Ayaan Hirsi Ali gave an important speech to the American Atheists Convention this weekend. She argued that Islam is significantly more dangerous than Christianity today, and that we should focus our limited campaigning resources where they are most effective in tackling injustice and persecution.
In response, in his latest defamatory smear, PZ Myers has accused Ayaan, who lives with constant security protection against threats on her life, of “happily exploiting atrocities to justify continued injustices” and “using the threat of murder elsewhere as a club to silence those who strive for respect and dignity in their lives”.
He based this smear on the following selective quote attributed on Twitter to Ayaan:
“If you are gay the worst the Christian community can do in America is not serve you cake.…I just want you to think about being Muslim and gay today…the worst case scenario…bullies throw you off a building.”
You’ll notice three sets of ellipses there. That shows that there is something intentionally left out of the quote. This is the main piece that is left out of the middle of the quote:
“I tweeted Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who I think is very brave by going out there and describing what it is that the LGBT community faces in predominantly homophobic communities. The discrimination is subtle, and it lurks in the shadows.”
Ayaan also said elsewhere in her speech, about discrimination by Christians in America:
“I understand, I empathise, and you have my support in fighting religious bigotry, and in Christian America there is probably a lot to do.”
“So I understand, if you are ex-Christian, the kind of pain that you have to go through, and what a big battle it is we have to fight.”
She quoted David Silverman as saying about the Convention venue that “We go to places where we know that there is a great deal of religious oppression. Last time it was in Salt Lake City. Now it is Memphis.” She added that she thinks that is a great strategy.
She said that she wanted people to consider the points she was making as brainstorming, instead of brainwashing, because atheists should spend the day thinking.
How on earth could this reasonably be described as “happily exploiting atrocities to justify continued injustices” or as “using the threat of murder elsewhere as a club to silence those who strive for respect and dignity in their lives”?
Tackling injustices proportionately
I agree with the central point that Ayaan was making at the Convention. She was arguing that religions are different, that Islam is significantly more dangerous than Christianity today, and that we should focus our limited campaigning resources where they are most effective in tackling injustice and persecution.
I disagree with part of the final line of her speech, which was: “Let’s stop going after Christians and Christianity. Let’s go after Islam as the most threatening doctrine of our time. Let’s ask them those questions that we put to the other religions.”
The part that I disagree with is “Let’s stop going after Christianity.” I believe that we should challenge all injustices by all religions, including both Islam and Christianity, and that we should do so proportionately to the scale of the injustices, the level of our resources, and the effectiveness of our options.
For example, in Atheist Ireland, we challenge the mostly-Catholic religious discrimination that the State endorses in Ireland, we work with other advocacy groups on human rights and social justice issues in Ireland and at the UN, and we campaign internationally against mostly-Islamic injustices and atrocities along with our colleagues in Atheist Alliance International and the International Campaign Against Blasphemy Laws.
However, given the other things Ayaan said in her talk, a charitable interpretation of her final line would include an implicit “disproportionately” after the phrase “Let’s stop going after Christians and Christianity.” She may well have clarified what she meant in more detail if she had more time, as she introduced this point by noting that she had less than a minute left to speak.
But even without that clarification, she said nothing that could be remotely described as “happily exploiting atrocities to justify continued injustices” or “using the threat of murder elsewhere as a club to silence those who strive for respect and dignity in their lives.”
The context of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s comment
You can see this even more clearly by reading the context. This is what Ayaan said leading up to, and immediately after, the part of her speech that PZ selectively quoted from. Please notice that, at various points, she is is distinguishing between social discrimination and legal discrimination.
“If you happen to be a member of the LGBT community, you are even talking about laws being passed not to serve you a cake. There is a gentleman, I want you to look him up. His name is Shelby Steele. He inspired me in many ways through his books, and one of the statements he made says:
‘During the civil rights movement, if you were black and showed up at any place they wouldn’t serve you or take your money because you were black. And he says that one of the biggest achievements of the civil rights movement is that, after the racists and bigots were defeated, what stood between a black man and whatever he wanted to consume was his wallet.’
I think the LGBT community today is at a place where you can afford to say to he or she who doesn’t want to serve you that I am going to take my money somewhere else. And it took a long time to get there and we are not yet there.
In Christian America, when women fight for their reproductive rights, the right to work, the right to own their own bodies, and it is a long history, of maybe about two hundred years, as a woman living in America I can celebrate and say to the sexists, go F yourselves.
I understand, I empathise, and you have my support in fighting religious bigotry, and in Christian America there is probably a lot to do.
But I want to draw your attention to a different kind of religion. If you become a Christian apostate the highest price that you will pay is that your family, your neighbours, your community will disown you. Trust me, I understand that pain. Nothing has hurt me more than my father and mother telling me that we cannot accept you unless you continue to, what, deny my conscience?
So I understand, if you are ex-Christian, the kind of pain that you have to go through, and what a big battle it is we have to fight. Yet, given the limited resources we have, the limited time we have, and the potential energy and force and magnitude and resources of the Islamic threat, I want to draw your attention to the religion that threatens us the most in 2015.
As an ex-Muslim, I have come to terms with the fact that my family will not accept my conscience. If only they would leave it at that. But I will never come to terms with the fact that all kinds of strangers out there, who happen to have been raised in the same religion I was, want to kill me, and not only me. Every single individual who was raised within Islam and who doubts the truth of Mohammed, and the truth of the Quran, today runs the risk of being killed.
At lunch I ran into two ex-Muslims. One said my name is Mohammed and I am an ex-Muslim. I said ‘What are you going to do about the name Mohammed?’ And he said ‘I am Mohammed the Atheist.’ And that is heartening, It is so delightful.
But less delightful is when I ran into the next ex-Muslim, who is from Bangladesh. And he said: ‘I don’t know how much of the news you follow, but in two months in Dakar, Bangladesh, Muslim fanatics too meat cleavers to kill individuals – we don’t even know if they were ex-Muslims, we know that they were secular, we know that they were thinking, we know that they were writing their thoughts by blogging about it. And because the zealots found them online, they followed them, and took meat cleavers to them, and killed them.
As an ex-Muslim, as an apostate of Islam, that is what you are up against. And it is not only Dakar, Bangladesh. It is right here. Do you think I want to be around these gentlemen twenty four hours a day? (gestures to her security protection team) Hey guys, I love you, and I am grateful to you, but we go on and on in America about privacy, and I have to live in that bubble and think ‘what privacy do I have?’ That is what it is to be an ex-Muslim and speak out.
But what if you are an ex-Muslim and you want to get out of the closet? Maybe it is something much more narrow, much smaller. It is a small box. Your conscience is narrowed down. All day long you spend time lying and lying and lying. To your parents, pretending that you are praying love times a day when you don’t want to pray five times a day. Given our lifestyle, if you come from a Muslim family, somebody is going to notice. You’re not reading the Quran. You’re not fasting. You are associating with infidels. And ‘infidel’ in islam is very broad. It covers everyone who doesn’t worship in that narrow way.
And so that is my first point. I wanted to highlight the difference between the religions. If you are gay today in the United States of America, the worst thing the Christian community can do to gay people is to not serve them cake when they want to get married. I tweeted Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who I think is very brave by going out there and describing what it is that the LGBT community faces in predominantly homophobic communities. The discrimination is subtle, and it lurks in the shadows.
But I just want you to think about being Muslim and gay today. In the worst case scenario – you have seen it on television, on YouTube – to be accused, you don’t even have to be gay, if you are accused of being gay, you are marched to the tallest building in town and bullies throw you off that building. And there is a crowd of people waiting there to stone you with glee. And as they do that, they scream ‘Allahu Akbar’. And they cite that that is how the punishment is for gays in the Quran and in the Hadith. This is 2015.
In the best case scenario, if one finds out that you are gay, and in Islam stories about lesbians are not told that much, but if you are a gay guy and you think I don’t like girls, what will your family do? They will force you into marriage. I know that over the years I have spoken out about forced marriages of girls and women, but there is also the forced marriage of the gay community. And can you imagine the kind of family that you establish in that sort of frame?
If you are a woman living in the United States of America, and you face people who in the name of Christianity will challenge your reproductive rights, you will get to a point where you are going to have a debate about whether the State is willing to dispense contraceptives or not. The big fight is not with the American Government. The big fight is with your own family, your siblings, your own community, your own neighbourhood, the church you used to belong to. That is where you seek and demand acceptance, and you find that you are not accepted, so that is where the battle is.
But in the world of Islam, whether it is a Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan, or whether it is in Saudi Arabia, quite the other extreme, what you are facing is a stultified, frozen, moral system from the seventh century, that demands that you be covered from head to toe before you leave the house, that you need a male guardian, that you are for ever a slave. If you are raped, it is your fault. The burden of proof lies with you. If your father dies, and leaves anything behind, then half of it will not go to you, only half of half will go to you.
It is such a blatant discrimination in the name of religion. Segregation, the worst kind of segregation we have ever seen, because in many of those radical Muslim homes, there is a space for woman and a space for men, and it is a very unhealthy arrangement, I can tell you. And this takes me back to the gays, because a lot of Muslim men will have sex with little boys, they will have sex with men, but they will erupt in joy when they see a gay man put to death. It is that kind of hypocrisy, it is that the of sickness, that we are up against.
And it is not only atheists. I want you to take note of the plight of religious minorities in Muslim countries and within Muslim communities. If you want to be a Christian, and you are in a Muslim community, or a Muslim family, you know what? Please read Richard Dawkins. That’s about the worst I can do to you. I can introduce you to Sam Harris. But I will never threaten to disown you, to kill you, or anything. Today, if you are Christian, or Jewish, or even any of the myriad minorities within Islam, you cannot practice your religion freely.
And as atheists, our job is not only to defend our own narrow path to reason. I think that our efforts should also be about defending the freedom of conscience in general. Voltaire: I do not agree with what you say, I despise it, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it. If you want to be superstitious, go for it. I don’t like it, but I will put my life on the line to defend your right to say it. That is the soul of a free society and an open society.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, speaking from both evidence and experience, made several important points about tackling Islamic persecution, and about the need to direct our resources wisely in tackling religious bigotry and persecution generally.
In making this case, she also said: “I understand, I empathise, and you have my support in fighting religious bigotry, and in Christian America there is probably a lot to do,” and “I understand, if you are ex-Christian, the kind of pain that you have to go through, and what a big battle it is we have to fight.”
By contrast, notice the gravity of what PZ Myers has accused her of: “happily exploiting atrocities” as “a club to silence those who strive for respect and dignity in their lives.”
That kind of rhetoric is both unjust to and potentially dangerous for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and harmful to the atheist and secular movements generally.
At this stage, some people have become so desensitised to PZ’s harmful rhetoric that the outrageous nature of it can pass under the radar. We should continue to notice it.
Here is Ayaan’s full speech, for more context. The above section represents perhaps one third of it.
Here is PZ’s full smear, for more context:
Fatwah envy, again
I’m following the twitter conversation about the American Atheists convention this weekend, and in particular Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s talk. She’s reported to have said this: “If you are gay the worst the Christian community can do in America is not serve you cake.…I just want you to think about being Muslim and gay today…the worst case scenario…bullies throw you off a building.”
Fantastic. ‘Dear Muslima’ on the stage, from an ex-Muslim woman.
But in a bit of synchronicity, she’s neatly echoing the the sentiments of the right wing. From Tom Cotton, this week, on the discrimination bill in Indiana: “I think it’s important we have a sense of perspective. In Iran, they hang you for the crime of being gay.”
Why is this so hard? Yes, being thrown off a building or hanged is worse than being denied a wedding cake — there is literally no comparison between the two, they are so far apart. But that does not mean that we should meekly accept the lesser injustice because of the threat of the greater; acceding to discrimination in the US does not diminish the odds of a gay man being murdered in Iran, and neither does fighting for equality here detract from a larger battle there. Both of these people are committing a kind of rhetorical extortion, using the threat of murder elsewhere as a club to silence those who strive for respect and dignity in their lives. And in that sense both Ali and Cotton are happily exploiting atrocities to justify continued injustices.