An Interfaith Response to a Controversial Speaker

(San Jose, 4/19/07) In the News:

THE MUSLIM AMERICANS: A PBS documentary that is part of AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS series premiering April 18, 2007 explores the diversity of Muslims in America today, focusing on communities’ experience after 9/11, and contrasting life for Muslims here in the United States with Muslims in Britain and Europe. The film — produced in conjunction with THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, looks at the ongoing conversation American Muslims are having about life in the United States, including assimilation, discrimination, Muslim youth, religion and politics. For more information visit:

Events of Note:

ING Initiates Interfaith Response to Controversial Speaker’s Upcoming Visit to Santa Clara University

As you may be aware, the controversial figure, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is now working for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, will be speaking at Santa Clara University on April 19th, 2007. As a member of Parliament in the Netherlands, she wrote the script for the film, “Submission”, which depicted images of naked women onto which verses from the Quran were painted, equating Islam with women’s subordination and oppression. She has called the Prophet Muhammad “a tyrant and a pervert,” and was quoted as saying: “With the first commandment, Mohammed tried to imprison common sense and with the second commandment the beautiful, romantic side of mankind was enslaved.” She recently published a book, titled Infidel, which received bad reviews from both the NYT and the Economist, which wrote:

“Mental illness, abortion, failed marriages, illicit affairs and differing interpretations of religion: much as she tries, the kinds of problems that Ms Hirsi Ali describes in “Infidel” are all too human to be blamed entirely on Islam. Her book shows that her life, like those of other Muslims, is more complex than many people in the West may have realized. But the West’s tendency to seek simplistic explanations is a weakness that Ms Hirsi Ali also shows she has been happy to exploit.”

While issues of social justice and equality are critical topics that need to be discussed, using these issues as a springboard to bash Islam or demonize Muslims as has become the fashion after 9/11 is neither productive nor fair; and hate speech that characterizes an entire people or community should not be tolerated for any group of people, just as it was rejected last week in the case of Don Imus and the broader issue of racial or other hate speech, which has become common fair on talk shows and other forums.

In response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s upcoming speaking engagement, and in conjunction with local interfaith leaders, ING initiated an interfaith response that included meeting with faculty members, adding an ING speaker to a panel that addressed Ms. Ali’s controversial film, Submission, and distributing an interfaith letter to the attendees of the April 19th event.

The panel, which took place on Monday, April 16th was part of SCU’s ongoing Ethics at Noon series sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics was titled: “Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Film ‘Submission’: The Koran, the Status of Women, and Tolerance”, and featured Ameena Jandali, ING’s Vice President, and Prof. David Pinault from SCU’s Religious Studies Department. The event began with a screening of the film, followed by responses by the panelists to issues addressed by the film, and concluded with a question and answer session with the audience.

Some of the issues brought up by the film included the punishment for adultery, domestic violence, arranged marriages, the Islamic head covering known as hijab, and other issues relating to women. The panelists addressed each of the issues in turn, noting that many of the issues that were raised in the film were common social problems experienced in many cultures, and that any sacred text should be viewed in the proper context.

While the time and scope of the event was limited, it was an important precedent for Americans of all faiths, and especially for Muslim Americans, first of all to be given an opportunity to respond in person to one of the many works unfairly attacking Islam and by extension all Muslims in a post 9/11 world, but more importantly to revive the tradition of discussion and dialogue about difficult and controversial topics that was a cornerstone of Islamic Civilization’s legacy of tolerance and enlightenment. We urge Muslims to revive this tradition of dialogue and intellectual exchange no matter how much we disagree or are personally offended, rather than resort to the mindless emotionalism and sloganeering Muslims have become known for. We need to seek our inspiration and our response in the verse: “And debate in ways that are best and most gracious.” (Qur’an, 16:125)

The following letter, which was written by interfaith South Bay leaders Bart Charlow and Dr. Andrew Kille is endorsed by dozens of interfaith leaders from 20+ Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim organizations, and will be distributed at the event on April 19th:


As religious leaders committed to building strong relationships among the diverse religious communities of Silicon Valley, we share a deep concern about the representation of Islam you may hear from Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Hirsi Ali is highly controversial for her blunt and outspoken criticism of Islam. Criticism of Muslims and of specific behavior is legitimate, but Hirsi Ali (who no longer considers herself Muslim) has gone much farther–to the point of condemning Islam itself. She has consisently taken a position of harsh confrontation and condemnation that has proved counterproductive.

Her stand against the exploitation and abuse of women has our general support. We are very aware that this takes place in several cultures in many places in the world. It is neither limited to Islamic societies, nor is it common in most Islamic cultures. You may well share her passion; however, her condemning an entire religion on the basis of cultural practices of some is not legitimate. It is also not scholarly discourse.

We are not suggesting that she should not speak. In our democratic society– especially within the context of academic freedom– the right to speak is essential. Along with that right, however, comes responsibility for the impact of free speech on both individuals and the community.

We are concerned for our local Muslim communities. We have heard from our local Muslim brothers and sisters that they find Ali’s statements misinformed, hateful, and hurtful. These are not “radical” protesters, but neighbors whom we have come to know and respect. Those who practice a religious tradition must be allowed to define its meaning and commitments for themselves. Broad declarations of what constitutes “real” Islam leave no room for genuine dialogue with those who are seeking to live their faith with compassion and integrity.

We are concerned for interfaith relationships in Silicon Valley. For years we have been building relationships among the diverse religious traditions of our area. We have worked hard to educate each other and the community, to counter stereotypes and suspicions, and to foster personal connections across dividing lines of religious commitment. At a time when many American people are ignorant of Islam, we are concerned that Hirsi Ali will be seen as an authority. Her personal experience has been horrific, but to generalize that experience to a billion Muslims serves only to reinforce negative stereotypes of Muslims as violent, oppressive, and foreign.

We are concerned for the right of any religious community to feel safe. Stereotyping too o
ften leads to harassment. Muslim women, especially those who wear hijab, have been targets for both verbal and physical attacks—in fact, that happened right here in our community following similar lectures! No one in our communities should be subject to abuse because of their religion.

A Jewish story reminds us that we only truly know one another when we understand what hurts each other. We take it seriously when members of our South Bay community explain that something is hurtful or damaging to them. We hope that you will, too.



In response to this organized effort, Paul Chaffee, Director of the Interfaith Presidio in San Francisco, wrote: “Dear colleagues, Your response to this event is appropriate, nuanced, caring, a model of how to resist the kind of religion which has become corrosive and destructive. Good work!”

Prof. Sherman Jackson, an ING Advisor wrote, “Dear colleagues, Salaam. I just wanted to take a minute and applaud your very timely, intelligent and responsible response to this unfortunate abuse of public trust… I guess the silver lining in all of this is that the intelligent will be able to distinguish, as did the Economist, between Islam and the cultural, educational, political and other deficits facing communities in the Muslim world.”

ING Speaks on “Islam & Muslims in the Contemporary World”, SJS, 4/16/07

An ING speaker delivered a presentation on “Islam and Muslims in the Contemporary World”, at San Jose State University on Monday, April 16th. The presentation focused on Islam and Muslims in the current social and political environment and covered such topics as extremism and the status of women. This presentation is growing increasingly popular as Americans struggle to understand and make sense of daily news events and issues occurring in Muslim-populated countries.

ING Speakers at Bay Area High Schools, 04/11/07-4/16/07

Khushroo Shaikh delivered presentations over a two day period at Monte Vista High School in Cupertino on April 11th and 12th. Naureen Moon gave two presentations at Half Moon Bay High School on April 16th. The number of high schools requesting presentations has increasingly risen over the years, with about 25% of ING’s school presentations in high schools, usually in World History classes, where the presentation may be a core component of their study of the Middle East or current events.

ING Presents at Columbia College in Sonora, CA, 04/06/07

ING traveled outside its traditional Bay Area borders to present to a group of students and faculty at Columbia College in Sonora, California on Friday, April 6th. The picturesque college, seated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s has a student population of less than three thousand, and is a nearly three hour drive from San Jose. This made the visit by an ING speaker even more of a treat for the campus community which had little exposure to Islam and Muslims. The evening presentation, entitled: “Islam and Contemporary Issues Concerning Muslims” attracted an audience of 70+ people and covered the basics about Islam and Muslims before addressing topics that included extremism, role of women and tolerance towards other religions. The presentation was followed by one and half hours question and answer session that further clarified some of the common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims.