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Why Ayaan Hirsi Ali is wrong

Halleh Ghorashi argues only openness to migrants' decisions can help steer clear of cultural fundamentalism.

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate. By now Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur, Lars Gustafsson, Stuart Sim, Ulrike Ackermann and Adam Krzeminski have all entered the ring. Read their contributions as well as Ian Buruma's initial response here.

I first saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2002, when she appeared in a discussion on Dutch television. At that time I saw a strong woman who fought for her ideas: someone who dared to distance herself from her traditional Islamic background and in so doing, positioned herself against the traditional Islamic community in the Netherlands. Her arguments on the incompatibility of Islamic belief and women's emancipation were sharp.

I found Hirsi Ali's approach to the emancipation of Islamic women attractive and identified with her for different reasons. Firstly because 18 years ago I left my homeland Iran as a refugee from an Islamic regime, whose suppression in the name of Islam I had experienced both because of my political background (as a leftist) and because of my gender. Secondly, I was also greatly concerned with the emancipation of women, particularly of women who share my own background: women from Islamic countries.

However, my identification with Ayaan did not last long. Someone I initially considered a pioneer for the emancipation of Islamic women turned out to hold dogmatic views that left little room for nuances. I soon realized that Ayaan had become part of the dominant "rightist" discourse on Islam in the Netherlands that pictures Islamic migrants as problems and enemies of the nation. Then I realized that our roads had diverged. But before pursuing my discussion, let me put it in context.

A brief history of immigration discourses

With the passing of time, the discourse in the Netherlands in regard to new migrants from Islamic countries has become increasingly culturalist – in it, cultures are considered in absolute contrast to each other. In the seventies, focus was on the preservation of migrants' cultures. Later, it shifted to integration while preserving migrants' own cultures. At present, the central idea is that attacking so-called "culture-based crime" and making civic integration mandatory would be conducive to integration.

It would seem, therefore, that the discourse has had a complete makeover in terms of content. It is widely believed that the much criticized approach of "indifference" prevalent in the 70s and 80s has been abandoned and that a shift has taken place from socio-economic to socio-cultural aspects of integration. However, despite all shifts within the discourse relating to migrant issues, its content has hardly changed at all. This is because categorical thinking, in particular a culturalist approach, has remained a crucial feature of thinking on migrant issues in the Netherlands. Within this discourse migrants' culture is seen as completely different from and even opposite to Dutch culture.

In order to be able to understand culturalist discourse in Dutch society, it needs to be situated within the context of pillarization. The construction of pillars – "own worlds" – along lines of religious denomination and political ideology after the Second World War has been the dominant framework for thinking about differences. The dichotomy between us and them, with its emphasis on group boundaries, has latently shaped the ways in which new migrants have been approached in the Netherlands. The consequences of this history of pillarization for migrants are most evident for those from Islamic countries: they were mentally fitted into a new kind of Islamic pillar.

This has caused new migrants from Islamic countries to find themselves in a confusing area of tension. The habit of thinking in terms of pillars was translated into the migrants' condition and left – even created – space for these migrants to preserve their cultures. Paradoxically, that happened in a de-pillarized Netherlands in which individual autonomy was seen as prevailing and protected. To a certain extent, however, this history has demarcated thinking about cultural differences and ethnic boundaries. This has led to the creation of cultural contrasts that make it virtually impossible to consider the individual migrant as separate from his or her cultural or ethnic category.

So what has changed?

In what is now commonly called the post-Fortuyn period, we have seen new modes of categorical thinking arise. We see, for instance, that the emphasis on the negative consequences of cultural contrasts has gained much greater prominence and is now much in evidence in the "Islamization" of discourse. What has changed considerably since 2000 is a shift in tone, demanding that "we must be allowed to say what we think." Baukje Prins calls this period the era of "the new realism" (1). The new realist is someone with guts; someone who dares to call a spade a spade; someone who sets himself up as the mouthpiece of the common people and then puts up a vigorous fight against the so-called left-wing, "politically correct" views of cultural relativism.

The dominance of this "new realism", combined with the 11 September attacks and the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo Van Gogh in 2004, has caused thinking in terms of cultural contrasts to be linked to feelings of fear and discontent. As a consequence, migrants and, hence, migrant cultures are now viewed with aversion and mistrust, and these views are being translated into policy and public debate. Ayaan Hirsi Ali added a gender component to this new realist discourse. She became famous for her radical standpoints against Islam in general and the Islamic community in the Netherlands in particular. In her public appearances she opted for confrontation, referring to Islam as fundamentally women-unfriendly. By using bold phrases about the prophet Mohammad and taking positions against Islamic schools and the suppression of Muslim women, Hirsi Ali became a welcome mouthpiece for the dominant culturalist "rightist" discourse on Islam in the Netherlands.

Beneath this rightist "new realist" discourse in the Netherlands lie particular definitions of "nation" and "culture" in which the emphasis is on the incompatibility of cultures, and on the need to protect the Dutch culture and identity from cultural invasion and promote Dutch cultural norms and values. This newly formed exclusionary rhetoric is based on a homogeneous, static, coherent and rooted notion of culture which Verena Stolcke calls "cultural fundamentalism" (2).

Now it is not the race that needs to be protected but a historically rooted, homogeneous national culture: "racism without race." This new kind of exclusion in the name of culture goes beyond the borders of the Netherlands: it has become the common discourse of Europe and the West in general. It not only legitimizes an attack on the rights of the Islamic immigrants inside its borders, however, but also justifies military actions outside its borders in the name of democracy and humanism, what Chomsky calls "military humanism" (3).

In the Netherlands this liberal Enlightenment fundamentalism developed in a particular way. It adapted to the welfare state by blaming immigrants for their dependence on the state - a dependence which had developed due to high unemployment rates. The recent discursive assumption has been that the social and economic problems of immigrants will be solved once they distance themselves from their culture and assimilate into Dutch society. This cultural explanation for immigrant's problems is not just naïve. It is also a very specific form of cultural fundamentalism centred not only on protecting Dutch culture, but also on converting others to it.

Focusing on culture to explain problems and crime in society will not do. The main explanation for this is that, if culture is presumed to be a problem predicated on the idea of cultural contrasts, this may increasingly cause migrants to regroup within their ethnic boundaries to defend their culture. Feelings of social insecurity and lack of social recognition tend to encourage radicalization. When people feel threatened, they will go to extremes to defend their boundaries. The growing threat of extreme Islamic and right-wing groups is a case in point.

As a result of these developments, we see within the new realist framework that Dutch society is becoming harsh. It has become quite common to disrespect migrants' culture and religion in public, to call it backward and inherently undemocratic. These developments – tightening up the rules, regulations and attitudes towards the migrants – affected Hirsi Ali as well when it came to the dispute over her Dutch nationality. Both international and national media covered this issue extensively. This example shows that the "rightist", "new realist" turn within the discourse over integration and migration did not even safeguard one of the most integrated, if not assimilated, non-native Dutch people in the country. And this despite the fact that Hirsi Ali herself was one of the key contributors to this "culturalist" discourse on migrants. Hence the "culturalist" discourse has mainly contributed to engendering fear, insecurity and absurdity, instead of working towards new insights on diversity and migration for the future. A new path needs to be developed.

The way forward

My main criticism of the culturalist approach does not concern the categorizing itself. It is impossible to conceive of life without categories. The problem is that cultural categories have been made into absolute contrasts. This conception of culture has been criticized in the social sciences since the 1960s, when the anthropologist Fredrik Barth argued that ethnic boundaries are not created and preserved by cultural content, but that these boundaries are constructed in order to pursue a "political" goal (4). Cultural characteristics are thrown into sharp relief precisely when they can be used to mark a difference between us and them. This means that ethnic boundaries between groups should chiefly be considered situational, contextual, and changeable constructs, rather than inherent entities of different cultures.

This non-essentialist approach to identity leaves greater scope for analysing individual action with regard to the individual's own culture. The ways in which individuals perceive their culture and give meaning to it are diverse and variable. People are capable of criticizing their cultural habitus and opening themselves up to innovation and supplementation with new cultural elements. This often leads to diverse forms of connections. What is needed for such reflection and innovation, however, is a feeling of security. The general precondition for reflection, therefore, is a safe space.

For people to open themselves up to new ideas and connections, as Taylor points out (5), they need to feel recognized for who they are: social recognition is of paramount importance for human development. This is the only base that would allow people to feel secure enough to question some aspects of their cultural background. The change should come from conviction and a sense of belonging to the society.

The necessity of social recognition of cultural difference comes from it being part and parcel of a democratic culture. Democracy goes far beyond people's liberty to go to the polls. In contrast to what is often maintained, democracy is not just about the majority, but it is particularly about space for the minority. This is exactly what constitutes the difference between a constitutional democracy and a populist democracy: in the latter, the voice of the majority is given relatively free reign while the voice of the minority is not secured. Democracy without opposition is not democracy. A democratic culture comes from democratic citizens who are aware of their rights, but also of their obligations to defend the right of the other to be different. This path does not go together with any kind of dogmatism, be it religious or secular.

Following this argument I believe that Ayaan is certainly entitled to her ideas, but I also believe that her standpoints on the emancipation of Islamic women migrants are too simplistic, too reductionist, and too dogmatic. It seems strange when I as an ex-Marxist, a-theist Iranian refugee defend the space of Islamic migrants. For a long time I have considered Islam to be the major reason that I had to leave the country of my childhood memories and my loved ones. It was in the Netherlands that I learned to make a distinction between a dogmatic way of thinking and someone's belief. I have learned that Islam as a religion should not be blamed as a whole because of the acts of a repressive regime. By practicing democracy in the Netherlands, I learned to respect people for their thoughts as long as those thoughts were not forced on me. And it is here that Ayaan and I differ.

The approach of Ayaan towards the emancipation of Islamic women fits perfectly within the dominant discourse on Islamic migrants in the Netherlands. The Islamic migrants are considered half-citizens who have to be told to do what is good for them. They are supposed to follow the path that is painted for them. When it comes to this group in the society, we hear much more about obligations than rights. The question is then: how is it possible to have a dialogue with Islamic women on the issue of emancipation when their culture or religion is labeled backward? To put it differently: Is there any need for discussion at all, or is the only way to emancipation the path of "the enlightened ones"?

The greatest challenge and achievement of a democratic society such as the Netherlands is that its population can feel they belong to society despite their differences in background. However they can only feel part of society if they know that their voices are taken seriously as active equals.

An important element of this inclusion is respect for the choices individual migrants make: a choice that can include the maintenance of their culture. However once this choice has been made, it has been shown that migrants do not feel the need to protect their cultures and feel secure enough to experiment with them. This seems to be the most important precondition in order to strengthen and enable cultural change. It is then realistic that migrants choose and claim cultural hybridity through changing their different cultures in order to create new ones. This is often manifested in hyphenation - such as Iranian-Dutch - through multiple positioning. In this way Dutchness, for example, includes diversity and provides a path for migrants to feel part of Dutch society.

Hyphenated Dutch can become Dutch without a loss of religious or cultural identity. This is the only fruitful answer for any multicultural state; a state where the migrants are considered as full and equal citizens with rights, duties and the space to be different and the same at the same time. Most importantly, this is the only way to weaken the danger of any kind of radicalism. Because it is common sense that when you want to fight something you need to isolate it. This is only possible when the migrants who embrace hybrid identities are not be treated as "one of them" because they share a cultural/religious background.

However the discourse combined with recent developments in the Netherlands does not stimulate this sense of belonging. The opposite is the case. "Cultural fundamentalism", the new form of exclusion rhetoric, creates a wall between cultures through which any kind of mingling becomes impossible. This rhetoric goes even further when the superiority of Western culture and values becomes the justification for the suppression of others. In this way the suppressive Enlighteners are allowed to force their values on others. This journey that begins with Enlightenment/cultural fundamentalism leads to the end of civil society. What remains is a society with little or no space for the other.

In this way the new fundamentalism, which is protective of Dutch culture and history, undermines the most significant foundation of Dutch society, namely active participation of its citizens in the decision-making process. These developments define migrants as "unwanted citizens." This labeling in turn contributes to their isolation and stimulates their rejection of Dutch society. This increases the conflict between the "real Dutch" and the "unwanted Dutch" and contributes even further to the already existing problems within the society. Thus, the answer to the growing radicalization in the Netherlands is not dogmatic ideas but more space for change and cultural dynamic.


(1) Prins, Baukje 2002. The Nerve to break Taboos. New Realism in the Dutch Discourse on Multiculturalism. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 3 (3&4): pp. 363-379.

(2) Stolcke, Verena 1995. Talking Culture: New Boundaries, New Rhetorics of Exclusion in Europe. Current Anthropology, 36(1): pp. 1-24.

(3) Chomsky, Noam 1999. "The new Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo." Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

(4) Barth, Fredrik, ed. 1969. "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

(5) Taylor, Charles 1994. "Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition." Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


Halleh Ghorashi
was born in Iran and came to the Netherlands in 1988. She is holder of the PaVEM-chair in Management of Diversity and Integration at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is author of "Ways to Survive, Battles to Win: Iranian Women Exiles in the Netherlands and the US" as well as articles on identity, diaspora, and the Iranian women's movement.

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