Controversy has swirled around an appearance by Ayaan Hirsi Ali which took place Monday night on the Yale campus. Hirsi Ali is a vocal critic of Islam, so one can only expect there would be resistance from the Muslim Student Association at Yale:
[The MSA] criticized Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program for inviting her to campus, saying she lacks the “credentials” to speak authoritatively on Islam.
The students association called on the Buckley Program leaders to have another voice on stage to counter Hirsi Ali’s views. The Buckley leaders declined to do this.
What many didn’t expect was opposition from the ale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (a group once led by Vlad Chituc). Muhammad Syed, the co-founder and Executive Director of Ex-Muslims of North America has some strong words about this, the most succinct of which were:
I believe the Yale Muslim Students Association should be ashamed of their attempt to silence Hirsi Ali, and the Yale Humanists should be ashamed for being complicit in the effort.
There is no doubt that Hirsi Ali has made comments that are often deemed inflammatory to Muslims. Although I find myself often disagreeing with her stances, I admire her courage and stamina. No one has shed light on the barbaric practices continued in the name of Islam as forcefully as she has. The fact that she is one of the only ex-Muslims speaking out about these kinds of practices is not evidence that the abuse is rare or confined to small fundamentalist communities. Rather, it is evidence of the censure and targeting of those who are willing to speak frankly about Islam and demand change in the Muslim world.
I’d like to join Syed in expressing that sentiment. Vlad Chituc even took to NPS to express his agreement with the ale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics:
Others have written in support of the Yale atheist group. “It should be expected that the invitation of a speaker that promotes speech directly against members of the student body should be met with healthy criticism and protest,” Vlad and Alex Chituc, two atheists and former members of Yale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, wrote on their blog, Nonprohet Status. ”
Wrong. Hirsi Ali has never, to my knowledge, said a word against the students at the school. She has very often said things about the religion of some of those students and its effects in parts of the world saturated by it. NPS often has a hard time distinguishing criticism of what someone believes with criticism of the person, and this is another instance of that taking place. I wonder if Vlad would consider insistence that a Christian speaker (one assuring the audience that atheists are going to hell and deserve it) only share their personal experiences rather than opinions about society and religion on the whole (y’know, the reason such speakers are usually invited to a college campus) to be “healthy criticism and protest.” Given the body of his past work, I know where my money would go.
In the above hypothetical, would there be cries from Vlad and the Yale Humanists that the speaker was promoting speech directly against some atheist students? I can actually answer that question for you because it happened in the Spring (and undoubtedly at other times, but 2 minutes of research into this to confirm it happened is all I cared to do):
Hey, that was full of implications that people who don’t believe as they do are going to hell and flat out assertions that anybody who preaches something different is being dishonest. Where was the ale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics and the self-appointed champions of bridge-building at NPS? Somewhere not giving a shit.
But give them the chance to protest someone who takes to the stage to criticize a religion, not people specifically (to my knowledge), and things like genital mutilation? I’m sorry, she has to have the right credentials (whatever those are, it was never defined). It’s a silly double standard that shelves consistency in order to build in-roads with the religious, as if that can’t be done in a way that doesn’t obscure actual horror in the world.
In fact, if credentials are your concern, Faisal Al-Mutar had a good suggestion for the MSA/YAHA on twitter: invite Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS (the group that has been on the news for beheading journalists and forging a bloody dictatorship). He has a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Clearly they would never support him because he’s the leader of a jihadist group that thinks their religion gives them the right to murder people. But someone who is an expert on the subject (as Hirsi Ali is) who lived it rather than learning about it in college gets invited to speak against credentialed people like Bakr al-Badhdadi and suddenly people can think they’re doing right by would-be religious allies by helping to hide religion’s more barbaric, real-world aspects. They’re not.
But the story has a happy ending. Despite efforts of the Muslim Student Association and the Yale Humanists, Hirsi Ali received a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, known worldwide for her crusade on behalf of women’s rights in Muslim regions, brought her message to Yale University Monday night and received a standing ovation at the end of her talk.
Something else in the article stuck out to me:
Approximately 200 people packed Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall to hear Hirsi Ali speak. Campus police and bodyguards hovered around the auditorium and the building; Hirsi Ali occasionally has received death threats as she travels around America and other nations.
Those bodyguards speak to the need of criticizing the mindset of millions of Muslims around the world (even if some Muslims are perfectly nice people). The fact that Hirsi Ali requires protection from physical harm for voicing a critical opinion of Islam confirms the necessity of Ali’s message.
But when she was brought on stage, there was applause only and no boos nor signs of dissent. Nevertheless, when Yale professor of Slavic languages Harvey Goldblatt introduced her, he counseled the crowd to “engage in an open conversation” and listen to diverse views “with civility.”
“This university is supposed to be a place for free exchange of ideas,” he noted, “no matter how controversial.”
Well put. There are places in the world where hindering discussion and ignoring grotesque truths in order to build bridges through not offending people (even if that offense stems from actual facts about the world) is seen as a virtue. That place, however, should not be in the halls of academia and especially not at an institution with such a sterling reputation for academic excellence as Yale. I’m glad the faculty seem to understand that, even if some of their alumni and the ale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics do not.