New Haven, Conn.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke at Yale last week, and there was mild annoyance in the press section that no screaming protesters appeared to punch up the headlines. A small group distributed leaflets to people waiting outside; inside, all was quiet.
The lack of disturb-ance was in part thanks to good planning—every seat was filled, but no standing room was allowed, and the aisles were kept clear. In the main, there was no disturbance because Ayaan Hirsi Ali is hugely admired. The hundred or more people who were turned away for lack of seats, some clutching copies of Infidel, her autobiography, had hoped only to listen respectfully (and perhaps collect an autograph). A great international thug syndicate has told Hirsi Ali that, if she keeps talking, she’s dead. And she keeps talking. That alone should win the admiration of every American.
Perhaps another reason the anti-Hirsi Ali protest fizzled is that its front-line soldiers at Yale made fools of themselves. Yale’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) was widely condemned for an open letter that argued against her appearance on campus, claiming she lacked the credentials to speak about Islam. (Never mind that she was raised Muslim and now has a fatwa out against her.) The letter referred to her childhood experiences of genital mutilation and forced marriage as “unfortunate circumstances.”
The MSA’s letter was cosigned by 35 student organizations. Except not really. On the morning of Hirsi Ali’s appearance, the Yale Daily News reported that many student groups—including Yale Hillel, Yale Friends of Israel, and the Women’s Leadership Initiative—had been listed as cosigners without their permission.
The attempts over the last decade to silence Ayaan Hirsi Ali range from death threats to polite suggestions that she be barred from campuses. They have served only to heighten her stature—and Hirsi Ali is already impressively tall. She has a stately bearing, dresses quietly and tastefully. She speaks slowly, with a rich and robust accent. And you’ll never see a less affected speaker at a podium.
She began by thanking Yale in contrast with Brandeis University. The latter had, only a few months earlier, first offered and then rescinded an honorary degree and an invitation to appear at their commencement ceremony. Yale will probably get more credit than it deserves for the comparison: It was not the university but William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, a conservative undergraduate group, that invited her to speak on campus. Perhaps Yale will follow through and do the decent thing and award her a degree this spring term. That would mean something. It would turn Yale into a bastion of freedom overnight, at a time when American universities are threatening to become an elaborate, extremely expensive practical joke.
Hirsi Ali was introduced by Harvey Goldblatt, a professor of Slavic languages, who praised her courage and especially her work on women’s rights, and reminded the audience that part of a serious academic environment is listening to opposing viewpoints. That this reminder should be deemed necessary on a university campus is striking, but even more striking was the almost pleading tone. There was a hidden acknowledgment of helplessness, like a Wild-West saloon owner sidling up to the local outlaws and saying, “Please, y’all, we don’t want any trouble here.”
The protesters who had warned against a rabble-rousing speech to be delivered by an ideological firebrand must have been doubly disappointed. Hirsi Ali is a gentle, thoughtful speaker. There were no red-meat “applause lines”—though she did often get applause. Her thesis was simple: Any attempt to deal with Islamic terrorism is doomed unless we acknowledge its connection to Islam. Every religion has a “core,” and the core of Islam is to submit to the will of Allah. (That is, in fact, what the word “Islam” means—submission to God. Hence also the title of Hirsi Ali’s film collaboration with Dutch director Theo van Gogh criticizing the treatment of women in Islam. Van Gogh was subsequently murdered by an Islamic extremist.)
She insisted that there are not, as some suggest, “many Islams”—but there are several sets of Muslims: The first group are radicals who want to force the entire world into Islam by eradicating everything else. The second group, the vast majority, are in a “state of cognitive dissonance”—torn between the strict teachings of the first group and their own consciences, which revolt at the terrorists’ behavior. The third group, perhaps the smallest, are reforming Muslims, who suggest, for example, that mosque and state should be separate. Members of the third group are excommunicated, exiled, threatened, murdered.