In a recent Times of Israel opinion piece entitled “Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Anti-Islamic Non-Compromise,” Shayna Zamkanei berates the Presidential Conference for inviting one of the bravest female voices of the modern era to address the plenary.

Why was somebody who is so clearly anti-religious offered a prominent position at the Jewish State’s Presidential Conference?

Since when have intellectual Israeli panels refrained from questioning the roles of religions in regional political structures? Israel has Knesset members who are hareidi, atheist, secular, Muslim and everything in between. We do not dismiss their views based solely on their religious observance or obstinate non-observance.

Since when is a woman’s individual right to reject a religion an instant dismissal of her credibility? Ali’s personal rejection of Islam was born out of firsthand experiences of the brutalities of growing up in an Islamist Third World country, including experiencing the horrors of female genital mutilation first-hand and fleeing from a marriage that was being forced upon her by her father.

Yet, Zamkanei makes it sound as if landing in the West makes Hirsi Ali a sellout. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Hirsi Ali is known for expressing personal opposition to these outrageous abuses Islamic women face at the hands of a patriarchal and often violent culture. Her words, books and film have given voice to millions of women who are unable to utter demands for human rights, lest they be beaten or killed by the men who rule their lives – rights that we in Israel take for granted.

As a result of speaking out, Hirsi Ali has received threat after threat for her head from extremists wishing to inflict upon her the same fate as her filmmaking colleague, Theo Van Gogh.

It is the numerous fatwas against her, and the inability of the Europeans to protect her life, that have left America as one of the few places where Hirsi Ali can lead a relatively stable life.

Zamkanei writes that, “If we replaced in Ali’s speech and terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’ with ‘Jewish,’ she would have been called anti-Semitic.” She backs this idea up by noting that Hirsi-Ali is anti-religion.

Yet, we in Israel should know better than anyone that being anti-religion doesn’t make somebody anti-Semitic. Just because one doesn’t believe in the benefits of religion for an individual, or even a society, doesn’t make one inherently intolerant of people that choose a particular faith.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (second from left) participates in a panel at the 2012 Presidential Conference with (from left) Gabi Ashkenazi, Dennis Ross and Leon Wieseltier (photo credit: courtesy Shilo Pro

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (second from left) participates in a panel at the 2012 Presidential Conference with (from left) Gabi Ashkenazi, Dennis Ross and Leon Wieseltier (photo credit: courtesy Shilo Pro

In her address, Hirsi Ali never criticizes Muslims on the whole, but the authoritarians that rule many Muslim societies through harsh implementation of extremist religious doctrine.

More so, Ali uses the term “Islamist,” which is distinct from the word “Islam” or “Islamic.” The word “Islamist” describes the dangerous merger of extreme religious doctrine and absolute political power.

There are many Muslims who are anti-Islamist. Taking a stance that is anti-Islamist does not render one anti-Muslim. On the contrary, fighting against Islamism is not only in our interests; it is in the interests of many millions of Muslims who live under oppression at the hands of radicalized, Islamist leaders.

In her address, Hirsi Ali praised Muslims for “questioning absolute power” of their rulers during the Arab Spring and “questioning authority from the bottom-up.” These are two of the most important tenets of democratic rule, tenets that Jews in Israel have employed since well before the founding of our modern state.

Perhaps it is Israel’s imperfect, yet continuous attempts to balance the implementation of religious traditions, along with proven secular and democratic principles, that has earned Hirsi Ali’s respect; that, along with the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East which she can visit and, even more importantly, return home.

Perhaps that is why Hirsi Ali calls Israel the “only functioning state in the Middle East.”

At the Presidential Conference, Hirsi Ali praised Israel and gave unique insight into the culture of political Islam, a culture that affects our present and future, yet one that we have failed to fully grasp utilizing our Western-minded prisms. Worse yet, many in Western societies have come to believe that they are not able or even allowed to understand, let alone discuss, aspects of Islamic culture.

For years, our own politicians have repeatedly attempted to reach understandings and compromises with the Palestinian Authority, as the international community has tried to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program.

Instead of rejecting outright the message and the messenger, perhaps we can carefully consider whether Hirsi Ali’s firsthand understandings of Islamic culture have merit. If internalized, they just may positively influence our abilities to coexist with hundreds of millions of our neighbors.