This interview that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did with Reason magazine is another example of the kind of thing that we don't need to hear from the New Atheists.
Hirsi Ali's rhetoric, her claim that we are already involved in a civilisational war with Islam, is all wrong. For example, is it really tenable to claim that we are "at war" with the communities of "very liberal" Pakistani and Indian Muslims in the US that she refers to in the interview (leave aside all the good, liberal Muslims elsewhere)? She denies that moderate Islam is the solution to current tensions between radical Islam and the West, but that is a massively premature claim, and meanwhile what are those liberal Muslim communities supposed to do if the US takes her advice and really does adopt an official stance of warfare with Islam itself?
Let's be clear: I've been a fan. I admire many things about Ayaan Hirsi Ali - her intellect, her courage, her dignity and composure, and even (let's be politically incorrect) her beauty. I totally enjoyed Infidel, and I fully support her campaign against the barbaric elements within Muslim cultures - the honour killings, the crazy fatwas, the genital mutilation of girls, the violent prohibition of apostasy, the theocratic aspirations of benighted mullahs. I don't sententiously call Islam a religion of peace, because Islam is not one thing - and often it is nothing of the sort. Far from it.
But when she claims, point-blank, that we're in a war against Islam itself, that's surely a dangerous exaggeration. Yes, we must confront theocratic tendencies, from whatever source, with the power of our ideas. Yes, we need to re-affirm the Enlightenment and the Millian ideals of liberty. And I agree with Hirsi Ali that new policies may be needed whereby we cease to extend so much tolerance to the truly intolerant. But talk of "war" against an entire world religion, without distinctions and qualifications, really worries me.
I want to see those liberal Muslims, whose existence Hirsi Ali acknowledges, stand up proudly and declare unequivocally that they support Lockean tolerance and individual liberty, that they are glad to join the Enlightenment compromise that desacralises politics, and that they accept, from within their own worldview, that anywhere where Islam can be practised without persecution is already the house of Islam, not the house of war.
But they can hardly do that if Western societies claim to be at war with Islam itself - as opposed to some of us committing to a struggle against all forms of theocracy - and if we actually do commence a policy of persecuting Muslims (we're perilously close to the line already, and we've sometimes stepped over it). The last six years of disastrously incompetent American foreign policy, aided and abetted by Australia's government, among others, have made the situation of liberal Muslims almost impossible, as far as I can see. Let's not make it even worse.
More generally, I'm disappointed with the whole interview. Hirsi Ali is all over the place - none of it seems thought through - though the interviewer gave her ample opportunity to explain her position.
Apart from the recommendation that we close Muslim schools, I couldn't see much there that was concrete. All the stuff about how terrible it is that our enemies (and the extremists concerned are, indeed, our enemies) express their hatred of us by burning our symbols left me thinking, "So what?" Yes, people who hate you will find ways of expressing it. And?
A final thought: this is embarrassing for more moderate people who see themselves as in an intellectual and social struggle against theocratic elements in the modern world.
Speaking for myself, every day I see religious conservatives taking unenlightened political stances on issue after issue - whether it be gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, human enhancement technologies, AIDS policy, or any of a host of others - and I've concluded that it's not good enough just to fight these issues one at a time. The fundamental belief systems of our opponents are the problem. They merit searching, sceptical critique. Accordingly, I cheer for the contributions of Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, and so on, to public debate. Collectively, these form a natural and valuable response to what we've been seeing from religious conservatives over the past decade.
But that doesn't mean I must cheer for the more warmongering rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, much as they are extraordinarily charismatic individuals whose voices are of great value when they do no more than proclaim the beauty of secularism. When they go further, when they want to declare war - literal war, involving force and violence - against a particular religion, they are going too far. They are going to extremes, and I think we have no choice but to take a stand.
This is not something we've signed up for.