The following is a correspondence between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sarah Haider on Wokeism and The Culture Wars.
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.
I am delighted that we are having this conversation. For a while I thought I was the only one who saw the parallels between the Islamists and the woke. I agree wholeheartedly that “wokeism” has quite a number of dogmas, rituals, a dedicated priesthood and a fellowship just like a religion. In that respect, I see what you mean when you say that our experiences in addressing the excesses of Islam are useful in understanding wokeism.
However, I must admit that I was slower than you in connecting the dots of the woke faith. While I found the adherents of purist Islam (and still do, by the way) highly motivated, well resourced, insidious and incredibly dangerous, I thought of the woke at first as just bothersome cowards who wanted to appease the Islamists because they were either scared of them or because they wanted the Muslim vote. Even the term “woke” is still relatively new to me. I may have heard it for the first time as recently as 2018. Certainly not earlier.
I have been cancelled many times. As far back as 2006, a group of Dutch professors and other illuminati wrote a letter as a collective to try stop me from speaking, arguing that I was suffering from phobias. On countless occasions, my attempts with my Dutch and other European colleagues to push for the assimilation of immigrant minorities into their host societies was frustrated by people using language that we would call wokeism today.
In response to my attempts to criminalize female genital mutilation, child marriage, forced marriages and honor violence, some feminists claimed that we must not impose our Eurocentric views on immigrants.
Activists and journalists put forth arguments they said were derived from multicultural principles to compel us to respect the customs, faith and ways of doing things in immigrant communities—even if they trapped female members of those communities in poverty, illiteracy and domestic violence. Government officials set aside longstanding norms and granted the dole to young immigrant men who refused to work on religious grounds.
In those decades so called parallel societies emerged in many European countries.
Yet slowly—painfully slowly—sentiment has changed. Arguments that once got me cancelled are now made openly by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron. German politicians no longer defend multiculturalism; they now actively promote programs of integration for reasons I explore in my forthcoming book Prey.
In the same way, I think, the tide will turn against wokeism. And I believe it will turn more swiftly, because wokeism is a far less substantial thing than Islam, one of the world’s three enduring monotheistic faiths.
As I said, at first, I paid little attention to wokeism. Thanks to people like Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, I now see that it is a distinct and quasi-religious ideology. It is interesting to see the symbiotic relationship there has been between the Islamists and the woke. That may be material for another letter. But for now, I want to respond to your words:
When I first began speaking publicly about Islam, I quickly found … 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.
My understanding is that you and I mistook many of the woke for true liberals when in fact they are anything but.
I found and still receive abiding support from true liberals. Some are world famous like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. You may even recall that Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work to help bring about the emancipation of Muslim women. There are many other true liberals—too many to name here—whom I met over the years in various countries whose views are completely aligned with yours and mine.
I bring up the distinction between the true liberals and the woke because I believe this is the reason you are wrong when you argue that the woke have won—that they are the empire now, and the rest of us are the underdog rebels.
As long as there are true liberals out there, I do not think the woke are anywhere near any kind of victory. The key thing to remember is the resilience of the philosophy of liberalism—the sheer strength of the institutions that evolved based on those principles and the strength of the ideas and ideals of universal human rights, individual freedom, the sanctity of life, the rule of law and property rights, the democratic process, free inquiry, science, and free markets.
Islam has mounted a partly successful resistance to all these ideas for centuries, at the price of impoverishing Muslim-majority societies around the world (aside from the ones that were sitting on oil fields).
But wokeism is a far less compelling ideology. Let me give just one example, a quotation from a professor named Sunny Singh, who teaches a creative writing course at London Metropolitan University:
I get regular invites to debate on various platforms. I always say no. Because debate is an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.
It seems to me that the more the woke turn their fire against true liberals—for example, the author J.K. Rowling—the more they reveal the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of their cult, and the more they encourage other true liberals to cease the appeasement of wokeism that has characterized the past decade or so.
In short, I am more optimistic than you because I believe both battles—against the Islamists and against the woke—can be won. And the latter are in fact the much weaker foe.
I look forward to your reply.