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July 1, 2015 10:04 am

Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

avatar by Abigail R. Esman

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo: Wikipedia.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo: Wikipedia.

It is cocktail hour on an April afternoon in 2004. The sun is hot on Amsterdam’s canals, and I am sitting at Café den Leeuw on the Herengracht with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is still a member of the Dutch Parliament, and we talk about Islam. Specifically, we talk about the concept of “moderate Islam,” or what she calls “liberal Islam.” And she has one word for it.

“It’s absurd,” she says. “It’s complete nonsense. There is no ‘liberal Islam.'”

Things change.

In her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Harper Collins, 2015), Hirsi Ali offers her vision of a “reformed Islam” – a re-imagining of the religion in contemporary terms, a forging of a path to that very same liberal Islam. As she states, “When I wrote my last book, Nomad, I believed that Islam was beyond reform, that perhaps the best thing for religious believers in Islam to do was to pick another god. I was certain of it…. Seven months after I published Nomad came the start of the Arab Spring, and I thought simply: I was wrong.”

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali is perhaps best known as the writer of “Submission,” a highly controversial film about the oppression of women under Islam, which was produced by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The film aired less than four months after she and I had the conversation at Café den Leeuw. That same November, a Muslim extremist shot and stabbed Van Gogh as he bicycled to work. The killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, stabbed a letter into Van Gogh’s lifeless body with the promise that Hirsi Ali would be next.

At the time, the Somali-born Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, was an outspoken critic of Islam. Now a bestselling author and activist, she lives in the U.K. and the U.S., where she teaches at the Harvard’s Kennedy Schoolof Government. She established the AHA Foundation in 2007, to work to end honor violence worldwide.

Unlike her previous two books, Infidel and Nomad, which were essentially autobiographical, Heretic offers a manifesto of sorts: a program for freeing Islam from what she calls “a host of anachronistic and at times deadly beliefs and practices.” She presents her case with the careful and deliberate skill of a philosopher. In clear, readable language, she provides a basic history of Islam and citations from the Koran and the hadiths before laying out her blueprint for change.

Heretic begins with a historical overview of Islam aimed at distinguishing what she calls “Mecca Muslims,” or those who follow Mohammed’s early teachings and the first section of the Koran, from “Medina Muslims,” such as members of al-Qaeda, al Nusra, al-Shabaab, and other Muslim extremist and terrorist groups. For Medina Muslims, she explains, “true” Islam is found in the latter phase of Mohammed’s life, after his flight from Mecca to Medina in 622. It was then, with the establishment of the first Caliphate, that Islam’s more militant, violent, and political ideologies emerged. It is largely because of these two distinct phases in the history – and holy texts – of Islam that so much debate still takes place about the nature of the religion and its practice.

But it is also because its adherents claim the Medina texts are the “last word” on Islam, the final incarnation of Allah’s vision for humanity, that Hirsi Ali states early in the book: “Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace.”

This distinguishing between Mecca and Medina Islam (or Mecca and Medina Muslims, as Hirsi Ali puts it), is not new: the author’s own mentor, Afshin Ellian, did just this in defining Islam as a political religion in a 2009 publication. But Hirsi Ali may be the first to explain this to a general public, and certainly her popularity as an author and celebrity figure are useful in informing a wider audience.

She does, both eloquently and persuasively, in the first half of the book, which virtually anyone, including (or perhaps especially) Hirsi Ali’s ideological opponents, would benefit from reading. In fact, one could almost call it “irresponsible” for those who attempt to speak out on the problems of radical Islam to do so without reading these pages.

Unfortunately, she does less well in the second half of the book. No doubt Hirsi Ali’s hope for a Muslim reformation is earnest; but her argument suffers under what is either an unwillingness to look religious fundamentalism itself head-on, or – quite possibly – her own naiveté, a general unawareness of, say, fundamentalist Christian views, and of the history of secular Muslim countries such as Turkey.

To be sure, she neatly and powerfully lays out the facts about radical Islam in the West and the failure of Western governments and communities to face the threat in the name of “tolerance” or “religious freedom.” She re-issues her frequent, yet-unheeded, plea for more action against honor crimes in the West. She cites important studies on the popularity of sharia law and interviews (by others) with jihadists. She points repeatedly to the Islamic vision of an afterlife, in Hell and Paradise, as the fomenter of death wishes and martyrdom, the driving force behind violent jihad.

And then she offers a five-part solution:

“Muslim clerics need to acknowledge that the Koran is not the ultimate repository of revealed truth. They need to make explicit that what we do in this life is more important than anything that could conceivably happen to us after we die. It is just a book. They need to make clear that sharia law occupies a circumscribed role and is clearly subordinate to the laws of the nation-states where Muslims live. They need to put an end to the practice of delegated coercion that inflicts conformity at the expense of creativity. And they need to disavow completely the concept of jihad as a literal call to arms against non-Muslims and those Muslims they deem apostates or heretics.”

If only it were that simple. If only we could take a chorus of 1,000 imams, place them before the charismatic Ayaan Hirsi Ali and have them repeat after her, in harmony, these very edicts. If only this were enough to change the desperate and passionate beliefs of hundreds of millions across the world.


Alas, indeed. No sooner has Hirsi Ali prescribed her remedy than she tells us of various predecessors, poets and philosophers mostly, who made similar efforts – and were executed as heretics.  It is hard to understand why things would be different today – even in the face of the (now failed) Arab Spring. One has only to look at the current state of affairs in Turkey, that great, secular, democratic republic founded less than 100 years ago by a Muslim who claimed to despise religion, who called for “sane reason,” and which is now Islamizing by the day. One has only to remember the elegant Iranian women, dressed in Western couture, and the magnificent collections of art by Picasso and Kandinsky, by Lichtenstein and Warhol, at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art – and to look now at the country’s brigades of “morality police.”

“There were such times,” I found myself wanting to say to her as I read. “Yet look what happened next.”

Yet Hirsi Ali insists that the Arab Spring revealed a growing and unquenchable longing for liberation, for the reform of Islam itself, and not just for the end of dictatorships. Even if true, one has to wonder: which were the majority voices? And does it matter if the Medina Muslims are the minority, when they are willing to fight to the death to win? Isn’t that already the case?

In fact, the thousands of men and women raised in the West who have now joined the Islamic jihad tell a different story. It is easy enough to say “stop glamourizing death and heaven” as Hirsi Ali does throughout this book. But one needs only a passing familiarity with Freud’s Future of an Illusion to know how unlikely this is, and certainly in our own time.

Despite her certainty that Christians do not make heaven appear preferable to life on earth, for many evangelical Christians, this is not the case. I recall one 10-year-old girl telling me not long ago that she looks forward to every birthday because each one brings her closer to heaven and to Jesus. The difference, however – as Hirsi Ali does note – is that Christians don’t usually go about killing themselves and others to get there.

There are other problems with her arguments, not the least of which is the question of who her audience actually is. Radical Muslims are hardly going to listen to her. And because of her often harsh rhetoric over the years, Hirsi Ali has alienated herself so greatly from even “moderate” Muslims that few of them are likely to be eager to follow her direction.

At the same time, there are millions of “moderate” Muslims. There are even atheist Muslims. (Yes, really.) In that sense, the “reformation” already exists. But it will not move everyone, and it is not moving the extremists any more than it moves extreme, fundamentalists Christians who bomb abortion clinics and Orthodox Jews who abuse women. (Not to mention the fact that I find it unlikely that any priest or rabbi would refer to the Bible as “just a book,” let alone an imam speak this of the Quran. But I could be wrong.)

And it seems to me that it is especially in Islam that such a global reformation is unlikely: the notions of world domination in a Caliphate and of power over women is too seductive, winning over the heart and mind of the common man. The narcissist who sees himself a hero, the sinner yearning for redemption, the youth raised with convictions of right and wrong that differ from our own but are equally as strong – these men will not let go of this Islam. They will fight to preserve and to empower it across the earth. They are the Islamic State.

All this said, Heretic remains an important book, not only for its explication of Islam but because, most of all, it confronts its readers with facts about jihad, about terrorism, about the abuse of Muslim women – and, too, about the good that lies within the roots of the Islamic faith. Many of the stories Hirsi Ali tells are ones most Americans either never knew, or have forgotten. And we need to know. This, too, is part of what will help create change.

Which is why, although I cannot agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s strategies (I would choose a remolding of minds through education in the arts and sciences) – and although I’m not sure I agree that such reform is even possible -I commend her deeply for this book. Clearly one thing has not changed about the Hirsi Ali I knew more than a decade ago in Amsterdam: She has started the discussion. Now it is time for the rest of us to join her.

Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.

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