When I started reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now, I kept returning to the front cover just to be sure I wasn’t accidentally reading one of her previous books. Once more we are reading a blog post that has metastasized into a book, dull and listless despite repeated attempts to display vision, argument or even evidence. This isn’t just one of the worst books ever written about Islam. It’s one of the worst books, period.
Heretic is essentially a shoddy plea for a Reformation to save Islam from extremism, except that, according to Hirsi Ali, Islam is extremism, which should mean there’s no hope—and, oh yeah, Islam already had a Reformation, which is one of the chief causes of the extremism her Reformation will ostensibly put an end to. Such a bad argument only deserves attention because it receives it. Yes, Jon Stewart might’ve gone after her outrageous claims, but she was still on The Daily Show in the first place. Her books are sometimes the only ones you can find in sundry bookstores across America.
Otherwise well-meaning souls might skim through and, in case they don’t crumple to the ground from the boredom, knocking their heads against the musty green carpet that is Barnes & Noble standard (the Times New Roman of bookstore flooring), they’re liable to wonder, ‘maybe she has a point.’ Hirsi Ali is like a bad Wikipedia entry: the less you know, the more you’re persuaded. Except warmongers don’t collaborate with Wikipedia pages to make foreign policy decisions that destroy other countries, bankrupt our own, and leave everyone on the planet more vulnerable than before.
As we proceed, feel free to remind yourself, as often as necessary, that Harvard’s Belfer Center has appointed Ayaan Hirsi Ali a Fellow in ‘The Future of Diplomacy Project.’ Such peacemaking potential is found in her breakdown of the world’s Muslims into three categories: ‘Medina Muslims,’ who are the neighbors you don’t want; ‘Mecca Muslims,’ the delusional neighbors you’re statistically more likely to have; and ‘the Modifier Muslims,’ who, up until yesterday, were trying to take your home and now claim they’re interested in a timeshare.
First, and ‘most problematic,’ are the ‘Medina Muslims’ (though she started with ‘fundamentalists,’ before mooting and dismissing ‘Millenarian Muslims’—it takes her time to settle on ‘Medina Muslims.’) Medina Muslims want us to be ruled by ‘sharia’, or ‘Islamic religious law,’ one of countless indicators she’s in over her head. Hirsi Ali believes roughly 3% of the world’s Muslims are Medina Muslims, but that’s ~45,000,000 too many. She and I are in concord. The belief that ‘sharia’ exists to be forcibly imposed must be rejected.
Second are ‘Mecca Muslims,’ who practice Islam the way Hirsi Ali thinks Christians and Jews do, which is really the wrong way, because it’s contrary to Islam. Mecca Muslims refuse to recognize that ‘Islam is not a religion of peace’; that groups like ISIS haven’t ‘hijacked’ the faith, they are the faith.
That most Muslims disagree, that most of those massacred by ISIS are other Muslims, or that most of the men and women taking up arms against ISIS are Muslim doesn’t deter Hirsi Ali. Indeed no evidence can, because that which rests on no evidence cannot be undermined by any evidence.
And how successful will a Reformation be in a religion grounded not in church or hierarchy but in argument descended from law? Doesn’t matter. Hirsi Ali herself is a ‘Modifier,’ part of a small class of Muslims who agree with the extremist Medina Muslims about what Islam is—but want nothing to do with it. Unlike the Martin Luther whose Reformation she so ineptly evokes, she is no passionate believer, struggling to reclaim her faith.
In one section about halfway through the book, which should’ve been titled Insurgent: Now I’m Going To Try To Blow Up Islam From the Inside, Hirsi Ali is too candid by half, revealing what her purposes are: ‘it is unrealistic,’ she confesses, ‘to expect a mass exodus from Islam.’ If you can’t defeat Islam, change it. But what if the change you propose means your Reformation will be dead on arrival?
Here are two of the five theses Ali believes are essential to her Reformation:
(a) Rejection of ‘the Prophet Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina.’
(b) Rejection of ‘Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qur’an.’
Though not any kind of scholar of any kind of Islam, Hirsi Ali must know that no Muslim would accept these conditions. Not just because they’re anathema, but because they’re nonsensical, something even National Review editor Rich Lowry agrees is obvious.
Hirsi Ali condemns readings of the Qur’an used to justify violence, intimidation, and censorship, and then argues for censoring the Qur’an. Because ‘Islam’ causes ‘extremism,’ an assumption that’s never proved, nor the terminology even defined. Islam in turn is what the Prophet Muhammad did (as per the claims of extremists, not any other Muslims). The way to stop extremism then is to eliminate or modify the personality of the Prophet Muhammad, either directly (i.e. through the use of force) or, as Hirsi Ali now proposes, indirectly (because her other books failed). This is the root of her Mecca-Medina dichotomy.
Just the “before” Muhammad, please
Before 622, Muhammad was a persecuted Prophet in Mecca. After 622’s exodus to Medina, he began to establish a state, which included the building of an army. Hirsi Ali’s Reformed Islam enjoins the former, and forbids the latter, which is akin to accepting as Judaism that which came before the Red Sea was parted, and rejecting that which happened after.
This proposal is neither original nor productive; it has been repeated for years now on the fringes of anti-Muslim discourse, though it never caught on since it is so obviously useless. Why, after all, would anyone listen to her? If you believe God guided Muhammad, you’re not going to believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali has the authority to supersede that connection.
And even if you decide to reject the extremist narrative, the extremist narrative rejects you. ISIS doesn’t just refuse my Islam, which is rooted in an authentic Islam—it wants to kill me. Some of the greatest interpreters of Shariah have set themselves in opposition to extremism, but to little direct effect. That’s because ISIS is not primarily or secondarily a religious movement, though even if it were, radicals summarily dismiss mainstream Muslim scholars as we’re tainted by compromise, insufficiently rigorous, and evidently insincere (a point on which Ayaan Hirsi Ali and ISIS agree.) But it gets worse. Not only is her Mecca-Medina distinction tried and found entirely unwanted, it’s a product of an ahistoricism which renders her argument almost entirely incomprehensible and frequently astonishing.
A few weeks back, I was invited to a speak at a lovely mosque in San Antonio, a gorgeous Moorish structure standing on damp grounds, set back on a quiet dead end road, so far away from the street I could imagine we were in a forgotten corner of Andalucía. (We had no mosques like this when I was a child, and I badly wished my future children would be able to grow up as part of one.)
The façade was dusky peach, and trapped the spirit of sundown. On each side were two great gazebos, where folks ate and talked late into the pleasant night; there was a beach volleyball pit and a full basketball court. The occasion was more stressful: an Open House, an invitation to explain Islam in America to a general audience of San Antonians.
Afterwards, a garrulous visitor asked me how I reconciled Muhammad’s teachings with American life; since Muhammad was primarily a political leader and a general, was it not impossible for me to be loyal to a secular society? “I don’t have that problem,” he volunteered, “because my Savior never engaged in those kinds of actions.”
Of course, no American Muslim I know has these conversations, not in many years—the debate in favor of democracy was long ago decided. But clearly some people think we haven’t made up our minds, assuming that because people somewhere else are questioning democracy, we must be, too. (The next time this question comes up I’m going to ask whether we can trust American Christians because of Russia’s.)
Make Islam into Christianity, he—along with Hirsi Ali—is trying to say, and all the violence goes away. Which is superficially compelling.
Sure, Muhammad wasn’t like Jesus, who preached briefly and, in his life, rather unsuccessfully. He wasn’t like Moses either, who died without reaching the Promised Land. If there’s any Biblical figure Muhammad recalls, it’s David. Both start as humble figures of noble ancestry, and end as powerful rulers. When Muhammad was born, Arabs were divided into hostile tribes. Justice was collective, and turned out rather like revenge. In place of this, Muhammad advocated for an ummah, a ‘super-tribe,’ a union of peoples based not on bloodline, class, or gender, but fidelity to a common and universal worldview.
Islam might not be an ethnicity in the way Judaism is articulated today, but Islam creates all the same a powerful sense of peoplehood, rooted in this historical achievement. People resort to lazy memes, like ‘religion divides people.’ Sure, but it also unites people. Whereas the Arabs were once torn apart by interminable feuding, today nearly 1 out of 4 of the world’s inhabitants are Muslim. The social glue of Muhammad’s grand experiment was zakat, an obligatory tithe of 2.5% distributed to the neediest regardless of their clannish identities. An analogy to affirmative action wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted: sometimes you have to force diversity in the hope that it becomes second nature.
Before Muhammad, moral obligations went as far as one’s relatives. Because of him, they theoretically extended to all humanity. Building such a community challenged the old elite, which first forced Muhammad from Mecca, and then necessitated a long and drawn-out conflict with the very people who had forced him out.
What happened to that state after Muhammad’s death is, though not religiously normative, nevertheless relevant. It expanded by force (although it did not compel, or even solicit, conversions—those happened in significant numbers many centuries after the original Muslim conquerors had disappeared), and naturally it was not a liberal or secular democracy. But it also brought together peoples who’d never had a common worldview, or shared humanity, before.
Muhammad was not like Jesus, born into a society with a powerful government. He was born into a place with no unifying government. An orphan from birth, who soon lost what little family he had, knew intimately the vulnerability the unattached suffered their entire lives. He created a system to put an end to that.
Would it have been better if Muhammad had simply said “mine is a kingdom not of this world,” and allowed the Arabs to continue massacring one another? Muslims esteem Muhammad and his companions—his Apostles, really—not because they realized the best of all possible worlds but because we know full well how far they came from where they began.
Otherwise we might as well ask why Muhammad hadn’t told the Arabs about the oil under their feet or, for that matter, why Jesus didn’t clue in the Apostles to the possibility of penicillin. What I mean is, what about the centuries when Europe was weak, feeble, and generally far more intolerant? When we ask questions determines the answers we get.
Should we hold Jesus to blame for avoiding the pressing issues of his day, for refusing to try to reconcile Judaism and the wider Gentile world? Would anti-Semitism never have taken root had he, a Jew, made more of an effort to preach about the pressing worldly issues of the day? The question is impossible to answer and, more than that, it’s not a particularly interesting question, either, except as a historical exercise.
To definitively maul a religion based, not just on present conditions, but on remarkably selective, unsophisticated readings of the past—built on faulty assumptions and unsound conclusions—is to imagine that there is no value to the entirety of a religious tradition. But this has long been the position of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose sundering of the Meccan from the Medinan would have consequences she hints at without being able to fully process.
Jerusalem… Why didn’t I think of that?
Let’s say we rid ourselves of the Medina Muhammad. Let’s say Islam is and only should be what Muslims did in Mecca. If somehow the majority of the world’s Muslims accepted this, here’s what would happen: The present Israel-Palestine conflict would turn a thousand times worse a million times faster. Because, before his exodus, Muhammad’s followers identified Jerusalem as their holy city. The move to face Mecca in prayers only happened after 622, which is to say, per Hirsi Ali’s ‘Reformation,’ it never happened. 1.6 billion Muslims ditching Mecca in favor of Jerusalem would mean 1.6 billion Muslims who would then expect the right to arrive at the Temple Mount for worship, pilgrimage, study, and residence.
Great idea! Far from Saudi Arabia holding a commanding position in the Muslim world, a new battle would open up between Fatah, Hamas, Iran, Turkey, and everyone else who claims to speak for Palestine—not to mention Israel, which is occupying Palestine. In case you think this merely a misstep, a case of not thinking through the consequences of arguing for a radical revision of a religion, here are 7 more:
1) Hirsi Ali describes the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group which has opposed her work, as “an organization subsequently blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates.”
2) “Muslims … use cell phones and computers without necessarily seeing a conflict between their religious faith and the rationalist, secular mindset that made modern technology possible.”
Driving on an interstate highway? You can probably thank the Nazis for that. What about nuclear power, radioactive isotopes, etc.? Guess who got us started there. First man in space? Circumnavigation of the globe? Printing press? Modern artillery? Gunpowder? Hirsi Ali juxtaposes Islam with secular rationality, without ever realizing that ‘secularity’ and ‘rationality’ are complicated phenomena, and Nazism and Communism are just as secular and rational as liberal democracy.
3) Ali contemptuously dismisses Muslims who clamor for the ‘correct’ interpretation of Islam—these voices annoy me, too—by telling us ‘there is no Muslim pope.’
But despite this, there is only one Islam. Don’t take her word for it, though. Take her word for it:
4) “Changing central aspects of Islamic doctrine became even more difficult in the tenth century.” Or: “Unlike Islam, Christianity has never been a static religion.”
5) In a screed concerning overly high Muslim birthrates: “If a man can marry up to four wives and have multiple children with each of them, the numbers grow quickly.”
This is a noxiously common and baldly racist meme, up there with claims about how unhygienic ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’ are. Hirsi Ali’s all about secularity and rationality, but draws the line at math. Wasn’t algebra invented by a Muslim? (Yeah.) And aren’t Muslims all terrorists? (Creeping Shariah.)
A man with four wives will not have any more children than four men married to four women. Gender ratios in Muslim societies are pretty much 1:1, most Muslims being humans. They’re not 4:1. If polygamy were widespread, which it’s not, most men would be unable to find partners and not have children of their own.
Polygamous societies would probably have fewer children, then, since those rare men who had multiple wives would have to balance the expense of children with the cost of supporting several spouses and several homes.
There are three types of Muslims: those who are good at math and those who aren’t.
6) “Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws … make it illegal to declare belief in the Christian Trinity.”
This really was too much. I reached out to Pakistan’s Honorable (Ret’d) Justice Majida Rizvi, the first female Supreme Court Justice in Pakistan (that’s a big deal), and she dismissed this allegation out of hand. ‘There is no truth,’ she said, ‘in the statement.’
Pakistan has “millions of Christians living and practicing the religion,” she wrote, and “hundreds of Churches in existence and active.” This is not to deny real discrimination against Christians, but it is not legal and not derived from Pakistani law.
Furthermore, violence against Christians, as unacceptable as it is, isn’t exclusive to Christians: extremists target Muslim houses of worship, too, and Muslim religious processions, shrines, and the many scholars who speak out against an extremist narrative.
Not only does Hirsi Ali not understand Islam, she doesn’t comprehend South Asia, which is where most of the world’s Muslims live.
7) Chapter 2: ‘Why There Has Been No Muslim Reformation’
By ‘Reformation,’ of course, Hirsi Ali means the Protestant one. Enabled, she argues, by new technology (printing press), ongoing urbanization, and the support of states resentful of Papal domination, the Reformation upended Europe, opening the door to secular, rational societies. About four hundred and fifty years and several continental genocides later, but hey. Now, Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists, Islam must have its Reformation. Now.
Except Islam already had a Reformation.
Its Air Force is bombing Yemen.
At first I thought Hirsi Ali didn’t know this. Then I thought maybe she ignored it. But now I realize she is unable to know it. Her guiding theoretical assumption—that Islam does not change—gives her no room for understanding the novel menace of Wahhabism. In fact, Hirsi Ali cannot understand any developments in Muslim communities because rather than see them as developments, she presumes they are all fundamentally repetitions on the same pattern. If Dr. Hirsi Ali were your doctor, you’d be dead. But she’d tell you it’s not a problem, though, because you’ve always been dead.
Take, for example, this sentence (which, if I found in an undergraduate paper, would cause me to ask the student to come to office hours): ‘The ferment we see in the Muslim world today is due to Islam itself and the incompatibility of certain key facets of the Muslim faith with modernity.’
Imagine a book by a Harvard Fellow, critical of black culture, that ignores slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacist movements, white flight, etc; or a monograph about anti-Semitism that ignores the Holocaust. This is Hirsi Ali’s M.O.
We wouldn’t tolerate it from an affiliate of a prestigious university in nearly any other context. Forget bias, it’s blindness. The same percentage of Algerians died in that country’s war of independence against France as Germans did in World War II, except instead of finding themselves under a benevolent patron arrived from afar, Algerians found themselves under new despotism—assisted by the French from afar. And this is somehow irrelevant to extremism? It doesn’t excuse extremism, but it certainly is relevant to the conversation that many radical movements turn to violence as a result of a narrative of victimization and vulnerability.
It’s the reason they’re able to attract young men and women who fall for the simplistic explanation: Islam is under attack, and where others have failed you must succeed. They make them believe they’re heroes in a ‘cosmic war’ and then turn them into villains. Fueling some of this radicalism? Islam’s Reformation.
Her apparent solution is part of the real problem. For those who care about keeping America safe, about improving conditions for Muslim communities, about helping European societies enfranchise and empower their immigrants, about better foreign policy choices, this is not your book.
In the late 18th century, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab launched a theological revolt against Sunni and Shia orthodoxies. He won the backing of the nascent Saudi state, and thereafter went to war with the closest thing Sunni Islam had to a Papacy, the (Ottoman) Caliphate. Wahhabism took aim at the religious hierarchies that had built up over centuries, while offering nothing with much substance, sophistication or spirituality in their place. It even looks like the Reformation as Ayaan Hirsi Ali defines it and prefers it. Muslims of the time generally viewed Wahhabis as heretics at best; the Ottomans dispatched Muhammad Ali, modernizing governor of Egypt, to put down this blasphemous uprising.
But the collapse of the Ottomans not soon thereafter—thanks to several inestimably boneheaded decisions—provided the Reformation its second chance. With political instability and instant urbanization, Wahhabism had huge numbers of unmoored young men to target, backed up with the ridiculous resources of the Saudi state, magnified in light of the general poverty of much of the Muslim world.
The institutions that could’ve powered a Muslim rebuttal to the worst excesses of Wahhabism collapsed in the transition to the contemporary world, leaving Muslims naked before a narrative, not of literalism, but of what Caner Dagli more accurately calls ‘exclusivism’.
Shorter version: Solution author advocates already exists, and is cause of problem author claims solution will remedy.
One of the worst practices I’ve seen in Muslim communities is forcing our most promising students into anything but religion, and the least promising into religion. We got the religion we paid for, and now we’re paying for it—believe me.
American media sometimes does the same: We don’t value people who tell us what we need to know, or otherwise wouldn’t hear, but lavish attention on what would be easiest for us to believe, or drives ratings. Short-term gain+Fox News+Ayaan Hirsi Ali=long-term pain. (See: Operation Iraqi Freedom.)
Things don’t look very bright for many parts of the Muslim world. Now, more than ever, we need to put our heads together and find viable solutions to serious problems. Which is the most unfortunate takeaway of Heretic. While I share Ali’s concern for the present direction of much of the Muslim world, she and I differ on solution—and origin.
What Islam needs, if anything, is a Counter-Reformation. A revival and rethinking of the institutions that attracted our best minds, and helped shape them into leaders, artists, thinkers, dreamers. But to do that, we need to get the cobwebbed and sclerotic autocrats out of the way.
There can be no progress without freedom.
And there can be no freedom if we are stuck believing in people, like Hirsi Ali and her ilk, who don’t believe in the kinds of analysis that leave room for debate, discussion, and growth. I know from personal experience how hard it is to fight the mentality that produces and sustains extremism.
Case in point: I don’t think Hirsi Ali is deliberately misrepresenting Islam. I think she’s doing the best she can. In her insistence that secular analysis must not be applied to Islam, that somehow the religion must be kept immune from reasonable and rational discussion, Ayaan Hirsi Ali most closely resembles the Muslims she claims use cell phones while shunning the worldview behind them. You could say that she’s undergone a schism, but that’s all. Islam needs a Reformation, Ayaan Hirsi Ali?