Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Taking a Stand Amidst Controversy

Taking a Stand Amidst Controversy

By Rochelle Bailis

Tensions were high in Garrison Theatre on the night of Feb 5, and the hostility only seemed to escalate as Ayaan Hirsi Ali completed her speech and began taking questions. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a fan of controversy. To me, controversy indicates passion, the existence of diverse perspectives and, most importantly, the crucial exercise of free speech.

The protection of free speech is a huge proponent of Hirsi Ali's position, and to that extent, I agree with her wholeheartedly. Religion still undeniably enjoys some degree of sanctuary from outright disparagement, while this privilege is not always extended to other sociopolitical debates. Hirsi Ali sees the propensity to hold our tongue when it comes to religious criticism as an act of cowardly submission. No idea deserves exemption from criticism, particularly an idea that affects so many people. If Core taught us anything, it is to question anyone and everything, including our professors, our priests, our parents, our beliefs, our rabbis, our imams and our traditions. Whether or not I (or you) agree with all of Hirsi Ali's positions, no one can deny that she is unafraid to speak her mind, even in light of her perpetual death threats. She may not know your individual experience, but you don't know what it's like being a member of the Dutch Parliament, let alone a constant target for murder. No matter what our opinions are, we all have something to learn from such a woman.

It is partially for that reason I was shocked by student's comparison between Hirsi Ali's invitation to speak and the last presentation organized by the Malott Commons program: the Cheney sisters. I think the conservative affiliations of both speakers added some tension to their presence, but somehow, the Hirsi Ali speech ended up resulting in considerably more hostility than that of the Cheney sisters. Why would this be? Perhaps because Hirsi Ali actually said something. We seem to be upset if conservative speakers dance around the issues like the Cheney sisters, but we are even more inflamed when they dare espouse their opinions.

The comparison of Hirsi Ali to the Cheney sisters is laughable to me, but it illuminates an important point about the value of speakers we bring to campus. Unlike the Cheney sisters, who ride on the coattails of their father's political fame, Hirsi Ali paved her own way into the Dutch Parliament, and she's not the sort of woman who would waste time recounting how adorable her kids were while playing with balloons during a campaign celebration. Hirsi Ali skipped the cute talk and got right down to the nitty-gritty of her politics. She mercilessly scrutinized the Scripps way of thinking by picking apart the Humanities Institute brochure, and directly articulated her controversial perspective. My respect for her courage, to criticize an entire culture in a college environment devoted to preserving diversity, and her avoidance of flowery jokes and political circumlocution (why is it that women always assume we want to hear about how cute their kids are?), puts Ali on an entirely different level of respectability and engagement than the Cheney sisters in my book.

Most importantly, I believe Ali was an invaluable voice to bring to Scripps campus. If you trace Ali's civic and religious history, you can begin to grasp the scope of her incredibly dynamic political and personal evolution. She went from an avid Muslim to a staunch atheist, from the Dutch Labour Party (the PvdA) to the center-right party called the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and eventually, she joined a conservative think tank called the American Enterprise Institute. One may interpret such flexibility as lack of consistency, but I think that such deviation has strengthened Ali's objectivity, and her ability to form opinions beyond mere politics.

Most of Ali's personal values have been steadfast in spite of her alignment with particular political parties. She is still an atheist, pro-choice, and an advocate for the rights of women and homosexuals. She is never fully satisfied with one political party, because no party can ever perfectly represent someone's values. Her views on immigration, which were depicted as inconsistent during questioning at Garrison theatre, have never changed for her personally. The investigation into Ali's citizenship actually began because Ali aligned herself with an immigrant named Taida Pasic, who was arrested and detained by Dutch immigration police in 2006. The night before the Parliamentary debate on Pasic's case, Ali informed the minister of the VVD that she had lied about her name on her citizenship application, a move of solidarity with Pasic that led to the revoking of her citizenship. Ali also advocated the pardoning of over Dutch 20,000 refugees who had resided in the Netherlands for more than five years. Ali has persistently refused to be defined by the views of her family, her political party, her gender, or anyone besides her own moral compass, and such conviction takes incredible strength.

Ali may be prone to sweeping generalizations about the religion she was born into, but consider for a moment why this may be. From Ali's perspective, some of the worst events in her life can be related to various proponents of Islamic culture and law: her genital mutilation, her (almost) forced marriage, her father disowning her, the loss of her director friend Theo Van Gogh (who was murdered by extremists after the creation of their film Submission), and the unrelenting death threat lingering over her head. Although people have threatened her life, Ali does not pursue the path of fear or hatred; her goal to protect, free, equalize and aid the oppressed remains steadfast. In these respects, Ali wants many of the same things most of us do. She is an ardent supporter of separating church and state, protecting the rights of women and homosexuals, and preserving free speech. This is perhaps why that night in Garrison theatre was so intense. Both Ali and the students questioning her were deeply invested in preserving human rights, but everyone was tackling the issue from such radically different angles that people left feeling frustrated.

Everyone has a different opinion on what it means to be oppressed and free, and who society's persecutors and victims are, and Ali harbors yet another one. Maintaining an open dialogue about social justice is perhaps the best way to explore all possible sides of the debate, and methods for approaching it. Whether or not you think she's a hero or an infidel, Ali has found her own voice and wants to share her empowerment with others raised in her situation. Perhaps no one can speak for an entire population, but everyone has the right to speak, to advocate justice as they see it. And when the person has such dynamic political and cultural experience, we should all have the sense to listen.