“A copy of the Quran sandwiched between two Kalashnikovs.” That is the image Ayaan Hirsi Ali used to describe Islam. Hirsi Ali forced about a quarter of the world population — 1.6 billion Muslims — under her definition of Islam by arguing that there was one Islam and only one understanding of it by all Muslims. To those of us who were familiar with Hirsi Ali’s previous work, this sort of reductionist rhetoric is something we have come to expect from her.
In the past, Hirsi Ali has called for war on all Muslims, proposing for military action to eliminate Islam because Islam at its very core is “nihilistic” and “destructive.” The William F. Buckley, Jr. program, the leading host of the event last week, clearly did not do its homework to read about Hirsi Ali’s background: her Dutch citizenship revocation because she had lied to the said government and her history of blatant hate speech against Muslims worldwide. Otherwise, it would be puzzling to think that a group of reasonable students would dedicate time and effort to host such an event, even though many student groups had expressed concerns about it.
But instead of cooperating with those student groups, the Program saw it appropriate to defensively ignite an on-campus controversy. Soon after, Fox News and the likes picked up on the topic. They specifically targeted Muslim women on campus, persistently asking them to interview. It soon became uncomfortable to walk around campus as a Muslim woman with a hijab.
On the day of the event, scores stood in line and were turned away. Students did not occupy the majority of the seats. Rather, the audience was comprised of older men in their 60s and 70s. “Oh look, the counter-argument team is here!” a man stated, pointing at a handful of Muslims who came to the talk not to protest against it but rather to sit respectfully and listen attentively. Another lady acknowledged that my presence made it “understandable” why such high security measures were needed. It was ironic that Muslim women were particularly marginalized and unfairly scrutinized at a talk that was supposedly advocating for Muslim women’s rights.
As a Muslim woman who is deeply committed to women’s issues in the Muslim world, I thought about how little Hirsi Ali’s words offer to me and how little they offer to the young Muslim women whose education and economic empowerment I aspire to work for. Nor can I think of any Muslim reformer actually doing meaningful work in the Muslim world who has found anything compelling in Hirsi Ali’s message.
However, what struck me most about the talk was not the hateful or belligerent views Hirsi Ali espoused but the extreme crassness of the entire event. The atmosphere at the event itself was self-congratulatory and triumphalist. Hirsi Ali’s sloganeering along with the frenzy of the audience made the talk feel more like a political rally than the thought-provoking, intellectual discussion the event was billed as. Hirsi Ali’s simplistic account of Islamic backwardness and Western superiority seemed to provide validation or justify jingoistic tendencies to many audiences. Nuance, historical and economic context, the examination of alternate point of views — everything we Yalies expect at an academic talk — were absent in Ali’s words.
Throughout the talk, I kept wondering, “How could she hate us if she doesn’t even know us?” Hirsi Ali’s hatred of all Muslims must have originated as a reflection of her past experiences, and I worried what this could mean and how many Hirsi Alis are out there. The bigger each round of applause grew, the louder and clearer her hate speech echoed around me.
“When peace remains silent, hatred prevails,” I recalled my father’s words. I concluded that apathy wasn’t an option. So I went up to Hirsi Ali to thank her for coming anyway; shaking her hand, I reassured her that not every Muslim here hates her and that to messages like hers we say “peace and may you be guided.” She seemed puzzled. I smiled and walked away. Making my way through security officers and avoiding eye contact, I wondered if this was the same Yale I had called home for four years.
Wazhma Sadat is a Woodbridge Fellow in the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a 2014 graduate of Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.