On Wednesday, Democratic senators appeared to ignore Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani after they gave brief testimonies on the ideology of Islamism at a U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, sparking a social media outcry.
It was the first time a Senate hearing was devoted to discussing the ideas motivating both violent and nonviolent Islamist movements around the world, but, through a strategy of deflection and demonization, the Democratic senators — mostly women — ignored the scholarly and lived expertise of Hirsi Ali and Nomani.
Viewers in the Twittersphere took immediate notice as they watched the live stream on C-SPAN.
The hearing came on the heels of brutal attacks in London, Manchester, Kabul and Tehran by Muslim extremists.
Tensions were high even before the hearing began. A Muslim man wearing a prayer cap attempted to disrupt the event by yelling at Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim and Somali-born human rights activist, a witness who was in the room said.
The contentious atmosphere carried on to the committee members themselves as Democratic committee leader, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, expressed her disagreement with the premise of the hearing, called by Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
“Anyone who twists or distorts religion to a place of evil is an exception to the rule,” she said. “We should not focus on religion.” McCaskill proceeded to lecture the panelists on “freedom of religion” in the United States.
“No evil should ever be allowed to distort these premises,” she continued. “I’m worried, honestly, that this hearing will underline that.”
Hirsi Ali, who was the first witness to speak, stated clearly that her testimony and evidence was focused solely on the threat of Islamism as a social-political totalitarian ideology.
“The part [of Islam] that is a political doctrine consists of a worldview, a system of laws, and a moral code that is totally incompatible with our constitution, our laws, and our way of life,” she testified.
Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Women in the World contributor, echoed Hirsi Ali. “The ideology of Islamism contradicts the constitutional values of this country,” she said. “The elements of Islamism are very clear.”
However, Michael Leiter, the former director of the U.S. Counterterrorism Center, rejected the core of Hirsi Ali and Nomani’s testimonies. “Muslims honoring of sharia is not inherently in tangent with living in constitutional democracies anymore than it would be for Christians or Jews who also seek to honor their religious traditions while still complying with civil authority,” he said.
Leiter was invited to testify by the committee’s Senate Democrats.
“Muslims are not synonymous with terrorism or repression or misogyny,” Hirsi Ali later emphasized. “What we’re dealing with is this other group who are taking out of context the historical and civilizational Islam, and accentuating the political and military [dimensions].”
Hirsi Ali indirectly responded to McCaskill’s statement that the hearing was a threat to religious freedom.
“We haven’t paid as much attention to those people who get into the hearts and minds of vulnerable people and turn them toward the idea that it’s OK to run your car over people, to kill homosexuals, to kill apostates,” Hirsi Ali said. “I came and accepted [Ron Johnson’s] invitation to only talk about that group, not to vilify or stigmatize those Muslims who accentuate their spirituality.”
Hirsi Ali emphasized that the fight against Islamism must involve dismantling the networks of da‘wa, or Islamist proselytism, in the United States and abroad.
“We must stop not only the violent entities like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and others,” she warned. “Above all, we must challenge the principles of sharia.”
Nomani later shared a narrative of how she and Hirsi Ali have been personally affected by violent Islamism.
“Our hearts are indeed gripped with the horror of this morning’s shooting,” Nomani said, referring to the targeted shooting of Republican lawmakers in a Washington, D.C., suburb a few hours earlier.
“This day takes me back to a day 15 years ago when I felt the same gripping of my heart,” she said. “I learned that day that my colleague and friend Danny Pearl had been kidnapped.”
Pearl was a journalist with the Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped and beheaded by jihadist militants in Pakistan shortly after leaving Nomani’s rented home in 2002.
“Ayaan lost a friend, I lost a friend,” Nomani said. In 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was shot and killed by a violent Islamist on the streets of Amsterdam after directing a short film with Hirsi Ali that was critical of women’s rights in Islam.
“There was one value that connected the 27 men involved in Danny’s kidnapping and murder,” Nomani testified. “They had all absorbed the da‘wa, the evangelism, of an ideological interpretation of Islam.”
In the days and hours before the hearing, both Nomani and Hirsi Ali were targeted in social media campaigns and news articles that attacked their character.
Jordan Denari Duffner, a researcher at the Bridge Initiative, a project of the Saudi-funded Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, criticized the “anti-Muslim voices” that have “co-opted” Islamic terms.
“We also face a network I call the ‘honor brigade’ that wants to silence this conversation,” Nomani said. “Ayaan and I are under attack constantly. Between us, I don’t know how many death threats we have faced.”
When the witnesses completed their brief testimonies, Democratic Senate committee members, including four women senators — McCaskill, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Maggie Hassan and Senator Heidi Heitkamp — ignored Hirsi Ali and Nomani during the question-and-answer session, never once directing a question to them — about half the duration of the entire hearing.
Most questions were about terrorism and security, not Islamist ideology, directed at Leiter for most of the hearing by Senate Democrats. Leiter recommended Islamic education programs done in conjunction with Muslim organizations for state and local officials as a counter-extremism strategy.
At one point, when Nomani shared examples of violent preachings on “women beating” she had received through Amazon, McCaskill turned the conversation to book banning.
Democratic Senator Gary Peters later criticized the “anti-Islamic sentiment” in some of the written testimonies.
“I became concerned about a recurrent theme of anti-Islamic sentiment,” Peters stated. “The perpetuation of anti-Islamic attitudes undermine our collective values and it contributes to the undercurrent of xenophobia.”
Senator Johnson pushed back on his colleague’s accusation.
“I think the witnesses were very careful to distinguish between Muslims who practice their faith peacefully as opposed to political Islamists,” Johnson said. “They are bending over backwards to make that distinction.”
Viewers also responded, one of them referring to the fact that Hirsi Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation.
The hearing was adjourned after almost two hours. Video of the hearing as well as the written testimonies can be accessed at the U.S. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee website. Because of the strategy of deflection by Democratic senators, Hirsi Ali and Nomani spoke for about 15 minutes combined.
Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University, specializing in Islamist political movements and their intersection with women’s issues. Follow him on Twitter here.