A recent decision by Brandeis University (founded in 1948 as a nonsectarian Jewish community-sponsored, coeducational institution) to take back its offer to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary doctorate hit the media with the usual storm over such a controversial figure.
Most of the resistance to her, as a public figure, comes because of her own categorical statements against Islam. Not only does she choose to be an atheist, but she lambasts those who do not make her same choice. Her sweeping statements are meant to galvanize support against the Islam she has suffered from both as a child in a conservative family and as colleague of a brutally murdered film maker. She lost her bid for refugee status in Holland for lying about her past and was taken lovingly into the arms of certain institutions (like the conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute and tea party politicians, like Pamela Gellar). All manner of official trickery was put in her favor such that she enjoys something millions of her country men and women from Somalia would probably never hope to see: US citizenship and institutional support.
It is difficult for me to write why I support the decision of Brandeis University to take back their offer to honor her (although this does not answer the important question: why they even thought to give it to her in the first place ). Many reasons against her have been repeated by individuals and institutions of Muslim civil society in the US starting when she first came here and again at this latest incident. All these are worth following up on. Compare her own words, as she continually notes, they are public knowledge. People know what she has said.
She is fond of supporting her views even at the cost of denigrating the half of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide who happen to be women and who wish to remain Muslim. If we take her logic: we are all brain washed, lacking anything remotely resembling reason—let alone love and spirit—to speak on our own behalf regarding this dedication and devotion. That is another reason why it IS difficult to speak: Everything we say in support of our faith is cast as ignorant acquiescence. So I will NOT go that route. Nor will I repeat her hateful statements about Islam in general and other scape-goating. I will also not pretend, as one Twitter fan put it, that she does not have reason to be bitter. Who am I to say what is important about someone else’s experience?
Rather, I wish to point out two things: 1) how can someone make a lifetime career of hate? If she is so against Islam, enough to leave of her own volition, why does she continue to talk about it so much? And why do people support her in that hates-mongering? 2) While she needs credit for her personal struggles against near-death, FGM, near-forced marriage, etc., there are Muslim women with these and more such struggles and experiences who STILL work for their families and communities . Perhaps those US audiences who are busy satisfying their fetish for the “Muslim-woman-victim” story—this one being spoken in the words of one very attractive black woman—cannot spare time to support actual work done in the field to change laws, policies and cultures against such practices.
Another difficulty for me in discussing this comes from direct experience of being black-listed by certain Muslim collectives, being second guessed, even when I am invited to speak at Universities, conferences, government and non-government organizations worldwide, by those voices saying, “why do you invite her, she is so controversial?” or better yet, “she is against ’Islam’”. While I find these accusations astounding, after dedicating more than 40 years of my life to reform within: to reclaim the beauty of Islam over the ugliness that surely does more than just damage our image, “in the name of Islam”, I do not then find solace by aligning myself to a hate campaign.
In fact, I do most of my work on the basis of a radical epistemological question: Who defines Islam? Who has the power to control public and institutional attitudes, funds, accolades and accusations about “Islam”? Who gets shut out of the conversations, representations, and support? How does the living experience of Islam, so critical in women’s struggles of identity, get relegated to the side lines so US audiences can listen intently to one woman who does little in application to where women on the ground are working and experiencing the struggle against patriarchy or even cruelty? It is a tough question, but I continue to be confounded by why certain self-serving Islam-haters are embraced by certain elements in the US, (most known as Islamaphobes and neo-cons) who have resources to pit Ms. Ali against some of the same Muslims that I have to contend with while continuing to work to promote change from within.
So what do I say?
I say look at the record. Follow the trail. Who has words (let’s face it, I’m a retired academic and published author, so I have LOTS of words, myself) and who backs up their words with ACTS to benefit more than just their own pockets, the size of their name in print and the chance to get established with government support in both Holland and the US?
I cannot claim the support of people who do not read my work or who are told not to read my work by those who claim the right to speak exclusively “for Islam”, but I can relay the message as I did in my recent blog about International Women’s Day referencing 25 years of grassroots work, that none of us got rich, none of us are famous. Yet ALL of us still work. The work goes on. The next generation of women and men work with us and beyond us, on the ground, with issues that matter in the actual lives of women as they live their Islam.
So it is complicated to say this, but the attention given to supporting this same-old image of the beautiful black or brown victim of Muslim violence, abuse or disregard does NOT represent us. We thought we had moved beyond the image of being victim to our own religion and moved towards a more nuanced reflection; especially since the hard work continues, sometimes in adverse situations in order to make a difference where it counts: in policies, laws, cultural practices and attitudes. This work goes on by those who do not wish to be seen as victims only, but as agents of change in our own well being.
So next time you promote Ayaan Hirsi Ali, could you ask her and her US supporters—who allow her sorry story to get in the way of millions of other sorry stories and the story tellers (who never stop working to make changes for themselves and their communities, all in the name of Islam)— in the words of Janet Jackson’s song: “What have you done for me lately?”
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.