In spite of controversy surrounding her invitation to campus, Ayaan Hirsi Ali delivered her speech Monday night without significant interruption or disturbance.
Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born American activist known for her advocacy for women’s rights and anti-Islamic views. Several weeks ago, she was invited to speak at an event called “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West” sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program. In response, last week, the Muslim Students Association sent a letter signed by over 30 other student organizations to all students, expressing concerns over Hirsi Ali’s lack of academic credentials to speak on Islam, as well as over the allegedly hateful anti-Islam statements that she had made in the past. These sentiments were partially born out of Hirsi Ali’s traumatic childhood experiences related to her religious upbringing, including undergoing female genital mutilation and allegedly being forced into marriage.
The talk was attended by over 300 individuals, with lines to enter the auditorium stretching more than a block. While the MSA did not organize any formal demonstration during the actual event, the organization did maintain a booth outside of the lecture hall with educational leaflets about Islam.
During her speech, Hirsi Ali reiterated her views on the religion in which she was raised, focusing on her childhood and adolescence in a Muslim community in Somalia. She said she believes her experiences are relevant to the current state of Islam, which she described as violent, intolerant and in need of reform.
Growing up, Hirsi Ali said religious teachers taught her the duties of being a Muslim, such as worshipping Allah, telling the truth, looking after those in need and being obedient and modest. She said in her community, those who neglected their religious duties were never ostracized or attacked, but rather were “left alone” or “nudged gently” at most.
When she was 15, Hirsi Ali said she encountered a different kind of religious teacher — whom she referred to as a “Preacher Teacher” — who encouraged youths to enforce the religious duty of Islam and wage jihad against those who did not obey. Witnessing this process of “indoctrination,” she said, makes her statements relevant to Islam today.
Hirsi Ali added that this “indoctrination” is at the source of radical Islam and leads to intolerance and violence. Therefore, she said, in order to fight the symptoms of radical Islam, the “core creed” of Islam — the Qur’an and hadith — must be reformed. Hirsi Ali called on Muslims to listen to their consciences and stand up to Allah, rather than bending to his will.
Hirsi Ali repeated many times that the western world acts with “restraint” when dealing with conflicts of Islamic terrorism and radical groups.
“The clash is there, but what we follow up with is restraint. And restraint is what we’ve been showing for the last 30 years,” Hirsi Ali said to the audience.
Although she said she did not blame U.S. President Barack Obama for his reservations in handling situations such as the current rise of ISIS, she also spoke in favor of perceiving her former religion as “one Islam” whose core creed involves complete submission to Allah, the Islamic god that she previously deemed “fire-breathing.”
The MSA’s campus-wide letter last week announced the group’s worries over Hirsi Ali’s talk and brought attention to her history of anti-Islamic statements.
Hirsi Ali directly addressed the MSA during her speech, asking why the organization took the time and resources to “silence the reformers and dissidents of Islam,” including herself, rather than fighting against the violence, intolerance and indoctrination Hirsi Ali associates with Islam.
“MSA students of Yale, you live at a time when Muslims are at a crossroads,” she said. “The Muslim world is on fire and those fanning the fire are using more creed. With every atrocity [they underscore] your commitment to Allah … Will you submit passively or actively, or will you finally stand up to Allah?”
Hirsi Ali also responded to the MSA’s critique of her lack of academic credentials by saying that even scholars with substantial credentials who have criticized Islam have been “bullied into silence.”
Rich Lizardo ’15, president of the Buckley Program, said the lecture could not have gone better, calling Hirsi Ali “insightful, eloquent and elegant.” He said he had been initially baffled by the attention given to the event, both inside and outside of campus, but he ultimately believes that it succeeded in diversifying intellectual thought at Yale.
The MSA declined to comment, pointing instead to previous statements made in the email to students, which articulated concern and disappointment over Hirsi Ali’s invitation, but ultimately conveyed hope that the discussion would be constructive and respectful.
Still, individual Muslim students interviewed expressed a variety of reactions to Hirsi Ali’s talk, but declined to attribute their names out of fear of retribution. Some said Hirsi Ali’s presence made them feel uncomfortable being on campus, and others felt that Hirsi Ali’s talk invalidated their experiences as Muslims.
Other audience members interviewed were impressed with Hirsi Ali and the contents of her lecture.
Judith Liebmann GRD ’69 praised Hirsi Ali for her bravery in speaking about these issues, as well as her past traumatic experiences.
“She is an amazingly gentle person … with a courageousness that’s incomprehensible to me,” Liebmann said, adding that she had been disturbed by the fact that students voiced opposition to Hirsi Ali’s talk.
Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.