Sleepless in Trumptopia: PEN America, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Anders Breivik & the Left’s Freedom to Hate
Something in particular has, more than anything else, kept me up at night after the Trumpocalypse: Only days after the election, PEN America promoted Ayaan Hirsi Ali across its social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr). Ali has called for a “war on Islam,” which she dubbed “the new fascism” and a “destructive, nihilistic death cult,” justifying these generalizations by reference to her unfortunate personal suffering and experiences. To claim “Islam” is a universal, monolithic category, as Ali assumes, is the definition of stereotyping — the equivalent of characterizing black people by reference to “gang culture” and “the inner city” or Latinos as “rapists and criminals.” I could go on for pages about Ali’s Islamophobic neoconservative conspiracy theories, but others have already done so better than I could have (“further reading,” below), and, anyway, PEN’s promotion could be a case of “judge the ideas, not the person.” But, sadly, it’s not. What I want to talk about is the specific quote that PEN has shared (from Ali’s “Infidel”) on social media: “Some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”
What’s troubling is the context in which Ali raised this eloquent point: She was discussing the politically correct left, which criticizes her for attributing the human rights and gender rights abuses of Muslims across the world to a monolithic “Islam,” and for her believing that Muslims in the West are a threat to democratic values. A few years ago, at an acceptance speech for an award in Germany, Ali quoted that very line when discussing far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who cited her in his manifesto. She argued that Breivik’s citation of her was merely a citation, not an inspiration (is there a difference? isn’t that what Trump says of his mobs?). Ali referenced Breivik’s real motivation in the manifesto: He felt repressed by a politically correct culture of leftists in Europe unwilling to acknowledge the Islamic invasion of the West; Breivik’s violence was a means of letting out this repression. PC culture, Ali claimed, was the actual culprit of Breivik’s crimes — a conspiracy to silence those who criticize Islam (not only Muslims, but Islam, as a monolith) for encroaching upon the democratic ideals of the West. For Ali, it was not hatred that drove Breivik but PC culture; his violence was a deplorable expression of a legitimate concern about the threat of Islam.
Her argument assumes that Breivik’s criticism of Islam is justified. Labeling people as xenophobes, she’s arguing, prevents us from treating this criticism seriously.
In other words, the quote that PEN shared isn’t a stray comment independent of Ali’s claim that Islam is a “death cult.” It’s her central justification for why she can make that claim in the first place. It’s Ali’s fundamental argument for her right to express her generalizations of Islam. PEN is promoting a neoconservative’s rationalization of her right to express her prejudice.
While Ali operates at a reading level higher than Trump’s, her logic is no different. Her condemnation of political correctness rings of everything that the Trump campaign, and now presidency, was and is about: “Don’t call me racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic — you’re restricting my expression. I’m just telling it as it is.” In fact, birther-movement figurehead and Trump’s appointed transition team-member Frank Gaffney wrote for the Washington Post last year that Ali should be selected as CIA Director, and a day after the election, the right-wing blog Jihad Watch proposed Trump select Ali as the next American ambassador to the UN. Now, it’s true that Ali has condemned violence against Muslims and, as mentioned above, seeks to separate her rhetoric from such perpetrators. But so has Trump: After Trump’s xenophobic claims on the campaign trail and his hiring of an alt-right Muslim-registering gestapo for his new dream team, his command to his followers to “Stop it!” on 60 Minutes means little. I don’t see how Ali’s parallel claims are any more justified. It’s also true that Ali has spoken against hijab/burqa/niqab bans and even against Trump’s proposed prohibition of Muslim immigrants. Instead, she’s argued, we need to have a serious conversation about the infiltration of the women-hating, LGBTQ-hating, Jew-hating, anti-democratic Shari’a into western society. To me, that rhetoric is just as scary.
PEN’s promotion of Ali is salt on the wound of last week. Part of me wants to say it’s offensive to me “not as a Muslim but as a human being,” because I know the immediate assumption of most white liberals who hear a Muslim criticize someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali (or Salman Rushdie or Ayad Akhtar) is that he or she is offended because of his or her identity. But you know what? Screw it. I *am* offended as a Muslim; to believe that my Muslimness undermines the legitimacy of my claim is an ad hominem attack (a logical fallacy).
But this goes beyond mere offense. It’s disgusting. The quote that PEN America shared is not about free speech — it is about Ali’s right to sympathize with a white supremacist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim teen murderer. It is about her right to express her prejudice. Sure, that’s free speech of a kind — but is that the kind of free speech worth promoting? Hell, Ilhan Omar just became the first Somali-American state legislator in Minnesota. Why not promote her? Her victory on election day was every bit as defiant as Ali’s defiance against PC culture is purported to be.
Trump, his cadre, and the mobs they kindle don’t bother me. These people have always been a part of American society; they’re expected, and their racism exists on its face. What scares me more is a left-leaning base whose members propagate the same prejudices at a register or “intellectual veneer” that doesn’t come off as vitriol, because they claim to speak in the name of democracy, liberalism, and freedom. This is why the colonizing demon in my book, Technologies of the Self, wields a sword inscribed with the words “liberte egalite fraternite.” When organizations like PEN promote these figures and their rhetoric, this does not open up free speech — it restricts and dilutes it, by forcing marginalized peoples into a position where they have to waste their time battling stereotypes. When well-respected academic and literary institutions and organizations parade conspiracy theorists like Ali, they certainly have the right to do so — at the risk of diminishing public discourse. We need to raise the level of debate. It’s precisely this low bar of discourse, including and especially liberals’ complicity in it, that led to Trump’s rise.
Trump is nothing new — he’s merely an expression of what’s been. I believed (perhaps naively) that organizations like PEN, dedicated to critical thought, would keep their eyes open. Perhaps I shouldn’t care as much. But I do.
Social media is a minuscule kind of discourse but has tremendous reach, as this election has shown. When PEN does something like this, it matters. It’s disturbing and is symptomatic of a greater problem. In the last two weeks, PEN has also shared quotes by Edward Said defending Salman Rushdie and by Margaret Atwood on how we’ll eventually realize “there is only one ‘race’ — the human race” (which sounds a lot like #alllivesmatter, to which I’d quote Sherman Jackson: “To approach American society without the clue of race is to produce nursery rhymes.”). Liberals won’t listen to Trump and the parts of society he represents, but they will listen to what seemingly left-leaning organizations like PEN promote.
This is a classic failure to heed Isaac Asimov’s words: “Don’t let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.”
As a solution, I propose that, for the sake of free speech, PEN America share inspirational quotes by the following figures who, like Ali, also believe that political correctness is getting in the way of expressing what they believe to be real problems in the demise of an increasingly multicultural western society: Donald J. Trump, Mike Pence, David Duke, Steve Bannon, Frank Gaffney, Asra Nomani, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Hulk Hogan, Loki, and Jeremy Jamm.
Full disclosure: I’ve been in conversation with PEN over the last several years, as a co-founder of The Muslim Protagonist Literary Symposium at Columbia University, and I spoke at a PEN event a few weeks ago as an author. They’ve acknowledged some distance from Rushdie and have been willing to consider input on their “The M Word” programming. They have been incredibly supportive of The Muslim Protagonist, for which I am insurmountably grateful. I reached out to the PEN organizers I know — who are warm, hard-working people — last weekend but have not received a reply thus far. I am making this post public not to shut down dialogue but to express my consternation and my interest in further, honest dialogue which results in constructive change. I also don’t want my collaboration with PEN (to the degree that anyone really cares) to be taken as an approval for this kind of conduct; I don’t think it comports with PEN’s central message, anyhow. To quote Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “Some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”
I encourage you to share this post, in the name of free speech.
NOTE: I have explicitly chosen not to link to any of the hate-related sources referenced above, in order to mitigate the number of hits to those sites (Google around if you’re insistent). I’ve only made an exception for Ali’s acceptance speech in Germany and the PEN America social media posts, in order to allow readers to engage the primary sources.
FURTHER READING: Nathan Lean: “Bill Maher and Fox News’s Muslim feminism: How Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani embrace the soft Islamophobia of Western expectations.” Zaid Jilani: “Fear of a Muslim Planet Dominates a Mainstream Republican Conference.” Haroon Moghul: “With Friends Like These, Who Needs Jihadis?” Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.”