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Human rights activist, author, scholar and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke on May 23 at the Granada Theatre on Islamic extremism and human rights abuses concentrated in the Middle East and West Africa.

Ali was born is Somalia and grew up surrounded by Islamic extremism in Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. Fleeing an arranged marriage, she moved to the Netherlands where she attended the University of Leiden and was elected to Parliament in 2003. She is now a Harvard University fellow, best-selling author and an atheist, speaking out against aspects of Islam that she believes lead to violence and human rights violation, particularly for women.

Ali said she encourages Santa Barbara residents to read the Quran and try to understand Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

“You are a highly privileged community, a highly educated community, and, unlike most communities, you actually have the time to find out about things, read things, and you have time to digest them, and I’m inviting you to digest the Quran,” Ali said. “I want you to find out about a figure called Muhammad, the founder of Islam, what he did, what he said and why he is an icon. Why is it in the twenty-first century that people in 80-plus countries are subscribing?”

Ali said growing up in Africa and the Middle East, she did not question Islamic extremism and would have supported death penalties to “heretics.”

“All our conflicts had to be met in either, ‘This is what Allah wanted, this is what the Prophet Muhammed said, now we are waging Jihad, they are unbelievers and we are believers, they are hypocrites and we are super-believers,’” Ali said. “If there was an Islamic State in 1985, 1986, 1987, when I was a kid, I would have joined it. I had reached that point.”

What we need to do is to separate the doctrine from the people. – Human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ali said she wants to see an increase in education that causes young people to question extremist doctrine.

“It’s not the Quran that kills people, it’s individuals picking up the Quran and saying, ‘I need to kill these people because this is what the Quran tells me to do,’” Ali said. “We need to educate children to say, ‘No, you cannot blindly obey a book or a person.’ We need to develop the critical thinking skills of children.”

Ali said later in her life she realized she did not agree with Islam because she felt it conflicted with her own notions of right and wrong.

“I came to the conclusion that there is a big gap between what’s the Quran and the Prophet and between what my conscience tells me, and I have paid the price to say I want to go with my conscience instead of an abstract document like the Quran,” Ali said.

According to Ali, the United States should take a stronger stance against Islamic extremism and the practice of Islamic Sharia law in West Africa and the Middle East and “redefine the ideological relationship” with Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“In the United States, we are allies with Saudi Arabia, although we are not value allies,” Ali said. “We now live in a world where Islamic extremism is challenging liberal ideals … and what do we do? We withdraw. We’re on the defensive. We’re explaining ourselves.”

Ali said she believes Western leaders such as President Barack Obama should not “divorce” Islam from terrorism in the name of Islam.

“He does that because he wants to convey to one-fifth of humanity, ‘We are not at war with you, we in America don’t want a war with Islam,’” Ali said. “He wants to say to the Muslim population in America, ‘We’re not going to exclude you.’ I understand that, and maybe that’s what presidents are supposed to do, but he’s wrong.”

… it doesn’t make any sense that 99.99 percent of Muslims aren’t following real Islam. Terrorism is an exception in the world’s Muslim population, not the norm. – UCSB MSA President Yasmin Sallak

UC Santa Barbara Muslim Student Association President and fourth-year biochemistry major Yasmin Sallak said terrorism in the name of Islam does not represent the religion as a whole.

“Terrorists can claim whatever they want, but it doesn’t make any sense that innocent lives must be lost in order to live in line with Islam,” Sallak said “Also, there are about 1.6 billion Muslims on Earth, less than 0.01 percent are terrorists, it doesn’t make any sense that 99.99 percent of Muslims aren’t following real Islam. Terrorism is an exception in the world’s Muslim population, not the norm.”

Ali said while all Muslim individuals are different, Islam as a doctrine is not peaceful.

“What we need to do is to separate the doctrine from the people,” Ali said. “The doctrine is what it is and it’s a doctrine of war, it’s a doctrine of domination, it’s a doctrine of expansion and it’s a doctrine of oppression to women … It’s a doctrine of anti-Semitism, it’s a doctrine of homophobia, it’s a doctrine of exclusion.”

But according to Sallak, Islam is a “feminist religion,” giving women more freedom than was allowed before its foundation, and does not discriminate based on sexuality.

“Islam gives women full autonomy and ownership over their own wealth, while only men are obligated to provide for their kids and wife. Women must consent to marriage proposals in order for them to be officiated, women can file for divorce, women can be religious scholars,” Sallak said. “Islam is not homophobic, you can be gay and a devout Muslim. This is a common misunderstanding by both Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Sallak also said Islam does not teach or accept violence.

“As a Muslim, we believe that killing one person is like killing all of humanity; Islam does not take killing lightly,” Sallak said. “Violence is not allowed in Islam. Expansion is not allowed to be done by force.”

Ali said she thinks of Muslims in terms of three ideological umbrellas: Medina Muslims, Muslim reformers and Mecca Muslims. Medina Muslims, according to Ali, are those who strive to emulate the Prophet Muhammad during his time in Medina, a region in modern-day Saudi Arabia, during which Ali said Muhammad spread Islam through war.

“Muhammad in Medina wanted war, and he waged war, and he won some of those wars, and he conquered and he legislated, and there are people in the twenty-first century, of which the Islamic State is the biggest example, the most common example, who want to do that,” Ali said. “Some of them want to use violence to get there, some of them want to use non-violence simply through preaching, education, grassroots campaigning, propaganda, but the objective is the same.”

Islam itself is not a religion of peace until it’s reformed. – Human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ali said Muslim reformers are the growing number of Muslims in “direct opposition” to Medina Muslims who wish to remain Muslim while being critical of the Quran.

“The right questions begin with ‘Should we follow the Prophet Muhammed in everything he did?’” Ali said. “The number of Muslims who are saying ‘No, we should not, we should actually separate religion from politics. Islam is not a state, it’s a religion. We should not kill, we should not wage war, we should not believe in Jihad, we should not accept Sharia law,’ these to me are the modifiers. They are relatively small, but growing.”

Ali said the majority of Muslims are what she calls Mecca Muslims and practice Islam according to the Quran, wishing to expand Islam, but not bring religion into politics.

“They worship and acknowledge Muhammad in the time in Mecca when he went from door to door preaching. They pray, they fast, if they have enough money, they go to Mecca,” Ali said. “If they are political, they are not interested in bringing religion into politics.”

Ali said reformers are “asking the right questions,” because Islam must be modified before it can be peaceful.

“Islam itself is not a religion of peace until it’s reformed. It cannot become a religion of peace, but I can go through a process of questioning,” Ali said. “Then it could become a religion of peace, but right now it is not.”

Ali said Sharia law, Jihad, Muhammad in Medina as a moral guide, life after death and “commanding right and forbidding wrong” are the five main “outdated” aspects that need to be removed in a “Muslim reformation” if Islam is to be a peaceful religion.

Ali said Islam should denounce Muhammad’s actions in Medina, because it not an applicable moral framework for the twenty-first century.

“In the Medina rendition, there is a road or a prescription that we cannot follow,” Ali said. “Muhammad as a moral guide in Mecca, fine. Muhammad as a moral guide in Medina, really?”

Ali also said Islam’s focus on life after death warrants reform because it encourages violence.

“If you are more invested in life after death instead of life before death, then you are pretty much marketing martyrdom, suicide killings, and even if you don’t engage in them yourself, you’re condoning it,” Ali said. “If you say it’s wrong, you will find yourself in confrontation with Muhammad and the Quran.”

Sallak said Muslims value life on Earth as a determination of fate after death, and the Quran teaches against suicide killings.

“Life is extremely important to us. There are very specific conditions for dying for the sake of martyrdom, and killing innocent people in the name of Islam is not one of them,” Sallak said. “Regarding suicide killings, suicide is a major sin in Islam, and under no circumstance are Muslims allowed to end their lives with their own hands.”

UCSB Physics Professor Philip Lubin organized the lecture and said many American students do not speak out against Islamic extremism because they fear being racist. Lubin also said Islamic countries have exclusionary practices, and an example of this is a sign on the road to Mecca which reads “Muslims Only.”

“Saudi Arabia in particular is the most racist, apartheidist, intolerant country … yet we say nothing, our young people say nothing, they would be up in arms if that sign said ‘Whites Only,’” Lubin said. “You would never tolerate ‘Christians Only’ in Rome or ‘Jews Only’ in Jerusalem.”

Ali said because Americans are “uncomfortable” questioning religion for fear of being intolerant, they also often fail to question women’s rights violations.

“Any of you women who are sitting here today, you buy a ticket from LAX airport to Jeddah or Riyadh, you have to cover yourselves,” Ali said. “You won’t even be allowed into the country without a male escort, and nobody has challenged that.”

The one place in the Middle East where you can, as a woman, be yourself, be legal, having been what you want to be, the only place you be a free individual, with no fear, is Israel. – Human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Lubin said women’s rights violations and other human rights abuses in Islamic countries are far worse than any committed by Israel against Palestinians, and campus movements to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel have “no facts behind them.”

“I want to boycott, divest and sanction Saudi Arabia. I want to boycott, divest and sanction Sudan.” Lubin said. “It’s the cause célèbre to do anything you can to justify the Palestinian movement. The Students for Justice in Palestine is anything but. It’s the students for injustice in Palestine.”

Ali said she thinks BDS campaigns are “bullshit” and Israel is “the only place of hope” in the Middle East.

“The one place in the Middle East where you can, as a woman, be yourself, be legal, having been what you want to be, the only place you be a free individual, with no fear, is Israel,” Ali said. “And we see campaign after campaign after campaign to delegitimize Israel, to demonize it, to convince people that if only Israel didn’t exist the world would be a better place.”

Third-year anthropology and psychology double major Alexandra Ballinger attended the lecture and said Ali offered a “unique perspective” on Islamic extremism.

“She flipped the narrative about fear mongering about Islamic extremism saying that we’re afraid of appearing Islamophobic, and that fear is keeping us from addressing a problem that is real and serious,” Ballinger said.

According to Ballinger, discussions like Ali’s should be clearly focused on Islamic extremism rather than Islam as a religion.

“In these debates, it’s really important to define the enemy as extremism that harms those without the power to react and not as the religion in general,” Ballinger said. “Generalizing breeds hatred that manifests in discrimination which just hurts the people you’re purporting to help.”