A controversial new book says Islam must change in five important areas
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. HarperCollins; 272 pages; $27.99 and £18.99.
NOT many people have lived deep inside a ruthlessly patriarchal, theocratic world and also won acclaim in the great bastions of Western, liberal thought. Even fewer can describe the contrast with insight, and that is why the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on religion, culture and violence always command attention.
In several senses, she has come a long way, and she is still travelling. Having moved to the Netherlands, and then America, after a childhood in Africa and Saudi Arabia, the Somali-born writer is now a fellow of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In three earlier books she expounded her conviction that Islam, her family’s religion, was incorrigibly flawed. She faulted the faith for encouraging violence, for abusing women and ultimately for its belief in a punitive God whose existence she had rejected.
In her latest work, “Heretic”, Ms Hirsi Ali shifts her position and argues that Islam is capable of modernising reform. At the start of the book she sounds her old militant self, denouncing cultural relativists who want to muzzle her because they deny that the crimes of, say, Islamic State really are motivated by belief, as opposed to socioeconomic grievances.
As she goes on to argue, insisting that Islam is not the real motive is a convenient way of avoiding any examination of Muslim beliefs. But the opposite point also applies, and it is one that many would make of her. To take “religious” terrorists at face value, and say they are overwhelmingly motivated by spiritual convictions, can equally be a kind of cop-out, if it refuses to consider why some people with those beliefs resort to violence and others refrain; or why in some situations terrorists win support from those around them, while in others they are isolated.
The main body of Ms Hirsi Ali’s book is more nuanced—and optimistic—than her previous writings. She argues that some factors behind Christianity’s Reformation now exist in the Muslim world. The reforms of Martin Luther, for example, advanced with help from the newly invented printed press; a Muslim reformer today might well benefit from the rise of electronic communications.
But parallels between Christianity’s Reformation and a possible Muslim one have their limits. As Ms Hirsi Ali acknowledges, the link between the evolution of the Protestant Reformation and modernity is not simple. Protestantism began not as a move to dislodge the primacy of divine revelation, but to assert it. Only very indirectly did the Reformation lead Europe into a secular, scientific age. So anybody who advocates a Muslim Reformation must ask this question: if radical change starts in the Muslim world, is it certain that it will really lead to liberal freedoms, or could it trigger, either directly or indirectly, even greater religious fervour?
Ms Hirsi Ali, as you might expect, favours more freedom, and she reckons that some tentative movement in that direction is already in progress. At the moment, she says, the prevailing trend in Islam stresses the violent sayings of Muhammad, dating from his stay in Medina, over the peaceful ones issued earlier in Mecca. But the author notes that there is quite a large minority who eschew the aggressive tone of the “Medina” sayings, preferring the quiescent piety which, she says, marks the Prophet’s earlier declarations—certainly large enough for that minority to be worth encouraging.
Unfortunately, very few Muslims will accept Ms Hirsi Ali’s full-blown argument, which insists that Islam must change in at least five important ways. A moderate Muslim might be open to discussion of four of her suggestions if the question were framed sensitively. Muslims, she says, must stop prioritising the afterlife over this life; they must “shackle sharia” and respect secular law; they must abandon the idea of telling others, including non-Muslims, how to behave, dress or drink; and they must abandon holy war. However, her biggest proposal is a show-stopper: she wants her old co-religionists to “ensure that Muhammad and the Koran are open to interpretation and criticism”.
Hearing this last argument, a well-educated Muslim would probably give an answer like this: “If ‘criticism’ means denying that Muhammad was God’s final messenger, who delivered the Koran under divine inspiration, then it would be more honest to propose leaving Islam entirely—because without those beliefs, we would have nothing left.”
To put the point another way, if there is to be any chance that Muslims can be persuaded to set aside premodern ideas about law, war and punishment, the persuader will not be a sophisticated secularist; it is more likely to be somebody who fervently believes in the divine origins of the Koran, but is able to look at it again and extract from its words a completely fresh set of conclusions.
With an American president who is losing patience with the insults hurled
at him, a failed Israeli attempt at reshaping the Iranian nuclear agreement
and a looming UN resolution on the Palestinians, it's time for a reboot of
The US Senate
reconvened on Monday following its Easter holiday recess, and members of
the Foreign Relations Committee immediately began intense negotiations over
the formulation of the bill that will accompany the nuclear agreement with
The Republicans wanted a law
that would give the Senate the power to ratify or reject the deal.
PresidentBarack Obamathreatened to exercise his veto right
over any such bill. Emissaries of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged
the committee members to insist that the bill include two demands that were
not included in the deal – recognition ofIsraelon the part of the Iranian
government, and a promise from Tehran to end its support of terrorist
Netanyahu's speech to Congress (Photo: AFP)
To the surprise of many, an
agreement was reached within a day. Both sides contributed to the
compromise: Obama lifted his veto threat and agreed to allow the Senate to
oversee the process with Iran; and the Republican majority in the Senate
retracted its demand that the framework deal be approved by the Senate and
agreed to wait until the end of June, when the Iranians are due to sign the
final agreement. The two Israeli demands vanished into thin air. I'll get
back to them in a moment – and to the bitter smile they brought to Obama's
From a practical point of
view, the compromise in the Senate gives US Secretary of StateJohn Kerryand his team a first-class
ticket to Lausanne: The Senate won't bother them again until the end of
June, and it won't trouble the Iranians at all. If the negotiations end in
failure, the Senate will no longer be relevant; if, on the other hand, an
agreement is reached, it will be discussed in Washington once China,
Russia, France, Britain and Germany put pen to paper and promise to lift
the sanctions. The rest of the world will follow suit. With or without the
US Senate, the horses will bolt the stables.
John Kerry (Photo: AFP)
The fate of the Iranian
nuclear program now rests with the ayatollahs – and them alone. Iran's
status as a nuclear threshold nation has been recognized by the
international community – including the United States.
Israel took a major blow, of
historic proportions. Jerusalem's huge public relations drive came to
naught. Governments weren't the only ones that brushed us aside; Israel's
closest friends on Capitol Hill, those who represent constituencies with
large Jewish populations and who enjoy the support of Jewish billionaires,
are now doing the same. At this point in time, a responsible government
would stop and rethink its course of action.
A new course of action must
start with the Obama administration. Officials in Washington understand
what the nuclear deal with Iran means to America's allies in the Middle
East – and Israel first and foremost. They are looking for a way to balance
it, to compensate America's allies and to limit the damage. Obama is
willing to go far on this issue – much further than his predecessors ever
But Netanyahu has his own
agenda: Judging by his speeches over the past few days, he appears to
believe that everything is still open to change, that the members of
Congress are still sitting in the auditorium and applauding him. He's like
Emperor Nero, who played on his fiddle while Rome burned.
"Even if we are forced
to stand alone, our hearts will not be fearful," Netanyahu declared in
his Holocaust Remembrance Day address at Yad Vashem on Wednesday night.
Netanyahu spoke as someone for whom the role of victim, all alone, against
the entire world, is a source of great pleasure.
In his imagination, he
doesn't live at the Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street in
Jerusalem, but in an underground bunker at Ulica Mila 18; he is not the
leader of a country that, according to foreign news reports, is in
possession of a nuclear arsenal of its own and is capable of razing Iran's
major cities. Levy Eshkol once mockingly called Israel "the nerdy
Samson." In Netanyahu's speeches, Israel is even weaker, even more
pitiful than it actually is.
Barack Obama is getting
increasingly angry with Netanyahu's Holocaust-infused statements. No
American president would be willing to hear an Israeli prime minister
compare him to Neville Chamberlain and hold him responsible for the next
Jewish Holocaust. Ariel Sharon did so once, during a visit with former
president Bush – but never repeated the mistake. Netanyahu makes the same
mistake every day.
In private conversations,
Obama expresses his longing for the old Israel, the Israel of 1967 – the
fighting, pioneering and democratic Israel; the Israel that was admired by
all the American Jews he knew. One can argue over whether that impression
of Israel was real or a myth, reality or wishful thinking; but one cannot
deny the strength of that image.
Israel today, Obama says, is
not the Israel I fell in love with. Israel today is an arrogant country,
which continues to build settlements and thumb its nose at the rest of the
world, which denies the existence of the Palestinians, and which treats
them like ghosts.
The opinions attributed here
to Obama are based on comments I have heard from people who have met with
him of late. The statements reflect the spirit of his comments and are not
the actual words he used. That's why I refrained from placing them between
France and New Zealand, Obama
says, are about to present the UN Security Council with a resolution on the
Palestinian issue. It will contain all of the phrases that Israel finds so
important but will, at the end, call for the establishment of a Palestinian
state in keeping with the 1967 borders.
The government of Israel
expects us, the United States, to impose a veto. I cannot say how we will
respond; we haven't decided yet. But I have to ask myself: Why does Israel
allows itself to do whatever it wants and still expect us to veto a
resolution that accurately reflects our long-standing policy? Why should
America impose a veto against itself?
The United States' blind
support of Israel will not last forever, Obama has warned. There's been a
shift in public opinion. Look what's happening on American campuses. Ask
students what they think about Israel.