Bari Weiss (left) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak at a virtual event hosted by the Commonwealth Club, Feb. 11, 2021. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Bari Weiss (left) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak at a virtual event hosted by the Commonwealth Club, Feb. 11, 2021. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Commonwealth Club event goes forward, despite CAIR criticism of ‘anti-Muslim’ speakers

A Commonwealth Club virtual event went forward on Feb. 11 despite heavy criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which charged the two speakers with holding “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Palestinian” views.

CAIR, a national organization with a chapter in Santa Clara, not only lobbied to have the event canceled at the 11th hour, but the resulting dust-up led to the resignation of a Jewish member of the Commonwealth Club’s Inforum board, an advisory group that co-hosted the discussion. The Commonwealth Club is based in San Francisco.

The event featured former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born author, in conversation with Jewish writer and pro-Israel activist Bari Weiss. The two discussed women’s rights, particularly in the context of Muslim immigration to Europe. Hirsi Ali’s controversial new book “Prey” was also discussed.

In a Feb. 10 press release posted on its website and titled “Stop Bigotry & Hate at the Commonwealth Club,” CAIR denounced both speakers, saying that the event would “stoke fear” and hatred, and that neither Hirsi Ali nor Weiss were “qualified” to speak on the subjects advertised.

CAIR’s condemnations were the first thing mentioned as the event kicked off.

“Those who want to shut down conversation aren’t interested in speech or freedom or safety,” Weiss said. “They’re interested in power.”

Hiri Ali agreed, adding that she was thankful to the Commonwealth Club for “not capitulat[ing] to the mob.”

The event went on without a hitch and was attended by upwards of 500 people with an active comments section.

The two mainly discussed the migrant crisis affecting Europe. Hirsi Ali argued that Western ideals of women’s rights conflicted with the values imported by those from Muslim-majority countries. She suggested Western countries commit to “assimilation” and “integration” programs for entering migrants as a way to solve tensions between communities.

Hirsi Ali is known as an outspoken critic of Islam. Her new book, subtitled “Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights,” attempts to link Muslim immigration to Europe with higher rates of sexual assault in the region, and a review in the New York Times says the book “argues that immigration from majority-Muslim countries imperils the hard-won rights of European women.”

The review noted that she was subjected to genital mutilation as a child in Somalia and fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage; it also said that she has been on an al-Qaeda hit list and is considered an anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In its condemnation of the event, CAIR shared a link to a 2007 article in the magazine Reason in which Hirsi Ali said “we are at war with Islam” and suggested closing Muslim schools in Western countries.

Weiss, an opinion writer who covers culture and politics, recently left the New York Times after claiming that her colleagues bullied her and that the newspaper’s leadership had constrained her abilities to write freely.

In its criticisms of Weiss, CAIR shared a 2018 Intercept article that detailed cases in which she allegedly tried to “vilify and ruin” the careers of anti-Israel Arab and Muslim professors.

“This past week has provided a difficult reminder that the San Francisco Bay Area is not exempt from Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment,” CAIR wrote in its press release, urging individuals to contact the Commonwealth Club through a prewritten message. As of Feb. 12, more than 1,700 people had done so, according to CAIR’s website. CAIR also reached out directly to the Commonwealth Club in a message addressed to its president and CEO.

The Commonwealth Club and CAIR did not respond to a J. request for comment.

A day before the event, a Jewish board member of Inforum, Emily Howe, who goes by Femily, resigned from her Commonwealth Club seat in response to criticisms of the discussion. Howe serves as a gender equity adviser for Silicon Valley companies.

“Given your decision to host and go forward with the Feb. 11 event (even after recieving 300+ letters from the Muslim-American community) that features anti-Muslim, pro-violence-against-Muslims speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I am resigning, effective immediately,” Howe wrote in an email to Gloria Duffy, the Commonwealth Club’s president and CEO since 1996, that was shared with J.

In a reply that also was shared with J., Duffy wrote, “Thank you for your communication, which I respect. … I do think there may be a misunderstanding about what we are doing, and of course I would be happy to discuss that with you.”

Duffy did not respond to an email and voicemail requesting comment.

In a press release on Feb. 11, CAIR said it welcomed Howe’s resignation.

The leader of CAIR’s Bay Area office was in the news last September when an East Bay candidate declined to attend a CAIR-sponsored local election forum after becoming aware of executive director Zahra Billoo’s anti-Israel views and tweets.

The Commonwealth Club, founded in 1903, hosts discussions with politicians and other public figures. Its events have been shifted online during the pandemic.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.