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The Heretic We Need

books and culture

The Heretic We Need

Once again, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s pen is mightier than any barbarian’s sword. April 27, 2015
Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Harper Collins, 288 pp., $27.99)

Remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran? I always had a soft spot for his vainglorious lack of cognitive dissonance: the way he would chase after Western missile and nuclear technology while wearing his quasi-Members Only jacket—because donning the classic suit and tie was too indicative of the decadent infidel West. Turns out Mahmoud was more progressive than I gave him credit for: in 2010, he offered support to those Iranian men who preferred a clean shave and a tie to ayatollah chic. That prompted an internecine battle with Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who eventually proclaimed: “The supreme guide [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] himself has said in a fatwa that the wearing of ties or bow ties is not permitted.”

I was reminded of this episode while reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, which, among other theses, points out the intellectual bankruptcy of a political/religious ideology that preaches a return to seventh-century law and disorder while utilizing the tools of twenty-first century Western progress. This ideology practically screams “Topple Me With Satire and Post-Enlightenment Ideas,” and yet few have dared try, for doing so is (even in a free society) to risk death, whether your name is Salman Rushdie, Lars Vilks, Theo van Gogh, Charlie Hebdo—or Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

If you’re not familiar with Ali and her story, buy a copy of her 2007 memoir, Infidel. I’m confident you’ll eagerly purchase the follow-up, Nomad, and maybe even The Caged Virgin, an earlier collection of essays. Born into a devout though not extremist Islamic household in Somalia, Ali bounced from there to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, and finally Kenya—all before the age of 12. In 1992, she left Africa for the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage, but not before suffering genital mutilation, beatings (including a skull-bashing that nearly took her life), and radicalization in the name of Islam and tribal tradition. A little over a decade later, she was a Leiden University graduate and “Westernized” member of the Dutch parliament, gaining notoriety for her impassioned critique of Islamist violence, particularly against women. She’s now an American citizen, having fled the Netherlands after the murder by Islamists of Theo van Gogh— her collaborator on the film Submission—and a tempest over her Dutch citizenship.

Heretic, as its subtitle suggests, is not a third bio but rather Ali’s most academic and aspirational book to date. It clearly and cleverly offers five “amendments” to Islamic orthodoxy in order to alleviate its violent and oppressive tendencies. But before getting into those, let’s tackle some clichés Ali battles on the press circuit. Most interviews with her go something like this: “You’ve lived a tough life and are a fiery critic of Islam—but aren’t you painting with a broad brush? You know that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are peaceful, right? You know that the Bible has violent parts, right? You know that some people today take the Bible literally, right? Also, the Crusades. Oh look, we’re outta time.”

An elongated version of this lazy script was enacted during Ali’s recent appearance on “The Daily Show.” Host Jon Stewart talked in circles to Ali, at one point musing, “But did the Bible change, or did people’s interpretation of it change?” He seemed unaware that the freedom to interpret and debate Islam’s holy texts is Ali’s first proposed reform. Another deep Stewart-ism: “[I]t feels like Muslims are being asked to answer to something that has not much to do with them, that a group of radicals has stolen a text [from them].” Someone didn’t do his homework.

Heretic carefully separates Muslims into three categories. “Medina Muslims,” as Ali calls them, are the jihadists and their supporters, who intertwine the faith with seventh-century political and martial order, as Muhammad did during his time in that city. A low-ball estimate puts this population at 48 million, a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims—but, considering that it took only 19 men armed with box cutters and the “Medina” ideology to bring us 9/11, it’s a number to be concerned about. In the second group are the apostates and heretics, like Ali herself, who have left the faith altogether or are so critical of it that they can no longer be considered “true” Muslims. This population is tiny but growing. Finally, what Ali terms the “Mecca Muslims” comprise the majority of Islam’s adherents. These are the hearts and minds to whom she preaches reform: devout Muslims who desire access to Western thought, education, technology, and civil law, but who find that “pure” Islamic scripture and discipline (or their government’s adoption of sharia law) renders accommodation all but impossible. Torn by this conflict, many of these Muslims find themselves ripe for jihadist plucking: better to side with the devil you kinda know (Medina Islam) than the one you don’t (hell-bound apostasy).

“Avoidance was my main strategy to deal with the terrible dissonance” while in Holland, writes Ali. For others, it’s silent disapproval (or approval) of the Medina crew, a stifled life, or a bullet through the brain (see: Noble Prize winner Malala Yousafzai). That Islam itself might be incongruent with basic human rights is an argument met with much derision, but as Ali drolly replies: “To me, however, when a murderer quotes the Qur’an in justification of his crime, we should at least discuss the possibility that he means what he says.” She dedicates whole chapters to diagnosing the five root problems in Islam that manifest themselves via violence and oppression: 1) The Qur’an’s status as the immutable word of God and the infallibility of Muhammad as the last divine messenger; 2) an emphasis on the afterlife over the here and now; 3) sharia’s claims to be a comprehensive system of law governing the spiritual and temporal realms; 4) the obligation of ordinary Muslims to command right and forbid wrong; and 5) the concept of jihad, or holy war.

Millions of Muslims currently live under systems of sharia law that Westerners would be hard-pressed to distinguish from the fictional, Medieval-inspired fantasy of Game of Thrones: the men employed full-time as sword-wielding head-n’-limb choppers, the strategic marriages for honor and power, and the heartless tunnel vision of hoisting one flag above another, rivers of blood and bodies be damned. Western academics and liberals, Ali notes, should confront this fact with the same outrage they brought to the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, they mostly respond with silence, or with some face-palm-inducing counterpoint, à la Stewart.

I have two quibbles with the book. The first arises, ironically, out of Ali’s being a victim of her previous success. Heretic’s introduction states that it was written for “not only Muslims but also Western apologists for Islam.” I couldn’t help but think that every “amendment” chapter would have been buttressed by the in-depth personal anecdotes that packed Infidel and Nomad. Granted, Ali can’t write her biography three times (and Heretic does include another truncated telling of her life story), but the beauty of those earlier books was how they immersed the Western reader in the Muslim Ummah: the omnipresence of clan mentality, violence (both real and threatened), and malevolent personal and spiritual guilt. The intended audience might do better to read Ali’s earlier books first.

The second quibble is with Ali’s case for optimism. Page after page is filled with disconcerting statistics. Scientific polls—nearly all taken within the last decade—show staggering support for “Medina” opinions in the most populous and fecund Islamic nations, including those supplying the bulk of Western immigration. Seventy-five percent of Pakistanis “favor the death penalty for leaving Islam.” According to Pew, “91 percent of Iraqi Muslims and 99 percent of Afghan Muslims supported making sharia their country’s official law.” And, Ali writes, “65 percent [of European Muslims] say that religious rules are more important to them than the laws of the country in which they live.” And so on. Ali even writes off any hope for a modern-day Reagan or Thatcher regarding the shadow of Medina: “I do not expect our political leadership to take the lead in directly challenging the inequities of political Islam. The ideological self-confidence that characterized Western leaders during the Cold War has given way to a feeble relativism.”

Given all this, it's thus not overly convincing that the scales tip toward optimism, but how clearly Ali can read the crystal ball shouldn’t detract from Heretic’s message of “reform now.” And Ali is blunt about what the world is up against in that effort: “Indeed, the term ‘ijtihad,’ the nearest thing to reform in Arabic, means trying to determine God’s will on some new issue . . . Islam even has its own pejorative term for theological trouble-makers: those who indulge in innovations and follow their passions (the Arabic words ahl al-bida, wa-l-ahwa).” She then reminisces on the statement that earned her heretic status in Amsterdam: “[J]ust allow us Muslims one [Voltaire], please.”

Voltaire, Locke, Luther, Spinoza . . . it’s tempting to call Ali the modern incarnation of one or another of these. Yet just being the Ayaan Hirsi Ali of our own time is more than enough: she’s the heretic who risks her life with rich intellectual treatises and memoirs to hasten an ideological reformation that could liberate millions. We ignore her quill to our shame and peril.

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