How She Wants to Modify Muslims

Jared Platt
Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Goldwater Institute, Phoenix, Arizona, December 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali bluntly declares her intention in the introduction to her new book: “To make many people—not only Muslims but also Western apologists for Islam—uncomfortable.” Discomfort, alas, comes easily when the subject, as in the Somali-born author’s three previous books, happens to be the sorry state of Islam. It takes little effort to raise alarm when Muslim terrorists terrify so effectively, and when scarcely a day now passes without some horror committed in the name of their faith. Bombs and hijackings are passé; today’s jihadists prefer studio-quality, slow-motion bloodletting, or atavistic barbarities such as rape, idol-smashing, mass beheading, and the carting off of virgin sex slaves.

The opening device of Heretic underlines just how conditioned we have become to such depravities. Hirsi Ali presents a news flash describing a murderous terror attack, but strips it of such details as time and place and number of victims, leaving only the clues that the killers wore black and shouted “Allahu Akbar!” It takes little imagination to fill in the blanks. It is all too familiar, too believable: what she describes could happen in the office of a satirical magazine in Paris, or a boys’ school in Peshawar, or a village in northern Nigeria.

The device is effective, and Hirsi Ali quickly moves to score more points. For too long, she says, Muslims and Western liberals have argued that such atrocities, as well as the ideas and organizations behind them, are aberrations; that they represent a travesty of “true” Islam. Nonsense, she writes:

They are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad…. Islam is not a religion of peace.

Hirsi Ali has made similar and often stronger declarations before, receiving death threats from religious fanatics in response, as well as hostility from many secular critics:

I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.

Despite the familiar mix of provocative rhetoric and airbrushed autobiography, Heretic differs from her previous books. It is neither a retelling of Hirsi Ali’s own hejira into Western freedom nor another lengthy blast against the religion that she was raised in and that she abandoned. Hirsi Ali’s attitudes have shifted. Before, she had assumed there was no hope of moderating Islam; it was a creed that needed to be “crushed,” as she once declared. Now, inspired as she says by the evident ferment among Muslims that gave rise to the Arab Spring, and by indications of a growing wave of dissent within the faith, she has come to believe that Islam can and indeed must be reformed.

To many Western readers, this is an attractive and seemingly obvious idea. After all, the other two Abrahamic faiths long ago undertook reformation, glossing away contrary bits of scripture, retiring inconvenient heavenly commands and punishments, and erecting a practical partition between religion and politics. Yes, the process was long and painful. But it has paid off pretty well for modern-day Christians and Jews, and indeed for the larger part of humanity that, knowingly or not, lives under the umbrella of Enlightenment.

With her newly mellowed perspective, Hirsi Ali discerns a Muslim constituency that may be coaxed in a similarly benign direction. This involves a bit of amateur exegesis. As she notes, scholars of the Koran have long distinguished between the eighty-six chapters, or suras, revealed at the Prophet Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca and the twenty-eight suras revealed later, during his exile at Medina. The Koran of the Mecca period dwells on themes such as the oneness of God, the wonders of creation, the wisdom of earlier prophets, and the perils of hellfire.

At Medina, where Muhammad took on new roles as the lawgiver, supreme judge, and military commander of a growing flock facing stronger hostile forces, the revelation takes on a more militant, legalistic, and exclusive form. Earlier verses declare that there is “no compulsion in religion” as well as the tolerant principle, “to them their religion, to me my own.” By contrast a later sura, which appears to address soldiers shirking their duty, enjoins the faithful to “fight and slay wherever you find them” those unbelievers who have broken treaties with the Prophet.

Not altogether convincingly, Hirsi Ali makes use of this contrast in tone and intent to categorize the Muslims of today. In one camp, she says, stand the “Medina Muslims.” Ignoring the more universal and inclusive message of the Koran, these fanatics focus instead on the holy book’s fighting words, and selectively pick from later Islamic tradition those parts calling for harsh punishments and unending jihad. Hirsi Ali suggests that something like 3 percent of Muslims, or around 48 million people, adhere to this form of Islam. Although she does not say so, this number is necessarily inexact since it includes not only the hyperviolent members of ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and sister gangs but others who may hold similarly dim and blinkered views far from the front lines of jihad.

The vast majority of Muslims belong instead to Hirsi Ali’s “Mecca” category, a group she defines as devout worshipers who remain “loyal to the core creed” yet are “not inclined to practice violence.” Lastly there is a small category of what she terms “Modifying Muslims,” people who have come, like herself, “to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.” Hirsi Ali believes that Modifying Muslims can influence the Mecca majority and wean them from the temptations of the literalist, bigoted, and violent Medina creed. To help matters along she proposes a simple plan, picking five tenets of the faith that must be “reformed or discarded”:

• The infallible status of Muhammad and the literal understanding of the Koran

• Giving priority to the afterlife over the present day

• Sharia law “and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence”

• The empowerment of individuals to enforce such laws and customs

• Jihad.

It will be obvious, even to a layman unfamiliar with the intricacies of Islamic doctrine and practice, that this list represents a tall order. Hirsi Ali herself admits this, as well as the fact that hers is hardly the first voice to call for reform. Her more modest hope is to stimulate debate:

The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here…. I will consider this book a success if it helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves.

Perhaps it will, and that would be a good thing. The passion that Hirsi Ali brings to the argument is healthy, too. But there are several problems with her approach. These include such troubling aspects as her use of unsound terminology, a surprisingly shaky grasp of how Muslims actually practice their faith, and a questionable understanding of the history and political background not only of Islam, but of the world at large.

Take her three categories of Muslims, for instance. Hirsi Ali is probably quite correct to assert that while it is particularly noisy and violent, the jihadist “Medina” end of the Islamic spectrum is narrow and thinly populated compared to the much larger “Mecca” group. She is also right that the outspokenly critical Muslims are even less numerous. But surely the 1.5 billion “Mecca” Muslims do not all fit into a single hapless category. Like the members of any great religion, one might imagine they instead have a diversity of views, as designations that Muslims use for one another, such as, for example, Salafist, Sufi, Ismaili, Zaidi, Wahhabist, Gulenist, Jaafari, and Ibadi, would suggest.

Hirsi Ali herself seems a bit unsure of where all those middle Muslims belong. “Must all who question Islam end up either leaving the faith, as I did, or embracing violent jihad?” she asks.

I believe there is a third option. But it begins with the recognition that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam itself. Understanding why that is so is the key to finding a third way: a way that allows for some other option between apostasy and atrocity.

I think it is fair to assume that quite a few Muslims, not only today but throughout the history of Islam, have found some “other option” without Hirsi Ali’s guidance. Rather than by abolishing or radically modifying the particular points of doctrine she so dislikes, they have done so just as believers in other religions have, by creatively reinterpreting their founding texts, or by quietly ignoring contentious parts. Others, such as Egypt’s Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Abdolkarim Soroush of Iran, or Abdelmajid Charfi of Tunisia, have critiqued more rigid interpretations of Islam in work based on a thorough knowledge of traditional Islamic scholarship and arguments that, unlike Hirsi Ali’s, seek to place the problems of modern Islam in a historical setting.

Just as Hirsi Ali casually misrepresents Muslims, she misrepresents Islam. Falling into a trap that is sadly common among Western commentators, she repeatedly presents what in her own terms is the “Medina” version of the faith as somehow more authentic or valid than other interpretations. She takes, for example, the long-lapsed and historically rare practice of forced conversion—a practice jarringly revived only recently by ultra-extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or ISIS in Iraq—to be the norm rather than the exception. Yet historians now largely accept that far from being “extremely brutal,” as Hirsi Ali asserts, the extraordinarily swift and sweeping early Muslim conquests were assisted by large numbers of willing “infidel” allies, who may have viewed Muslim rule as a relief from the warring Byzantine and Persian empires. Just seven years before the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637, Byzantine rulers had slaughtered all its Jewish inhabitants. Persian invaders had massacred all its Christians in 614. By contrast the Muslims permitted freedom of worship for everyone.

If Muslims had indeed made systematic the practice of forced conversion, as Hirsi Ali seems to think, how is it that they failed to convert the majority populations of countries they ruled for hundreds of years, such as India or Greece or Bulgaria? The contrast with, say, the expulsion of Muslims and Jews during the Spanish Reconquista is striking.

Hirsi Ali’s mischaracterization extends from history to matters of belief and practice. “In its very name ‘Islam’ means submission,” she writes. “You subsume yourself to an entire set of beliefs. The rules as set down are precise and exacting.” Perhaps so, but the word “Islam,” coming from the same root as the Arabic for “peace,” also means “acceptance,” “reconciliation,” or “resignation” to the will of God. Hirsi Ali seems unaware, moreover, that the general uses of the terms “Islam” and “Islamic” are relatively modern, and indeed are to an extent adaptations of Western usages. As in the text of the Koran itself, for most of the faith’s fifteen centuries its followers have far more often referred to themselves as mu’mineen—believers—than muslimeen.

A screen shot from a video released by ISIS in July 2015 showing young ISIS executioners parading past condemned Syrian government soldiers before killing them in front of a crowd of spectators in the amphitheater at Palmyra

Those rules that she describes, too, are neither as precise or exacting as Hirsi Ali would have us believe. She portrays Islamic law or sharia—which literally means the “way” or “path”—as “codifying” not only points of ritual but the organization of daily life, economics, and governance. In another passage we are told that sharia “states that women are considered naked if any part of their body is showing except for their face and hands.”

Sharia cannot “state” or “codify” anything. Far from being a rigid set of rules, Islamic law is an immense amalgam of texts and interpretations that has evolved along parallel paths within five major and numerous minor schools of law, all of them equally valid to their followers. Some parts of this body, such as laws regarding inheritance, vary little between rival schools. But in the absence of any universally accepted ruling authority and with political winds and exigencies constantly changing, legal opinions on most matters have tended to be fluid rather than fixed. So it is that while some clerics will agree with Hirsi Ali’s definition of nakedness, others may insist on a full face veil, or perhaps—although this is unlikely—argue instead that the bikini is a practical garment for swimming. At times clerics have banned the drinking of coffee or the wearing of long sleeves, only to relent.

Hirsi Ali is similarly misguided regarding Islamic traditions. One of these that is “unique to Islam,” she declares, “is a tradition of murderous martyrdom, in which the individual martyr simultaneously commits suicide and kills others for religious reasons.” Despite the recent ghastly record that includes September 11 and ISIS’s use of suicide fighters in its assaults on Iraqi cities, there is no such “tradition.” Hirsi Ali herself notes that the first example of a Muslim suicide attack dates not to the distant past but to 1980, when desperate Iranian leaders adopted this tactic against the Muslim army of neighboring Iraq. As that example shows, most “martyrdom operations” have been carried out for political, not religious reasons or, as was the case with Japan’s kamikazes and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka’s 1983–2009 civil war, as a last-ditch weapon of the weak against the strong.

In fact the four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence—including arch-conservative Saudi clerics—all concur that suicide is a serious sin. Some individual clerics have condoned its use in war by invoking arguments of necessity, not “tradition.” More than an enactment of anything Islamic, the resort to suicide by groups such as al-Qaeda or ISIS represents a deliberate challenge to traditional, patriarchal authority. It is a statement of zeal and determination, a form of advertising or propaganda designed not only to kill and frighten enemies, but to inspire new recruits into what are, in effect, as much death cults as religious movements.

Another peculiar contention of Hirsi Ali’s is that “all over the Muslim world” women are stoned to death for adultery. In fact this hideously cruel punishment has rarely been recorded throughout Muslim history and never in most Muslim countries for at least the past several generations. In almost all cases where it has been applied in recent years, stoning has taken place in tribal or rebel areas beyond the control of central governments—the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq, and Boko Haram in Nigeria being cases in point. Out of the world’s forty-nine Muslim-majority states, six retain the punishment in deference to Islamic legal tradition, despite the fact that the Koran, unlike the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:24), does not mention it. Of these countries only Iran, which officially placed a moratorium on stoning in 2002 but still gives leeway to individual judges, has actually carried it out.

Perhaps one reason for Hirsi Ali’s propensity for taking the actions and beliefs of Islam’s outliers and misfits as somehow exemplary of the religion’s true essence is her unwillingness to suggest any external motivations for their particular madness. These are not hard to find. The many forms of Islamism—a more accurate term than simply “Islam” for the often violent and angry version of the faith that is sadly fashionable today—emerged largely in response to European imperialism. This is not surprising when we consider that between 1800 and 1950 some nine out of ten Muslims happened to fall under aggressively imposed “infidel” rule. Small wonder that most modern Islamist political movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928, to Lebanon’s Shia militia-cum-party Hezbollah, to the Salafi-jihadist State of the Islamic Caliphate that is now beheading people in Syria and Iraq, have portrayed themselves as “resistance” movements against dastardly Western domination.

Needless to say, the era of European colonization is long past. However much Islamists may still rail against “cultural invasion,” or against the “artificial” Middle Eastern borders imposed by France and Britain, or against American military incursions and so on, the West cannot be blamed for many of the excesses of such groups. Hirsi Ali is quite correct that the jihadists have dredged the darker parts of Islam’s own traditions to justify what are by any standard simply abominable crimes. She is also right that unthinking literalism blinds all too many Islamists to ethics, reason, and common sense.

It is a fact, too, that such strains of modern Islamism as Saudi Arabia’s rigid Wahhabism developed autonomously and not in response to the West. They are manifestations of a cycle that has repeated throughout Islamic history, whereby puritan sects have periodically erupted from the hinterlands to purge and purify Muslim cities of supposed corruption.

Lost on Hirsi Ali, however, is the irony that such eruptions—and ISIS represents a new and particularly virulent one—are themselves products of a deeply felt need among Muslims for “reform.” The fact is, as I have written in these pages, that Islam is now already, and indeed has been for some time, deep in the throes of a painful, multifaceted reformation.* The current tribulations of the faith represent not a sudden new departure but a continuation of decades of churning controversy, of debate and strife.

This anguished process shares parallels with the experience of other Abrahamic religions. But there are important distinctions. One of them is the matter of timing: whereas Christian and Jewish reform evolved over centuries, in relatively organic and self-generated—albeit often bloody—fashion, the challenge to Islam of such concepts as empirical reasoning, the nation-state, the theory of evolution, and individualism arrived all in a heap and all too often at the point of a gun. Muslims have had less time to grapple with the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment, and have done so from a position of weakness rather than strength.

Another central difference from the Christian experience was that Islam has had to face the crucial question of what to do with religious law. Until the nineteenth century Muslims dominated virtually every society they lived in, with sharia acting as the backbone of legal systems from the East Indies to Morocco. Add to this the difference that there is no “church” in Islam—no fixed and widely recognized religious hierarchy to explain doctrinal changes or to enforce them—and we begin to understand the difficulty of progressive reform.

All too often, “reform” movements in Islam have taken the guise of fundamentalist purges, with efforts to reimpose some ostensibly purer form of religious law tempting their propagators to violence. Yet most ordinary Muslims have found subtler paths, accommodating modern ways by diluting to one degree or another their adherence to doctrine, by creatively interpreting sharia, or by regarding the intent of the law as more important than the letter. Plenty of proud Muslims do not pray five times daily, or worry much about what “proper” Islamic dress is, or base their political opinions on what is good for the faith. They pick and choose what form of Islam to follow from across a very broad range of options.

Most Muslim countries, for their part, long ago recognized the utility of secular laws to supplement or even supersede sharia. To governments seeking to build states in a fast-paced, competitive, and increasingly complex world, traditional Islamic law came to be seen not as too rigid—as Hirsi Ali would have it—but rather as too unpredictable, too open to the vagaries of individual interpretation by judges with little knowledge of the world outside scripture.

Keen to “catch up” with Europe, the Ottoman Empire sharply restricted the role of sharia courts in the mid-nineteenth century, ending in the process most legal distinctions between Muslims and other subjects. Tossing out reams of accumulated Islamic jurisprudence in the matter, the Bey of Tunis summarily abolished slavery in 1846, two decades before the United States. In the early twentieth century Egypt adopted largely French and Turkey largely Swiss law codes. Among the few modern countries that continue to declare sharia the sole law of the land, Saudi Arabia nevertheless has since the 1960s used civil law to regulate commerce, as a matter of pragmatism.

Such evolutions remain tentative, incomplete, and contested. Turkey in recent decades has seen a backlash against the secularization imposed nearly a century ago by Kemal Atatürk. Egypt, for its part, has struggled repeatedly to arrive at a constitution that appears to give primacy to sharia while effectively confining religious law within the bounds of civil codes; its laws are today a messy tangle of sharia-based and secular rules. In an appeal to populism in Pakistan in the 1980s, the dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq pursued a radical program to revive application of sharia, including severe punishments for such crimes as blasphemy; Pakistani governments in the decades since have tried to back away from some of its more controversial aspects.

Where courts are crowded and corrupt, which is all too often the case in poorer Muslim countries, sharia retains a strong pull as an imagined panacea, a fact reflected in opinion polls. And in places such as Somalia or Afghanistan where the central government has collapsed or lost legitimacy, Muslim societies have often reverted to laws based more explicitly on scripture, including extreme punishments such as cutting off the hand of a thief. Some Muslims in minority communities, meanwhile, have turned in on themselves, creating what some describe as Islamic ghettoes in places such as the suburbs of Paris, or Bradford and Birmingham in England.

The call by radicals and fundamentalists to create, geographically, a larger sacred space for Islam, where the sound application of God’s law ensures a sweeter afterlife for the faithful, remains potent. This was an important impetus for the 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan, an “Islamic” state that, like the Jewish state founded less than a year later, may have been conceived by secularists but carried a strong imaginative appeal for the religious. The notion of an exclusive sacred space also underlies the darker fantasies of a resurrected pan-Islamic Caliphate currently causing mayhem in the Fertile Crescent. To one degree or another the civil wars, insurrections, and bitterly polarized politics that afflict many Muslim countries today reflect the struggle between such essentially utopian Islamist visions and a contrary trend toward disenchantment and the desacralization of public space.

As Hirsi Ali points out, such utopian visions are reinforced by the traditional Muslim view of history as a prolonged fall from the brief moment of grace that prevailed in the earliest years of Islam. It is strengthened, too, by the Muslim tradition of viewing the Koran as the literal word of God, and of exalting the Prophet’s reported words and deeds as a fixed template for correct behavior. Hirsi Ali’s conclusion: “In those terms, it is only the Medina Muslims who can represent themselves as the agents of a Muslim Reformation.”

But here again she is not quite right. The argument for a purge or a return to basic principles represents, as we have seen, only one kind of reformation out of many that Muslims have proposed and continue to seek. One might argue that enlightened reform is as much a part of Islam as violent radicalism, if not more so. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Mu’tazilite movement tried to introduce ideas of free will, reason, and a historical understanding of the Koran into Islam.

Their efforts were ultimately rejected. But later Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroës applied Aristotelian and Neoplatonic methods to Koranic exegesis, just as numerous contemporary Muslim scholars quietly apply modern forms of scholarship. Hirsi Ali presents such efforts as doomed projects, but it may be fairer to say that they have simply not yet borne full fruit.

The very shrillness of today’s zealots may reflect an underlying fear that conservative orthodoxies are under threat as never before, facing a growing backlash not so much from the outside world as from within the faith. It is noteworthy that thirty-five years of self-declared “Islamic” rule in Iran have fostered not greater religiosity but creeping secularization, with ever fewer people observing religious rites. The more recent excesses of Islamist terrorism and sectarian rivalry have accelerated a far wider wave of doubt. Muslims with such doubts will not need Hirsi Ali’s hectoring to feel “uncomfortable,” and to consider new approaches to their faith.


Forced Conversion to Islam? March 3, 2016

  1. *

    See my “Islam Confronts Its Demons,” The New York Review, April 29, 2004.