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Ayaan Hirsi Ali and coherent disagreement

Tony Curzon Price (London, openDemocracy): Who you are determines what you mean. What you say can make who you are.

This dance of talking and being makes listening quite hard, and nowhere more so today than in the questions about Islam and the West.

But listening well allows us to find hopeful pluralism in positions that seem opposed. Compare these two moments in the London culture-sphere: the Guardian's argument around Martin Amis' Islamo-criticism, (the best of it here in Ian McEwan's letter) compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's tour of the city. (Ed Hussain and Douglas Murray on Tuesday, followed by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday)

It is easier to listen to Ayaan's radical liberal atheism than to Amis' or Hitchens' versions. When Ayaan stands to speak, her courage, her vulnerability and the presence of someone who is still working all the time to put her world in place are clear. When Amis or Hitchens pen, they point us inwards, to the protean fears that we know and sometimes try to dominate: others, outsiders, foreigners, aggressors. However much the meaning of the words sound similar, Ayaan speaks differently to us. For one, her speech will get her killed. Whatever, Amis' imaginative gifts, his deeds - thankfully for him - do not give weight to his words.

The Center for Social Cohesion brought Ed Husain and Ayaan Hirsi Ali together to speak to a packed house on whether the West and Islam could look forward to happy future together. True to the name of the host, this was no debate: here are two lives which have come out of Islamism, to a consensual, work-in-progress Islam in Husain's case, and to a Kantian individualism in Ayaan's case. Cohesive down to its audience, the gathering brought together one-time members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, besuited young-fogeys, neocons and left-wingers.

If no one can talk secular like Ayaan, Ed Husain does very well at talking Western Muslim. He offers a vision of a reformed Islam, true to its civilising principles and not to any dogmatic perversion. Charles Moore, one-time editor of the conservative UK daily, The Telegraph, felt among equals when he asked Ed Husain about the finer differences between Jesus and Mohammed. As soon as Husain wants to take a turn into the traditional institutions of government, he will find a home. He describes an Islam that will sit happily side-by-side with the Bishops and the Rabbis.

It was sensing this, maybe, that Ayaan ended her contribution with the observation that she has no following, implying she is not (or is no longer) any politician. ``None of the Enlightenment thinkers had followings ...'' True of Kant, maybe, but of Diderot in St Petersburg? Of Voltaire with most of the Princes of Northern Europe? And of Rousseau (posthumously) to Robespierre?

This brings me back to talking, being and meaning. In the media torrent, meaningful being buys influence. Here, a following is the implanting of a thought that will change the world by degrees of degrees. Ayaan and Husain both have that following. Amis and Hitchens capture our attention without the meaningfulness of what they are; on this issue, watch their influence slip away, stridently.

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