Ayaan Hirsi Ali is pretty awesome.
I read her memoir Infidel last year, inspired by the discussion about it on Skepchick, and their summaries of the book here and here. It’s a pretty amazing story, about her upbringing in Somalia and other parts of Africa, deeply entrenched in fundamentalist religion, and how she broke away from it as a young woman and became a philosophical and humanist spokesperson of some significance.
I made a note to myself a few weeks ago that I should comment on this article she wrote, and only just remembered about it. It’s about the recent constitutional ban on minarets – those pointy onion-shaped towers you sometimes get at the top of Islamic mosques – that was voted for in Switzerland, a country currently possessing a total of four such minarets. Like most people seemed to, I decided this was probably a pretty ridiculous over-reaction, but didn’t think a great deal more about it.
I didn’t expect there’d be a significant number of voices in support of the ban that didn’t come from the (probably Christian) conservative right. So Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s article, with the headline “Swiss ban on minarets was a vote for tolerance and inclusion”, kinda caught my eye.
Now, I’m very unsure of my footing here. I know that certain recent events have highlighted some of the dangers inherent in offering an opposing view in response to the position argued by people who are better informed and better qualified than you in every important regard. And yet, here I am, saying that I’ve given it more than a cursory mental glance now, and I’m still not convinced by Ali’s argument.
Part of her point seems to be that the Islam represented by the minarets is a political movement, not simply a personal religious faith, and that this political movement is oppressive and dangerous. She’s written before, and well, on the dangers of accommodating and pandering to religious extremists out of fear of alienating the more moderate majority. In Infidel, she described the tendency of many European politicians to make excuses for Islamic extremists and terrorists, to go out of their way to find ways to blame the West for these acts of terror, and to refuse to condemn any form of any religion, even when taken to such barbaric and deplorable ends, out of some misguided notions of “respect” and “tolerance”. I’m entirely with her on all this, and Islam should absolutely be open to criticism as a political movement.
But she also seems to be saying that allowing the minarets to stand and continue to be built would be an implicit endorsement of Islamic politics, and an assertion that any extremist or supremacist views associated with the minarets deserve equal respect in all public conversation. And I’m just not sure it would. I don’t see how restricting people’s rights to build their buildings, in which they like to air their views, however repugnant those views might be, is a tolerant or liberal act. Am I just being a wacky libertarian here?
She suggests we imagine a similar ban on “the building of an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles as a symbol of the belief of a small minority”. If my spatial awareness isn’t failing me, she’s talking about swastikas. But if someone wants to build a building on their own land, with their own resources, in the shape of a swastika, I don’t know how I can condone forcibly preventing them from doing so. It seems like that would necessarily make me a complete hypocrite with regard to every other time I’ve supported free speech when somebody’s complained about being offended.
I hope that a country like Switzerland would “reject the ideas and practices of political Islam”. But I’m not convinced that people have a right to extend their expression of that rejection, to the point where they’re telling other people what they can and can’t do with their own money, or build on their own land. I don’t need to be reminded how horrifyingly oppressive, misogynist, dictatorial, militaristic, and authoritarian some Islamist teachings are. But surely that’s not a good enough reason for us to start being oppressive and dictatorial ourselves. Find another way to reject their philosophy. One that promotes your own, and explains why it’s better, perhaps.
What are the odds I’m greatly over-simplifying things and missing the bit where all this has already been rebutted? I’m guessing pretty high.