Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali v. Avi Lewis

Update: This post has been cited by Wikipedia as support for the claim that Avi Lewis expressed "anti-American bias". Much as I'm pleased to be cited as a source, I claim here only that Lewis is stupid, not biased. Noting "American clichés" does not establish bias; even the most jingoistic supporter of the United States would probably admit that there are some peculiarly American clichés. It is stupidly fallacious, however, to "rebut" Hirsi Ali's arguments simply by dismissing them as clichés of any nationality.

(h/t to

Hirsi Ali makes some excellent points, and Lewis acts like an ignorant buffoon.

Her critique of Islam is spot-on:
Islam means submission to the will of Allah, a doctrine that requires from the individual to become a slave. In my view, it's bad. Islam limits the imagination to what you can find in the Koran, and to follow in the example of the prophet Muhammad. I think that's bad, and that's what keeps people in the Islamic world backward. Islam treats women, at least says... subordinates women to men, is obsessed with obedience, cold for the matter of gays, for adulterers, and is therefore very violent and inhuman. All this is in the Koran, all this is in the Hadith, and anywhere Islamic Sharia, Islamic rule is implemented, you see that these things are carried out.
The last sentence is especially important: Were these strictures not implemented in self-described Islamic law, one might legitimately claim that they had no actual moral force. Since they are implemented—implemented universally when any nation explicitly labels its law "Islamic" (i.e. unlike Turkey, which has an explicitly secular legal system)—this objection loses all force.

Avi Lewis takes his first stupid pill, and states, "Surely there are many versions of Islam, like there are many versions of Christianity, of Judaism, of all major religions; you're presenting it as one thing, and it's just obviously not." First, does deliberate equivocation shield an ideology from criticism? There were (and are) many versions of Communism, even Nazism; are we not then allowed to criticize these ideologies? One can draw generalizations across diverse versions of an ideology, especially when one is talking about features common across different versions. Third, Hirsi Ali asserts that Islam is in fact monolithic, presumably in the same sense that something like the Catholic Church is monolithic; variations in opinion within the Church are trivial and fundamentally inessential.

Lewis immediately swallows his second stupid pill: "I could point to other things in other holy books that are equally offensive." This is a pure tu quoque fallacy. And Hirsi Ali is right on the money in her rebuttal. The proof of the essential character of a doctrine is how it's put into practice. The offensive elements of the Old Testament, at least, are not anywhere implemented in civil practice, nor is civil practice anywhere justified purely on the basis of Old Testament law; it has indeed become "almost obsolete".

Hirsi Ali makes a couple of overstatements, She says, "There are no Christians who want to have the Bible replace any constitution in Western society," and, "There is no such thing as Islamophobia." Yes, these are overstatements, but she is quick to correct and amplify her views. Christian Dominionists are (at least presently) politically marginalized, and acts of religiously motivated violence are severely punished by civil authorities. The situation is reversed in the Islamic world: Religiously motivated violence is often dealt with lightly and it is the reformers and those attempting to reconcile Islam with humanistic, Enlightenment values who are politically marginalized.

And of course there are "Islamophobes", people who don't like Islam merely because it is different from their own irrational superstitions. But Hirsi Ali points out that legitimate, rational criticism of what is essentially a political ideology is fundamentally different in character from merely hating someone because they are different, especially different by virtue of ineluctable characteristics such as skin color, ancestry or sexual orientation.

Hirsi Ali makes an important point that my wife makes to me, especially when I virulently criticize the United States: Western civilization—if not the US itself (although given the Dutch government's apparent inability to protect her life and their shameful betrayal of her, I can see why she would especially like the US)—really is the best place to be, at least at present. In response, Lewis swallows the whole bottle of stupid pills and openly mocks Hirsi Ali: "Is there a school where they teach you these American clichés?"

On the one hand, it's not just my privilege but my duty as a citizen to criticize the government and society; I can leave the hosannas to our virtue to the PR flacks. Thus I tend to take my freedom for granted, at least in the sense of not spending a lot of time being grateful for it; I do not however, take my freedom for granted by refusing to exercise it, or condemning others for exercising it.

On the other hand, I don't argue, as Lewis appears to argue, that because our society is imperfect, it is therefore equivalent to other imperfect societies, governments or religious-political ideologies, that there is no basis for preferential comparison.


  1. Islam means submission to the will of Allah, a doctrine that requires from the individual to become a slave.

    Perhaps someone with a better grasp of the relative anthroplogy can shed some light on this, but this appears to be a theme within Arab culture. My sister-in-law comes from a Palestinian Eastern Orthodox family that came to America upon expulsion from the West Bank.

    During the marriage ceremony (which the bride's family insisted be traditional), there was a hymn/prayer/thingy which intoned that "men are the servants of God and women are their handmaidens".

    Is there something in Arab culture that makes subjugating oneself to something else a requisite act? I know this is more common in general in tribal cultures that value collectivism, but there seems to a be a specifically metaphysical aspect to it here as well.

  2. even Nazism

    Actually, you've got that backward: Nazism is one form of fascism.

  3. Submission and authority is a human theme. Islam doesn't deserve the blame for inventing submission, but it deserves its share of blame for being one of the ideologies that institutionalize it.

  4. Nazism is one form of fascism.

    You're right. My bad.

  5. I suppose you often criticize atheism because you love it so much?

    Asymmetric analysis

  6. nelson, atheism isn't an institutionalized form of government/population control. Islam is in the arab world, and our own government still has a long way to go before we reach a truly secular state. I'm sure there will stil be things to critize when a secular state is realized, there are just bigger problems to focus on at the moment.

  7. Excellent post. I still think if we removed faith-based beliefs from politics and kept them as they should be--mutually exclusive--the world wouldn't exactly be made of rainbows, bubbles, and glitter, but it'd certainly be a better place.

  8. Nelson's comment, much like the post that he linked to, is apropos of absolutely nothing. He "identifies" a pattern he dislikes, equates to a broad swath of diverse individuals, selects a single individual he chooses to include in that swath, and uses that pattern to try to undermine the individual with a non sequitur. A complex critique for a quickly named phenomenon: idiocy.

  9. great piece. I especially like that you also criticized Ayaan for her overstatements. But she is right, Lewis grew up in freedom and hardly appreciates Ayaan's background. There is a growing sense of political correctness around the world, that is bad for us. In an attempt to "accept" other cultures, we refuse to actively critize religions and cultures that do not sanctify the lives of others.

  10. Actually National Socialism is more related to Communism. National Socialism was not a form of fascism.

    1. The irrelevance and stupidity of this comment is exceeded only by its untimeliness.


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