Liberals Should Listen to Muslim Voices Instead of Those Who Speak for Them

By Maha Elgenaidi, founder and Chief Innovation Officer

February 19, 2021

Islamophobia is essentially an instrument of colonialism; an instrument that was used historically to subjugate the colonized by portraying them as barbarians or primitives needing civilizing, or in the present day, to suppress Muslim populations in various ways including ignoring or dismissing their voices for gain or advantage. Unfortunately, that instrument was bluntly used recently in San Francisco, one of the most liberal and progressive cities in the country.

On February 11th the Commonwealth Club, a respected Bay Area institution, hosted a program titled “Ayaan Hirsi Ali with Bari Weiss: Islam, Immigration, and Women’s Rights.” Note that Islam is prominently highlighted in the title and related to immigration and women’s rights.

Ali has a long record going back to her days as a member of the Dutch parliament of making sweeping generalizations and bigoted statements about Islam and Muslims, including calling Islam a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and stating that “I think that we are at war with Islam.” To learn more about her views, see this fact sheet.

In response to this event, we crafted a letter which we sent to our interfaith allies with whom we have been working for decades to create a more tolerant and inclusive Bay Area. We asked them to consider endorsing the letter, which many of them did without hesitation, and we sent the letter with these endorsements to the Commonwealth Club’s CEO, Gloria Duffy, and other executives and board members a week before the event.

Additionally, we and our many members and allies wrote or spoke directly with Ms. Duffy and some of the Club’s board members about our concerns. We made it clear that the issue wasn’t the topic of the event, but rather the fact that the speaker is a well-documented anti-Muslim bigot.

Unfortunately, after a week of attempting to persuade them to cancel or postpone the event until they learn more about Islamophobia, its funding, its purveyors including this particular speaker, how it’s disseminated, and its harmful impact, the Club decided to proceed with the program, overlooking the concerns of local Muslim Americans and our interfaith allies.

One can conclude the following from my conversations with the Club’s executives and this experience, based on our 28-year history of working to dispel stereotypes about Muslims and Islam though education and engagement:

  • There are still clear double standards concerning certain religious or ethnic communities, including Muslim Americans, with regard to their concerns and opinions. I can’t imagine the Club, located in the heart of San Francisco, arguing with the local Jewish community about who is and who isn’t an anti-Semite, or with the African American community about who is or isn’t racist. After explaining that, for Muslims, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is equivalent to a Louis Farrakhan or David Duke for the Jewish community, I was told by two Club executives that they needed to determine that for themselves!
  • Perceived conservative religions like Islam are not afforded the same courtesy as religions that are viewed as more “progressive” or “liberal.” I am both a feminist and a conservative, but when you frame my religion exclusively as oppressive, you in turn oppress all Muslims in the process. In arguing against me, one Club executive explained that he viewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s cause as similar to the Mormon fight for the inclusion of Blacks, implying that she was standing up against injustices within Islam itself. He went on to say that we may not like what she is doing, but that it should be done.
  • White liberal feminism still prevails in the Bay Area and beyond with its colonial mindset that views Muslim women like me as oppressed and in need of “saving.” For feminists of this sort, this means not merely affirming stereotypes about Muslim women but actually seeking to reinforce them through biased speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom they adulate and who in turn make them feel good about themselves for confronting alleged oppression. White liberal feminists who engage in this savior complex actually serve to objectify Muslim women; their efforts hurt rather than help them, since they deny them the agency to speak for themselves and further demonize and marginalize their voices.

This is not to deny that Muslims have their fair share of internal problems, including gender issues. But these are problems that Muslims themselves – not former Muslims and certainly not anti-Muslim bigots like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or even allies of Muslims – must address and solve. In fact, people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and those who give them a platform to speak make it harder for people like me to address these issues in my community because she casts them as a cultural clash between Islam as a whole and “the West” rather than a challenge that many societies have struggled and continue to struggle with, as the #MeToo movement clearly demonstrated in the United States and throughout Europe.

Indeed, Ayaan Hirsi Ali employs many of the classic frames associated with Islamophobia, including portraying Muslims as monolithic and static, separate and “other,” inferior to the West, primitive and sexist, and engaged in a clash of civilizations. She casts 1.8 billion people in one mold and fails to acknowledge any positive gains that Islam historically afforded women, or recent advances by Muslim women such as the number of women (14) who have been heads of state of Muslim-majority nations, or the growing number of Muslim women in public office, at prestigious universities, and in high level professions throughout the world.

This issue is not exclusive to the Commonwealth Club. The organization I founded confronts these issues daily in the work we do teaching about Muslims.

The choice is clear for anyone invested in authentic diversity, equity and inclusion work: if you want to continue with an historically racist and biased colonial mindset concerning non-whites and non-Christians, then keep listening to the dominant narrative of those whose mission is to demonize and otherize Islam and Muslims.

However, if you are interested in viewing human beings that are different from yourself as equals, with all their varied and nuanced voices, then, like many ordinary Muslim Americans, we are willing and indeed happy to engage with you.

Maha is the founder of Islamic Networks Group (ING) and author of training handbooks on outreach for American Muslims as well as training seminars for public institutions on developing cultural competency with the American Muslim community. She received an M.A. in religious studies from Stanford University and B.A in political science and economics from the American University in Cairo. She has taught classes on Islam in the modern world in universities such as the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has been recognized with numerous awards, including the “Civil Rights Leadership Award” from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, the “Citizen of the Year Award” from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and the “Dorothy Irene Height Community Award” from the NAACP-Silicon Valley. She is currently a member of the Council of Advisors for the Freedom Forum that helps shape American views on the First Amendment; the County of Santa Clara’s Hate Crimes Task Force; and the Ethnic Studies Committee of ARUSD in San Jose, CA. Read Maha’s blog here.

ING’s mission is to promote peace among all, by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other faith-based, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.