Letter to SF Commonwealth Club

February 11, 2021

In Response to Hosting Islamophobic Speaker on February 11, 2021

We are deeply troubled that the Commonwealth Club, a respected Bay Area institution, is giving a platform to the notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali, by sponsoring a program titled “Ayaan Hirsi Ali with Bari Weiss: Islam, Immigration and Women’s Rights” in the Bay Area next week on February 11th. Ali has a long record of peddling bigoted generalizations about Muslims, and her work has been a potent source of anti-Muslim bigotry that has resulted in friction and hostility between religious communities.

For those not familiar with her, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been criticized by numerous sources as an open Islamophobe. Her associations include European right-wing leaders and prominent American Islamophobes. In 2003 Hirsi Ali worked with fellow MP Geert Wilders for several months in challenging the Netherlands’ immigration policy; Time magazine in a March, 2017 article titled “What to Know About Geert Wilders, the ‘Dutch Trump’” describes Wilders as a “Dutch far-right politician (who) has spent more than a decade encouraging popular resentment against Muslims, the E.U. and immigrants.” In 2015 she spoke at ACT! for America’s national conference. ACT! for America is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center which they describe as the largest anti-Muslim organization in the country. Ali also appears in Pamela Geller’s film, Can’t We Talk About This, written by Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer; both are documented Islamophobes.

As problematic as her associations with and support for right-wing politicians and virulent Islamophobes, are her stereotypical and reductionist characterizations of Islam and Muslims. Kiran Grewal in a December 2012 article titled “Reclaiming the Voice of the ‘Third World Woman’”  states that  “while conservative Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become a widely recognized and acclaimed figure in the West, she has generally been ignored or derided by postcolonial feminists. This has largely been due to her extremely provocative and often offensive statements regarding Islam and Muslim immigrants in the West.” Adam Yaghi in a 2015 article titled “Popular Testimonial Literature by American Cultural Conservatives of Arab or Muslim Descent: Narrating the Self, Translating (an) Other” questions why her “serial autobiographies are treated as honest and reliable testimonies in spite of the troubling inaccuracies, exaggerated descriptions, blunt neo-Orientalist portrayals, and sweeping generalizations.” He also points out in the same article that “Ali attributes everything bad to a monolithic Islam, one that transcends geographic and national boundaries … willfully ignoring her own distinctions between different interpretations of Islam, versions she personally encountered before leaving to the West”.

A 2014 Huffington Post article by Dr. Kashif Chaudhry titled: “Telling a Critic From an Islamophobe,” sums up why Ali’s rhetoric goes beyond an acceptable critique of Islam: “There is certainly all freedom to hold a different opinion within Islam or about Islam. Intellectual criticism leads to dialogue, which in turn leads to better understanding. However, there is a difference between critiquing Islam and spreading irrational fear of Muslims. There is a difference between intellectually commenting on a religion and inciting hatred of its adherents. For better or worse, Muslims are not one unified community. As such, attributing the beliefs and acts of one extreme minority group — like the Taliban — to the whole community of Muslims worldwide is dishonest. Hirsi Ali is guilty of exactly this. She disregards the interpretation and practice of Islam by moderate Muslims and insists the interpretation of the terrorists is the only correct one. She contends that Islam is ‘a destructive, nihilistic cult of death’ that must be defeated at all costs. In an interview with Reason magazine, this became clear when the interviewer asked if by ‘defeating Islam’ Hirsi Ali meant, defeating radical Islam?’ She replied: ‘No. Islam, period.’ When the reporter asked her to further elaborate what she meant by ‘defeat Islam’ she replied: ‘I think that we are at war with Islam. And there is no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways…

You look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, ‘This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.’ The interviewer then asked, ‘Militarily?’ Hirsi Ali replied: ‘In all forms.’”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not merely engaging in free speech or intellectual exchange of ideas. As we have seen repeatedly, the impact of Ali and those like her is an increase in hate incidents and hate crimes, bullying of minority students, polarization and intolerance, and divided communities. Her talk will help contribute to this environment of anti-Muslim sentiment which Muslims have experienced for the last two decades at a time when the national discourse has finally returned to one of unity and healing. Right here in the Bay Area, where organizations like Islamic Networks Group (ING) has spent decades trying to prevent the bullying of Muslim students, as described in this article, her talk will lead to more bias from a staff member or teacher, or bullying from other students where surveys have shown that in California Muslim schoolchildren are bullied at twice the rate of children generally. Her talk will contribute to more hate incidents against women wearing head scarves or Muslim houses of worship or businesses in California where Muslims are the second most frequent target of religious-motivated hate crimes, after Jews.

The Commonwealth Club is one of the most respected institutions in our region, and rightfully so. This makes its sponsorship of a talk by Ms. Ali all the more grievous, as her appearance under its auspices will only give credibility to her unfounded assertions about Muslims and their faith. This isn’t about free speech. This is about you, the Commonwealth Club, in one of the most progressive and tolerant regions of the United States, holding an event with a known Islamophobe, which would be no different than giving a platform to an Anti-Semite like David Duke.

We urge you to reconsider your sponsorship of this event at your respected establishment that represents all of us, in the interest not only of Muslims but of all the people in the Bay Area, for the sake of truth and of the mutual harmony and understanding that are so badly needed in our country today.


The Undersigned:

  • Tabassum Haleem, Chief Executive Officer, Islamic Networks Group (ING)
  • Sahra Abdi, Executive Director, United Women of East Africa
  • Hashi Shafi, Executive Director, Somali Action Alliance Education Fund
  • Fred Blackwell, Chief Executive Officer, San Francisco Foundation
  • Michael Pappas, Executive Director, San Francisco Interfaith Council
  • John McKnight, Board Officer, San Francisco Interfaith Council
  • Will McGarvey, Executive Director, Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County
  • Kenneth Chambers, Executive Director, Interfaith Council of Alameda County
  • Scott Quinn, Executive Director, Marin Interfaith Council
  • Girish Shah, Board Chair, Silicon Valley Interreligious Council
  • Julie Greenfield, Co-founder, Vice President, Eden Area Interfaith Council
  • Brian K. Woodson, Sr., Director of Clergy Development, Faith In Action East Bay
  • Ray Montgomery, Executive Director, People Acting in Community Together
  • Dr. Diana C. Gibson, Cofounder and Convenor, Multifaith Voices for Peace & Justice
  • Eric R Stietzel, Steering Committee Member Emeritus, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice
  • Hajj Reza Nekumanesh, Executive Board, Central Valley Islamic Council
  • Madihha Ahussain, Special Counsel for Anti-Muslim Bigotry, Muslim Advocates
  • Aarti Kohli, Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus
  • Mohamad Rajabally, Islamic Society North America
  • Abu Qadir Al-Amin, Imam, San Francisco Muslim Community Center
  • Faheem Shuaibe, Resident Imam, Masjidul Waritheen
  • Abdul Jabbar, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, City College of San Francisco
  • Marianne Farina, CSC, Sisters of the Holy Cross
  • Dr. Rodney Lemery, Justice Minister, Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church
  • Keris Dahlkamp, Youth Pastor, Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church
  • Dr. Barbara E. Barkley, Reverend, Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church
  • Lisa Justice, ruling elder, Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church
  • Dr. Eileen Altman, Associate Pastor, First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, UCC
  • Moina Shaiq, Meet a Muslim Conversation
  • Kristi Denham, Reverend, United Church of Christ
  • Lori Robinson, SURJ Contra Costa
  • Kashif Abdullah, Head of School, San Francisco Islamic School
  • Rachel Branaman, Principal, Talem Consulting
  • Pam Frydman, Rabbi
  • Andrew Straus, Rabbi
  • Sheldon Lewis, Rabbi, Bend the Arc
  • Allan Berkowitz, Rabbi
  • Amy Eilberg, Rabbi, Spiritual Director
  • Allen B. Bennett, Rabbi
  • Howie Schneider, Rabbi
  • Paula Marcus, Rabbi
  • Judith Seid, Rabbi
  • Rabbi Steven Chester, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Sinai Oakland
  • Yoel Kahn, Rabbi, Congregation Beth El
  • Jeremy Sher, Rabbi, Kanfot Ha’aretz
  • Moshe Heyn, Rabbi, Coastside Jewish Community
  • Naeem Raza, Retired
  • Rashid Patch, Imam
  • Shafi Refai, Community Leader
  • Syed Atif Rizwan