The need to defend universal principles against Islamist ideology

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Q. Nomani for The New York Times

Senator Kamala Harris of California on Capitol Hill this month. Credit Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Last week, Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, made headlines when Republican senators interrupted her at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee while she interrogated Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The clip of the exchange went viral; journalists, politicians and everyday Americans debated what the shushing signified about our still sexist culture.

The very next day, Senator Harris took her seat in front of us as a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. We were there to testify about the ideology of political Islam, or Islamism.

Both of us were on edge. Earlier that day, across the Potomac River, a man had shot a Republican lawmaker and others on a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Va. And just moments before the hearing began, a man wearing a Muslim prayer cap had stood up and heckled us, putting Capitol police officers on high alert. We were girding ourselves for tough questions.

But they never came. The Democrats on the panel, including Senator Harris and three other Democratic female senators — North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill — did not ask either of us a single question.

This wasn’t a case of benign neglect. At one point, Senator McCaskill said that she took issue with the theme of the hearing itself. “Anyone who twists or distorts religion to a place of evil is an exception to the rule,” she said. “We should not focus on religion,” she said, adding that she was “worried” that the hearing, organized by Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, would “underline that.” In the end, the only questions asked of us about Islamist ideologies came from Senator Johnson and his Republican colleague, Senator Steve Daines from Montana.

Just as we are invisible to the mullahs at the mosque, we were invisible to the Democratic women in the Senate.

How to explain this experience? Perhaps Senators Heitkamp, Harris, Hassan and McCaskill are simply uninterested in sexism and misogyny. But obviously, given their outspoken support of critical women’s issues, such as the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria and campus sexual assault, that’s far from the case.

No, what happened that day was emblematic of a deeply troubling trend among progressives when it comes to confronting the brutal reality of Islamist extremism and what it means for women in many Muslim communities here at home and around the world. When it comes to the pay gap, abortion access and workplace discrimination, progressives have much to say. But we’re still waiting for a march against honor killings, child marriages, polygamy, sex slavery or female genital mutilation.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, left, and Asra Q. Nomani. Credit Mohammad Shouman

Sitting before the senators that day were two women of color: Ayaan is from Somalia; Asra is from India. Both of us were born into deeply conservative Muslim families. Ayaan is a survivor of female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Asra defied Shariah by having a baby while unmarried. And we have both been threatened with death by jihadists for things we have said and done. Ayaan cannot appear in public without armed guards.

In other words, when we speak about Islamist oppression, we bring personal experience to the table in addition to our scholarly expertise. Yet the feminist mantra so popular when it comes to victims of sexual assault — believe women first — isn’t extended to us. Neither is the notion that the personal is political. Our political conclusions are dismissed as personal; our personal experiences dismissed as political.

That’s because in the rubric of identity politics, our status as women of color is canceled out by our ideas, which are labeled “conservative” — as if opposition to violent jihad, sex slavery, genital mutilation or child marriage were a matter of left or right. This not only silences us, it also puts beyond the pale of liberalism a basic concern for human rights and the individual rights of women abused in the name of Islam.

There is a real discomfort among progressives on the left with calling out Islamic extremism. Partly they fear offending members of a “minority” religion and being labeled racist, bigoted or Islamophobic. There is also the idea, which has tremendous strength on the left, that non-Western women don’t need “saving” — and that the suggestion that they do is patronizing at best. After all, the thinking goes, if women in America still earn less than men for equivalent work, who are we to criticize other cultures?

This is extreme moral relativism disguised as cultural sensitivity. And it leads good people to make excuses for the inexcusable. The silence of the Democratic senators is a reflection of contemporary cultural pressures. Call it identity politics, moral relativism or political correctness — it is shortsighted, dangerous and, ultimately, a betrayal of liberal values.

The hard truth is that there are fundamental conflicts between universal human rights and the principle of Shariah, or Islamic law, which holds that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; between freedom of religion and the Islamist idea that artists, writers, poets and bloggers should be subject to blasphemy laws; between secular governance and the Islamist goal of a caliphate; between United States law and Islamist promotion of polygamy, child marriage and marital rape; and between freedom of thought and the methods of indoctrination, or dawa, with which Islamists propagate their ideas.

Defending universal principles against Islamist ideology, not denying that these conflicts exist, is surely the first step in a fight whose natural leaders in Washington should be women like Kamala Harris and Claire McCaskill — both outspoken advocates for American women.

We believe feminism is for everyone. Our goals — not least the equality of the sexes — are deeply liberal. We know these are values that the Democratic senators at our hearing share. Will they find their voices and join us in opposing Islamist extremism and its war on women?