Tag Archives: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Catapulting Islam Into the 21st Century



Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic:
Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now 

     Ayaan Hirsi Ali became known internationally and acquired celebrity status through her best-selling memoir Infidel, in which she told the spellbinding story of her journey away from the Islamic faith (I reviewed Infidel here in May 2012).  Hirsi Ali was born in 1969 in Somalia and lived in several different places growing up, including Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Rather than acquiesce in a marriage that her family had arranged for her, Hirsi Ali fled to the West, winding up in the Netherlands. She became a political activist there, winning a seat in the Dutch Parliament as a visible and vocal critique of many Islamic practices, particularly those affecting girls and women. But she was also critical of Dutch authorities and their overly tolerant, ineffectual reaction to such practices as female genital mutilation and “honor killings” of girls and young women who bring “shame” upon their families.  Hirsi Ali became a friend of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (a descendant of the painter), who was brutally killed in Amsterdam, ostensibly because of the criticisms of Islam contained in a film he had produced.  After Van Gogh’s death, Hirsi Ali fled to the United States, where she now lives as a highly visible, outspoken (and heavily guarded) critic of present day Islam.

    Hirsi Ali’s most recent book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now represents, she indicates, a “continuation of the personal and intellectual journey” she chronicled in Infidel and her other books (p.54). Here, Hirsi Ali addresses head-on the primary reason she has become a controversial figure: she firmly rejects the conventional liberal view of “jihad,” the wanton and barbaric violence practiced by professed Muslims. In the conventional view, jihad is a grotesque distortion of Islam, the work of a small number of fanatics who have “hijacked” a peaceful faith.

      Not so, Hirsi Ali counters.  Citing chapters and verses of the Qur’an, she contends that violence toward “infidels,” both non-Muslims and non-conforming Muslims, is an integral, inseparable component of a complex faith that counts over a billion followers across the globe. Jihad in the twenty-first century is “not a problem of poverty, insufficient education, or another other social precondition. . . we must move beyond such facile explanations. The imperative for jihad is embedded in Islam itself. It is a religious obligation” (p.176). Far from being un-Islamic, the central tenets of the jihadists are “supported by centuries-old Islamic doctrine” (p.205).

      Hirsi Ali is thus not one to avoid the term “Islamic terrorism.” It is no longer plausible, she contends, to argue that organizations such as Boko Haram and the Islamic state, ISIS, have “nothing to do with Islam. It is no longer credible to define ‘extremism’ as some disembodied threat, meting out death without any ideological foundation, a problem to be dealt with by purely military methods, preferably drone strikes. We need to tackle the root of the problem of the violence that is plaguing our world today, and that must be the doctrine of Islam itself” (p.190).

      The sanctioning of violence against infidels is in Hirsi Ali’s view only the most visible manifestation of Islam’s incompatibilities with the “key imperatives of modernity: freedom of conscience, tolerance of difference, equality of the sexes, and an investment in life before death” (p.51). Islamic thought rejects these hallmarks of democratically liberal and economically advanced societies, Hirsi Ali argues.  Islam therefore needs a reformation now, not unlike that which Christianity experienced in the 16th century. I would prefer the term “Enlightenment,” referring to the new modes of thinking that emerged in the 18th century. At one point, Hirsi Ali cites two figures associated with the Enlightenment, arguing that Islam “needs a Voltaire” and also has a “dire need” for a John Locke and his “powerful case for religious toleration” (p.209).

      But the terminology is not consequential. What Hirsi Ali advocates is that Islam and the Islamic world modernize. And, surprisingly, Hirsi Ali does not despair: in her view, a genuine Islamic reformation is not as far-fetched and fanciful as one might expect.

* * *

      Hirsi Ali characterizes Islam as, paradoxically, the “most decentralized and yet, at the same time, the most rigid religion in the world. Everyone feels entitled to rule out free discussion” (p.66). Islam has no counterpart to the hierarchal structures of the Catholic Church, starting with the pope and the College of Cardinals. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, the “tribal military and patriarchal values of [Islam’s] origins were enshrined as spiritual values, to be emulated in perpetuity . . . These values pertain especially to honor, male guardianship of women, harshness in war, and the death penalty for leaving Islam” (p.85).

      Islam in Hirsi Ali’s view upends the core Western view that individuals should, within certain limits, decide for themselves how to live and what to believe.  Islam has “very clear and restrictive rules about how one should live and it expects all Muslims to enforce those rules” (p.162). The “comprehensive nature of commanding right and forbidding wrong is uniquely Islamic,” she argues. Because Islam does not confine itself to a separate religious sphere, it is “deeply embedded in political, economic and personal as well as religious life” (p.156). Islam is a “political religion many of whose fundamental tenets are irreconcilably inimical to our way of life” (p.213).

    Hirisi-Ali’s analysis discounts the traditional division of Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects. This division is important to understand geo-political realities and the sectarian violence in today’s Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, along with the growing regional rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.  But the division does not help in understanding Hirsi Ali’s point that jihad-like violence toward “infidels,” including non-conforming Muslims, is embedded into and is an integral part of both Shiite and Sunni Islam.

       The more salient distinction is between what Hirsi Ali terms “Medina” and “Mecca” Muslims. Medina was the city where the Prophet Muhammad and his small band of 7th century followers gave a more militant cast to their faith, forcing polytheist non-believers – “infidels” — either to convert to Islam or die (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they paid a special tax).  Medina Muslims aim to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s warlike conduct after his move to Medina. They are more rigid and tribal than Mecca Muslims, seeking the forcible imposition of Islamic law, sharia, as their religious duty.  Although not all Media Muslims are violence-prone jihadists, jihad fits comfortably into their worldview. Even if Medina Muslims do not themselves engage in violence, “they do not hesitate to condone it . . . Medina Muslims believe that the murder of an infidel is an imperative if he refuses to convert voluntarily to Islam” (p.15). For Medina Muslims, other faiths and other interpretations of Islam are “simply not valid” (p.40).

      The good news is that Medina Muslims are a minority within the Islamic world. Mecca Muslims, the clear majority, are “loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly, but are not inclined to practice violence” (p.16). But the bad news is that Mecca Muslims are “too passive, indolent, and – crucially – lacking in the intellectual vigor to stand up to the Medina Muslims” (p.49). Winning their support for the reformation which Hirsi Ali envisions will be crucial but far from easy.

      Moreover, reform is “simply not a legitimate concept in Islamic doctrine,” Hirsi Ali argues. The “only accepted and proper goal of a Muslim ‘reformer’ is a return to first principles” (p.64).  Reform in the Islamic world has been narrowly focused on such questions as whether a Muslim could pray on an airplane, a technological innovation unknown to the Prophet Muhammad. But the “larger idea of ‘reform,’ in the sense of fundamentally calling into question central tenets of Islamic doctrine, has been conspicuous by its absence.  Islam even has its own pejorative term for theological troublemakers: ‘those who indulge in innovations and follow their passions’” (p.212-13).

    Hirsi Ali’s case for an Islamic reformation revolves around five central tenets of Islam that she considers incompatible with modernity and need to be modified if not abolished as part of the reformation she advocates.  She sometimes refers to her recommendations on these five tenets as “theses,” in reference to the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, when he provided his indictment against the Catholic Church. But more often she terms her recommendations simply “amendments.”

* * *

      Hirsi Ali’s five amendments are:

1. Ensure that the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an are open to interpretation and criticism — The “crucial first step” in the process of modification and reform of Islam will be to “acknowledge the humanity of the Prophet himself and the role of human beings in creating Islam’s sacred texts”(p.105).

2. Give priority to this life, not the afterlife — Islam’s “afterlife fixation” erodes the “intellectual and moral incentives that are essential for ‘making it’ in the modern world” (p.124); until Islam stops fixating on the afterlife, Muslims “cannot get on with the business of living in this world” (p.127).

3. Shackle sharia and end its supremacy over secular law — “What separated Muslims from the infidels . . . was the God-given nature of their laws. And because these laws came ultimately from Muhammad’s divine revelations, they were fixed and could not be changed. Thus the law code dating from the seventh century continues to be followed today in nations and regions that adhere to sharia” (p.133-34).

4. End the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law — Unlike the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, which had to work hard to persuade family members to denounce one another to the authorities, the “power of the Muslim system is that that the authorities do not need to be involved. Social control begins at home” (p.154); consequently, “every small act, every minor infraction has the potential to become a major religious crime” (p.165).

5. Abandon the call to jihad — The concept of jihad should be “decommissioned” (p.205); clerics, imams, scholars and national leaders around the world need to declare jihad “haram,” forbidden (p.206).

     Hirsi Ali contends that these amendments can take place “without causing the entire structure [of the Islamic faith] to collapse” (p.73). Her amendments will “actually strengthen Islam by making it easier for Muslims to live in harmony with the modern world” (p.73).  She acknowledges that medieval Christianity knew practices similar to those targeted in all but her 4th amendment (the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law has no analogue in hierarchical medieval Catholicism).  Reform-minded Islamic experts might quibble about some of Hirsi Ali’s wording and emphasis. I found it surprising that altering Islam’s view of women does not merit a separate amendment. Improvement in the status of women in Hirsi Ali’s analysis is rather an outgrowth of her 3rd amendment, shackling sharia: “there is no more obvious incompatibility between Islam and modernity than the subordinate role assigned to women in sharia law” (p.225).

     Hirsi Ali is far from the first to call for an Islamic reformation.  She nonetheless convinced me that reform of Islamic doctrine and the Islamic worldview along the lines of her five amendments would go far to render Islam a more tolerant religion, capable of coexisting with the world’s other faiths.  But  how does Islam catapult from the 16th century into to the 21st? Hirsi Ali’s response is vague, underscoring that her book is more polemical than practical — it is not a roadmap to the Islamic reformation.

* * *

      Realization of her five amendments will be “exceedingly difficult” (p.73), Hirsi Ali acknowledges. The struggle for the reformation of Islam is a “war of ideas” which cannot be fought “solely by military means” (p.220).  It must be led by a relatively small number of “dissidents” and “modifying Muslims” within the Muslim world who reject the Medina Muslims’ efforts to return to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The prize over which the dissidents and the Medina Muslims fight is the “hearts and minds of the largely passive Mecca Muslims” (p.223). The availability of new information technology is critical in empowering those who seek to oppose the Medina Muslims.

      The Western world should “provide assistance and, where necessary, security to those dissidents and reformers who are carrying out [the] formidable task” of seeking to reform Islam from within Muslim majority countries (p.250), Hirsi Ali writes. They should be defended and supported in the West in a manner analogous to the way the West defended and supported Soviet dissidents during the Cold War.  Such dissidents are “ultimately allies of human freedom though they may differ with Westerners on matters of public policy” and are “unlikely to agree with Westerners on every matter of foreign policy” (p.249).

     But the heart of Hirsi Ali’s message is that Westerners must change the way they think about Islam. We must:

no longer accept limitations on criticism of Islam. We must reject the notion that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently ’racist’. . . Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women’s rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity (p.27-28).

In Western countries, she argues at several points, Muslims “must accommodate themselves to Western liberal ideals” (p.213), rather than the other way around.

* * *

      In addition to its vagueness on how to bring about the Islamic reformation in Muslim majority countries, two additional shortcomings undermine the cogency of Hirsi Ali’s otherwise trenchant critique.  Hirsi Ali has a full section devoted to what she terms “Christophobia,” an antipathy toward Christianity which she says pervades Islamic countries across the globe and dwarfs what we often term “Islamophobia,” discrimination in the West against individuals because of their Muslim backgrounds and unequal treatment of Muslim religious institutions. She discounts Islamophobia as overstated and overblown by journalists.  But in a book targeting Westerners it is myopic to dismiss Islamophobia as inconsequential.  Anyone following current presidential elections in the United States or immigration issues in Europe knows that the phenomena of Islamophobia needs to be treated as a serious concern in Western societies. Hirsi Ali misses an opportunity to provide Westerners with her guidance about how they might work out the tension between acknowledging the often-illiberal substantive content of Islamic beliefs and practices without encouraging or succumbing to anti-Islamic hysteria, Islamophobia.  Hirsi Ali has more stature than just about anyone I can think of to provide such guidance.  That might be a worthwhile subject of her next book.

      Finally, at the end of her analysis, Hirsi Ali argues that Christianity and Judaism underwent a process of “repeated blasphemy” to evolve and grow into modernity (p.233-34). Those who wanted to uphold the status quo in Christianity and Judaism made the same arguments as those of present-day Muslims: that “they were offended, that the new thinking was blasphemy” (p.233).  The idea of blasphemy as an instrument of Islamic reform is an interesting one, but it appears only as an afterthought at the  end of Hirsi Ali’s book. The idea might have had serious clout if she had given it more prominence in the book and shown how it relates to her other arguments for reform. This too might be a worthwhile subject of another provocative Hirsi Ali book.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
August 9, 2016


Filed under Religion

The Limits of Toleration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel,


Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today

[Introduction: This is a commentary I wrote in September 2008.  At that time Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book was on the best-seller list, and her general profile has risen even further since 2008.  Today, she lives in the United States and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.   Although less well-known, Irshad Manji’s profile has also risen since 2008.  She too recently migrated to the United States, from her native Canada.  She is presently director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, which aims to “challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.”  She is a frequent “talking head” on a diverse range of TV news programs.  I have edited the original commentary only minimally, adding notably the reference in the final paragraph to the “Arab spring”]

“I believe that Islam is no different from the world’s other major religions; that it has a strong humanistic component; and that many, hopefully most, of its adherents are altogether capable of living harmoniously with persons of other faiths.”  Thomas H. Peebles, 9/12/06 (email correspondence to friends)

Was I hopelessly naïve when I wrote the above, or just ignorant?  In my defense, I did not have the benefit of having read “Infidel,” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nor had I read Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble with Islam Today” — two books about contemporary Islam, written by brilliant young Muslim women.  Ali’s is a poignant, riveting personal memoir, whereas Manji offers an analytical prescription for changing Islam, well captured in her subtitle, “A Muslim’s Call for Reform of Her Faith.”  Ali’s book was difficult to put down, and left me inspired yet emotionally drained at the end.  Initially, Manji’s book rubbed me the wrong way.  She seemed too glib and perhaps a little too full of herself.  But by the end, I developed a respect for her too.  In her breezy, informal style, Manji conveys a wealth of knowledge and insight about Islam and the Islamic world.  Among her contributions, she shows that the Muslim Holy Book does not support the anti-Semitism that seems endemic in many parts of the Muslim world (p.21, 39).  But Ali’s book is more complex, unsettling, and challenging – a spellbinding story that contains powerful messages about freedom and its limits, democracy, and human rights.

I was reading both books with the hope of validating the views which I went out on a limb to express in 2006, quoted above; or, to quote from the “discussion questions” for book clubs inserted at the end of Ali’s book, using both to help me reexamine whether Islam is “compatible with Western values and culture” (book club questions are a feature I had never seen before, then found again at the end of Manji’s book).  Manji’s answer to the book club question is a definite “maybe.”  Throughout, she leaves no doubt that a more open, less dogmatic Islam, although difficult, is attainable.

Much of Ali’s book, by contrast, lays out the case that Islam is altogether incompatible with Western values.  Muslim culture, based on the Koran, is “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war,” she writes (p.272).  I had the sense she was killing me not so softly when she belittled those Westerners who argue that Islam is a peaceful and humane religion.  Looking at “reality, at real cultures and governments,” Ali sees that “it simply isn’t so” (p.349).  Westerners swallow these arguments, she says, “because they have learned not to examine the religions and cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist.”  Ouch!  That hurt.

But, surprisingly, a close reading of Ali’s book reveals that for her, too, Islam is at least potentially compatible with Western values: Ali proffers a highly tentative maybe, rather than Manji’s definite maybe.  The key for both is that the Muslim world needs to undergo its own version of the Enlightenment, similar to that of Western Europe and North America in the 18th century, when the notion of a secular state that promotes equality and encourages tolerance began to take hold.  Manji’s book throughout is a plea for what she calls a “reformation” in Islam (p.30).

Ali too uses the word “reformation,” which she describes as moving “from the world of faith to the world of reason” (p.347).  “In the past fifty years,” she observes, the Muslim world has been “catapulted into modernity.”  Muslims “don’t have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way they think about equality and individual rights” (p.350).  Just as the West freed itself from the “grip of violent organized religion,” Ali assumes that the “same process could occur among the millions of Muslims,” infusing traditions that are “rigid and inhumane with the values of progress and modernity” (p.272-73).  Surely, she says, now it is “Islam’s turn to be tested” (p.282).

Still, overall, Manji’s vision is far more optimistic, in large measure because she was brought up in a Muslim family in dour but diverse British Columbia, Canada, where the more stifling aspects of Muslim culture are counterbalanced by the province’s general openness.  Growing up amidst war, dictatorship and rigid patriarchy in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya afforded Ali no such advantage.  Ali’s description of her youth in these countries is chilling in many respects, never more so than her description of the genital mutilation she was forced to undergo as a girl.  But this is simply the most graphic example of a suffocating Muslim culture that subjugates women and leaves little room for free inquiry for either sex.  And it is striking that Ali dwells far more on the intellectual rather than economic impoverishment she encountered as she moved between four different countries as a girl.

Similarly, when Ali moved to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, she was captivated far more by the country’s spirit of openness and free inquiry than by its material prosperity (and we can argue well into the night on whether there is a connection between the two: do you need one to have the other? if so, which is the chicken, which is the egg?).  In the portion of her book on the Netherlands, where she transforms from outsider to insider, Ali found a “post-religious,” highly secular society, where people “openly disbelieved every aspect of religion” and “God was mocked everywhere” (p.239).  She also found Holland to be a “post-patriotic” society, “uncomfortable with the symbols of Dutchness,” where being Dutch seemed to mean “absolutely nothing“ and nationalism was seen as “almost the same thing as racism” (p.257).  Nobody, she emphasized, “seemed proud of being Dutch” (p.257).

Despite its openness – or maybe because of its openness – Ali perceives clear limitations to Holland’s ability to absorb and integrate outsiders.  When massive immigration to the Netherlands began in the 1980s, there was a “sense among the Dutch that society should behave with decency and understanding toward these people and accept their differences and beliefs” (p.246).  But the result was that “immigrants lived apart, socialized apart.  They went to separate schools – special Muslim schools or ordinary schools in the inner city, which other families fled” (p.246).  While the Dutch contributed generously to international aid organizations, they were “also ignoring the silent suffering of Muslim women and children in their own background” (p.246).

For Ali, the Dutch form of toleration – that paradigm Western value – subverts individual freedom when applied to Muslim women.  To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964convention line, Ali contends that toleration of a system that systematically subjugates women and deprives them of their rights is no virtue.  Indeed, the chapters in her book on the Netherlands might have been titled “The Limits of Tolerance.”  Manji reaches a similar conclusion.  She says that as Westerners “bow down before multiculturalism, we often act as if anything goes.”  The “ultimate paradox,” she says, is that in order to defend Western tolerance and diversity, “we’ll need to be less tolerant” (p.199).  This is also Ali’s “ultimate paradox”: Western tolerance should not extend to systemic human rights abuses practiced in minority cultures.  Thus stated, the principle seems self-evident, but Ali’s example of the Dutch Ministry of Justice’s refusal to record honor killings of women because it would “stigmatize one group in society” (p.295-96) shows how well meaning, tolerant officials can have difficulty applying it.

In this vein, in his introduction to Ali’s book, the late Christopher Hitchins contends “without equivocation” that:

[i]f Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, it is they who must expect to do the adapting.  We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy or racial discrimination or child marriage.  That is the price of ‘inclusion,’ and a very reasonable one (p.xviii-xix; emphasis in original).

Does anyone disagree?

Even with these reservations and insights into the limits of toleration, perhaps the most striking aspect of Ali’s book is her affirmation of the superiority of Western values over those of the societies she grew up in.  Having made her journey from the “world of faith” to the “world of reason,” she has particular credibility when she says she knows that:

one of those worlds is simply better than the other.  Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values . . .Life is better in Europe [and I hope she would include North America] than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized, and protected by the state (p.346).

Manji, who grew up in a Western culture and could take its individual liberty and spirit of inquiry for granted, is just as emphatic.  She opens her book by paying homage to the freedoms afforded her in the West: “to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged and rethink” (p.19).  Unlike Ali, she never had to choose between Islam and the West.  As she puts it, “the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively.” Manji not only reaffirms the superiority of Western values but also sees Western Muslims as “poised to demonstrate the possibilities of reforming Islam” (p.186); or, as she puts it at the beginning of her book, having the capacity to restore Islam’s “better angels” (p.4).  Muslims in the West have the “luxury of exercising civil liberties, especially free expression to change tribal tendencies,” Manji asserts.  “Are we leveraging that freedom? Are enough non-Muslims challenging us to do so?” (p.186).

But only a miniscule portion of the world’s Muslim population lives in Europe and North America.  Most still live in predominantly Muslim countries and unless these countries undergo sweeping transformation, reform of Islam is unlikely to be widespread.  And here Manji’s analysis conveys a better sense of the diversity and dynamism within the Islamic world.   Somalia and Saudi Arabia are not the only models.  Manji cites  Turkey, flawed in many ways but nonetheless the Muslim world’s most mature and secular democracy (p.156).  Today, she would be likely to cite the democratic sentiments so widely manifested in the “Arab Spring” — although she would probably want to add a word about how the Arab Spring also demonstrates the difficulty of utilizing those sentiments to build sustainable democratic institutions.  Indeed that very difficulty demonstrates that there is still today, as in 2008, a long way to go before a Muslim Enlightenment takes hold in the Islamic world.  But if counterparts as articulate and clear-eyed as Ali and Manji can be empowered in that part of the world, it would be imprudent to discount this possibility as hopelessly naïve.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 7, 2012


Filed under Gender Issues, Politics, Religion