The Reformation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Cross posted from Harry’s Place
In Heretic Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that Islam is in need of reform in five key areas:
1. Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.
2. The supremacy of life after death.
3. Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.
4. The right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.
5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war. (p. 24, although I’ve used the summary headings quoted here)
Muslims can be divided into three subtypes: ‘Medina Muslims’ (jihadists) ‘Mecca Muslims’ (Muslims who follow orthodox Islam but don’t practice violence) and ‘Modifying Muslims’, those who press for reform (pp. 15-18).
I share Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s impatience with those who claim that the 9/11 attacks, the crimes of ISIS, and countless other such atrocities have nothing to do with Islam.  She is right to find Obama’s emphasis in a 2012 speech perverse:

The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam (p.12)

Her criticisms of various rigid, illiberal and brutal teachings and practices are also fully earned.  The thoroughly depressing views about Islam held by many in Muslim majority countries can’t be swept aside (p.21). There’s no room for shades of grey when discussing the brutal murders of young girls for such ‘crimes’ as looking at a boy or declining an offer of marriage.
However in relation to less clearcut issues her emphatic style of argument perhaps doesn’t work so well.  In the opening pages of the book she explains how she has been vilified because of  her uncompromising views about Islam.  She discusses being disinvited as a speaker at Brandeis, invoking, with understandable anger, the murder of Theo van Gogh, as one shocking instance of how some are driven to acts of senseless violence in the name of Islam.  Yet the precise reasons for this strong reaction to the invitation are skirted around – she correctly points out that some of the ’snippets’ cited against her came from an interview she gave seven years ago, but doesn’t quote the most controversial of those statements (p. 4). Here’s one sample from that 2007 interview:

Van Bakel notes religions’ ability to bring about change for good: “Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?” Ms. Hirsi Ali responds, “Only if Islam is defeated.” Van Bakel asks, “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?” To that she responds, “No. Islam, period.” (Reason, 11-07)

Instead of acknowledging these trenchant statements – which do explain why even thoroughly secular Muslims may dislike her – she presents a stark binary whereby she and her supporters are pitted against Islamists and their foolish liberal apologists.

‘Perhaps those who have risen to the rarefied heights of the Brandeis faculty can devise a way of arguing that no connection exists between Bouyeri’s actions and Islam’. (p. 6)

This is something of a straw man. Many who have no problem at all with the proposition that there is a connection between van Gogh’s murder – Bouyeri was his killer – and Islam, might still take issue with assertions such as these:

Hirsi Ali: There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.
Reason: Militarily?
Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists on reminding her readers of the warlike verses in the Qur’an, as proof that Islam needs to be reformed, yet rather glosses over the extent to which she might be said to have ‘reformed’ her own approach.  There’s quite a difference between the way she described what needed to happen to Islam back in 2007 and the way she approaches the exact same problem in Heretic.  Now, in a kind of reverse abrogation, Islam is to be cast, not as an existential enemy, but as an old building in need of renovation. She says it can’t be left as it is, in danger of collapse:

The third choice is to keep as much as possible of the historic details, make the outside look a lot like the original, but change the house radically from the inside, equipping it with the latest amenities. (p. 73)

Another option is essentially the 2007 solution – ‘knock it over’. However now she dismisses that as impracticable:  ’This is not going to happen with Islam, or any other established religion.’
A further possible problem with Heretic is one I’ve seen made by other tough critics of Islam. They insist a reformation is needed while contriving to imply that this is all but impossible.  The fact that Hirsi Ali can name several Muslim liberals of whom she approves (including Maajid Nawaz, slated as one of those who have destroyed the West by Robert Spencer) suggests that she is writing in good faith.  But by calling her first chapter ‘One Islam, three sets of Muslims’ she gives the impression that reformists cannot change the nature of Islam. This hint seems reinforced on p. 13:

I will subdivide Muslims. I will not subdivide Islam.
Islam is a single core creed based on the Qur’an, the words revealed by Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and the hadith, the accompanying works that detail Muhammad’s life and works.

At first glance that sounds like something an orthodox Muslim might say.  Moreover it flattens the variety within mainstream Islam – different views on the reliability of particular hadiths, and, even amongst those who believe they are interpreting the Qur’an literally, different readings of crucial verses pertaining to matters such as apostasy. Her firm pronouncement on the nature of Islam echoes her words from 2007:

There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.

It might be argued that the problems with Hirsi Ali’s approach are trivial compared with the problems she documents.  Obviously this is true. But if she fully acknowledged why she’d alienated some consistent secularists (some Muslim, some not) she’d perhaps persuade more to listen to her – as well as depriving her real enemies of excuses for deflection.
Her Mecca/Medina/heretic taxonomy doesn’t seem fully adequate.  The most crucial differences are perhaps within the Mecca group which seems to take in both non-violent normative types, but also some more liberal voices.  It’s true that sometimes Muslim ‘liberals’ turn out to be faux liberal foes.  However quite a few Muslims may be somewhat Quilliam-averse while reaching many of the same conclusions about, for example, the inadmissibility of apostasy punishments or the desirability of a separation between mosque and state.
Typically these more cautious types don’t couch their arguments in terms of reform, but rather insist (as did the first Protestants) that they are returning Islam to its true roots.  They often seem to have to use the most tortuous working out to get to the right answer – but it’s significant that they go to such pains to try to prove that Islam is already broadly compatible with modern liberal values. Some are already doing precisely what she advocates, interpreting words such as ‘jihad’ and ’sharia’ in ways which need not concern Western liberals.  Thus some will argue that Western governments and systems are already broadly compatible with sharia – because they interpret the word in a generic way, not as a codified system of particular laws and penalties.  To return to Hirsi Ali’s house renovation analogy, they would argue that the amenities she wants to add were there all the time but have been covered up by generations of mistaken Muslims.
Hirsi Ali is impressive in many ways, as well as brave.  
I found her earlier memoirInfidel gripping and sympathetic. If I seem to be emphasising points of disagreement with Heretic, that’s because I agree with two of her key contentions: that we mustn’t be ‘blind to the potential consequences of accommodating beliefs that are openly hostile to Western laws, traditions and values.’ (p. 213), and that ‘the prize over which [extremist and liberal Muslims] fight is the hearts and minds of the largely passive Mecca Muslims’ (p. 223), although I don’t agree that this large and varied group is especially passive.

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