Blogs > HNN > From Koenigsburg to The Hague: The Strange Case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

May 17, 2006 2:40 pm

From Koenigsburg to The Hague: The Strange Case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

In his preposterous 1797 essay, "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Benevolent Motives" Immanuel Kant notoriously makes the case that lying is categorically wrong under any and all circumstances, even to save an innocent life.
Truth in utterances that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of a man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise from it to him or any other; and although by making a false statement I do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to speak, yet I do wrong to men in general in the most essential point of duty, so that it may be called a lie (though not in the jurist’s sense), that is, so far as in me lies I cause that declarations in general find no credit, and hence that all rights founded on contract should lose their force; and this is a wrong which is done to mankind.
Kant's argument—if one wants to call it that—is easily refuted. Either we have a right to self-defense or not. If we do, we have the right to use force to defend it, and if we can use force, we can in such cases surely use lesser means to the same end, such as deception. If we lack a right of self-defense, we're pushed to outright pacifism, a position that Kant never defends, and is in any case indefensible.

I belabor the preceding point despite the fact that almost no one in our culture (or in the philosophical profession) would—explicitly at any rate—take Kant's argument seriously. And yet, one finds almost literally Kantian strictures about truth-telling at work in precisely one case: the apostate or dissident Muslim who has unpalatable things to say about Islam. In this unique case, a lie to protect or save one's life is deemed impermissible; any lie is immoral, regardless of its content, context, or relevance to anything of actual significance.

I've already discussed this point at Theory & Practice with respect to the stupid and vicious criticisms of the apostate Muslim Ibn Warraq made by such"experts" on Islam as Fred Donner and Khaled Abou El Fadl. Here the claim is that Ibn Warraq's use of a pseudonym is an act of dishonesty which undermines the credibility of anything he has to say about Islam.

Never mind the threat to his life from speaking out; never mind the fate of such individuals as Salman Rushdie, Irshad Manji, Taslima Nasreen, Younis Shaikh, Abdul Rahman, Faraj Foda, Theodore Van Gogh, Itoshi Igarashi, and Neguib Mahfouz. The implicit principle seems to be: Honesty requires full disclosure even if full disclosure is tantamount to suicide. The principle's proponents are seldom honest enough to put it that explicitly, however. (The first five individuals on my list were threatened or persecuted by Islamic fundamentalists; the next three were murdered by them; Mahfouz was attacked and injured, but survived. In every one of these cases, there was significant popular support among Muslims for the depredation in question.)

The most recent case is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose plight is well-described in this piece in Der Spiegel.

Holland's most famous immigrant -- Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- has been stripped of her citizenship overnight following television revelations about news that's long been public: she lied a little on her application for asylum years ago. The controversial decision by the country's immigration minister has sparked outrage, and many are calling it a dark day for Dutch democracy.
This passage conveys some relevant context:
Twelve months later, Ali stood before the assembled Dutch press at"Nieuwspoort" in The Hague and explained why she had lied on her citizenship application."It was wrong and I'm not proud of it, but I had no other choice." She said that she had lied to prevent her family from tracking her down, although the name she assumed wasn't entirely foreign to her."My grandfather's name was Ali," she says, which led her to assume the name Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But her real name was Ayaan Hirsi Magan."My full name," she told the Dutch press,"is Ayaan Hirsi Magan Isse Guleid Ali Wai'ays Muhammad Ali Umar Osman Mahamud."
In fact, Hirsi Ali is understating her case. If she had no choice, she did nothing wrong in lying, and has nothing to be ashamed of. It's the people who put her in that position who should be ashamed of having put her there. She has no obligation to assume their guilt—and, I would say, an obligation not to. The guilt is theirs to assume, not hers.

The Spiegel article describes the decision as having sparked"outrage," and tells us mordantly that Erasmus and Voltaire must be spinning in their graves—not to mention Baruch Spinoza and John Locke, each of whom used Holland in the seventeenth century as a sanctuary from persecution.

But instead of sparking mute outrage, it seems to me that the appropriate thing to do is to demand a rational justification—and keep demanding one until the attempted justification is forthcoming. The decision to withdraw Hirsi Ali's citizenship was the result of the Immigration minister's use of so-called discretionary powers. But the exercise of discretionary powers presupposes the use of discretion. What discretion was used, and why? What reason can Ruth Verdonk, the Minister of Integration and Immigration, give for why a person is obliged to tell the truth if doing so would mean her death, injury--or, for that matter, even the surrender of her pocketbook? As a moral philosopher, I'd be most interested in what the Minister has to say on this subject, as well as what she would have done if she'd been in Hirsi Ali's shoes.

A culture of cowardice and double-standards goes hand in hand with a culture of misology. The only way to combat such a culture is repeatedly and consistently to hold its practitioners responsible for their malfeasances. So let's hear it, Ms. Verdonk. Does The Hague take direction from Koenigsburg, or what?

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

We're talking past each other here. I'm talking about contexts in which a person is obliged to lie because telling the truth will lead directly to coercion. You're talking about contexts in which coercion is absent. I don't think lying is justified where coercion is absent; my point is that it's justified to defend oneself against coercive harm.

Kirill Rivkin - 5/29/2006

I doubt that using a pseudo-name has anything to do with Dr. Donner's crticism. If the real name would have been used, I am sure Dr. Donner would find some problem with Dr. Warraq's school, parents or nationality. Like "his parents were not real muslim, how he can pretend to know something about Islam".
It pains me to see that the reviewing process has disintegrated into some kind of a political affair.

Darren Michael Peterson - 5/17/2006

I remember getting an A+ in college philosophy. People in the class would ask how I did it and I really couldn't say how, other than making extreme statements in a vague ways as possible with numerous double-negatives.

Okay. Now, while I agree that we should have a right to self defense, we should also have a right to declaring the truth without being assaulted or our lives in placed in jeopardy. If these conditions are met, then the argument for not telling the truth lessens a bit. (Unless the question is, "Do these pants make me look fat?" In that case, lie convincingly!!!!

What bothers me is that some play so fast and lose with the truth that they willing surrender the truth without the slightest thought.

While watching The Colbert Report he gave a glimpse of the pundits all saying how the letter from the Iranian president seemed to be straight out of the Democrat's playbook. Do you think they were trying to infer something?

What was shocking was that the statements they chose to use as examples were well founded beliefs that Americans have treasured for centuries. That they were said by an Iranian president to lecture him on what is right... well, that was enough to make the pundits, in a knee-jerk reaction deny these principles.

So, philosophically, how much of the truth is completely objective? Is it open to perspective? Does it change? Can it be true of one person says it but not true if someone else says it?