In an ongoing public letter exchange on Letter, two of the most important advocates of universal liberal humanism—Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali—are currently discussing woke culture. Drawing on their extensive work fighting for the rights and freedoms of ex-Muslims, one of the most persecuted but fastest growing groups in the world, and against censorship, totalitarianism, religious bigotry and sexual oppression, especially when inspired by Islam, these two exceptionally courageous, outspoken women talk about the new cultural and social orthodoxy that is Critical Social Justice, commonly known as wokeism, with its censorious opposition to freedom of expression, its moral grandstanding, its identity hierarchies and the turgid gobbledygook of its constantly mutating terminology. Ayaan argues that this is a temporary phenomenon, rejected by most, and that its own patent absurdity, together with the staunch opposition of true liberals, will soon lead it to be debunked. Sarah, by contrast, points to the way in which the main cultural institutions of the west have already been captured by this illiberal ideology and advocates a radical approach to combating this, since, she writes, “we are not meeting the barbarians at the gate; we are rebelling against the empire.”
Here is Sarah’s opening letter. You can read Ayaan’s reply, Sarah’s response to Ayaan and follow this on-going conversation at Letter’s own site here.
— Sarah Haider 🚀 (@SarahTheHaider) September 28, 2020
The Opening Letter
Let me begin with what I hope is obvious: I’m very excited and honored to have this discussion with you.
I’m even more thrilled that our correspondence will not be centered on the topic people might expect from us—Islam. Instead, we will be focusing on the phenomenon commonly referred to as “wokeism.” However, as many have pointed out, wokeism is not entirely different from religion, so our experiences in addressing the excesses of Islam will be highly useful.
In fact, it was my activism with religion that first drove me to investigate this issue many years ago. When I first began speaking publicly about Islam, I quickly found (as did you), that those whom I anticipated would be on our side viewed me with suspicion. My criticisms of Islam were based on the very principles that those liberals claimed to champion, and yet I was swiftly rejected by them. This behavior left me stunned and confused, so I set out to understand it.
Very quickly, it became evident that the hesitancy to critique Islam actually had nothing to do with Islam. Educating my fellow liberals would not be enough—as ignorance was not the root of the problem.
Over the previous few decades, a new ideology had taken hold throughout liberal and progressive circles: writer and cultural critic Wesley Yang called it “the successor ideology,” but now it’s more usually called wokeism. At its core, this ideology is a delegitimization project—and it targets the very foundations of humanist, Enlightenment values. Wokeism is not the only movement to exploit the same programming that makes us vulnerable to religion. But it has achieved astounding success because it has also managed to neutralize liberals, who might otherwise stand against religious impulses, by hijacking our caring instinct, and by ruthlessly exploiting social dynamics to crush dissent.
Before we dive in too deeply, I would like to elaborate on a point I made in a private conversation prior to this exchange, which seemed to surprise you. I will repeat it here for the benefit of our audience: I believe that what we are witnessing is not the dawn of open war, but its conclusion. The woke have won, and decisively. But all is never truly lost, and this is not a prelude to submission. My approach is one of pragmatic optimism: In order to fight this—and we must fight it—we need to understand what lies ahead of us.
Let me briefly attempt to justify my view.
Wokeism has won because it has captured our cultural and sense-making institutions.
Nearly all our educational, media, and non-profit institutions (including major grant-making organizations) are advancing in one direction. Meanwhile, the hearts and minds of the global elite are almost uniformly supportive of this new secular faith.
To give just one example: Although the guillotines posted on his doorstep might indicate otherwise, the richest man in the world is not the enemy of wokeism. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post not Breitbart, and his former wife has pledged to dedicate nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars to causes relating to social justice.
Let me also make a brief analogy with a subject all too familiar to us. We know that jihadists do not appear in a vacuum. They require a degree of permissiveness within their larger context to exist in significant numbers. We can therefore use the number of jihadis from a particular country as a crude measure of the overall level of liberal tolerance within it.
Pulling this analogy back to the “woke,” it is no anomaly that the New York Times can hire and stand by an employee who speaks of white people as “dogs pissing on fire hydrants,” but cannot publish an op-ed by a sitting US congressman without a major staff insurrection. The conditions required for the extremists to thrive already exist. The door is open; they only need to walk through.
One may object, however, and point out that the majority of Americans are not woke. I believe that this is true. I also believe that it doesn’t matter. When so many of our fundamental institutions are in cult-like consensus, when the richest and most powerful among us routinely display public allegiance to one faith, the preferences of the average American are largely irrelevant.
We must adjust our approach accordingly. To put it rather dramatically: we are not meeting the barbarians at the gate; we are rebelling against the empire.
I’ll end this first letter here. I’m excited to explore this topic with you, and would love to hear your thoughts on how we might tackle this issue.
. . . . .
Sarah Haider is an American activist and speaker. She spent her early youth as a practicing Muslim, leaving religion in her late teens. Today she advocates for the acceptance of religious dissent as Executive Director of Ex-Muslims of North America. Ex-Muslims of North America. Sarah is a former board member of the Reason Rally Coalition, and a co-founder and current board member of the Rights and Religions Forum. The best way to follow Sarah’s work is to subscribe to her substack newsletter.
Writer, politician and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1969. She is the author of a number of bestselling books, including her memoirs Infidel (2007) and Nomad: From Islam to America, a Journey through the Clash of Civilizations (2010). Her other publications include The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam (2008); Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015); and the forthcoming Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. She is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University and is the founder of the AHA Foundation, whose stated aims are to “protect women from honor violence, to advance freedom of speech in public debate and to support the work of Muslim reformers.”
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