If you’ve ever been a teacher or a student, you may have noticed this: disruptive, troublesome students are not all alike

One kind of disruptive student offender is the bane of her teacher’s existence; the teacher winces at her very presence, ready for trouble.  Her muscles clench.  She thinks, "This child is out to get me!" 

But another, no less irritating and disruptive, troublesome child seems to have magic.  He has charm, an elusive X factor that makes his teacher smile ruefully, and even laugh!  This student arouses the teacher’s protective feelings.  Both kids are obnoxious, but the second child gets invited to the party, the first to the principal’s office. 

Gadflies are people who intentionally provoke, shock and challenging their societies, and they seem to fall into the same two categories as the disruptive students. Consider these contrasting gadflies:  Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the one hand and the late Christopher Hitchens on the other.   Both practiced literary aggression.  Both challenged the pieties of their societies.  Both made videos that horrified and offended religious groups – Hitchens’ was a vitriolic campaign against Mother Theresa’s reputation (The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice and the “Hell’s Angel” video).  Hirsi Ali’s explosive film, Submission, showed fictional abused Muslim woman with Koranic verses written on their bodies.  The particular verses she chose give men authority over women. 

Both were as offensive as they could be

 Yet Hitchens, the atheist, globally anti-religious writer and polemicist was the darling of two continents.  And just weeks ago, Hirsi Ali, an atheist anti- Muslim, women’s rights advocate, was dis-invited to speak at Brandeis University.  

 Let’s compare their work a little further.  Christopher Hitchens wrote a best seller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.   Well-written and well-researched, the book is nevertheless a screed against Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  It’s a very good read, and it is not for a moment considerate of the feelings, sensitivities or religious sensibilities of the faithful.  He once got kicked, and for a while received death threats from people displeased with his opinions, but on the whole Hitchens was able to offend large segments of society and continue to live a free, happy life.  Christopher Hitchens was the bad boy who charmed the teacher.

 Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, seems to lack the magic X factor.  Her book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, and her personal story, Infidel, brought her vilification.  One might have expected human rights advocates and feminists worldwide to embrace her…but that is not the case.  Why not?

 Is Hirsi Ali toxic because it is dangerous to be around her?  Submission’s director, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered on the streets of liberal Amsterdam, a note on his body identifying Ali as the next target.  And no one has forgotten the global wave of violence that was provoked in the name of Danish cartoons judged offensive to Muslims.

 Or is it because Hirsi Ali’s agenda is aimed at women?  We have long known that changing the status of women is a powerful way to change a culture.  For example, research demonstrates that the best way to encourage smaller family size is to give women access to higher education.  Similarly, a powerful and effective way to improve third world economics is providing micro-loans to the women in those communities.  So when Hirsi Ali calls upon Muslim women to stand up for their rights she is perceived to be – and in this new sense, indeed is  – a threat to the status quo.

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