Islamophobia: Good or bad?

Posted on May 27, 2014 by


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a well-known critic of and polemicist against Islam, was recently offered an honorary degree from Brandeis University in Massachusetts. However, when students, faculty, and mobilized in protest against Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views, the university pacified the students by rescinding their offer. This is not a unique situation, as there seems to be something of a movement by students to be very selective about their commencement speakers. There are many angles by which to engage this story: is it a free speech issue? Or is this about a clash of American civil discourse with Dutch civil discourse (Hirsi Ali was for a time a member of the Dutch parliament)? My focus is on the issue of classification, specifically regarding the words “Islam,” “Islamophobe,” and “tolerance.” Who decides what these words mean, and by what basis are these meanings determined?

Let us consider Hirsi Ali’s experience: she was raised in a strict Muslim family, yet after surviving a civil war in Somalia, genital mutilation, beatings, and fleeing to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage, she renounced Islam in her 30s. To her, the word “Islam” is associated with all kinds of terrible things. In 2007 she gave an interview to the London Evening Standard in which she advocated the closing of Islamic schools in the West, said that “violence is inherent in Islam,” and that “Islam is the new fascism.” Understanding Hirsi Ali’s comments requires that one be aware of her experience of Islam.

On the other hand, there are American Muslims and those sympathetic to them that condemn Hirsi Ali as “one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide.” Clearly Hirsi Ali would agree with this, as she has plenty to hate about Islam. But when Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemned Hirsi Ali for her views, he implied that Islam is not deserving of hatred.

The field of contention quickly becomes clear: it is Hirsi Ali’s experience of Middle Eastern Islam against the experience of American Muslims. Both camps claim to have knowledge of the “true” Islam, based on their statements either damning or defending it. So who is right? Whose experience is authorized and why? Whose experience conforms more fully to authentic Islam? Is there even such a thing as “authentic” Islam? Surely Muhammad thought so, as do many millions of Muslims.

The language of those condemning Hirsi Ali rarely validates her own experience. Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, is one of the few to honor Hirsi Ali’s personal struggle: “She has her very real personal story, she has her views, and she’s free to say what she’d like to say.” Most of the time, Hirsi Ali is rejected as being “outright Islamophobic” who has “openly hateful views.”

Just as European Christian missionaries encountered a classification problem when attempting to discover the religions of the Far East, Hirsi Ali and American Muslims are quarreling over whose experience is more reflective of the heart of Islam and thus can speak with authority about what Islam is and is not. And the contest is not just between Hirsi Ali and Brandeis, but among the news media, as well. Major news outlets show their biases in subtle ways. Liberal news outlets, such as the New York Times, attempt to portray Brandeis in a more honorable light:

“‘[Hirsi Ali] is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue.’ Universities consider it important to make a distinction between inviting a speaker who may air unpopular or provocative views that the institution does not endorse, and awarding an honorary degree, which is more akin to affirming the body of a recipient’s work.”

The NY Times also includes the words of Hirsi Ali’s sharpest critics, and further quotes Brandeis official statements and the words of others who think that Brandeis acted appropriately in this difficult situation.

Conservative outlets, such as Fox News, still reported the salient details of the story, yet elected to add information about the AHA Foundation, Hirsi Ali’s main philanthropic endeavor, quoted a Brandeis professor who praised Brandeis’ original decision to award Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree (Hirsi Ali described as “such a courageous fighter for human freedom and women’s rights, who has put her life at risk for those values.”), and mentioned a Brandeis alumnus’ open letter to the university saying “Thank you for recognizing Ayaan Hirsi Ali for defending Muslim women against Islamist honor violence.”

While major news outlets do not have the freedom to openly take sides, they do frame stories to fit their own worldviews and agendas. Bloggers and minor internet news outlets, on the other hand, have much more freedom to praise and curse. Writers for the Huffington Post, FrontPage Magazine, New Republic, and Slate, to name a few, are able to openly vilify either Hirsi Ali or the Brandeis movement against her.

This is perhaps most apparent in the headlines for their articles. While major newspapers and the AP stick to things like “Brandeis University decides against honoring critic who called for Islam to be ‘defeated’” and “Brandeis University withdraws planned honorary degree for Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali,” smaller outlets can dare to title their articles with things like “The Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy is about double standards, not freedom of speech,” “Brandeis University’s decision to cancel Ayaan Hirsi Ali appearance has done liberals no favors,” “Brandeis University’s disgraceful act,” and “What was Brandeis thinking when it invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak?”

What motivates these biases? For liberals, their particular brand of tolerance seems to motivate them in opposing Hirsi Ali: because she is intolerant not only of radical Islam but of Islam altogether, liberal media, both professional and social, vilify her as a misguided Islamophobe whose ideas and forceful speech are not acceptable. Conservatives tend to side with Hirsi Ali’s assertion that Islam truly is not worthy of tolerance, and that radical Islam is authentic Islam. So again we come back to the problem of naming: who has the right idea of Islam and why?

This is a question not easily answered; religious controversies are difficult enough to solve objectively, and when the news media has such power to influence how a story is framed and received, the public discourse only becomes more entangled in motives pure and otherwise.





Posted in: Islam