Title: Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now
Author: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Review by Bob Lane
A favourite Nietzsche quote of mine is “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” One of the problems with all religions is that followers are urged to see the claims of their religion as Truths and not as hopes or wishes. As a kid I was sent to a rather strict Lutheran Church where I had to learn the catechism and memorize some questions and answers in order to proceed to confirmation. I did not do well. I still remember the time the pastor asked me, as part of the training, to recite the opening parts of the catechism. “The Lord thy God is a jealous God” I repeated. And then, puzzled, I asked, “What would God have to be jealous about?” The pastor responded with an answer that was the beginning of my departure from the “faith community”: “Quit asking stupid questions and memorize the material!” Hirsi Ali reports a similar experience, “At the age of five or six, I remember asking: “Why am I treated so differently from my brother?” And “Why am I not a boy?” The response? “Stupid girl, stop asking so many questions!”
Now I am no longer a believer and have discovered by employing my reason, instead of merely reciting what the text says, that religion is not necessary for morality. Hirsi Ali is on a similar adventure in thought as she argues for a reformation of Islam. In her earlier books she recounts her personal history and how she came to leave the Muslim faith community and moved to the West. On her way from Somalia to Canada she stopped in Amsterdam and asked for and received refugee status. That experience is movingly told in Infidel and Nomad. This last book has a chapter that retells that personal history, but it is primarily an argument for changing, reforming, Islam.
or, continue below:
The book opens in a dramatic way:
On ____, a group of ____ heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a ____ in ____ opening fire and killing a total of ____ people.
Fill in those blanks with the facts of an attack that are reported today or yesterday in the world press. Shootings, suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings seem to be the stuff of the daily news from around the world. Why? What is causing so many (mostly) young men to engage in these barbaric acts of terror? Is it a political problem? Is the root cause lack of employment and opportunity? Lack of educational opportunities? These are the answers suggested by many liberals in the West, but Hirsi Ali thinks there is a deeper problem: Islam itself. Muslims and Western liberals have argued that such atrocities, as well as the ideas and organizations behind them, are aberrations; that they represent a travesty of “true” Islam. Nonsense, she writes:
They are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad…. Islam is not a religion of peace.
For emphasis she writes, “Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace. (p 3) Later she remarks that it is a religion of “pieces” not “peace.” To make her point she divides Islam into three groups of Muslims:
- Medina Muslims – they are those who see the forcible imposition of sharia law as their religious duty; prescribe beheadings for the crime of “nonbelief” in Islam, death by stoning for adultery, preach jihad, and glorify death through martyrdom.
- Mecca Muslims – they worship devoutly but are not inclined to violence; their beliefs exist in uneasy tension with modernity.
- Modifying Muslims – these are the dissidents, non-believers, and reforming believers, who Hirsi Ali argues provide hope for reformation of the religion and an opportunity to join the 21st century.
She challenges the Western liberal view that the increase in the violent elements of Islam lies in economic and political problems of the Muslim world. “Religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform.” (22) The reformers and extremists, writes Hirsi Ali, are currently locked in a battle to win the hearts and minds of the mass of passive Mecca Muslims. She claims to be hopeful that the reformers will prevail, yet she produces little evidence to support such an outcome. Instead, her strengths lie in showing the difficulties in bringing about reform – not least the widely held belief that as a final and perfect rendition of God’s word, Islam is powerfully resistant to the very concept of reinterpretation.
In order to moderate and modernize Islam she suggests a list of five things that must change:
- Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status leading to the literalist reading of the Qur’an, especially those parts that were revealed in Median;
- Emphasis on life after death instead of life before death;
- Sharia, the legislation derived from the Qur’an. The hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;
- The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law;
- The imperative to wage holy war or jihad.
Hirsi Ali tries to warn Americans and Canadians 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. Here in Canada most of us had no way of dealing with the horrific murder by a Muslim father of his female family members. Their crime was following some Canadian ways!
Human beings in every era have inflicted destruction and death on each other, moved often by certainty about ideas or beliefs that were at best transient if not actually false. However, over the course of the 20th century, people the world over have been exposed to many different ways of life and worldviews, a diverse range of belief systems, ideas, customs, opinions, and bodies of knowledge.
The pluralism that now prevails in the West, and that has begun to permeate the rest of the world, has begun to foster an awareness that no belief system is absolute and eternal, that all evolve over time. Human beings created all of them, and humans are invariably imperfect, as are all systems of belief. Each of us is free now to choose from the banquet of belief systems now available to us.
In earlier times people grew up firmly convinced that the worldview, the religion they absorbed from their society was, if not the only valid one, surely the most valid of all. They took for granted their worldview was a certainty.
Fundamentalists continue to maintain this stance. Evidently feeling threatened by the prevailing pluralism, they insist there is only one way to salvation, and that they can lead us to it. These religious groups matter deeply to a substantial minority, and in the past 25 years especially have become a force of considerable influence in local, national, and international politics. They seek power with energy, ingenuity, and determination.
The demonic thrust of certainty in fundamentalism (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike) is wreaking havoc in many parts of the world. “Knowing absolutely what is right authorizes the attack on what is wrong.” Certainty has driven fundamentalists to shoot down worshippers in a mosque, to kill nurses and doctors in abortion clinics, to assassinate political and religious leaders, to oust established governments, to train scores of suicide bombers to spread death and destruction among unbelievers. They act in righteousness, certain they are serving the will of God. They reject pluralism, democracy, tolerance, free speech, and the separation of church and state.
Hirsi Ali offers an opening for discussion on the limits of certainty and a limited hope for a human morality that will offer tolerance and peace in this life.
Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Vancouver Island University.