'Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now': Ayaan Hirsi Ali wants Islam to embrace Western values
May 10, 2015 12:00 AM
"Heretic" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Heretic."
By Marina Bolotnikova / Toledo Blade
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist who once called Islam a “nihilistic cult of death,” has learned the hard way that it’s best to keep one’s most belligerent views to oneself.
Having provoked the ire of Muslims and progressives all over the world, Ms. Hirsi Ali now calls for something more conciliatory. In her latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” (Harper, $27.99), she argues that Islam needs to eradicate the elements she believes promote violence, and make it into a faith consistent with modernity and liberal values.
"HERETIC: WHY ISLAM NEEDS A REFORMATION NOW"
By Ayaan Hirsi Alil Harper ($27.99).
Ms. Hirsi Ali is careful to acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims do not understand their religion in militant terms. Her classification, offered up with scant scholarly evidence, divides Muslims into three broad categories: Mecca Muslims, the peaceful but largely passive and socially conservative majority; Medina Muslims, the militant believers who accept the call to wage religious war (this group makes up 3 percent of Muslims, according to statistics she cites); and Modifying Muslims, those who challenge Islamic orthodoxy.
If Islam is to be saved from the Medina Muslims’ destruction, she argues, Mecca Muslims must be willing to acknowledge that Islamic scripture, not social estrangement or economic conditions, forms the basis for Islamism.
“It simply will not do,” she writes, “for Muslims to claim that their religion has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists.” She identifies five areas of Islamic thought that she believes must be repudiated, including literalist readings of the Quran and adherence to sharia law.
Some of her recommendations, like nullifying Muhammad’s semi-divine status, seem so extreme as to be directly contradictory to the faith.
Ms. Hirsi Ali devotes surprisingly little of “Heretic” to explaining how the reformation she describes could be realized, or what a reformed Islam would look like. And while her basic point — that it’s foolish to try to divorce Islamist violence from the scripture that motivates it — is a sound and constructive one, she debases her argument with grating assertions like her old refrain, “Islam is not a religion of peace,” and just-so explanations of why Islam became more disposed to violence than other religions.
Ms. Hirsi Ali should be read as a polemicist, not a historian, yet she still ought to be held accountable for unfounded historical remarks. A former Muslim who had fled religious violence in Somalia, Ms. Hirsi Ali doesn’t care much about offending Muslims; she seems even to relish it. She makes unsupported diagnoses of large swaths of Muslims, like her claim that young Muslims in the West face no choices other than to embrace fundamentalism or to leave their faith entirely.
She writes that mainstream Muslim leaders have been largely unwilling to challenge fundamentalism, a claim that is false on its face. Muslim leaders all over the world have loudly condemned violence committed in the name of Islam.
But if you knew nothing of Muslims or Islam before reading “Heretic,” it would make you think that all the world’s Muslims are one step away from embracing Islamism. That’s what makes her narrative so dangerous.
Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion and a more reasoned voice on Islam, has mocked Ms. Hirsi Ali’s arguments in “Heretic,” arguing that she does not understand what a religious reformation is.
In reality, though, they call for many of the same things within the Muslim community, whether they prefer to call it a reformation, a change in narrative, or something else. Both say it’s unhelpful — and untruthful — to claim that Islamists have nothing to do with Islam. Both believe the best antidote to fundamentalism is to assert nonviolence and pluralism.
Still, Mr. Aslan’s points are well-taken. If Ms. Hirsi Ali wants to be taken seriously by the moderate Muslims she appeals to, she ought at the least to renounce her earlier calls to rid the world of Islam. Until she does, she shouldn’t be surprised that Muslims remain suspicious of her motives, or that many charge, cynically but perhaps credibly, that she is more interested in stirring up controversy than in thinking seriously about reform.
Marina Bolotnikova is an editorial writer for The Toledo Blade (firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mbolotnikova).
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