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Hirsi Ali: an apostle of liberal democracy and of secularism?

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Friday, 15 June 2007

Writing in The Age, Julie Szego makes some strong claims for the importance of the message author Ayaan Hirsi Ali preaches:

“She lays bare the counter-intuitive current in political thought, the double standards and hypocrisy.”

There is no doubt that Hirsi Ali is in many ways admirable. Her own lived experience, movingly related in her autobiographical work, does much good in drawing attention to vile human rights abuses such as female genital mutilation. Her courage is undeniable. And one doesn’t have to agree with her to unreservedly support her right to speak, and be heard, and to condemn the threats against her life made by those who would silence her.


But her political thought deserves to be examined dispassionately, and in its own right. Hirsi Ali represents herself as an apostle of liberal democracy and of secularism. “Enlightenment reason” is her catchcry.

Szego, and other commentators, have expressed puzzlement that she doesn’t enjoy more support from the left. After all, the argument goes, wasn’t the left’s foundational story one of the triumph of reason over religious obscurancy?

But what Hirsi Ali, and those who uncritically defend her, appears to miss is the actual nature of liberal democracy and secularism.

The separation of church, or mosque, and state is not supposed to imply a crusade against religion. Both the French and American constitutions (and Turkey’s for that matter) relegate religion to the private sphere. Citizens can disagree about ethics and values, but the law makes no judgment on private views except insofar as putting them into practice does harm to others.

The American experience, in particular, demonstrates that liberal democracy does not necessarily imply the decline of religious belief. Rather, the central principle is that citizenship and politics are separate from faith.

Put simply, liberal secularism is not equivalent to fervent atheism. And nor should it be. Liberalism is impossible, in practice, if debates aren’t conducted without rancour, and dissenting and minority views tolerated. But the right to freedom of speech implies, and makes no sense without, the ability to disagree. It’s not compulsory, for example, to love Salman Rushdie’s novels and to support his right to publish them without hindrance and without threat.


While she was in Australia, Hirsi Ali called for immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa to be compelled to sign “assimilation contracts”. Not even the Howard Government, so concerned to ensure that citizenship be tied to Australian values, has ever suggested that particular ethnic or racial groups should be singled out in this way.

To make this suggestion is to totally fail to grasp the meaning of equality under the law. A liberal democracy is not worthy of the name unless it treats all its citizens, and those who aspire to citizenship, equally and without discrimination.

Similarly, the polarised debate over Hirsi Ali’s views blatantly violates the canons of reasoned argument. It is simply wrong, and absurd, to suggest that any criticism of her implies a disrespect for her freedom of speech. The whole point of political argument, in liberalism, is that ideas should be vigorously tested. Hirsi Ali should expect nothing less, given her much touted belief in Enlightenment reason. No matter how moving her story, her ideas have to be subjected to rational critique.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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