Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The New Religion of Wokeism
In the space of twelve years, the West has experienced four broad successive movements built on the virtues of both injustice and progress. From the MeToo insurrection to the Black Lives Matter movement. All protests with genuine merit, however with little time to reflect between each of them, a new sense of impatience has grown, with what some people would see as systemic failures of the liberal capitalist project.
It is very clear, whilst far from perfect that the system we live in has offered us a lot of progress over hundreds of years, well-known historians and thinkers from Rutger Bregman to Steven Pinker would all testify to this. However, a generation of impatient activists has taken it upon themselves to retroactively rewrite the rules of democracy for all of us. They have hijacked our language, our history, our common sense and worst of all, our ability for free speech. A freedom fighter in the most literal of senses, Dutch/Somalian and American intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn’t standing for any of it.
Used to battling the forces, Ali has led an extraordinary life, in 1992, she escaped Somalia from an arranged marriage with a distant cousin only to find political asylum in the Netherlands, eventually finding a home in the United States. From there she spread her wings and eventually used her struggle and her voice as a platform, fighting for the freedom of women everywhere as well as most widely known for her controversial & critical views around Islam.
Her plight has been documented in successive autobiographical bestsellers including Infidel and The Caged Virgin. The courage to speak out against those things which she sees as injust has gained her a global legion of supporters. She has been the recipient of numerous accolades including Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential Persons of the World and European of the Year by Reader’s Digest. But she has paid a price for this courage to speak out; she now lives in hiding with constant threats around her safety. In fact, she wouldn’t tell me where she was for security reasons.
But today we do not speak to her within the context of fighting for female rights, nor in the context of religious extremism but for the mere fact that she once again is fighting to protect her voice under the stirring narrative of wokeism. As far as the New Left is concerned, she is not welcome. And for someone, as genuinely awakened as Ayaan is, if she eventually finds herself on mute, this could have grave consequences for us all. We started this interview by asking Ayaan about the parallels between the woke agenda and the race movement in America.
"They've created a cultural narrative of white people, especially of white heterosexual males, assuming the role of nothing but oppressors, and everyone else is a victim."
Ayaan: I think what we have is this issue of race that has always been there. Slavery, segregation, civil rights. And when I talk about black Americans, I’m talking about the descendants of slaves, not immigrants like myself. Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are doing very well here. But the true black Americans, the people whose ancestors were forced into slavery.
Unfortunately, the ones who actually are doing well are the ones who are promoting this idea that our structures, systems and everything is racist. They see racism in everything. So they’ve created a cultural narrative of white people, especially of white heterosexual males, assuming the role of nothing but oppressors, and everyone else is a victim. It’s become more widespread than ever. It’s really a cult. The brainwashing is going all the way down to elementary schools; it’s in high schools, it’s in the workplace; it is everywhere. It’s growing at such an alarming speed, and I underestimated it for a long time.
Patrick Record/The Ann Arbor News, via Associated Press
I know that you’ve spent your life fighting off stern criticism, fatwas, vigilante mobs. With context to this recent issue of cancel culture, are you able to articulate some of the challenging scenarios you’ve been in where you felt your voice was suppressed, or where you were genuinely shocked by some of the behaviour that has emerged from this movement?
In my own personal experience, I have had attempts to continue to this day, to get me cancelled. Mostly the cancelling has to do with, if I’ve been invited to give a lecture at a university, and the Muslim Association groups would collaborate with leftist groups and cancel me. Or they would attempt to do that.
When I was at Harvard, I was sent to the office of diversity because Muslim students were complaining that my very presence made them feel unsafe and unwelcome. Then, of course, I have lots of colleagues at the Hoover Institution and in other academic circles, like my dear friend Charles Murray, there are some individuals like that who are flashpoints for these crazy people. And instead of coming to the lectures, and arguing, and debating, it all has to be cancelled. I saw this from my limited perspective, and I thought it was all contained to academia. And now we see it with publishing houses, you see it with JK Rowling.
I know of many books that were going to be published and never did because the employees at the publishing houses complained about it. My husband Niall had been talking to some of the conservative Students at Stanford, and they tried to get him fired. That was really painful. It went from cancelling people to getting people fired. This ostracism is the kind of thing you think it shouldn’t be happening in a western liberal society. But it’s happening now. And these accusations are thrown around in such a way that words like white supremacy and racism no longer have any meaning. If everyone is a white supremacist, then no one is.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, you recently compared wokeism to radical Islamist ideology. “You said the two ideologies have distinctive rituals. Radical Islamists shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘death to America’, and wokeists shout ‘black lives matter’ and ‘I can’t breathe. Islamists pray to Mecca; the Woke take the knee. Both like burning the American flag.” An incredibly provocative statement. I was just wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on the correlation you are making?
The correlation really has to do with that totalitarian state of mind, and the intolerance for anything other than their narrow-minded state of the world. The hostility not just to the American flag but to our liberal order, and the blatant anti-semitism hiding in plain sight.
Islamists will condemn homosexuals, and the woke say they are defending the rights of homosexuals. So there are differences, but I think the common ground is this totalitarian state of mind and the hostility to our liberal order—the rejection of the rule of law. The woke say, I believe the accused, and we shouldn’t even be looking for evidence. And now we are having the woke defend looting, and rioting, and destruction of property, all in the name of anti-racism. They wear masks so you can’t see who they are, they act in groups, and they justify violence in the name of freedom and anti-fascism. But they are behaving exactly like fascists. We have these similarities between the radical Islamists and the woke, but the main one is really the hostility towards laws, property laws, and even in some ways, the women. The woke are defending their perception of the rights of trans people, but they then sacrifice the rights of women.
"When we talk about blacks here, the fact that they're not doing as well as they should be, can it only be explained by the narrative of power and racism?"
By virtue of interviewing you, I was taking a risk myself, that I’m choosing to profile someone who doesn’t fit into the very broad narrative that the marketplace agrees on. Now that doesn’t imply anything personally, because I admire what you do, but when I tell you this, does that make you feel uncomfortable?
No, it doesn’t. I think the bigger picture is this: We do have a crisis in journalism, we have a crisis in academia, we have a crisis in our liberal discourse. And this has been going on for a long time. When you talk to me about why you are choosing someone like me to profile, in my view, it’s because you are looking for someone who is not going to fill your pages with platitudes we hear all the time.
When you talk to me, I’m just going to be really honest with you, and I’m going to tell you what I know and what I don’t know. You’re not having an interview with Oprah Winfrey. The virtue signalling is on the other side, on the left side, where they are constantly appeasing all of these ideas that we live in a racist society, and the world is going to end in twelve years kind of nonsense. You have Greta Thunberg in Sweden where you are based, so I guess you have enough virtue-signalling to last forever.
I want to step back a bit and think about the framing of this issue. You talk about this problem going back many years, but maybe we can rewind to the ‘Me Too’ movement. I feel like it nudged the door open to wokeism, we had the Occupy Wall Street movement as well. But the Black Lives Matter movement flung this door wide open.
If you are brave enough to have any disagreement with the arrangement of these movements, you are accused of supporting power structures that keep the powerful oppressing others. I’ve been in many situations where I feel like I can’t voice my true opinion. It seems as Helen Pluckrose says “it really is a story about how despair found a new confidence.” Do you think there’s truth in what I’m hinting at?
We have been seeing a lot of injustice done to women in the workplace. My next book ‘Prey’ is about what’s going on in Europe. Women have been subject to harassment and worse. Of course, the issues that were raised by Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, and the issues of inequality, they are absolutely real, and we need to address them. The issues of climate. These are all critical issues that we should be having conversations about and seeking to resolve.
But to do that, we have to use liberal tools, which is that we want people to come in and put all their perspectives on the table. When we talk about blacks here, the fact that they’re not doing as well as they should be, can it only be explained by the narrative of power and racism? Or are there other variables? And what the woke are doing is saying that there are no other perspectives. When you have that mindset, that’s when you start wading into totalitarian waters.
Then you can’t have a question about what about poor countries and emerging markets? Let’s get to a place where we have no more emissions, but it’s going to be a long journey, and it’s going to need technology, and you think we should discuss nuclear energy? They say no to all of that. It’s only their perspective. They cook up stories about men having harassed or raped women. Do you think you should believe the accuser? Or should you look for evidence? They say no, I believe her. But they only believe her when it suits them.
Yes, this disturbs me. These people, the woke, or the social justice warriors, want to overturn everything, they want to destroy the system. So there is this narrative or this sense the system we live by should have been able to produce better results by now. But their narrative won’t produce results either. As Helen Pluckrose succinctly phrases it, “equal access to rubble is not a worthy goal.”
Exactly. I love that book. And it’s true. If you listen to slogans like, defund the police, destroy the prison system, bring down statues. The whole system is tainted. The whole system has to be brought down. You hear the nihilism in that because they don’t tell you what they’re going to replace it with, they’re just saying let’s bring everything down. Only then can we achieve justice. Every white person is diagnosed with racism – then you get into this ridiculous circular logic. Statues are no longer just what statues are, but they make people angry. So it’s really what they want, equal opportunity rubble.
Yes, a race to the bottom.
There are places in the world that are already like that. If you want no police, if you want no liberal order, no property rights, why don’t you go and try it out in Somalia for a while?
Some people might say, considering your background you should be the last person identifying yourself with the largely homogeneous white liberal project, the one which serves to dominate and suppress you. That you are taking the wrong side, perhaps you are a self-hating, or unaware, or worse, a brainwashed scholar of democracy. How would you respond to that?
Well, first of all, I would say that I’ve had that accusation thrown at me for so long. I’ve been called an infidel, a sell-out, a heretic, they say I’m chocolate that is brown on the outside and white on the inside. I’m used to all of this, and it only makes me more resilient. If we all want to live in this world peacefully, then I think we should fight for what we have regardless of the resistance we’re going to be met with. When it comes to the woke, their currency is to accuse people of all sorts of bigotry that they themselves are guilty of. The people who are calling me racist are actually racist because they want to divide us along racial lines. So I resist these accusations simply by going on and doing it, to network and fight for this space and to understand it.
In a way would you say that liberalism has failed us? Social justice movements would assume that prejudice exists everywhere at all times. Do you think there is truth to the idea that the goal to make our society in the West more egalitarian has failed?
It hasn’t failed. This is an ongoing process. If you’re on the outside looking in then what you see is a success. Look at all these people in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, all trying to come to Europe and America.
Do you think that any of these intersectional movements, whether it be trans, non-binary, Black Lives Matter has more merit than the other?
No. I refer you back to Pluckrose and Lindsay. Their basic idea is the same. They are putting our society through a sorting machine and dividing us into groups. These groups are supposed to relate to each other only through the prism of power. That reminds me instantly of tribalism. So when we divide ourselves into these tribes that are hostile towards one another, I don’t think anyone can benefit.
Cynically, you have individuals like Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo who makes money out of exploiting existing vulnerabilities and existing disparities. Still, I don’t see how their approach and their cultish outlook helps any of the groups that they say are oppressed or victims.
Their response to that would be, you and I can’t see the invisible power lines because we’re indoctrinated into this cult. And if you can’t see it, you’re supporting the system.
And the logic goes on to say, only they can see what the rest of us can’t see. I read an article where one guy was calling for the genocide of white people. This was a while back before the intensification of the cancel culture. These ideas were in universities, they were there right under the surface, but most of us didn’t see it.
There are rituals in some of the universities here where white people, especially white men, are put in chains, and they are told to experience what it’s like to be a victim. The propositions are to dismantle things, to oppress. It’s also freely, massively racist. Racism against black people is not allowed, but now you can be racist against white people. That’s ridiculous. What is it that they are trying to show us?
John McWhorter, the black Columbia professor of linguistics recently said in a Sam Harris podcast, ‘for the enlightened black person, today it has to be about identity, and their relationship has to be around what white people are doing or not doing.’ So identity politics is baked into the Black Lives Matter movement. And when I try to have discussions with people in bars or at peoples houses for dinner about this, I am shut down. That’s ok to a certain extent, but the honour of having a rigorous discussion is not allowed anymore.
So I wonder if you had any thoughts about the identity politics that plague the Black Lives Matter movement and the fact that we’re not allowed to discuss anything to do with the Black Lives Matter movement because it is seen as a racist signal.
If a group of people who are looking for political power are saying, you may not discuss, you may not criticise, you may not debate their views, then that’s exactly when you should do it. You have to ask yourself what are they hiding? When I went on the Black Lives Matter website, and I started to read their material, and their campaigns, this was completely totalitarian. They are hardcore Marxists, so far to the left, it’s almost Stalinist. And that is their political agenda. Their political agenda is not to lift poor black people out of poverty; it is to advance a radical Marxist agenda that tolerates no criticism whatsoever. So that means we should all be committed to fighting them intellectually as much as we can and expose them and expose their agenda.
If Joe Biden wins the forthcoming election, do you think that particular intensification of the wokeist culture will have increased support?
The woke have infiltrated the Democratic party power machine and they have dumped their ideas through Bernie Sanders and AOC. And what I’ve been hearing of the democratic party in the last few months is a lot of appeasement of the woke agenda. So, yes, I worry about that. I worry about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
If you think about the Labour Party in the UK, people my age think about Tony Blair, who are centre-left. But under Jeremy Corbyn, there’s this group called the Momentum party infiltrated the Labour Party and were putting out an agenda that was hardcore Marxist and antisemitic, and I see alarmingly the democratic party going in the same direction. I worry more about the democratic party than I worry about the Republican party.
Does anti-semitism play a role within this patchwork of Marxism? I know you have talked about it previously. I’m just wondering where you think it fits in?
There was a time after the Second World War when we thought that antisemitism both on the right and on the left had ebbed away. With the establishment of the state of Israel, we saw Islamic groups and Palestinian activists promoting and bringing anti-semitism back and making it mainstream. Shockingly a number of people on the left jumped on this bandwagon. They would say they’re not really anti-semitic, they are criticizing the actions of the state of Israel. When you listen to the woke they’ll say, yes it’s the actions of the state of Israel, but then very quickly that morphs into straight anti-semitism.
That there’s this cabal of people who are pulling strings, and they are Jewish, and you have all of these justifications for mainstreaming anti-semitism and then acting on it. So I think when we talk about anti-semitism we understand the antisemitism of the far-right, but we have always poorly understood the antisemitism of the far left. And now the far left is working together with the Islamists. Suddenly people who were subjected to the Holocaust or their descendants are supposed to be having white privilege.
When Ilhan Omar who is Somalian, was caught red-handed with those tweets that were blatantly anti-semitic, I remember thinking the democratic party is going to make it very clear that that is unacceptable, they didn’t. That, to me, is shocking. When I say I worry about the democratic party, that’s what I mean. They are moving very quickly to a bad place.
"There are rituals in some of the universities here where white people, especially white men, are put in chains, and they are told to experience what it's like to be a victim."
Perhaps there is something positive that could emerge from this cultural war. As a result of this wokeism, and cancel culture, and civil unrest, the only thing I keep thinking of is the idea of the Overton window, that if this needle moves even slightly on issues that we’ve been fighting for hundreds of years, and more rapidly, what I like to call 100 years and 3 minutes, then that could be an amazing advancement.
Furthermore, many of us are sick of the way the system has been treated. I’m talking about environmental degradation, capitalist oppression. Additionally to that, is there an argument to be made, not for destroying the system, but what would you suggest is a logical path forward?
I agree with you on that. I think when it comes to achieving awareness, pushing things that we all care about to the top of the agenda, course correction when it comes to rampant capitalism. I think that’s a good thing. And I think what we might also achieve if I’m being optimistic, is that the general public will see that we do need to work towards the principles and the values that we say we adhere to—the values of equality and equal Justice. I think in a way, we have achieved awareness, but we need to be very careful when it comes to what we subscribe to. But yes, in some ways we should be optimistic.
Right, but I guess what I’m getting at is if you were to have a meeting with these movements and they were to say, so what is a logical path for us Ayaan? What would you respond to them?
In America, we say our values are all about achieving justice and achieving equality, so why don’t we use those values and those institutions to get ever closer to a more just society. And I would refute their anger. I make a difference between positive anger and negative anger. It’s justified to be angry when you see an injustice. But it’s what you do with that anger. There’s one outcome of that passion, and that is to build. At the same time, they are displaying negative anger. They are saying; the system is so bad, let’s destroy it. They don’t want to debate me; they don’t want to debate you, they don’t want to debate anyone. They are convinced of their justice.
And that becomes a stern ideology in itself.
Exactly yes. And James Lindsay has written a fantastic piece where he describes why they don’t want to debate. Because they even say debating, reason, rational discussion, all of that is whiteness. That is all a part of the language of oppression. So they don’t want to debate you or me. At first, you may say that’s absurd and laugh it off, but now we’re seeing more and more people subscribe to that, and that’s when I find it really dangerous and alarming.
And part of the problem is I feel like not enough people are asking questions about these issues. I wonder where it all ends in a way because I used to trust The Guardian, and the New York Times as a centered source, and I do still read them, but I feel like increasingly they are becoming compromised by this woke consciousness. So I ask myself the question, does that mean we might have to take a side eventually? Or does it just mean that they are afraid of losing readers? The media is probably the most important pillar to cherish at a time like this.
What I see here in America is that the more traditional media is compromised, but more people are starting their own things. The podcast industry is exploding,
There is a market for their ideas, and they’re using market forces to correct for the places and the places where traditional media went wrong. We used to have talk radio, and now you have podcasts and subscriptions. The opinion forming industry is huge, and so I think in that sense we’re going to be saved by that.
I also think it is going to send a message to the traditional media that if they carry on this way, then they’re going to be out of business very quickly. And here’s again why I’m optimistic. I think common sense will prevail. No one knew what cancel culture was until the killing of George Floyd, and people were surveyed, and they started to find out what it was.
What is alarming, of course, is the takeover of the administrative state, and the educational institutions where you walk into them and they start to brainwash young people. If you have enough people brainwashed, then you can get into a very dangerous place. But in general, I’m really hoping that if we push back and push back hard, then the ideas are going to lose currency.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.