabia, then to Ethiopia and finally to Kenya when Hirsi Ali was 11 years old.
She grew up as a Muslim woman, reading and accepting the Quran and its teachings. But when her family prepared to force her into an arranged marriage, she fled to the Netherlands. She eventually became a translator, speaking on behalf of Somali women who, like her, were seeking asylum.
Hirsi Ali discovered many women continued to suffer under Islam even in the secular, liberal Netherlands. She decided to enter politics to bring attention to the plight of Muslim women and girls, and in 2003 she was elected to the Dutch parliament.
Her charisma and criticism of Islam as a member of parliament gained the attention of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. She wrote and narrated his film “Submission” about oppressed women in Holland, a film that outraged Dutch Muslims. On Nov. 2, 2004, an Islamist shot and stabbed van Gogh to death in Amsterdam as he rode his bicycle to work. A letter was pinned to van Gogh’s dead body with a knife, a letter that included a death threat against Hirsi Ali.
She moved to the United States in 2006 following her resignation from parliament amid accusations that she lied on her asylum application. But even in America, a security detail accompanies her wherever she goes.
Hirsi Ali has a reputation as a fearless critic of Islam, but she spoke quietly, almost timidly, even though her security detail was on alert just outside the secluded room where our interview took place.
Liberals, she said, protect Islamic extremists partly because the Left has no idea what really goes on in Muslim countries.
“They feel all religions are the same, and they’re not,” she observed. “I think if I adopt the position in good faith to multiculturalists and leftists, I would say [they take the position they do] because they see them [Muslims] as victims. They see them as victims of the white man and so they think: ‘Let’s protect them from the white man. Let’s protect them from capitalism.’… That is misguided at best and malicious at worst.”
One need only remember the tragic shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 to see such indifference to extremism in action. U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded many more after becoming radicalized and corresponding with Yemeni-American terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki. Despite evidence that Hasan’s rampage was religiously motivated — he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is great”) before opening fire — the Obama administration classified the attack as “workplace violence.”
The Left’s kid-glove treatment of even radical Islam exposes the logical flaw at the heart of multiculturalism. How does one tolerate the murderous intolerance of another culture? Is someone really a principled supporter of diversity, of women’s rights, of gay rights, if he refuses to resist or even acknowledge the mortal threat that is posed to those causes by a different culture?
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Many liberals downplay the threat of Islamic extremism that they claim in principle to find abhorrent.
If women’s equality and homosexual rights are important to the Left, why are liberals hesitant to criticize an ideology that threatens both groups? Homosexuals are subject to judicial execution in several Muslim countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although homosexuality is legal in more than 20 Muslim-majority nations, it is still viewed as shameful and sometimes punished by private citizens, who are forgiven for persecuting homosexuals and even for killing them.
Being a woman is not a sin or illegal in Islamic countries, but women are treated more as property than as human beings. In Somalia, where Hirsi Ali was born, 98 percent of women and girls have undergone genital mutilation, a procedure that involves removing the clitoris and labia and sewing the area closed, leaving only a small hole for urination. Somalia has the highest percentage of women and girls who have undergone the procedure, according to a July 2013 report by UNICEF.
Millions of young girls in East Africa are treated as property and forced into marriage in exchange for wealth or status. Women who refuse to marry a husband selected by their familiescan be slain by their own parents and siblings in an “honor killing.” In some cases, the man she prefers is slain as well.
These situations are not isolated but are, rather, spreading into Western cultures. Between 25 and 28 honor killings occur in the United States each year, according to Hirsi Ali’s human rights organization. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 honor killings occur worldwide each year and that 800 million women and girls live under the constant threat of such violence.
“Wherever [Islamists] gain power, you see exactly what they do: The first thing they do is they chase women out of the public space, force them to cover up, beat them up, rape them, sell them into slavery,” Hirsi Ali said.
Such violence against women needs to be exposed, and Western liberals need to “review their thinking,” she said.
That will prove difficult. In her speech to the dinner guests in Washington, Hirsi Ali recalled meeting Vice President Joe Biden. He informed her that “ISIS had nothing to do with Islam.” When she disagreed with him, Biden actually responded: “Let me tell you one or two things about Islam.”
“I politely left the conversation at that,” Hirsi Ali said, to laughter. “I wasn’t used to arguing with vice presidents.”
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In trying to educate Americans about the dangers of radical Islam and its encroachment on Western society, Hirsi Ali created the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation in 2007. Focusing specifically on honor violence, genital mutilation, and forced marriages, the foundation lobbies Congress, trains law enforcement officials to handle these kinds of domestic abuse cases, and connects women to crisis centers. The foundation’s main goal, according to its website, is to “help protect and defend the rights of women in the U.S. from religiously and culturally instigated oppression.”
Hirsi Ali expanded on comments the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States made in September, when he likened Islamic extremism to a “cancer.”
“Do you know how cancer comes in stages — stage one through four?” Hirsi Ali asked. “ISIS, Boko Haram — they have now achieved the stage of mayhem. But the earlier stages [are] sometimes undetectable. That is what we have here in the U.S. We have it in the UK. We have it in the rest of the Western countries. We have it all over the world.”
She wants Americans to understand how the cancer can spread in just a few years and “lead to something you really don’t want.”
“And we need to engage them and we need to argue with them,” she added. “I want, through this foundation, to achieve that awareness and then also to protect the rights of the women who come to us.”
Part of that awareness comes from a lobbying campaign working to eradicate genital mutilation in the United States. Female genital mutilation is illegal under federal law, but just 22 states have their own laws barring the practice. Hirsi Ali’s foundation is working with the remaining states to enact their own laws. So far, Louisiana, Kansas and New Jersey have passed laws based on language provided by the foundation, and Pennsylvania legislators are working on a similar bill.
The foundation also worked with Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., to introduce the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act, which amended existing law to include punishment for “vacation cutting,” the practice of sending a girl back to a home country to undergo the procedure.
The foundation trains police, teachers and social workers how to understand and combat such violence against women and girls from abroad, and to ensure authorities recognize that this type of violence is distinct from other kinds of domestic violence.
“Everyone we’ve been in touch with — prosecutors, lawyers, people in the government, activists — they now understand what honor violence is, what female genital mutilation is, that it is a special type of domestic violence,” Hirsi Ali said. “It is ideology-driven. It is founded on this religion, or the abuse of this religion.”
“I don’t care what you call it, whether it is the abuse or the core of the religion, but it is happening,” Hirsi Ali said. “And it’s happening to real women in real time. And that’s what we plan to fight, with very little means.”
One of the organization’s biggest projects is the launch of a national helpline for survivors and women at risk of honor violence.
The helpline would be set up in partnership with an existing national crisis center, and the foundation would train operators in the specifics of this type of violence and assess whether Arabic-speaking operators would need to be brought in. Fundraising for the hotline is expected to begin shortly after the partnership is lined up.
Asked where she believed the war on women is taking place, Hirsi Ali said: “I would start with the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia — where Muslim extremists are dominant. And by dominant I don’t mean necessarily that they control everything. I mean wherever they can get their politics through, women’s rights are compromised. That is a real war on women.”
“They hate us for just being women and girls,” she said. “That’s what we need to fight.”
During the dinner, Hirsi Ali said that modern American feminists, who continue to promote the idea that there is a war on women in the United States, are focusing on “trivial bullshit” such as the shirt (printed with a motif of scantily clad women) that a scientist wore to a television interview after he helped land a robot on a comet.
Hirsi Ali argued for reclaiming feminism. “Because I come from a world where I cannot take access to education for granted, I can’t take economic opportunity for granted, I can’t take personal freedoms for granted — I mean, I have to pinch myself every day to think about how it’s great to be here,” she said, adding that feminists achieved a lot in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But she reminds American feminists that the modern West has a population of nearly 1 billion people, while societies that haven’t achieved similar breakthroughs in equality are vastly more numerous.
“These societies are really the minority, and it’s scary,” Hirsi Ali said of Western cultures.
The rest of the world, which doesn’t enjoy the rights that Americans do, is where feminists should focus their attention, she said.
“They should be focusing on the rights of women in China; the girls who are being aborted before they’re even born,” Hirsi Ali said. “The culture of rape in India. Latin America in the Western world, with all its problems with it being where the West was four or five decades ago. And then, Islamic extremism, which is like a cancer and it’s spreading all over the world.”
Hirsi Ali noted that she has been warning Westerners about the dangers of Sharia, or Islamic law, for more than a decade but wasn’t taken seriously.
“Nobody really believed me. They thought I was exaggerating,” she said. “But now they can see when these people come to power what they do.”
Her message: “I’m just saying — let’s get serious.”