What One Senate Hearing Taught Me About Discussing Islam in America

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“Mrs. Hirsi Ali, do you still think Islam is a death cult?” shouted a man wearing what looked like a prayer cap.

I am not an American citizen, but I do follow American politics. Maybe I’m wrong, but my guess is that few are the Senate hearings that start with a direct personal attack on one of the witnesses before their testimony.

That particular morning of June 14th 2017, Muslim reform advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali made her entry into the Senate’s SD-342 room along with three other witnesses. A hearing of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee was called to discuss the ideological root causes of violent extremism. I snatched a front-row seat.

Reacting to the premature verbal attack on her at the hearing, Ms. Hirsi Ali quietly responded: “Why don’t you hear my testimony first and we can discuss?” Republican Senator Ron Johnson who chaired the meeting displayed a firmer tone, warning the heckler that he would be removed from the room if he interrupted the proceedings of the hearing again.

As a former Muslim, I know all too well how challenging it is to talk about the role of religion in perpetuating violence. I hail from Morocco, a Muslim-majority country that criminalizes any criticism of Islam through extensive blasphemy laws. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, similar legislation still punishes those secular Arabs and Muslims who dare call out Islamic law on its dysfunctions.

But what I saw in that senate hearing was another more pervasive form of censorship, double-speak and denial. For about three hours, I and other attendees witnessed firsthand how this free nation’s lawmakers would rather bury their heads in the sand than engage in necessary dialogue. As a proud liberal myself, I must admit that I was mostly disappointed in the behavior of Democratic Senators.

In her testimony, Ayaan Hirsi Ali made sure more than once to clarify that her plea was not directed against the majority of Muslims who want to live their religion spiritually. Rather, her advocacy was directed at Dawa, a system of ideological and religious proselytizing aimed at establishing a Sharia-based political regime. Along with Muslim reformer Asra Nomani, Mrs. Hirsi Ali outlined with precision how Dawa has gained ground not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but in the United States as well. In a country that has made great strides in establishing free speech, freedom of religion and individual liberties, Dawa’s implications for the rights of women, gays, freethinkers and non-Muslims were a real threat. Of course America’s founding principles are stronger than to be taken over by the religious dogma, but that was besides the point. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s and Asra Nomani’s point was that ideas matter. What youth are taught in mosques and community centers about “the other” matters. Just like it is paramount to fight white supremacy, it is crucial to tackle Sharia supremacy and its violent consequences. Such is the battle of ideas in the context of violent extremism.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Senators who walked into the room did not want to hear it. They either uttered condemnations of the only witnesses from a Muslim background (without much eye contact) or actively avoided asking them questions. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri went on the offensive, accusing Hirsi Ali and Nomani of “focusing on religion” and “distorting the premises” of freedom of religion in the United States. On the other hand, Senators Kamala Harris, Maggie Hassan and Heidi Heitkamp chose not to address Hirsi Ali and Nomani. The bulk of their questions was addressed to former director of the U.S. Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter on issues of budgeting and cybersecurity.

All Democrats. All progressives. All women. The scene was surreal. The same representatives who would fight tooth and nail to liberate American women from religious patriarchy were ignoring like-minded women from another religious background. After the hearing, a friend pointed to the other liberal inconsistency between defending gay rights and silencing criticism of Sharia’s homophobia. I joked: “They only care about their homosexuals, not ours.”

Perhaps it takes an outsider’s perspective to cherish the fundamental secular freedoms that the United States affords its residents and citizens. Senator McCaskill is right. Freedom of religion is one of the things that make this country great. But what also makes it great is the freedom of its laws from religion. That is what still makes America an attractive destination to those like yours truly, who strive to lead lives free of religious dogma. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani are no different. As secular women of Muslim origin, they have firsthand knowledge of how fragile a liberal order can be when not defended against illiberal ideas. Sharia law is one of those. The voices of Muslim reformers must no longer be stuck between Muslim heckling and the denial of liberals. If anything, the latter should be our allies.

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