by Ayaan Hirsi Ali



The first time I stood up to speak in a public setting was shortly after September 11, 2001. It was a public forum, a "discussion house," which is a relatively common institution in the Netherlands. I was working at a small but well respected social democratic think tank, and my boss suggested that I go.

The discussion was being hosted by a Dutch newspaper, a publication that was originally religious (Protestant), but now was very secular, and the topic was "Who Needs a Voltaire, the West or Islam?" The auditorium was packed to capacity. People who couldn't find seats were standing along the walls. And in many ways it was an interesting and unusual gathering because there were so many Muslim participants in the audience. Normally these things were almost all white because the discussion topics would be things like "How Much Control Do We Cede to the European Union?" or "Why Should We Give Up the Guilder for the Euro?" 

On this night, however, the usual members of the Amsterdam elite were rubbing shoulders with Muslims from Turkey, Morocco, and other nations, nearly all of them immigrants or the children of immigrants to the Netherlands.

There were six speakers for the evening, and five of them essentially said that it was the West that needed a Voltaire, meaning that the West was the place most in need of reform. Their argument was that the West had a blind spot, that it had a long and wicked history of exploitation and imperialism, that it was tone deaf to what went on in the rest of the world, and it needed another Voltaire to explain all of this.

I was sitting in the middle of this sea of faces, white, brown, and black, and just listening, increasingly aware that I disagreed with what was being said. Finally, the sixth panelist spoke, a man from Iran, a refugee, a lawyer. 

"Well," he said, "look at these people in this room. The West has not one Voltaire, but thousands if not millions of Voltaires. The West is used to criticism, it's used to self-criticism. All the sins of the West are out there for everyone to see." And then he said: "It's Islam that needs a Voltaire." 

He discussed a list of all the things that are wrong or questionable about Islam— points that resonated with me. And for this he was booed; he was shouted down. (Ironically, ten years later, Irshad Manji, a staunch advocate of Islamic reform, spoke in this same hall. By then, the crowd had completely changed. It was packed not with curious observers, but with hard-line, fundamentalist Islamists, and that night the audience grew so combative that Irshad had to be hustled out by security.)

After the Iranian lawyer spoke, there was a break, and then the audience was given a chance to ask questions. I waved my hand, and someone with the microphone saw my black face and probably thought, "for the sake of diversity"—the white organizers of such events were in fact quite keen to hear what went on in the heads, households, and communities of immigrants. He gave me the microphone. 

I stood up and agreed with the Iranian. I said: 

"Look at you guys. There are six people there, you've invited six speakers, and one of them is the Voltaire of Islam. You guys have five Voltaires, just allow us Muslims one, please." 

That led a newspaper editor to ask me to write an essay, to which he gave the headline "Please Allow Us One Voltaire."

In the months and years that followed, I read more and more widely. I read Western views of Islam and Muslim culture. I read more Western liberal thinkers. And I read about the Muslim reformers of the past. My conclusion remains that Islam still needs a Voltaire. But I have come to believe it is in dire need of a John Locke as well. It was, after all, Locke who gave us the notion of a "natural right" to the fundamentals of "life, liberty, and property." But less well known is Locke's powerful case for religious toleration. And religious toleration, however long it took to be established in practice, is one of the greatest achievements of the Western world.

Locke made the case that religious beliefs are, in the words of the scholar Adam Wolfson, "matters of opinion, opinions to which we are all equally entitled, rather than quanta of truth or knowledge."1 In Locke's formulation, protection against persecution is one of the highest responsibilities of any government or ruler. 

Locke also argued that where there is coercion and persecution to change hearts and minds, it will "work" only at a very high human cost, producing in its wake both cruelty and hypocrisy. 

For Locke, no one person should "desire to impose" his or her view of salvation on others. Instead, in his vision of a tolerant society, each individual should be free to follow his or her own path in religion, and respect the right of others to follow their own paths: "Nobody, not even commonwealths," Locke wrote, "have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretense of religion."2

What is often forgotten is that Locke restricted this freedom of religion to various Protestant denominations. He did not include the Roman Catholic Church because "all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince." Were Locke alive today, I suspect he would make a similar argument about Islam. So long as there are some Muslims who regard Muhammad's teachings in Medina as trumping their loyalty to the states of which they are citizens, there will be a legitimate suspicion that tolerance of Islam endangers the security of those states. The central question for Western civilization remains what it was in Locke's day: What exactly can we not tolerate?

Let us begin with the oppression of half of humanity.

Rights in Retreat

Today, more than two hundred years after Voltaire and three hundred years after John Locke, the rights of women are in retreat throughout the Muslim world. 

Consider, by way of a simple illustration, the way that Muslim women are permitted to dress. It is not the most important human right, I admit. But it is a freedom most women care about.

Look at photographs of any of the Muslim cities of the world in the 1970s: Baghdad. Cairo. Damascus. Kabul. Mogadishu. Tehran. You will see that very few women in those days were covered. Instead, on the streets, in office buildings, in markets, movie theaters, restaurants, and homes, most women dressed very much like their counterparts in Europe and America. They wore skirts above the knee. They wore Western fashions. Their hair was done up and visible.

Today, by contrast, a mere photo of a woman walking on the streets of Kabul with a knee-length skirt becomes a viral happening on the Internet, and sparks widespread condemnation as "shameful" and "half-naked," with the government criticized for "sleeping." When I was a girl in primary school in Nairobi, those who covered their heads were the exceptions—fewer than half of all the girls. A few years ago, I googled my old primary school. In the photos posted, nearly every girl was covered.

This is not just about how we dress. If you are a woman living in Saudi Arabia, you want to drive, you want to go out of the house without a male guardian. You may well have money, but you have nothing to do except sit at home or shop under male supervision. In Egypt, you are battling against a rising tide of sexual harassment—99 percent of women report being sexually harassed and up to eighty sexual assaults occur in a single day.3

Especially troubling is the way the status of women as second-class citizens is being cemented in legislation. 

In Iraq, a law is being proposed that lowers to nine the legal age at which a girl can be forced into marriage. That same law would give a husband the right to deny his wife permission to leave the house. In Tunisia, your worries are about the imposition of sharia. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, by contrast, you have to fear being gunned down for the crime of attending school. And for young girls all over North Africa and beyond there remains the threat of female genital mutilation, a practice that certainly predates Islam but which is now almost entirely confined to Muslim communities. 

UNICEF estimates that more than 125 million women and girls have been cut in African and Arab nations, many of them majority Muslim.4 As is gradually becoming clear, the practice is also widespread in immigrant communities in Europe and North America.

In the Islamic world, too many basic rights are circumscribed, and not only women's rights. Homosexuality is not tolerated. Other religions are not tolerated. Above all, free speech on the subject of Islam is not tolerated. As I know only too well, freethinkers who wish to question works such as the Qur'an or the hadith risk death.

Islam has had schism; it has never had Reformation. 

Early disputes in Islam produced fierce sectarianism that often involved bloodshed, but largely over technical questions. The biggest was about who should succeed the Prophet as leader of the ummah: the Sunnis wanted to select a caliph (literally a deputy) on the basis of merit, while the Shia insisted on an imam who was a relative of the Prophet. A smaller division was sparked by the question of whether Allah spoke in dictating the Qur'an. (One school of Islamic thought, the Mu'tazi-lite, argued that Allah does not have a human larynx and that the Qur'an is therefore not Allah's "speech.")5

The idea of "reform" in Islam has largely centered on the resolution of such narrow questions. Indeed, the term "ijti-had" the nearest thing to reform in Arabic, means trying to determine God's will on some new issue, such as: Should a Muslim pray on an airplane (a new technological invention) and, if so, how can he be sure he is facing Mecca? But the larger idea of "reform," in the sense of fundamentally calling into question central tenets of Islamic doctrine, has been conspicuous by its absence. Islam even has its own pejorative term for theological trouble-makers: "those who indulge in innovations and follow their passions" (the Arabic words ahl al-bida, wa-l-ahwa').6

Tolerating Intolerance

Most Americans, and indeed most Europeans, would much rather ignore the fundamental conflict between Islam and their own worldview. This is partly because they generally assume that "religion," however defined, is a force for good and that any set of religious beliefs should be considered acceptable in a tolerant society. I can sympathize with that. In many respects, despite its high aims and ideals, America has found it difficult to make religious and racial tolerance a reality.

But that does not mean we should be blind to the potential consequences of accommodating beliefs that are openly hostile to Western laws, traditions, and values. 

For it is not simply a religion we have to deal with. It is a political religion many of whose fundamental tenets are irreconcilably inimical to our way of life. We need to insist that it is not we in the West who must accommodate ourselves to Muslim sensitivities; it is Muslims who must accommodate themselves to Western liberal ideals.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets this. In the fall of 2014, Bill Maher, host of the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, held a discussion about Islam that featured the best-selling author Sam Harris, the actor Ben Affleck, and the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof Harris, and Maher raised the question of whether or not Western liberals were abandoning their principles by not confronting Islam about its treatment of women, promotion of jihad, and sharia-based punishments of stoning and death to apostates. To Affleck, this smacked of Islamophobia and he responded with an outburst of moralistic indignation. To applause from the audience, he heatedly accused Harris and Maher of being "gross" and "racist" and saying things no different from "saying you're a shifty Jew.'" Siding with Affleck, Kristof interjected that brave Muslims were risking their lives to promote human rights in the Muslim world.

After the show, during a discussion in the greenroom, Sam Harris asked both Ben Affleck and Nick Kristof, "What do you think would happen if we had burned a copy of the Qur'an on tonight's show?" 

Sam then answered his own question, "There would be riots in scores of countries. Embassies would fall. In response to our mistreating a book, millions of Muslims would take to the streets, and we would spend the rest of our lives fending off credible threats of murder. But when IS crucifies people, buries children alive, and rapes and tortures women by the thousands—all in the name of Islam— the response is a few small demonstrations in Europe and a hashtag [#NotInOurName]."

Shortly after the show was broadcast, a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim woman (and gay rights activist) named Einah wrote an open letter to Ben Affleck that summed up my feelings precisely:

Why are Muslims being "preserved" in some time capsule of centuries gone by? Why is it okay that we continue to live in a world where our women are compared to candy waiting to be consumed? Why is it okay for women of the rest of the world to fight for freedom and equality while we are told to cover our shameful bodies? Can't you see that we are being held back from joining this elite club known as the 21st century?

Noble liberals like yourself always stand up for the misrepresented Muslims and stand against the Islamophobes, which is great but who stands in my corner and for the others who feel oppressed by the religion? Every time we raise our voices, one of us is killed or threatened.

. . . What you did by screaming "racist!" was shut down a conversation that many of us have been waiting to have. You helped those who wish to deny there are issues, deny them.

What is so wrong with wanting to step into the current century? There should be no shame. There is no denying that violence, misogyny and homophobia exist in all religious texts, but Islam is the only religion that is adhered to so literally, to this day.

In your culture you have the luxury of calling such literalists "crazies." ... In my culture, such values are upheld by more people than we realize. Many will try to deny it, but please hear me when I say that these are not fringe values. It is apparent in the lacking numbers of Muslims willing to speak out against the archaic Shariah law. The punishment for blasphemy and apostasy, etc, are tools of oppression. Why are they not addressed even by the peaceful folk who aren't fanatical, who just want to have some sandwiches and pray five times a day? Where are the Muslim protestors against blasphemy laws/apostasy? Where are the Muslims who take a stand against harsh interpretation of Shariah?7

Anyone for Apartheid?

One of the early suffragettes, Alva Belmont, said that American women must serve as a beacon of light, telling not only the story of what they have accomplished, but also representing a lasting determination that women around the world shall be "free citizens, recognized as the equals of men." Too often, when it comes to women's rights (and human rights more generally) in the Muslim world, leading thinkers and opinion makers have, at best, gone dark.

I cannot help contrasting this silence with the campaign to end apartheid, which united whites and blacks alike all over the world beginning in the 1960s. 

When the West finally stood up to the horrors of South African apartheid, it did so across a broad front. The campaign against apartheid reached down into classrooms and even sports stadiums; churches and synagogues stood united against it across the religious spectrum. South African sports teams were shunned, economic sanctions were imposed, and intense international pressure was brought to bear on the country to change its social and political system. American university students erected shantytowns on their campuses to symbolize their solidarity with those black South Africans confined to a life of degradation and impoverishment inside townships.

Today, with radical Islam, we have a new and even more violent system of apartheid, where people are targeted not for their skin color but for their gender, their sexual orientation, their religion, or, among Muslims, the form of their personal faith.

I have spent more than a decade fighting for women's and girls' basic rights. I have never been afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight. 

As I have repeatedly said, the connection between violence and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to Muslims when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect. We need to ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Should it be blasphemy— punishable by death—to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Why, when I have made these arguments, have I received so little support and so much opprobrium from the very people in the West who call themselves feminists, who call themselves liberals?

I do not expect our political leadership to take the lead in directly challenging the inequities of political Islam. The ideological self-confidence that characterized Western leaders during the Cold War has given way to a feeble relativism. Instead, this campaign for female, gay, and minority rights needs to come from elsewhere: from the men who built Silicon Valley's social networks, whose instincts are deeply libertarian; from our entertainment capital, Hollywood, where at least the old hands still remember the era of blacklists and witch hunts; from our civil society, from human rights activists, from feminists, and from lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities; as well as from organizations like the ACLU who, if they still stand for anything, can hardly ignore the way civil liberties are being trampled all over the Muslim world. They must remember Alva Belmont's words. They must light their beacons.

A Unique Role for the West

Whenever I make the case for reform in the Muslim world, someone invariably says: "That is not our project—it is for Muslims only. We should stay out of it." 

But I am not talking about the kind of military intervention that has got the West into so much trouble over the years.

For years, we have spent trillions on waging wars against "terror" and "extremism" that would have been much better spent protecting Muslim dissidents and giving them the necessary platforms and resources to counter that vast network of Islamic centers, madrassas, and mosques which has been largely responsible for spreading the most noxious forms of Islamic fundamentalism. 

For years, we have treated the people financing that vast network—the Saudis, the Qataris, and the now repentant Emiratis—as our allies. In the midst of all our efforts at policing, surveillance, and even military action, we in the West have not bothered to develop an effective counternarrative because from the outset we have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam. 

We persist in focusing on the violence and not on the ideas that give rise to it.

Yet here is another conflict that we can take inspiration from as we embark on this process: the Cold War.

Islam is not communism, of course, but in certain respects it is just as contemptuous of human rights, and Islamic republics have proved almost as brutal toward their own citizens as Soviet republics once were. 

Yet we have welcomed fundamentalist preachers into our cities and have stood idly by as thousands of disaffected young people have been radicalized by their rantings. 

Worse, we have made almost no attempt to counter the proselytizing of the Medina Muslims. If we continue this policy of nonintervention in the culture war, we will never extricate ourselves from the actual battlefield. For we cannot fight an ideology solely with air strikes and drones or even boots on the ground. We need to fight it with ideas— with better ideas, with positive ideas. We need to fight it with an alternative vision, as we did in the Cold War.

The West did not win the Cold War simply through economic pressure or building new weapons systems. 

From the beginning, the United States recognized that this was also going to be an intellectual contest. Aside from a few "useful idiots" on leftist campuses, we did not say the Soviet system was morally equivalent to ours; nor did we proclaim that Soviet communism was an ideology of peace.

Instead, through a host of cultural initiatives funded directly or indirectly by the CIA, the United States encouraged anti-Communist intellectuals to counter the influence of Marxists and other fellow-travelers of the Left. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, dedicated to defending the non-Communist Left in the battle of ideas in the world, opened in Berlin on June 26,1950. Leading intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and Jacques Maritain agreed to serve as honorary chairmen. Many of the members were former Communists such as Arthur Koestler who warned against the dangers of totalitarianism on the basis of personal experience.8 Magazines such as Encounter (UK), Preuves (France), DerMonat (Germany), and Quadrant (Australia) were made beneficiaries of American support.9 The Free Europe Press mailed numerous books to dissidents in Eastern Europe, sneaking their materials past the censors wherever they could. By the end of the Cold War, "it was estimated that over ten million Western books and magazines had infiltrated the Communist half of Europe through the book-mailing program."10

How much did these efforts cost? In the case of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, surprisingly little. In 1951, the budget of the Congress for Cultural Freedom seems to have been about $200,000, or approximately $1.8 million in 2014 dollars.11 Contrast the small budget of the Congress for Cultural Freedom with the enormous sums the United States has spent since 2001 against what policymakers call "terror" or "extremism." A 2013 analysis of the so-called black budget suggested that the United States has spent more than $500 billion on various intelligence agencies and efforts from 2001 to 2013.12 The economist Joseph Stiglitz has calculated the cost of the military intervention in Iraq to be between $3 and $5 trillion.13

This strategy is unsustainable. For one, the United States cannot afford to continue fighting a war of ideas solely by military means. Second, by ignoring the ideas that give rise to Islamist violence we continue to ignore the root of the problem.

Instead, modeled on the cultural campaigns of the Cold War, there must be a concerted effort to turn people away from fundamentalist Islam. 

Imagine a platform for Muslim dissidents that communicated their message through You-Tube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Imagine ten reformist magazines for every one issue of IS's Dibuq or Al-Qaeda's Inspire. Such a strategy would also give us an opportunity to shift our alliances to those Muslim individuals and groups who actually share our values and practices—those who fight for a true Reformation and who find themselves maligned and marginalized by those nations and leaders and imams whom we now embrace as allies.

In the Cold War, the West celebrated dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Vaclav Havel, who had the courage to challenge the Soviet system from within. 

Today, there are many dissidents who challenge Islam—former Muslims, and reformers—but the West either ignores them or dismisses them as "not representative." 

This is a grave mistake. Reformers such as Tawfiq Hamid, Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani, Maajid Nawaz, Zuhdi Jasser, Saleem Ahmed, Yunis Qandil, Seyran Ates, Bassam Tibi, and many others must be supported and protected. 

They should be as well known as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Havel were in the 1980s—and as well known as Locke and Voltaire were in their day, when the West needed freethinkers of its own.





Keith Hunt