The disrepute of reason: Hirsi Ali, cause célèbre

"As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive." Shakespeare, quoted by Timothy Garton Ash in his critique of Hirsi Ali.

We live in a civilisation that doesn't know what Enlightenment means anymore. Enlightenment means, above all, Reason or the faculty to think with clarity and according to certain logical principles which constitute the Ethics of thinking and writing. The ethical principles of Enlightenment extend to humanist values which consider the Human individual as more sacred than religions and dogma. According to these definitions, Hirsi Ali is the contrary of an Enlightened person. Swinging from one extreme to another, from approving the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to becoming the leader of the Islamophobics, is in no way a road to Enlightenment. Our false comprehension of Ali's personal transformation is confounding actually Enlightenment and hostility to a certain religion, Islam, portrayed as the most backward of religions.

True Enlightenment is against religious dogma to the extent this dogma affects our intellectual ability to think with clarity and reason, while what appears to be more important for Hirsi Ali, her followers, admirers, those who hire her, listen to her, call her a courageous person, and even some of her critics, is not the intellectual method of rigourous thinking but the surface, the fact that a charge on religion gives the thinking the mantle of Enlightenment.

There is much talk about Hirsi Ali now. She is launching her book 'Infidel', an 'autobiographical' account, as well as her Muslim bashing career outside Europe, after having fomented hatred and contributed to destabilise centuries old tradition of religious tolerance in Holland.

Lies after lies and intellectual imposture after intellectual imposture, Hirsi Ali is leading us into the dark about Islam, and her own 'Enlightenment' is becoming our Disenlightenment. From one book launch to another and from one interview to another, Ali maintains as autobiographical some core elements from her personal history, and that of the women she pretends to speak for to substantiate her attacks on Muslims and Islam, despite the fact that these elements were proven exaggerated, distorted, and sometimes false.

Many have critiqued Ali, without insisting on the intellectual dishonesty or imposture of her arguments. Among her critics are leading scholars as well as public intellectuals: Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma, Laila Lalami, Maria Golia (read Golia's essay here), and most recently Lorraine Ali. But most Hirsi Ali's indirect and silent critics are those women and men who work tirelessely to combat Female Genital Mutilation in African countries and the scholars who help them in debunking the myth and educating African women about the practice.

I am going to point out the intellectual dishonesty, logical and moral fallacies of Ms Hirsi Ali. I think the first intellectual dishonesty to emerge is in her attempt to espouse an outside critique of Islam. That is. A borrowed critique. She echoes Pryce-Jones and Bernard Lewis . It is not that an external critique is impossible or unacceptable. Although external critiques of non western civilisations have been tainted by false and arrogant assumptions about other cultures by the western coloniser, they tend to tell us more about the critic than about those who are criticised. Pulling together personal experience of Islam, an internal particular view of Islam, as Hirsi Ali does, and external colonialist critique, serves two purposes. The first purpose is psychological, it is to hide behind other people, not to reveal the essence of private experience. There is a tendency here to blurr the lines of the identity of the person who formulates the critique. A tendency to hide behind a formal critique disconnected logically from personal experience and not revealing any knowledge about the set of beliefs of the person who articulates the critique. Indeed, in doing so, Hirsi Ali asserts her identity as citizen of the West and supresses beliefs related to this former identity. This is the psychological fallacy of Hirsi Ali's postion and we will see later in the article how she reacts to any attempt at revealing her inner self through her critique of Islam.
The second purpose is intellectual: Hirsi Ali's experience of Islam, as painful as it is, cannot become pertinent in a theoretical framework unless Ali is able to stretch this experience within a valid generalisation. As the need to borrow the theoretical critique of Islam from the outside is obvious in Ali's writings and public declarations, we are forced to conclude that her private experience of Islam is not valid enough for theoretical generalisation serving to indict the religion. Lets call this fallacy 'the theoretical fallacy' or the attempt to make a theoretical link between generalisations and a particular observation which is disconnected from these generalisations. Anybody who has done Epistemology One in college or university should understand this. Yet, our intellectuals, both admirers and critics of Ms Ali, didn't seem to notice this fallacy.
The other way with which one can interpret Hirsi Ali's attempt at uniting an inside personal experience with an outside theoretical critique of Islam is opportunism. That is. An attempt to publicise her story within an already established theoretical framework making it more meaningful and giving it more impact than it deserves on the theoretical level. With both ways, theoretical fallacy or opportunism, Hirsi Ali does not come out as an honest intellectual with a sharp and clear mind.

One might object that Hirsi Ali has more than her own story. She has worked with Muslim immigrant women in Holland and must have drawn some conclusions from her social work with these women. Yet, by all accounts, not only Ali dismissed the plight of these women to liberation within their own faith and religion but she is not popular among Muslim women whom she pretends to speak for.''Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women.'' Writes Lorraine Ali.
Ian Buruma mentions a televised meeting she had with women in a Dutch shelter for abused housewives and battered daughters, several of whom objected strongly to the film Submission. "You're just insulting us," one cried. "My faith is what strengthened me." According to Buruma, she dismissed their objections with a lofty wave of her hand.''

Not only Hirsi Ali wants us to believe that her personal story and her work with immigrant Muslim women in Europe is the basis for her fallacious generalisation but she wants us to think that her tragic personal story has nothing to do with a potential harm to her psyche which might have fueled her hatred of Islam. In doing this, Hirsi Ali is trying to elevate her personal story to the level of a detached scientific observation.
''By age 14, Somalia-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali had survived genital mutilation at the hands of her grandmother, a fractured skull from her Qur'an teacher and brutal beatings from her devout Muslim mother. By comparison, her father was kind. The Somali rebel, who had largely abandoned his family to plan coups and marry three more women, only meddled when it came to arranging his 23-year-old daughter's marriage. When Ayaan refused, he disowned her.''

However, her attempt to persuade us that she draws on her personal story as a scientist draws on a particular detached observation is very fragile because she appears to be in a state of denial about herself and dismisses the real problem, the psychological trauma certain practices produce on women, in favour of a 'theoretically valid' political charge on Islam. This is related to what I called before 'the psychological fallacy' . I find this shocking because not only she dismisses her own trauma and suffering but that of other women. There is a moral fallacy at work here. It is of course in her own right to consider her painful experience the way she does but she seems to be willing to attribute this reaction to other women in Africa and the pure evocation of the word 'trauma' puts her on the defensive at the risk of building profound contradictions in her narrative.
1-'People can see that there is not much trauma in my story.'
2-"Why are journalists obsessed with personal history?" she asks... "From my background, being an individual is not something you take for granted. Here it is all you, me, I. There it is we, we, we. I come from a world where the word 'trauma' doesn't exist, because we are too poor. I didn't have an easy life compared to the average European. But compared to the average African, it wasn't all that bad. I know that to some people I am traumatised, that there is something wrong with me. But that just allows them not to hear what I say."

Hirsi Ali finds it patronising to Muslims when her critics say that it is unrealistic to expect as she advocates that all Muslims should adopt her stance in order to reform their 'Backward' societies. Yet she patronises at lenght when she states that her fellow women and Africans are incapable of feeling trauma because they are too poor. How can she imagine these people, who are too poor and unable to feel trauma or to think 'I', will be able to revolt against the backwardness of their societies ?
''But as Hirsi Ali writes, they were normal events in her childhood and in the lives of people she knew. Death and illness were commonplace in Africa, and by African standards she lived well. There is nothing melodramatic in Hirsi Ali's prose.''
For to hear what Hirsi Ali has to say about Islam, one has to paradoxically discard her Trauma story, the particular stories of million of women, the suffering of million of women, the work of NGOs to end the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa. To discard the trauma of million of women is to forget the reality of FGM on the ground, that FGM is mostly a tradition perpetuated by women, that it is not particular to a religion -Egypt's copts have adopted this practice - but to some cultures. To discard the Trauma of FGM is to focalise on its horror seen from the outside than from the inside, thus producing the effect of striking the imagination and channeling the moral outrage from one of compassion to one of hatred.
Here we can find the second intellectual fallacy of Hirsi Ali's thinking; after having connected disconnected particular stories of muslim women to a borrowed general theoretical framework on Islam, and after having denied the trauma story in order to elevate these particular stories to the level of detached scientific observations, she had to admit in face of mounting criticism that FGM is not only the work of Islam. Indeed, ''Muslim clerics fought the practice as early as the 1820s*, as Sudanese anthropologist Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf writes. However, against all odds, Ali kept transforming and changing the nature of FGM in her speeches and writings, exploiting its many facets to continue her charge on Islam. This will become particularly easy for her after 9/11 when Ali started to widen the scope of FGM to include it in wider issues on women and Islam like virginity, submission and other gender relations.

After 9/11, riding on the hatred and fear of Islam, Hirsi Ali wanted us to believe that there is more horror to Islam and that FGM is only one of the evil facets of this religion. She continued to keep FGM in her arsenal in order to build a more horrible vision of Islam:
''The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attacks, and it refused to close again. I found myself thinking that the Koran is not a holy document. It is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.''

This is how the project for Submission with Theo Van Gogh was born and the assassination that followed and the rise of Hirsi Ali to the status of the 'Black Voltaire', and the social unrest she provoked in Holland and her subsequent disgrace, as well as her present hiring officially as Muslim basher by the neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institue (AEI).

While I was writing this essay, I wondered if Hirsi Ali will be able to regenerate or mutate into something else if the world would radically change in the near future and if her Muslim bashing career would be of no use. Certainly, I said to myself, but in the process she will loose some of her credibility and become just a public buffoon. Because the only thing that is giving her credibility now is our willingness to let our imagination be stricken by something we fear and don't know about; Islam.
I disagree for example with Garton Ash when he writes:
''Having read many interviews with her, and spent an evening in London talking to her both onstage and off, I have enormous respect for her courage, her sincerity, and her clarity. This does not mean one must agree with all her views.'' Most of all, Hirsi Ali lacks courage, sincerity clarity and intellectual honesty.
Going from one extreme to another, Muslim extremist in kenya, xenophobe fanatic in Holland stirring silent anti-immigrant sentiment in the dutch population, and official Muslim Basher in the US, Ali positions herself along the majority line, radicalises our fears and aspirations while securing herself a membership for a very high position in the dominant and most successful clan.

''Usually people make excuses for their culture and family etcetera. I could tell the story that we in the Third World have things that the West could learn from, which is obviously true, but that isn't what I wanted to show. My argument is that western liberal culture is superior to Islamic tribal group culture.''

Because in going from one extreme to another and from one identity to another, Ali is fleeing herself while being totally unable to really free herself, continually looking for a clan in which she can indict her former self, away from her inner self and contradictions, with the help, well, of the clan and its idelogy... Ali is not genuine in the sense that she is unable to confront herself and think for herself. During her journey, there will be no looking back for Hirsi Ali, no introspection, and no Enlightenment. There will be only a Fuite en Avant, more extremisms, more exagerations, more lies, and well, more intellectual impostures and dishonesty. All these things we will have to read in our newspapers and swallow in a non critical way in the name of a fake enlightenment whose only justification is Muslim bashing but accomodates itself well with Torture, Extraordinary renditions, Illegal Wars, Opression, and Crimes against Humanity. Because our society doesn't know what true Enlightenment means anymore.

I think also that our present western culture had lost its positive power of imagination and kept only the imagination of fears. There was a time when orientalist thinking yielded more positive images of women from these cultures and their relations to men. Think of Delacroix. Think of Pierre Loti. I visited Istanbul at the end of last summer and, standing on the Pierre Loti hill, the golden horn stretching before me, among many Muslim couples and families, I felt a different culture of relationships between genders around me. It wasn't a wicked one, not more wicked than in any other culture. Few women wore headscarves. I had arrived with my husband there in a small boat in the company of a young couple. The girl was modest and wearing also a headscarf, she was carrying flowers given to her by her fiancé who was sitting next to her holding her hand. There was joy, love and extreme sensuality in the air on that day, or at least this was my feeling. Coming from another culture, I didn't feel threatened by these people. I didn't feel the need to change the women who were sittting with their boyfriends and husbands around me. I didn't feel the men as less respectful or more threatening for these women than the men we know.

Blessed are the pre 9/11 orientalists I thought, they, like Loti, projected some very colorful fantasies on Islam and gender relations in Islam. Present day post 9/11 orientalists and their disciples are missing the point. They have adopted one fantasy, the fantasy that Bin laden and few Muslim radicals have implemented in our imagination. And while Loti, a man who made nostalgia the mark of his writings, must have been wrong about Islam, as much as Bernard Lewis and the neo-cons are today, and as much as Hirsi Ali, who is just imitating them and adopting their narratives adorned by a personal story, helping them perpetuate the fears of Islam, is wrong, Loti can at least claim to be on the good side of fantasy, the side that inspires and opens up imagination instead of abandoning it to fear, irrationality and intolerance...

Read also on ZNet, A genre in the service of Empire, thanks to Homeyra

Against Submission: The latest Buruma Critique of Hirsi Ali
UPDATE: African Aid Group Wins Hilton Prize for Educating African Women Against FGM.

November 2007: Hirsi Ali on Defeating Islam (not only radical Islam she insists)

And thanks to Erdla from the Gorilla's Guides team, below are two links to enrich and engage on a rational debate about Islam:

'Aqoul: Hirsi Ali proves that stupidity is dangerous.

A Financial Times special on Islam in Europe (for those who want to know and not follow their racisdt inclinations)

*''Despite the prevalence of the ritual, historically there has also been strong opposition that can be traced to the precolonial era, when indigenous efforts attempted to extirpate it. The first resolute and strong anti-circumcision movement in precolonial Sudan was religiously galvanized in the name of Islam. Before the annexation of the Sudan by Mohamed Ali, in the Turco-Egyptian Empire in 1821, El Sheikh Hassan wad Hassona, then a powerful religious cleric, initiated a campaign to exonerate Islam and redefine its position, especially in the eyes of people who attributed circumcision to Islamic religious ideology.''


N. said...

That is what she is, in my opinion: an opportunist!

Wolfie said...

"Swinging from one extreme to another, from approving the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to becoming the leader of the Islamophobics, is in no way a road to Enlightenment."

Please could you point me towards evidence of this? I'd like to know more.

- Wolfie

Manas Shaikh said...

Just to say thanks for the details.

Sophia said...

It is no secret for anybody and even Hirsi Ali recognises her Islamic extremist credentials. It is part of her narrative. The reference to Rushdie can be found in the Guardian article I cited in the post:
guardian link
News accumulator about Hirsi Ali if you want to know more

Elizabeth said...

What you write rings true. I look at pictures of Hirsi Ali and she has the flat affect of people who have internalized their trauma and come to believe it was fate. She has shut herself off from her emotions. Her Islam-bashing is a convenient outlet for her rage, so she doesn't have to acknowledge its real instigators, her family. It also allows her to intellectualize her rage, and it contributes to her self-esteem as her demonization of the "other" Muslim creates a corresponding exaltation of herself as the "enlightened" writer. Meanwhile her writing and speaking is probably promoting FGM as Africans and Muslims see her as co-opted by the West.

Sophia said...


Thanks for this comment that comes from your expertise. I don't have an expertise proper in the field but I have theoretical knowledge. However it seemed so obvious to me. The more Ali will talk and the more these contradictions will come to light.

proggiemuslima said...

Excellent post; very-well though out.

The neo-Cons and Islamophobes practically trip over themselves in the race to fall at Hirsi Ali's feet. When I read their drivel and her lies I have to shake my head in disbelief. How can people be so gullible?

L. said...

Bonjour Sophia,
J'ai souvent lu tes commentaires sur le blog de Nidal, "Loubnan ya Loubnan", et c'est avec plaisir que je découvre ton blog. De plus, comme Nidal ne publie plus de billets depuis un bail, le fait de venir ici m'évite de perdre tous mes repères!

Sophia said...

Merci de ta visite. Tu es toujours ici le bienvenu.
Le problème de Nidal, dont j'apprécie le blog aussi, c'est qu'il publie de longs billets, des analyses. J'ai tendance à le faire aussi, mais quand on a un travail dans la vie c,est un peu difficile de maintenir un blog.
En fait, la majorité des bloggeurs font des commentaires courts ou carrément du Copier-Coller en insérant des liens.

homeyra said...

An eye-opener post.
One of the mechanism of "Islam-bashing".
I will link to it, if you don't mind.

Sophia said...

Not at all. Thanks for linking.

Sophia said...

Here is an exchange I had with a blogger who posted on Hirsi Ali and with whom I differed on the appreciation of her work. I sent him a comment telling him about my post on Hrsi Ali and here is the exchange that follows:


I tried to follow your links but it didn't work....

5:41 PM

Sophia said...
My sitemeter tells me otherwise, that you accessed the post from the technorati link. Indeed I have linked to your original post on Hirsi Ali. And to have commented on this post without seeing the post on Hirsi Ali, which is just under the comment section you opened, you must have been really on a rush...

8:41 PM

ohdave said...
Sophia, I didn't realize that the link opened at the bottom of the post, even below the comments, rather than the top. Weird. Maybe it's just my browser. Apologies on that one.

I plan to link to your translation of the LeMonde interview, and to summarize some other things I've seen in Le Monde, although I'm not up to translating. My French is not as good as yours.

Regarding you Ali piece, I had not read the whole thing yesterday but I did read it this morning. I'm afraid I can't match your zeal or your knowledge on the subject. Your point that Ali is using the subjegation of women merely as a means to attack Islam is something I can't speak on. I admit to a natural distrust of her due to the fact of her current employment. In her writing she protests admiration for elements of Islam but your critique, up to the point I am able to follow it, has made me question her intellectual honesty.

On the other hand, someone as committed to human rights as you are, and I admired your post on the Canadian Supreme Court, by the way, ought to be able to confront her arguments about the treatment of women on their face rather than simply questioning her credentials. Ali's larger point is the status of women in the Muslim world. I don't think it is neo-colonialist subterfuge to insist that tyranny, no matter where it exists, needs to be confronted and called out. If Ali's intentions aren't pure enough, please point out to me a more reasoned critique of the status of women in Islam, if you know of any. I'm anxious to read it if I can.

8:29 AM

Sophia said...
Thanks for the comment.
I think Fatema Mernissi is the most prominent insider critic of the issue of women in Islam and the most credible, but not the only one in her category. She is a real scholar, which Ali is not. I have her original Ph.D. thesis and a friend who is doing a documentary on women in religions borrowed it from me.
Here is the link to her Wiki page

What irritates me Ohdave and I will be frank with you is that US citizens are not willing to really learn about Islam and find it easy to buy into clichés. It is not your case but sometimes, not knowing your subject makes you an easy prey.
You ask me to criticise Ali on the subsntance instead of attacking her credibility. I think she does not deserve that we criticise her on the substance because she is a fraud, it is a waste of time.

10:05 AM

Sophia said...

It is important also to attack Ali's credentials, not only as an expert on Islam but also as an intellectual. She is none of these and I think someone has to do the job. I am furious that some people hold this person as a 'Voltaire'. Voltaire must be crying in his tonb or people will have to read Voltaire again because they only know of Voltaire the surface and the clichés...

10:29 AM

markfromireland said...


I admire both your writing and the spirit of compassion and tolerance which informs your writing.

Recently however you've excelled yourself.

May I make a suggestion?

Create a category or label called "notable posts" and put this one into it, do the same for your "Benedict" posting. There's a few others you could do that for too :-)

I'm up to my tonsils in a variety of things and don't have time to say anything other than that I dearly wish I had written them myself.

Would you be interested in posting this as a guest posting on "Guides?" Or perhaps writing something else?

Please think about it seriously and get in touch.

I'll finish in gaelic if I may,

Le gach dea mhéin agus fíor meas.

(With every good wish and sincere respect.)


Sophia said...

You make me blush. This is too much praise for me. You are too kind.

Antiquated Tory said...

Well, I at least got what the blankety blank you were going on about, even if L didn't. Thanks for posting the link.
It's just as well that we live in an era defined in part by people's sharpened senses of irony, when the absolutely least Enlightenment-informed members of our society suddenly decide to become defenders of the Enlightenment.

Antiquated Tory

Sophia said...


Thanks for visiting and for the comment. I am glad you went throught the post. I know I am not the best of writers in English but I always try to make my ideas clear and to have something substantial in a post.

Since March 29th 2006