Controversial rights activist denounces Islam

FAIRFIELD — Ayaan Hirsi Ali called on those filling a Fairfield theater Wednesday night to act as a jury — searching and looking for information, reading documents and factoring in her anecdotes — as they evaluate Islam, a religion of more than a billion observers.

The women’s rights activist and vocal critic of Islam closed out Fairfield University’s 2016-17 Open Visions Forum season, an annual speaker series its organizers characterized as a haven for free speech before she took the stage.

Formerly Muslim, Hirsi Ali now identifies as an atheist and has called Islam a “cult of death.”

Her outspoken stance against her former religion has garnered condemnation from some, including Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups, that believe her speech is hateful. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies Hirsi Ali as an anti-Muslim extremist and calls her rhetoric critiquing Islam “toxic.”

Speaking at the university, Hirsi Ali called such labels a “betrayal that is really gutting.” She said, “Please don’t call us bigots when in fact we are fighting the ultimate bigotry.”

In response to her appearance on campus, the university’s Muslim Student Association moved up its Discover Islam Week from April to coincide with Hirsi Ali’s visit. But while one audience member challenged her position, Hirsi Ali met a largely affirming crowd on Wednesday when she spoke at the university and engaged in a question-and-answer discussion.

Hirsi Ali, an author, was born in Somalia. She said as a child she was subjected to female genital mutilation, as a teenager she witnessed classmates forced into unwanted marriages and at 22 she emancipated herself, fleeing to Holland and claiming political asylum en route to a forced marriage.

“That is the kind of pain I know,” she said of her childhood growing up in an Islamic African society. On speaking out about suffering female genital mutilation, she said, “I have overcome the embarrassment to talk about it.”

Now an American citizen and fierce critic of her former faith, Hirsi Ali’s life has been threatened numerous times.

Taking the stage on International Women’s Day, Hirsi Ali said she does not condemn individuals suffering at the hand of Islam or causing individual suffering. She said she believes an intellectual assessment of Muslim principles and traditions exposes elements that lead to pain, suffering and death and require reform.

“Islam needs a reformation today, right now,” she said.

After several questions for Hirsi Ali, Ahmed Ebrahim rose to speak.

Ebrahim, an accounting professor at the university who leads the Bridgeport Islamic Cultural Center, turned to the crowd and claimed Hirsi Ali was spreading “alternative facts.” He challenged her characterization of female genital mutilation as an Islamic problem and pointed out the religion’s basic tenets require believers to accept other religions and encourages questioning and intellectual curiosity.

Ebrahim said Hirsi Ali confused Sharia law with oppression and jihad as strictly meaning holy war.

“We are really living in a time of Islamophobia. … We’re confusing free speech with hate speech,” Ebrahim said just before crowd members rose and yelled, demanding he ask his question or sit.

“All I ask you is don’t take my word for it, don’t take that man’s word for it,” Hirsi Ali responded, calling on audience members to read, study and decide for themselves.

In a group interview before the forum, Hirsi Ali spoke harshly of her critics.

Those who challenge the issues she has spoken against, she said, “promote Sharia (law) because they are men and they love oppressing women. Why would they change it if they have slaves and they can get away with domestic violence? Or they’re women who have been co-opted to in fact oppress their sisters and who for whatever reasons are promoting Sharia law. They are the ones, I want to debate with them Sharia law, the contents of Sharia law.”

Asked about those who take issue with a lack of differentiation between terrorists like Islamic State leaders and Muslims practicing peacefully, Hirsi Ali said none have to agree with her, but she believes debate and engaging with the issues she raises is important.

She reflected, too, on the timing, emphasizing the global quality of International Women’s Day, March 8.

“It’s the one day that we have a chance to talk about those women who have no recourse at all, who are subjected to the most humiliating and the most depressing set of laws,” Hirsi Ali said. “If you are living under Sharia law or Islamic law and you’re a woman, you have zero rights.”

While not without some concerns, she described a stark contrast to women’s rights in the U.S. as women across the country marked the day with action or protest.

LWeiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16