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Ayaan Hirsi Ali on stage at the 2016 Women in the World New York Summit.

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “You can’t change these practices if you don’t talk about them”

By Emma-Kate Symons on April 10, 2016

A heated debate about the future of women in Islam continued offstage at the Women in the World New York summit when Muslim activist Hibaaq Osman pointed her finger and loudly accused dissident ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who lives under a fatwa for her condemnation of Sharia law, of “insulting the Prophet.”

And despite photographs showing the pair embracing and appearing to “make up,” each escalated her criticism in post-panel interviews with Women in the World, demonstrating that the bitter clash of civilizations within Islam, on fiery display at the Lincoln Center on Thursday, is far from being resolved.

Osman stepped up her critique of fellow Somali-born Muslim-raised Hirsi Ali — the Dutch-American author of Heretic, who provoked her fellow panelists with what they decried as a falsely monolithic representation of 1.5 billion Muslims. No on-stage participant was more visibly offended than Osman when Hirsi Ali said Islamic laws and principles justified child marriage, because “the Prophet Mohammed took Aisha, one of his wives … when she was 6 and had sex with her when she was 9.”

The debate between Hibaaq Osman (L) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali continued after their panel had ended.

“I am disgusted at what she said — she is absolutely extremist. It is an essentialist view of Islam and she left Somalia when she was 22 years old,” the Cairo-based, Somalian founder and CEO of Karama, a global Muslim women’s NGO said the day after the debate. “As human beings we should have some respect for other cultures but she is insulting Islam and the Prophet with ease and simplicity.”

During Thursday’s debate, Hirsi Ali received applause — and considerable social media support — for pleading with the panel to “please focus on the topic” of Women in Islam, after moderator Barkha Dutt pointed to misogyny in all religions and questioned Hirsi Ali for “picking on Islam.”

“As you could hear on stage, these women really have nothing to say — they are just begging everyone to change the subject,” Hirsi Ali said in a post-panel interview.

“Well we can’t change the subject, because millions and millions of women are subjected to this: the floggings, the stoning, the lynching, women covered from head to toe and banished from the public space. That’s intolerable. And that’s what they should really be mad about.”

Also weighing in after the event were panel participant Farah Pandith and Women in the World editor-at-large Zainab Salbi, who emphasized the diversity of Islam, and the possibility of being a feminist activist within the religion, while respecting its tenets. “I do not want to deny that there is a crisis in the Muslim world right now,” Zalbi said. “But we need to have a discussion, and the discussion needs to be hearing everyone.”

“You need to be able to hear the diversity of voices, whether you agree with everything or not, to allow them the dignity of being heard so you can understand where they’re coming from,” Pandith added, reflecting on her experience around the world as former Special Representative to Muslim Communities in the U.S. State Department.

Salbi spoke also of the crisis of identity “brought by extremists that are alien even for us.”

“I’m from Iraq. And for me, ISIS is the devil and they are speaking my language and claiming my religion.”

Zainab Salbi and Farah Pandith on feminism and Islam at #witw

Posted by Women in the World on Friday, April 8, 2016

Just because she was an ex-Muslim did not disqualify Hirsi Ali from pushing for reform within her former religion, she insisted. “It’s just nonsense [to say that].

“The way they said ‘Oh, the press should not cover [stories of women’s treatment] because it’s stereotyping Muslims – Well, in Muslim countries there is no free press and you can’t change these practices if you don’t cover them, if you don’t talk about them and shock the world because of what’s happening.

“If the press is biased because they’re non-Muslims, and if ex-Muslims are biased because they’re non-Muslims, and if Muslims who talk about Islam are described as heretics and everybody is slapped with the accusation of Islamophobia, none of these things will change.

“None of these practices will be discussed. People like Hibaaq get very uncomfortable when you link the principle to the practice, and my aim is for that link to be made.”

The ideological battle epitomized by the debate at the Women in the World New York Summit takes place against a fraught global backdrop of rising fear of jihadist terrorism, and surging xenophobia, and pits a highly critical dissident minority (represented at its most unflinching end by Hirsi Ali) against a diverse group seen among the other panelists, that included Zahra’ Langhi, as well as Pandith and Osman — who championed varying degrees of incremental rather than wholesale change to Islamic laws and principles.

Asked for reactions after the contentious and widely-discussed panel — that morphed at one point into a ferocious shouting match — the panel members who clashed most vehemently, Osman and Hirsi Ali, did not resile from their firm positions.

Taking aim at Hirsi Ali’s identification with the neo-conservative end of U.S. politics, and describing her as a “supposedly Muslim woman” Osman said: “You cannot reform anything behind a desk in the American Enterprise Institute [where Hirsi Ali is a scholar], and you cannot reform anything by collaborating with Neo-Cons or if you are going to be in a right-wing party.”

Condemnation of her political associations were off-topic, declared Hirsi Ali in response, when contacted by Women in the World. Being labeled by Osman an extremist, right-wing detractor of Islam who had no authority in assailing the religion she had rejected, constituted just another personal attack, she said. “There are heaps of personal attacks and smears and some of the attackers have accused me of being insane … but she [Osman] does not address the issue which is that these principles of Islamic law lead to the practices.”

Hirsi Ali became an atheist after growing up in a strictly observant Islamic family, a journey recounted in her memoir Infidel. She became a target of terrorists when her friend, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004 for “insulting the Prophet,” after the pair made a documentary critical of Islam’s treatment of women.

Nevertheless, for Osman, the past and present danger to Hirsi Ali did not disincline her from making a similar accusation, because she accepts Hirsi Ali is entitled to make her statements, and would never accuse her of blasphemy. “I didn’t say you don’t have the right to say this, but that she should know better and be wiser than to say it.

“What is coming out of her mouth is venom — what she says about the Prophet, everything.

“She’s not even a Muslim. Calling her a Muslim reformer, who are they kidding? What exactly is she reforming?

“Women are reforming and changing the landscape for women’s rights in the Islamic world … we are working inside our community to bring change.”

The impassioned reaction demonstrated by Osman both on- and offstage was not surprising to Hirsi Ali. “I think it’s not only her, over the years — I’ve been doing this for a long time — I have been confronted with reactions similar to Hibaaq’s,” she said.

That we are now debating the Prophet Mohammed’s conduct, and what it means if replicated in the the 21st century, was making a difference, according to Hirsi Ali. “That debate is inspiring a lot of people inside Muslim communities who are saying it’s dreadful and it’s unacceptable. I have some Muslim friends who completely disagree with me on my atheism but who also agree that Mohammed’s instructions and conduct cannot be replicated now.”

Osman views this analysis as flawed. Drawing an analogy with Christianity, she told Women in the World that it would never enter her mind to “blame Jesus Christ for sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church.”

“[Hirsi Ali] repeats the same thing everywhere. When insults become an industry and that’s how you pay your bills — well it’s disgusting a human being would stoop down to that,” she said. “Ayaan is a brand. We come from the same country and I never heard of her in Somalia. If this is how Ayaan made her name that is disgusting.”

Asked whether Hirsi Ali’s upbringing, and the fact that she was genitally cut and suffered from an experience of fundamentalist Islam that she found violent gave her some legitimacy to speak critically, Osman said no. “That is a personal experience — that was your family. That is not Islam. You can’t take one-and-a-half billion people and call them fascists because of your personal experience.”

Osman suggested Hirsi Ali was “traumatized” and transferring her experience into her attacks on Islam. “I don’t know what happened in her life, and I don’t pretend to know, but what’s coming out of her mouth is venom and it is not based on knowledge. That’s why she’s a brand and she repeats the same thing.

“You cannot say ‘I’m an atheist, I left Islam’ and go from saying Islam should be defeated militarily to saying ‘I’m a reformer now.’ She wrote a book about Islam and how it has to be defeated and one saying it has to be reformed so what will her next book be about?”

Hibaaq Osman says Ayaan Hirsi Ali is entitled to make her statements, and she would never accuse her of blasphemy.

Undeterred, Hirsi Ali pointed to a fatwa declared by ISIS theologians last December that said “owners” of enslaved women were permitted to take them as sex slaves. This proves Mohammed’s model is being used by Islamist Muslims to justify rape of “conquered women” and child marriage, she said. “ISIS have referenced Islamic law and they referenced the Prophet,” she said. “So it would be really great if people like Hibaaq, instead of attacking me on the personal level, would acknowledge what that means for a woman today in the 21st century.”

Being dismissed as an extremist would not diminish Hirsi Ali’s determination to expose Islamists, and their devotion to organizing principles she described as “totalitarian”, “bigoted” and hostile to women.

She said that among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims there is a group promoting Islamization and Islamic law, and another group from within who are saying “let’s move forward and leave the Koran and Mohammed in the historical context.”

“The ones who are pushing for Islamization have only one enemy and that is free speech and critical thinking. Because if people can think about these principles in a critical way then individuals might end up like me — becoming ex-Muslims or they might end up rejecting Sharia.

“So I think they have a vested interest in silencing us by accusing us of bigotry, Islamophobia, being extreme.”

The extremist “Salafists” — Hirsi Ali used the term that describes the “purist” Wahhabist Saudi interpretation of Islam that has partly inspired ISIS — were winning the argument, because the principles they put forward have their roots in the Koran and the Hadith, and thus had appeal to some religious Muslims. “For the Salafists to lose the battle, I think Muslims should be open to critical thinking.”

The panel debate touched only briefly on the fraught question of the veil, but Hirsi Ali said she wanted to add to her comments. “The veil is a symbol of humiliation and oppression and we know that. Every woman who puts on the veil or the headscarf is conveying to the world that those who do not put it on are immodest and are for the taking.

“And you see men who grew up in cultures like that when they come to Europe they start engaging in rape games and harassing and groping women in Europe who are not Muslim and not used to covering themselves. It’s very important to link these principles and laws and cultures to the outcomes and the sufferings.”

Despite years of personal insults, Hirsi Ali admitted she never became fully accustomed to the outrage she provokes among some Muslims.

“You know you never get used to it — that’s why I said [during the panel debate] I am going to have a sigh,” she said, with a laugh.

Watch the entire panel on “The Future for Women in Islam.”


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