By Susan Dominus
APRIL 1, 2015
Following the events of the Arab Spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her latest book, “Heretic,” she came to the conclusion that “ordinary Muslims are ready for change.” Hirsi Ali has strong thoughts on what form that change should take for Muslims: a major overhaul of their religion. “Without fundamental alterations to some of Islam’s core concepts,” she says, “we shall not solve the burning and increasingly global problem of political violence carried out in the name of religion.”
That may sound incendiary, but for Hirsi Ali, who has renounced her own Muslim faith, the idea that Islam should and could be reformed is practically conciliatory. Until recently, she tells us, she believed “the best thing for religious believers in Islam to do was to pick another god.”
How Hirsi Ali came to denounce her faith was the basis for her earlier book, the global best seller “Infidel,” a sharp polemic against Islam nestled inside a rich literary memoir. That book transported readers to Somalia, where Hirsi Ali endured genital mutilation as a young girl, to Kenya, where, as an adolescent, she willingly wore a full Hijab and supported the fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death, and to the Netherlands, where she re-evaluated her faith and collaborated with the director Theo Van Gogh on a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Van Gogh was subsequently shot and stabbed in the street; his murderer pinned a note to his chest that promised Hirsi Ali would be next.
Now living in the United States, a fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Hirsi Ali still requires heavy security; and she still agitates Muslims and non-Muslims alike by arguing, as she does in “Heretic,” that “Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic or political conditions — or even in theological error — but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself.”
In urging Muslims to reform their religion, Hirsi Ali is far from alone. She points out that this year, the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, called out to imams, asking for “nothing less than a ‘religious revolution’ ” in order to curb extremist violence. His standing is likely to give him more influence among Muslims than Hirsi Ali, a woman who once called the religion “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” language that does not suggest a strong capacity for constructive criticism. But in “Heretic” she is also trying to reach non-Muslim Americans, too many of whom, she feels, champion religious tolerance while ignoring the social injustices she sees embedded in Islam.
Hirsi Ali is not merely looking to emphasize or reinterpret select scriptural passages; rather, she warns the reader that if Islam were a house, she would be going for a gut renovation, one that would “make the outside look a lot like the original, but change the house radically from the inside, equipping it with the latest amenities.” Transformation cannot be complete, she writes, unless certain Islamic precepts are “repudiated and nullified,” including “Mohammed’s semi divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Quran.” In a list of reforms she claims to be nailing, Luther-like, to a virtual door, she also wants Muslims to nullify “Shariah, the body of legislation derived from the Quran, the Hadith and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence.”
Elsewhere in the book, Hirsi Ali reframes those sweeping proposals in ways that put them in context: She wants to ensure that secular law is prized above Shariah. (She cites a 2013 Pew Foundation poll that found 74 percent of Egyptians support making Shariah law the state law, as do 91 percent of Iraqi Muslims.) And her interest in changing the perception of Muhammad is recast as the desire to see the Quran more open to interpretation and discussion among Muslims. She believes that won’t happen unless clerics make it clear the Quran is, in her words, “just a book.” But surely millions of Muslims find their way to a peaceful, tolerant understanding of Islam while maintaining their sense of the sacred in the Quran?
“Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms,” she writes early on. “Islam is not a religion of peace.” If some American political figures have bent over backward to decouple Islam from jihadist violence in the Middle East, Hirsi Ali swings hard in the other direction, pointing to the prevalence of militant passages in the Quran and arguing that jihad is not “a problem of poverty, insufficient education or any other social precondition,” but rather a “religious obligation.” It is the belief in Muhammad’s infallibility as a messenger of Islam, she suggests, that seals off the possibility of innovation within the faith, and encourages ISIS and other jihadists to read those militant passages in the Quran literally. (As Caner K. Dagli, an Islamic scholar, put it recently in The Atlantic, if ISIS can reasonably claim to be faithfully following Islamic law, “this might lead a thoughtful reader to wonder what all the other Muslims are doing.”)
“Infidel” and “Nomad,” the book that followed it, were both compelling because of the intimacy of Hirsi Ali’s voice and the painful details of her upbringing, which included physical abuse doled out in the name of a religious education and sexist subjugation. But the personal nature of her writing also left Hirsi Ali open to the critique — from her perspective, patronizing — that her own family dysfunctions informed her perceptions of Islam.
In “Heretic,” Hirsi Ali forgoes autobiography for the most part in favor of an extended argument. But she has trouble making anyone else’s religious history — even that of Muhammad himself, whose life story she recounts — as dramatic as she has made her own. And she loses the reader’s trust with overblown rhetoric. Many Muslim immigrants in the West grapple with conflicted identities, she writes, leaving them longing for one extreme or another in the pursuit of certainty. She wonders: “Must all who question Islam end up leaving the faith, as I did, or embracing violent jihad?” (Probably not.) She tries to warn Americans about their naïveté in the face of encroaching Islamic influences, maintaining that officials and journalists, out of cultural sensitivity, sometimes play down the honor killings that occur in the West. But it is safe to say there is no shortage of horrified fascination in the topic; she even cites a 3,000-word Time magazine article that, in fact, spelled out every tragic detail of one of her examples.
When Hirsi Ali writes, almost wistfully, that “it is unrealistic to expect a mass exodus from Islam,” even secular readers may begin to wonder if she is their best guide to understanding the religion. (A suitable subtitle for “Heretic” might be: “How to Be a Muslim, if You Must.”)
Unquestionably, Hirsi Ali poses challenging questions about whether American liberals should be fighting harder for the rights of Muslim women in countries where they are oppressed, and she is fearless in using shock tactics to jump-start a conversation. Blasphemy is an essential part of any religious reform, she argues, and defends her right to speak bluntly. “I have taken an enormous risk by answering the call for self-reflection,” Hirsi Ali has said, in response to critics who find her tone abrasive. “I have been convinced more than ever that I must say it in my way only and have my criticism.” There is no denying that her words are brave. Whether they are persuasive is another matter.
Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
272 pp. Harper. $27.99.
Susan Dominus is a staff writer at The Times Magazine.