By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Originally appeared in April 1 The Jerusalem Post Magazine
Ayaan Hirsi Ali remembers the first time she was invited to a friend’s house for Passover several years ago. “We were with her family and they were all sitting around the table; it was my first time with a Jewish family. They were saying ‘Who is God?’ and questioning ‘If God was so good and great, why did he nearly have us massacred?’” Ali was struck by the openness to not only self-critique, but to critiquing religion. “I admire these attitudes, to ask logical questions and get answers.”
Born in 1969 in Somalia, Ali has been at the center of many of the current debates in the West about Islam, migration and terrorism. She gained notoriety in her adopted country of the Netherlands – she was granted political asylum there in 1992 – as an outspoken member of parliament, and collaborating with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on Submission, a controversial short film critical of Islam.
Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim extremist a year after the film’s release, in 2005. Ali also received death threats for her participation and her continued outspoken criticism. The validity of her political asylum and Dutch citizenship was questioned in 2006, leading to her resignation from the government, and emigrated to the US, where she continued her work.
Had she begun her writing and activism 20 years ago, before September 11 and before Islamic minority communities became such a topic of controversy in Europe, her views would have meshed well with the Western tradition of enlightened religious criticism. Similarly if she had lived in the 18th century, her discussion of an Islamic reformation, which is the topic of her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, would have fit into a Europe undergoing an intellectual revolution. Instead, she found herself cutting a path through a forest of sensitivities, political correctness and militancy that has grown up in Europe and the US. “I Reform minded Women’s rights activist and critic of Muslim fundamentalism Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks with the ‘Post’ about her latest book ‘I HAVE been silenced, shunned and shamed.
In effect, I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims… but by some Western liberals as well,’ Ali writes in her new book. 19 have been denounced as a bigot and an ‘Islamophobe.’ I have been silenced, shunned and shamed. In effect, 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,” she writes in her introduction. Nevertheless she refuses to stay silent, marching on a path befitting the Passover story of exodus from Egypt, seeking freedom from stultifying patriarchy and religious oppression. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post about her latest book, she asks us to keep supporting freedom in the Islamic world.
IN HER previous books, The Caged Virgin (2008), Infidel (2008) and Nomad (2011), she wrote about her experiences fleeing an arranged marriage to settle in the Netherlands in 1992, then moving to the US in 2006. Her current tome was inspired by the Arab Spring, which broke out in 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt and elsewhere. “I was planning to do a fiction [novel] in which I would have a hero who would reform and ask the right questions, and I realized I was wasting time and things were developing too fast.”
She recalls that the Arab Spring seemed to present an opening, as regimes teetered and social media played a key role. Muslims began to question dogmatism and traditional accounts of the Islamic faith; people were discussing the Prophet Muhammad as a moral figure, not just a religious figure who could not be questioned. “If you take these people and you see they are in Saudi Arabia, Iraq; Palestinians, Yemenites and Sudanese; it is like wow, this is happening and this reform is under way. But the more difficult question is what then needs to change,” she explains.
Despite the general view that the Arab Spring failed – as Egypt was first taken over by an Islamist government and then the military, Syria became embroiled in a bloody civil war and Libya sank into chaos – Ali is upbeat about the idea that the night may be darkest just before the light. “We are seeing a lot of tragedy and especially against women, yet you can’t close your eyes to the fact that women are demonstrating for the right to drive [in Saudi Arabia]; and there are women in Egypt demonstrating against sexual harassment. I saw Tunisian women threatened with death, but still joined with radical leftists from Europe; they are confronting Shari’a directly.”
She says while maybe they aren’t exactly bra burners like in the 1960s, they are throwing off the patriarchy in their society. “I used to be called a lone voice and I felt it was only a handful of us, but with the Arab Spring and the sudden rise of Islamic State, there is a reaction from some Muslims.” Ali is often depicted as a controversial “critic of Islam” in the West, where she lives. In September 2013 she was called by then-president of Brandeis University Frederick Lawrence and offered an honorary degree in social justice, to be conferred at graduation that May. Six months later, the honor was rescinded; she was accused of “pure hate speech” and violating Brandeis’s “moral code” by a visceral student and faculty protest against her presence.
“No fewer than 87 members of the Brandeis faculty had also written to express their ‘shock and dismay’ at a few brief snippets of my public statements… drawn from seven years ago,” she writes. She was viewed as a divisive figure, unworthy of being present at a commencement ceremony of a university named after famed Jewish jurist Louis D. Brandeis – who ironically had championed free speech. Why was Ali beyond the pale? One petition explained that she had critiqued the Islamic religion and in so doing, had “obscured… Muslim feminist and other progressive Muslim activists and scholars, who find support for gender and other equality within the Muslim tradition and are effective at achieving it.” Namely, she was questioning Islamic tradition, rather than adhering to it properly in her quest for women’s rights. It was akin to asking Western feminists to fight for feminism only within the confines of a proper Catholic understanding of biblical sources, rather than questioning the role of the church in creating a patriarchal society.
The activist describes in her book how she came up against this issue again and again. In 2012, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government invited her to lead a study group focusing on Islamic political theory. But some of the Muslim students who showed up could not accept that Islamic tradition could be critiqued. “I began to speak, I got as far as the first few sentences when a Qatari student raised his hand and began addressing the rest of the room. He said that he needed to ‘clarify’ what I was saying.”
ALI SPEAKS at a news conference in The Hague in 2006 after announcing she would leave the Dutch parliament, disappointed that she might lose her citizenship after admitting she lied to win asylum. Students said she was an “Islamophobe telling lies” and that they didn’t need to do any critical readings because there was only one truth. Eventually, some of the students would lobby to have the group shut down. “Why is it so hard to question anything about Islam?” she writes, concluding that Islam needs a reformation like that of Christianity. She comes up with five theses: Muslims must ensure the Koran is open to interpretation, give priority to life rather than the afterlife, end Shari’a’s supremacy over secular law, end strict forms of forbidding wrong, and abandon the call to jihad.
IN HER view, there are three types of Muslims today. So-called “Medina Muslims” are fundamentalists, who she characterizes as similar to various fundamentalist Christian sects that flourished in medieval times. The vast majority are “Mecca Muslims,” or those who are “loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly” but do not seek to use violence to force fundamentalism on others. The last, small group is comprised of “Modifying Muslims,” or dissidents. “I recognize that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate, but they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me… as a heretic,” she writes. Thus, this book represents a return for her into a dialogue with Muslims, and a demand that the West stop coddling Islamic fundamentalism.
Part of the dialogue and attempt to influence a new generation of Muslims to call for reform will involve translating this new book into Arabic, Dari (an Afghan language) and Farsi (Iran’s primary language), and offering it online for free. Ali argues that we face a struggle against extremism in social media. “What you have now is Islamic State using social media to promote the message of horror, and the rest of us sitting clutching our hands and saying ‘Oh my goodness me,’” she chides of the surprised and gutless response of commentators.
“This book is an attempt at a counter-narrative. I think it is more effective if we market it as saying something needs to change in Islam, and we can instill the seed of doubt in young, impressionable minds who are seeking absolute truths.” One of the concepts she thinks must be confronted is Islamic proselytizing, or daw’ah. “We always forget that people who we call radicals are successful because they repeat their message incessantly, especially about life being more attractive after death.”
The results of this incessant messaging can be seen in some of the converts to Islamist ideology who went on to become terrorists. Ali begins to list some of the attacks that have taken place over the years, including Canadian Michael Zehaf- Bibeau who shot up Parliament Hill in Ottawa last October, as an example. “I came to the Netherlands in 1992 and there is no one still around in a place of influence who fought for these [Western] freedoms,” says Ali. The current generation in the West is “consuming freedoms” that they never had to pay for, she avers; they got their liberty as a birthright and take it for granted, rather than fighting for it.
She pauses and asserts, “Only in Israel does one not forget that… When I was on The Jon Stewart Show the other night and he was saying the Bible is just as bad [as the Koran]; they just don’t get it, Israelis get it. They are surrounded by those who want to eliminate them.” She mentions Israel several times in the discussion, each with reverence. But no, she says, she is not converting to Judaism, despite a false report in the US media. She admires Jewish tradition for questioning, however.
Ali is confident, passionate and incisive in her words, spoken softly and without any doubt as to her convictions. But this woman – who has been at the center of so much controversy, who found a death threat attached to the knife jammed in the lifeless body of her murdered colleague Theo van Gogh in 2004 – is determined to rebel against a culture of silence. “For years I have been told, condescendingly, that my critique of Islam is a consequence of my own uniquely troubled upbringing. That is rubbish.”
Ali paints a picture of a Western society that is afraid; afraid to admit that Islamist violence has its roots in Islamic orthodoxy. As she makes clear in Heretic, “I do not believe the Islamic world is doomed to a perpetual cycle of violence… I believe that each human being possesses the power of reason… At present, some Muslims ignore their conscience and join groups such as Boko Haram or Islamic State, obeying textual prescriptions and religious dogma.”
Instead of daring to confront religious dogma, the West has abandoned Muslims and treated them as if they are not equals and cannot be asked to question their own religion – much as Westerners once questioned Christianity. “In the 1960s, when there were just a handful of Muslims [in Europe] and Europe had many options [it was different]; now, the options are limited to counter-terrorism. And even surveillance can’t work… the interesting thing about Europe is there are more jihadists walking around than people to do surveillance on them.” It is not a surprise that in the recent terror attacks in France, many of the subjects had been known to police – as was “Jihad John” to British intelligence services.
THE ONLY solution, she argues, is not more surveillance and policing, or military solutions, but rather a muscular war of ideas. She says that in the last decades, radicals have taken over schools, infiltrated universities and are using “every form of modern media to disseminate their message.” She mentions the three British girls who recently left their families to go to Turkey and then Syria: “They were aged 15, A-plus students from a good family – and look what daw’ah did with them.”
She argues that instead of a mealymouthed discussion, Muslims need to be reading books like hers. Instead, “we in the West are looking backwards while [Muslims] want reforms.” It is a long-term vision that is needed, rather than a knee-jerk response after each terror attack. Ali paints a picture stretching back to the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire. When the Caliphate fell, Muslims questioned the divine law; figures like Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came along.
“They saw that we have to separate religion and politics, and the law must be secular; unfortunately, another school of thought [in the Muslim world] said that we must go back to Medina and the years of glory.” The reference to Medina is to the city where Muhammad fled to in 622, after being warned of a plot to assassinate him in Mecca. It was here that Islam was forged on the crucible of conflict the prophet had with those unbelievers in Mecca and in the area.
The 100-year struggle for the soul of many Muslims can be charted in the experience of Egypt, Ali notes. There, the military regime intent on modernizing the country of Gamal Abdel Nasser hanged the Islamist Sayyid Qutb. “But they were underestimated, and they caught hold of the institutions that change hearts and minds.”
The Muslim Brotherhood acted quietly, infiltrating Al-Azhar University and various institutions. Ali praises Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for speaking out at the university’s Cairo campus against orthodoxy. “The president of Egypt is demanding a revolution in religion.” Other countries are also making progress. Ali points to the United Arab Emirates, where she says they are trying to have less religion in schools. In Turkey, however, she sees a failure to ingrain secularism. “The idea that Shari’a is better than secular law was never extinguished, and the Islamist movement adapted – and that stealthy adaptation is one that most Westerners miss. Most Turks who are secular also missed it, and find themselves trapped and governed by a Shari’a-oriented Islamist president and party that has jailed more journalists than in China.” They gave away their freedom at the ballot box, maintains Ali. She surveys the Muslim world and sees a great deal of tragedy, but also hope. “You know Islamic State is inviting people to come join them, but look at the jihad doctrine. They produce nothing, the weapons they use are made by others; even the bombs they are making, they can barely train people to do that.”
Ali’s voice is soft and sharp as she points out that Iran, “the country that did the most to convince its people that Shari’a is better than modern secular law, it is Iran that is investing in a nuclear bomb to destroy others and risk self-destruction. It shows how invested they are in life after death. “The good news is the population of Iran is more interested in life before death; the people are rejecting it [even if] they are trapped by this maniacal regime.” The author is supportive of the Jewish state’s struggles in a region of threats. “The expectation [in the West] is a low expectation of bigotries, and you can see in Israel you are held to a moral code no one else in the region is; they are instead held to the lowest standards.” But history will reward the long view, Ali maintains, looking at the Christian Reformation and the fall of Communism.
“We think of instant gratification,” she says, almost teasing, “we think we can fix Afghanistan in a few years or Iraq… People think ‘it is not done yet,’ like they are calling a plumber. “That is my critique; we have become so decadent, really. It takes violence and bloodshed, and we have to help the dissidents get on top.”