Highlights from Sam Harris’ Interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Islamophobia, Western Hypocrisy, and the Best Prank Ever

Following a controversy where Ayaan Hirsi Ali was offered an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University only to have it quickly rescinded, Sam Harris posted a nearly-9,000-word interview with Hirsi Ali on his website today.

Harris and Hirsi Ali speak at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Australia

It’s a fascinating conversation and gets right to the heart of the criticisms that have been leveled against Hirsi Ali over the years.

Some of the highlights are below, but I strongly encourage you to set aside some time and read the whole thing.

Harris, on Christopher Hitchens‘ definition of “Islamophobia”:

A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia” — which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”

Harris, on Hirsi Ali’s lack of support among liberal feminists:

I also find it very depressing, and rather ominous, that liberal women are not celebrating you as the best example in a generation of what could and should happen for nearly a billion of their sisters currently living under Islam. Your lack of feminist allies is alarming.

Harris and Hirsi Ali, on what would surely be the greatest Punk’d episode of all time:

Harris:… I sometimes think that it would be great, as an act of performance art, for you to come forward and say, “You caught me! I’ve been lying about Islam. Women have full equality with men under its doctrines — and there’s no problem for apostates or blasphemers either!”

Hirsi Ali: Yes — and honor killings, denying girls an education, denying women the right to leave their homes without permission from a male relative, performing marriages on girls as young as age 9, the continued practice of female genital mutilation for “purity,” the stoning of homosexuals, those are all just coincidences.

Harris, summarizing Hirsi Ali’s explanation of why she works for the right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute:

So the truly mortifying answer to the question of why you are at the AEI is that no liberal institution would offer you shelter when you most needed it — and when your value to the global conversation about free speech, the rights of women, and other norms of civilization was crystal clear. And ever since, your affiliation with the one institution that did take you in has been used to defame you in liberal circles. Perfect.

Harris, on reaching out to a notable moderate Muslim for help raising money for Hirsi Ali’s security needs:

… I reached out to Reza Aslan, with whom I was on entirely cordial terms. I said, essentially, “Reza, wouldn’t it be great if the vast majority of Muslims who are moderate helped protect Ayaan from the minority who aren’t?” It seems to me undeniable that if people like Reza are going to argue that Islam is just like any other religion, they have a real interest in ensuring that people can safely criticize their faith — or even leave it.

But all Reza did was attack you as a bigot and deny, against all evidence, that you had any security concerns worth taking seriously. His response came as quite a shock to me, frankly. I was unprepared to encounter this level of moral blindness and ill will, especially at a moment when I was reaching out for help.

Hirsi Ali, on how women are second-class citizens in traditional Muslim societies:

Can anyone argue that women are treated well in traditional Muslim societies? Under Islam, every woman is a second-class citizen. She can inherit only half as much as her brother. Her testimony in court — say, in the case of her own rape — is worth half that of her rapist. A Muslim woman has to ask a male guardian for permission to get married or have a child — in some places to even leave the house. And all these various oppressions are justified using the core texts of Islam: the Koran and the hadith. I’m amazed by the accusation that something I’ve said on this topic is controversial. It’s simply horrible to treat women like this. Is that a controversial thing to say? Is it controversial to say that men and women should be equal? I would have thought this was the most boring statement a person could make.

Hirsi Ali, on western hypocrisy regarding religion:

We criticize the Catholic Church for its treatment of women, for its sheltering of pedophiles, and for other harms it has caused. And we do this for the purpose of improving people’s lives. But we’re not doing this for the Muslim community. Meanwhile, there’s this assumption that if you engage in satire, or even serious debate, Muslims will fly into a rage and commit acts of violence. It then becomes this perverse process whereby the people who imagine that they are protecting the feelings of Muslims are actually hurting the most vulnerable Muslims, who now don’t have a voice…

Harris, on his challenge to Glenn Greenwald:

When the journalist Glenn Greenwald attacked me as an Islamophobe, insisting that my concerns about Islam were both irrational and a symptom of my own bigotry and white privilege, I responded by challenging him on Twitter to a duel of cartoon contests. He could hold one for Islam, and I would hold one for any other religion on earth. That shut him up immediately.

Hirsi Ali, on how she, too, once wanted author Salman Rushdie to die because of his “blasphemy”:

Everyone in my community believed that Rushdie had to die. After all, he had insulted the Prophet. I believed that if you insult the Prophet, well, then you have to face the consequences — which means you have to be killed. I didn’t question the merits of that idea. I thought it was moral for Ayatollah Khomeini to take steps to ensure that this apostate who had insulted the Prophet would be punished, and the appropriate punishment was death. I didn’t make that up, of course, and I didn’t just get the idea from my friends; it came from scripture and from my religious teachers.

Again, I urge you to read the conversation in its entirety.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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