Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Hope for Islam's 'Reformation'
What the counter-jihad heroine gets right in her new book "Heretic" -- and what she gets wrong.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s beauty and charisma personalize the unending atrocities against all-too-often anonymous women in the Muslim world. Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia and Saudi Arabia. She escaped from an arranged marriage. In Holland she was elected to parliament. She is now an American citizen. In 2014, Muslims prevented Hirsi Ali from receiving an honorary degree at Brandeis. Hirsi Ali’s 2006 memoir Infidel is an essential record of the life of one Muslim woman who chose, no matter the cost, to live with dignity, courage and integrity. Hirsi Ali’s 2015 book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, is less successful. Its flaws are representational of the flaws found in much counter-jihad rhetoric produced by self-identified atheists or atheists-lite including Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, and Bill Maher.
Hirsi Ali divides Muslims into three groups. She labels jihad-committed Muslims “Medina Muslims” (15).“Mecca Muslims,” she says, pledge fealty to Islam but aren’t actively violent (16). “Modifying Muslims” are Muslims who want to change Islam (17). These divisions are not emic – Muslims themselves do not label themselves as “Mecca Muslims” or “Medina Muslims.” There is no way that non-Muslims can reliably differentiate between one and the other. Hirsi Ali, had she known him, would almost certainly categorize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a non-violent or “Mecca” Muslim right up to April 18, 2013, the day he was identified as a suspect in the April 15 Boston Marathon Bombing. Tsarnaev’s friends identified him as not one of “them. He was us. He was Cambridge.” His twitter feed seemed to reflect a man “much more concerned with sport and cheeseburgers than with religion.“
Hirsi Ali cites five features of Islam that must change (24). The first such feature is “unquestioning reverence” for Mohammed and the Koran. In fact Muslims cite the Koran and hadith to support capital punishment for anyone who insults Mohammed or the Koran. Mohammed ordered the deaths of those who insulted him. Muslims have repeatedly killed others for insulting Mohammed. Islam’s attitude toward the Koran differentiates the Koran from the sacred scripture of any other world faith. Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists do not riot when someone burns a Bible, the Vedas or the Diamond Sutra. The Koran has near divine status: it cannot be translated from Arabic; the Koran is co-eternal with God, and uncreated; the original copy of the Koran is in Heaven and has been there eternally.
The second feature Hirsi Ali cites as needing to change is a “fatal focus” on the afterlife. She mentions Muslim parents who encourage their own children to be suicide bombers. A third feature of Islam that must change is sharia. Hirsi Ali says it “keeps Muslims stuck in the seventh century.” A fourth feature of Islam that must change is hisbah, the injunction to command right and forbid wrong. The chapter devoted to this concept describes life among Muslims as comparable to life under the East German Stasi. Hirsi Ali describes Muslim family members turning on each other to keep all obedient to Islamic dictates. The often fatal fruit of such one-on-one surveillance is honor killing, in which parents, uncles, or older siblings murder Muslim females and sometimes males perceived to have strayed. The fifth feature of Islam that Hirsi Ali says must be reformed is jihad, “the call for holy war” that “is a charter for terror.”
Hirsi Ali briefly recapitulates her autobiography, material that will be familiar to her loyal readers. Much of “Heretic” consists of summaries of news stories of Islam-inspired atrocities. Hirsi Ali revisits the attempted 2010 Times Square car bombing and other terrorist plots in the US, the honor killings of several Muslim women living in the US and Canada, the imprisonment of Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, a Christian woman, in Sudan, and the filmed gang rapes of Egyptian women in Tahrir Square.
In this avalanche of atrocities, of parents murdering their own children while the surviving brothers of murdered sisters applaud their infanticidal parents, Pakistanis burned alive by their neighbors, of recipients of Western welfare bombing their benefactors, one story stands out. Thirteen-year-old Somali Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was gang raped. She reported it. Sharia demands four adult male Muslim witnesses for a rape conviction. There were no witnesses. Duhulow was accused of adultery, buried up to her neck, and stoned for ten minutes. Her devout Muslim murderers dug her out, found a pulse, reburied her, and stoned her again. For those who read the news regularly, Heretic’s forced march through bombings and torture murders, a march that provides no new insights or avenues for action, will merely be redundant and depressing. These accounts don’t build to a larger point. Rather, they proceed episodically, like beads on a string.
One of the flaws in Hirsi Ali’s book, and in atheist discourse on Islam in general, is the tacit acceptance, as an almost religious dogma, of human progress. At least since nineteenth century thinkers August Comte and Herbert Spencer, some have believed that as time moves forward, an unseen hand evolves people into a smarter, more ethical, less religious species. In this belief system, the word “modern” is virtually a synonym for “ethical,” while the word “medieval” or “from the middle ages” is the ultimate insult. This worldview informs prominent atheists Michael Shermer’s and Steven Pinker’s recent books, The Moral Arc and The Better Angels of Our Nature. In this worldview, we don’t need the Judeo-Christian tradition to inform our ethics, because human progress is making us better people every day.
In the progress worldview, Islam is a problem because its roots are in the past. Islam will inevitably improve with time as other religions have. When Islam is “modern,” it will be good. “Other religions have undergone a process of reform,” Hirsi Ali writes, “modifying core beliefs and adopting more tolerant and flexible attitudes compatible with modern, pluralistic societies” (25). “The Muslim world” is struggling to come to terms with “modernity” (26). Modernizing “revolutions” liberated Europeans from “priestly authority” (58). Islam is problematical because it has “frozen into place” “tribal norms” (88). The Old Testament contains harsh verses, but “no one invokes these passages in modern-day jurisprudence” (135). Westerners “have come very far from the days when public executions were the norm and religious offenses were punishable by death” (137). Sharia amputations may be seen as “antiquated practices that, like witch-burning in Massachusetts, will die out” (138-9). Sharia harms Muslim women; it is a surviving remnant of “patriarchal tribal culture” (143). Persecution in contemporary Islam is “an odd echo of the religious persecutions of the European middles ages” (148). “In the twenty-first century, I believe that all decent human beings can agree that barbarous acts should not be tolerated” (152). “The early history of New England” confirms that “some Protestant sects” policed their members. “Modern” cities and regions “allow the clock to be turned back” when they become more Islamic (163).
During the March 23, 2015 broadcast of The Daily Show, both host Jon Stewart and guest Hirsi Ali voiced the human progress worldview. Hirsi Ali, prompted by Stewart, said, “Christianity went through that process of Reformation and Enlightenment and came to a place where the mass of Christians, at least in the Western world have accepted tolerance, the secular state – separation of Church and State, respect for women, respect for gays … There were Christians, I mean, within Christianity, who came out and said hey, we need to change things, we need to reform.” Islam, though, Hirsi Ali reports, is a problem, because it has not yet progressed, not yet evolved. The Koran “was written by a man a long time ago and the morality of the 7th century doesn’t apply in the 21st century and they have to pick that up … the morality of God-knows-when doesn’t apply now.”
There are problems with the human progress worldview. The biggest problem is that not a single one of the features Hirsi Ali would like to change in Islam is representational of the seventh century.
It is open to question whether Islam’s gender apartheid is a time capsule of pre-Islamic Arab culture. In 1986, in the journal Signs, Lelia Ahmed, Harvard’s Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity, published “Women and the Advent of Islam.” Ahmed argues that Arab women enjoyed more freedom and power before Islam than after, and that taking freedom and power away from women was a large part of the early mission of Islam. Ahmed cites the biography of Khadija, Mohammed’s first wife. Forty-year-old Khadija, who lived most of her life before the founding of Islam, was a businesswoman who hired twenty-five-year-old Mohammed, proposed marriage to him, and enjoyed him as her sole spouse – he was allowed no other wives while married to her. Before Mohammed, Ahmed writes, Arab women “had been remarkably active and independent” in a variety of roles including as the commanders of armies. Ahmed also cites Islam’s written record. “Perhaps 80 percent of Koranic rulings” Ahmed says, were “devoted to regulating marital relations and the conduct of women … the establishment of Islam was marked by the institution of new sociosexual norms.” Based on available evidence, “it becomes difficult not to conclude that the absolute empowerment of men in relation to women in all matters relating to sexuality and offspring and the disempowerment of women and thus the complete transformation of [contemporaneous Arab] society’s mores in the area of the relation between the sexes was itself one of Mohamad’s prime objectives.” Ahmed concludes with a tale from Islam’s early days. Two of Mohammed’s great granddaughters are chatting. One is happy; one is sad. Why? The happy girl was named after an ancestress who had lived before the founding of Islam; the sad girl had a Muslim name.
One can go farther back in time than Ahmed does. Thousands of years ago, ancient, Pagan Egypt was among the friendliest to women of all Mediterranean civilizations. Ancient Egyptian women could testify in court, own property, and initiate divorce. Recently, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey rated today’s Muslim Egypt as one of the worst countries for women.
Jihad, Islam’s most problematical feature, in no way is representational of the seventh century. Jihad is articulated in this hadith, inter alia, “I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,’ and whoever says, ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,’ his life and property will be saved by me.” No other religion in the seventh century followed this precept. Hinduism, sometimes considered the world’s oldest religion, was then and is now largely confined to the Indian subcontinent. This geographic distribution reflects Hinduism’s lack of a command to proselytize through military campaigns. Judaism, comparable in age to Hinduism, never announced itself as being under God’s command to world domination by military might. Jews were less than one percent of the world’s population in ancient times, and they are less than one percent of the world’s population today. Jewish population numbers reflect Jews’ disinterest in proselytizing by any means, including military – a disinterest that has lasted for thousands of years. Islam alone holds up the precept of jihad. Jihad is about Islam’s essence, not the essence of the seventh century.
Similarly, the deification of the Koran, the protection of Mohammed from any critique, hisbah, or spying on one’s intimates and policing their behavior, and the love of death, are in no way reflective of the seventh century. All these features of Islam worked with frightening efficiency in the ancient world, and they work today.
The difference between Islam and other world religions cannot best be measured with a clock or a calendar. Islam is not problematical because it was founded 1400 years ago. Islam is problematical because of its doctrines of jihad and gender apartheid. Time, in the form of a magical unseen hand called “progress” or “modernity” will not inevitably work any magic of “reform” on Islam.
It’s telling that Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other atheist and atheist-lite critiques of Islam so frequently compare Islam to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and so rarely compare Islam to Hinduism or Buddhism. The latter would make more sense. More Muslims, for more time, have lived cheek-by-jowl with Hindus and Buddhists than with Christians. That Hinduism and Buddhism are so rarely invoked tells us that there is something going on here. Two things are going on here. The first is Politically Correct hostility to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Hirsi Ali is not PC, but PC is the water in which she is swimming. The second is another PC dogma: cultural relativism. It is taboo to say that Western Civilization or the Judeo-Christian tradition are in any way superior to any non-Western culture.
Jon Stewart tried to back Hirsi Ali into a corner: “People single out Islam as though there is something inherently wrong with it that is not wrong with other religions … I get the sense you think Islam is different than other religions … there is something inherently wrong with this religion that is not wrong with other religions and that’s the thing I’m trying to get at.” And Stewart attempted to get Hirsi Ali to sign on to the one true faith of cultural relativism: “Christianity went through the exact same process.”
As hard as he tried, Stewart could not get Hirsi Ali either to say, or to refute, that there is something inherently wrong with Islam that is not wrong with Judaism or Christianity. Hirsi Ali was canny on The Daily Show. She played the Christophobia, cultural relativism, human progress cards. It is not okay to say that Christianity is different, and in respect to jihad, better than Islam. It is okay to say that Christianity is like Islam, and that time improved Christianity, and that time will similarly improve Islam. Christians do bad things, Hirsi Ali insisted. “In the name of Catholicism [they] despise and are homophobic.” But progress came along and changed Christians and made them modern – that is ethical. “Christianity went through that process of Reformation and Enlightenment and came to a place where the mass of Christians, at least in the Western world have accepted tolerance, the secular state – separation of Church and State, respect for women, respect for gays.”
Does Hirsi Ali make this case Heretic? No. Hirsi Ali is factually incorrect or merely misleading in many of her statements about the Judeo-Christian tradition. She misrepresents the Biblical story of Tamar (102), what Jews worship (77), Christian doctrine (84), understandings of the Bible and Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac (116), Christianity and women’s suffrage (151), and Pope Urban’s speech calling for the First Crusade (196). All these errors echo themes found in other atheist works on Christianity: the Bible is incoherent and violent; Christianity oppresses women; the Crusades are comparable to jihad. Even so, in the context of Hirsi Ali’s larger point, these half-truths are minor. What is important is this: the title and main thrust of the book is utterly off base.
I have to assume that Hirsi Ali and her publishers felt they could rely on widespread ignorance of what the Reformation actually was for the title of this book, and its main thrust, to go over with readers. Contrary to Hirsi Ali’s comments on The Daily Show, the Reformation was not a “modernization” of Christianity that included “separation of church and state, respect for women, respect for gays.” Hirsi Ali mentions Luther’s 95 theses (57). Luther’s theses addressed the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences in order to fund its building projects. Not a single one of Luther’s 95 theses concerned same-sex marriage.
Jesus Christ was the son of God; he was crucified and rose from the dead; God commands us to love people regardless of their identity and to spread his word through speech and good deeds, not violence; we are to render unto Caesar what is Cesar’s and unto God what is God – the concept of separation of church and state is built in: this was core Christianity two thousand years ago, it was core Christianity five hundred years ago, and it is core Christianity today. The Reformation did not budge these ideas, central to all Christians.
Further, Hirsi Ali is incorrect when she speaks of modernization as a magical hand that arises ex nihilo to improve Christianity.
One can see the superficial appeal of the human progress point of view. Fifty years ago, computers were large and slow. Today computers are slim and fast. One concludes that time improved computers. Just so, time will improve humans. Upon reflection one realizes that Aborigines lived in Australia for tens of thousands of years without producing a modern culture, and that Ancient Egypt reached great heights and lasted for three thousand years in a static form. Great ancient civilizations, India and China, did not produce modernity. Time itself doesn’t always move human societies forward.
Hirsi Ali, in the same way as atheist Michael Shermer, speaks of The Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the American and French Revolutions (58), as if they were Athena springing fully formed out of Zeus’ head. That is not accurate. The passage of time alone did not produce these life-improving modernizations. All these events that Atheists embrace so fervently appeared only in the West. Without the soil of Ancient Greece and the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps none of them would have come to be, or they would be quite different. Modernization, it has been argued, is the fruit of the Judeo-Christian tradition. See, for example, Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.
Hirsi Ali does not discuss in any serious detail previous attempts to liberalize Islam, although she does mention in passing the Mu’tazilites (59) and liberalization followed by oppression (210-11).
Given that modernity arose in the West and not elsewhere, given that Muslims have tried to liberalize Islam and only been crushed for their efforts, one must examine whether Islam is not amenable to modernization. Indeed, given that, as Hirsi Ali acknowledges, capital punishment has been justified and applied against those who criticize Islam, Mohammed, or the Koran, one has to ask if Islam has not built-in, unique, failsafe features that defeat liberalization.
Hirsi Ali struggles to support her case by comparing Islam to Christianity. “Medina Muslims” are just like pre-Reformation Christians who were typified by their “fanaticism and violence” (14). “See,” Hirsi Ali says, “just as, in the past, Christianity produced terrorists and the endless wars of jihad, and Christianity was modernized by the irresistible forces of time and progress, Islam will also be modernized.” Except that Christianity didn’t produce endless wars of jihad, and pre-Reformation Christians are really not comparable to terrorists.
Some readers will balk at the previous assertion. “What about the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Witch Craze?” First, historians acknowledge that the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Witch Craze have been systematically exaggerated. I begin my own class on the Witch Craze by telling my students, “Ninety percent of what you think is true about the Witch Craze is actually false.” Protestants and Catholics have been rivals for half a millennium. In that rivalry, Protestants have often exaggerated wrongs committed by Catholics as part of their propaganda efforts. More recently, Christophobes have mined this rich vein and amplified it. One brief and popular yet excellent demonstration of the level of exaggeration is Dr. Bill Warner’s YouTube video, Jihad v Crusades. This video graphically compares Crusader battles with jihad battles. Second, wrongs committed by Christians have never been either geographically or chronologically coterminous with Christianity; rather, they have been local and temporary responses to local and temporary stimuli. Third, Christians have always criticized and righted wrongs committed by other Christians. Christians outside of Spain, for example, produced serious criticisms of the Spanish Inquisition. Catholic Poland sheltered Jews expelled from Spain. By comparison, Saudi Arabia is not opening its borders to Christians expelled from Iraq. Finally, Christians who murdered in the name of their faith were acting in opposition to explicit scripture forbidding such behavior and enjoining Christians to spread their faith through charity, preaching, and good works, and to allow people to reject Christianity if that was their choice (Matthew 10:14). In short, Hirsi Ali’s and others’ comparisons of Christians and Christianity to Muslims and Islam obscure rather than clarify.
“The internet has the opportunity to be to the Muslim Reformation what the printing press was to the Protestant Christian one” (69). Except that modernity has been exploited by jihadis. Its key ingredients jet planes, world commerce, and television, no event in history was more modern than the 9-11 terror attack. ISIS has proven itself to be a master at social media.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an essential heroine. Her contribution to counter-jihad is inestimable. Heretic is not her best book. No one demands that Atheist counter-jihad authors become Christians; rather, all will benefit when they more accurately compare Islam, not just with Christianity or Judaism, but with all other world faiths. There is no unseen hand called “progress” that turned Christianity from its jihad-like past, that never existed, into its warm and fuzzy present, and no unseen hand will work that magic on Islam, either. We must confront jihad for what it is: a timeless and universal threat that requires an equally timeless and universal response.