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.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.