Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Avatar of Liberalism and Academic Freedom

The new proposed University of Austin is being founded to promote liberalism and academic freedom:

There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, light and truth. Harvard proclaims: Veritas. Young men and women of Stanford are told Die Luft der Freiheit weht: The wind of freedom blows.

These are soaring words. But in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?

The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles. Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

They’ve decided to hire Ayaan Hirsi Ali to teach there. Here is Hirsi Ali’s view of academic freedom, as captured in a famous 2007 interview with Reason magazine. I encourage you to read the whole thing. But this bit strikes me as particularly relevant.

Reason: In Holland, you wanted to introduce a special permit system for Islamic schools, correct?

Hirsi Ali: I wanted to get rid of them. I wanted to have them all closed, but my party said it wouldn’t fly. Top people in the party privately expressed that they agreed with me, but said, “We won’t get a majority to do that,” so it never went anywhere.

Reason: Well, your proposal went against Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, which guarantees that religious movements may teach children in religious schools and says the government must pay for this if minimum standards are met. So it couldn’t be done. Would you in fact advocate that again?

Hirsi Ali: Oh, yeah.

Reason: Here in the United States, you’d advocate the abolition of—

Hirsi Ali: All Muslim schools. Close them down. Yeah, that sounds absolutist. I think 10 years ago things were different, but now the jihadi genie is out of the bottle. I’ve been saying this in Australia and in the U.K. and so on, and I get exactly the same arguments: The Constitution doesn’t allow it. But we need to ask where these constitutions came from to start with—what’s the history of Article 23 in the Netherlands, for instance? There were no Muslim schools when the constitution was written. There were no jihadists. They had no idea.

Reason: Do you believe that the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights—documents from more than 200 ago—ought to change?

Hirsi Ali: They’re not infallible. These Western constitutions are products of the Enlightenment. They’re products of reason, and reason dictates that you can only progress when you can analyze the circumstances and act accordingly. So now that we live under different conditions, the threat is different. Constitutions can be adapted, and they are, sometimes. The American Constitution has been amended a number of times. With the Dutch Constitution, I think the latest adaptation was in 1989. Constitutions are not like the Koran—nonnegotiable, never-changing.

Look, in a democracy, it’s like this: I suggest, “Let’s close Muslim schools.” You say, “No, we can’t do it.” The problem that I’m pointing out to you gets bigger and bigger. Then you say, “OK, let’s somehow discourage them,” and still the problem keeps on growing, and in another few years it gets so bad that I belatedly get what I wanted in the first place.

I respect that it needs to happen this way, but there’s a price for the fact that you and I didn’t share these insights earlier, and the longer we wait, the higher the price. In itself the whole process is not a bad thing. People and communities and societies learn through experience. The drawback is, in this case, that “let’s learn from experience” means other people’s lives will be taken.

In other words, UATX’s poster girl for Western-style liberalism and academic freedom regards “the West” as a “problem,” wants to amend the US Constitution to abolish the Bill of Rights, and wants to use the power of government to abolish Islamic schools. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone involved that her beliefs are an incoherent, illiberal mess, that her predictions were 100% wrong, and that her policy proposals, if followed, would have violated rights on a colossal scale but achieved less than nothing for public safety.

“A gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education.” They got that right.

6 thoughts on “Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Avatar of Liberalism and Academic Freedom

  1. Of course I don’t like what she’s saying about the bill of rights.

    But the problem of children and schools is a tough one in a liberal society. Children are not making the choice to attend these schools on their own – their parents are choosing for them. And presumably the schools she is talking about indoctrinate the children in a religion. They are not like catholic schools that teach a mostly secular curriculum with an added class of religion a couple of times a week. They emphasize the teachings of the religion as truth and don’t include the full range of secular science and humanities courses and materials. Yeshiva schools for Orthodox Jews have the same problem. I’m not sure that they should be legal in a liberal society, or that it would be fundamentally illiberal to shut them down.

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    • I’m sorry–those are ridiculous arguments.

      “Children are not making the choice to attend these schools on their own – their parents are choosing for them.” That’s true of all parenting, and all schooling.

      “And presumably the schools she is talking about indoctrinate the children in a religion.” What is the difference between presuming facts where you lack knowledge, and having faith where you lack it? I don’t see any. If faith is an epistemic vice, so is presumption. If you can presume that religious people indoctrinate their children in religious faith, why can’t I infer that you indoctrinate your children in secularized forms of presumption? If the first should be grounds for losing the freedom to educate one’s children, so should the second.

      The truth is that you have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re just making things up precisely for that reason. You just seem to regard it as self-evident that people’s rights should be violated based on your ignorance.

      But suppose that religious schools do indoctrinate their students. So do parents in private homes, whether religious or secular. If we should close down schools, why not send the police into those homes? If rights are violated by indoctrination, they are violated whether the indoctrination takes place at school or in the home.

      “Indoctrination” is just the inculcation in someone’s mind of a doctrine. Don’t most parents do that? If indoctrination were sufficient to violate rights, then parenting itself violates rights. That strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum.

      “They emphasize the teachings of the religion as truth and don’t include the full range of secular science and humanities courses and materials.” So what? No school teaches, or can teach, the full range of knowledge. Every curriculum leaves something out. Unless you regard the teaching of any falsehood to a child as a rights violation, or the inculcation of any belief or practice that the child doesn’t voluntarily accept as one, I don’t see what rights violation arises here.

      I’m restricting discussion to schools that meet state-mandated minimum requirements. And any school, religious or secular, can be regulated as to how it treats children. Plenty of public schools fail to meet minimum requirements, and treat students poorly. So do plenty of homeschoolers. But no one is advocating the wholesale closure of failing schools or the abolition of homeschooling. It’s not clear why Islamic and Orthodox Jewish schools should be singled out from this miasma.

      I think you’re hugely inflating the presumed rationality of secular people, including your own. Even if religious faith is irrational or epistemically vicious, “secular” and “religious” as demographic descriptors absolutely do not distinguish the rational from the irrational. And there is something to be said in favor of an integrated curriculum, even if based on falsehoods, as against a disintegrated curriculum, parts of which may be true.

      But I don’t intend to mince words. What you’re advocating is totalitarianism dressed in supposedly rational or liberal guise. Like a lot of people, you seem to think that totalitarianism is fair game when Muslims are involved. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not fair game where anyone is involved.

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  2. It is fair to worry that Muslims are being unfairly targeted by AHA (perhaps because she has experienced the worst of fundamentalist, political Islam and, based on this, jumps to conclusions based on certain similarities that trigger her — to my mind, she is rather susceptible to this). But liberal society depends on certain values and culture. There are threats to this and contained — dangerous but necessary — illiberal measures might sometimes be necessary precisely to protect liberalism. That’s perfectly coherent (and probably true) even if “drawing the line” is tricky and dangerous. One example of this that you might be more friendly to is how Germany treated (and still treats) Nazi ideology and expression after WWII (rather illiberally, but to protect liberalism). I’d love to see AHA taken to task on articulating her model of this sort of thing — and the detailed empirical details of under what conditions it would (and would not) be permissible to target anti-liberal fundamentalist Muslim (or Christian or Marxist or explicitly-uber-woke-ist) schools for special control, censorship, or abolition. It’s easy to exaggerate the threat and wave your hands around, but that doesn’t really cut it.

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    • I have to say, I’m kind of flabbergasted by your comments. Just back up a bit. This is a person who, without any empirical knowledge whatsoever about Islamic schools in the US, was willing not only to defame them by insinuating a non-existent connection to terrorism, but to call for the abrogation of the Bill of Rights just to be able to do so. Nor is this a case where, yes, some people died because we didn’t follow her advice, but not as many as she predicted. It’s a case where her advice was simply batshit crazy. No one died, and no one was ever going to die. The causal connection she adduced between Islamic schools, terrorism, and death-by-terrorism simply bore no relationship to reality whatsoever. She just pulled the whole “connection” out of her ass and got away with it because she’s AHA, and like any good old fashioned American opportunist, she knew what her audience wanted to hear–and knew that they’d buy it if she said it. Virtually the only thing she knew about America in 2007 was that if she had the right “narrative,” it would sell, and she’d make the big time. She was right.

      The significance of her hire at UATX is that she epitomizes their grotesque conception of merit: dangerous, opportunistic bullshit artistry is exactly what they want to reward while posturing as defenders of higher education. In truth, the attitudes that they embody (and that she embodies) are exactly why American higher education is as dysfunctional as it is. They’re the ones sticking knives in it and killing it.

      Yes, “liberal society depends on certain values and culture.” One value it depends is a counterfactually stable commitment to rights–and to moral principles generally. Liberals aren’t supposed to espouse a principle of rights, or a Bill of Rights, and then bail out every time the bogeyman makes an entrance, and suggests a new way to abandon them. But that’s literally what AHA is prescribing. Paraphrased: “I just got to this country last month. I know fuck-all about it. But my hunch is that those Islamic schools are full of terrorists. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. I’ve never set foot inside one. No worries. Let’s butcher the Constitution and shut them down.” That’s just plain old fascism. The German model it follows is the Nazi one: of singling out an ethnic minority, then building an entire Constitution around the idea of persecuting them. That said, I’m not friendly at all to the post-Nazi German (or Canadian, or Israeli, or Australian) approach to hate speech. I find it childish and self-destructive.

      It seems to me one reason for shutting down a school is the discovery, mediated by actual criminal procedure, that there is probable cause to believe that the people in charge of it are using it to commit crimes. Absent that, we’re talking paranoid nonsense. No sane person thinks, or should think, that the Catholic priest/sexual abuse scandal is a reason for shutting down the Catholic Church as such. No one thinks (or should think) that child protection agencies should literally have the authority to stop parents from teaching their kids orthodox religious doctrine (or political ideology), no matter how retrograde it happens to be. No one seems to think that the scandals of college athletics are a good reason to sic the federal marshals on the NCAA, and re-write the US Constitution for that purpose. (I’m heartened to see that a couple of judges have the common sense to grasp that you can’t invoke hand-waving BS about the “opioid epidemic” to shut down large swatches of the pharmaceutical industry. But chargined to see that so many unscrupulous attorneys general think the reverse.) Etc.

      Setting aside the last example, the evidence of crimes and scandals in the preceding examples far, far surpasses anything that’s been adduced against Islamic schools, much less anything that AHA has adduced. There is no Islamic school analogue in this country of the Catholic sex abuse scandals. AHA’s call to close down Islamic schools is not an exercise in liberalism, but an exercise in rights-violation-by-confabulation, and hypocritical cherry-picking besides. Instead of being rewarded for it, she should be excoriated for it. But that’s the double standard of American culture. Wokeness is Bad, except when it’s right-wing Wokeness. Then it’s good enough reason to throw out the Constitution on the dumbest pretext imaginable.

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  3. (1) We agree that AHA’s position on Muslim schools is wrong. And that it indicates a tendency to reach for coercive, illiberal measures, putatively to defend liberalism, way, way too easily, based on exaggerated threats to liberalism, society, civilization, etc. This is sloppy, dangerous, illiberal thinking. That is why I’m curious how she would respond now. Has she changed her opinion, specifically that regarding shutting down “Muslim schools” in the U.S.? Though one might, at least somewhat reasonably, regard the threat of fundamentalist/political Islam in France as warranting some illiberal measures, the opinion about the situation in the U.S. does seem crazy and uninformed. Especially if she has not backed down on this opinion, but to some extent even if she has, I’d be wary of her as a figurehead for defending liberal institutions (especially as related to matters Islam)

    (2) Perhaps AHA is a proto-fascist bullshit artist, making out as a defender of liberal institutions, Western culture, informed “inside” critic of fundamentalist/political Islam, etc. She strikes me as flawed but genuine defender of liberalism (and critic of fundamentalist/political Islam). But, honestly, I have read maybe a couple of dozen things she has written or interviews with her. I often agree with her in a very general way, but take her to be a bit too extreme and facile.

    (3) I’m not optimistic about UATX. I applaud the sentiment (and the cause of fighting the ill effects of wokeness on liberal education), but I worry about a reactive impulse. If they can really say “wokeness is fucking up liberal education and liberal citizenship in X, Y and Z ways” — and then just leave it at that and spend most of their time and energy doing a great job at liberal education (and free thought/speech in the classrooms and on campus), then great. The more likely thing, unfortunately, is some version of: continuing anti-woke bitch-fest + second-rate or third-rate institution. Maybe there is some middle ground? Maybe they can make principled-anti-wokeness a prominent part of their identity and still achieve excellence? AHA is not a good influence if you want the great liberal education thing rather than the anti-woke bitch-festy thing (I’m not sure if she is slated to be faculty; she is on the board of advisors).

    (4) Other than the Muslim schools thing revealing a way-too-quick reach for illiberal measures, I don’t think AHA’s past (present?) sloppy, dangerous position on this has much to do with her potential contributions to founding an institution of liberal, higher education that excises the brainwashing/censoring tendencies of the woke left. One can be pretty good at defending liberalism (or free speech or free expression) in one context, but make grave errors in another. People have blind spots. Hers concern how a traditional, Islamic culture treated her and a corresponding tendency to exaggerate the threat of fundamentalist/political Islam to her adopted, Western ideals and institutions. Relatedly: because people are complicated and flawed in this kind of way, I’m skeptical of ideas like “person A did or said this thing that is horrible or silly or dangerous relative to ideal X in some specific case, therefore person A has to turn in her ideal-X membership card across the board for everything.” Hopefully, despite her flaws, AHA can still be a productive contributor to what UATX is trying to accomplish. I wouldn’t bet on that, though.

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    • On (2): I don’t see anyone can be a genuine but merely flawed defender of liberalism if their position is that the Bill of Rights should be “amended” to facilitate the persecution of a single religious minority. That’s not a peripheral flaw; it’s a wholesale subversion of the very idea of liberalism.

      By this standard, Bull Connor was a merely flawed defender of liberalism: he was completely in favor of it, except for extending it to black people. And he was completely in favor of the Constitution, too, except when it involved extending liberal rights to black people. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he wanted to defend liberalism by illiberal means. For decades, people thought this was somewhat problematic, but not that big a deal. They found it easier to criticize the civil rights movement for agitating against Bull Connor et al than Bull Connor himself for defending Jim Crow. I regard Ayaan Hirsi Ali as one of the many Bull Connors of our age.

      On (2) and (4): I’ve read Nomad, Infidel, and some of her journalism. She has a compelling personal story to tell, but her knowledge of Islam is basically a joke, taken seriously only by people pre-disposed to wanting to hear what she has to say. She really can’t hold her own against anyone with bona fide scholarly credentials in Islamic Studies, much less the best scholars in the field. Most of her journalism strikes me as mindless right-wing propaganda. The stuff she’s written on Israel and the Palestinians is embarrassingly dumb, the kind of thing you would expect of someone who had literally no idea what they were talking about, but insisted on speaking in an authoritative tone of voice anyway. But people lap it up. If a black apostate Muslim says that Palestinians have no rights, well, it must be the truth.

      What I find sad is that she is just the right-wing version of the very thing that right-wingers complain so bitterly about: the way in which “people of color” (whether left or right) use race as a shield against criticism. She gets away with asserting complete nonsense because she is a black Somali woman with right-wing views. Given that, she’s found a comfortable polemical niche and exploited it to her advantage. But as far as substance is concerned, there’s nothing there.

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