Can Islam be Reformed?

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
HarperCollins, 2015, 320 pages, $29.99


hirsiAyaan Hirsi Ali’s new book makes the case that the world is caught up in a conflagration comparable to the Cold War. As was the case during the Soviet-US showdown, this global confrontation will not be won my military means alone, since America “cannot afford to continue a war of ideals solely by military means”. Moreover, by averting our eyes to “the ideas that give rise to Islamist violence”, all we do is “ignore the root of the problem”. Heretic, then, constitutes Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest shot at addressing the ultimate hitch to world peace—Islamic jihadism.

In April last year, Brandeis University, Massachusetts, rescinded an offer to the Somali-born feminist to address a commencement ceremony and receive an honorary degree. Brandeis’s Muslim Students Association had ignited a social media firestorm, accusing Hirsi Ali of “Islamophobia” and the powers-that-be at Brandeis crumpled.

Islamophobia is a bogus crime invented by Muslim Brotherhood types and only taken seriously by bohemian leftists and other useful idiots in the West such as Ed Miliband. Ayaan Hirsi Ali does not suffer from this malady, for two fairly obvious reasons. First, a phobia is an exaggerated and usually inexplicable and illogical dread of something, and yet any antipathy on the part of Hirsi Ali towards Islam cannot be categorised as inexplicable. Consider, for instance, the genital mutilation she endured as a child, the arranged marriage she narrowly avoided, the brutal slaying of her friend Theo van Gogh in 2004 by an Islamic fanatic, the death threat to her pinned onto van Gogh’s torso and the constant security regime required to safeguard her life. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s detractors can dig up any number of her past comments about Islam—“destructive, nihilistic cult of death”—but the frenzied campaign at Brandeis to silence a woman marked for death by religious zealots makes her adversaries sound, well, destructive, nihilistic and cultist.

A second and perhaps more crucial reason why Hirsi Ali cannot be sensibly accused of Islamophobia is that Heretic showcases in a very positive light a vast range of Muslims, from ordinary Muslim folk to Islamic clerics and scholars. She classifies many of these commendable characters as Modifying Muslims, individuals who continue to identify with the faith they were raised in and yet wish to embrace the “rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity”. They are to be distinguished from Medina Muslims, or what we might call activist Salafists or Salafi jihadists, who are at war with modernity. The largest group of all, according to Heretic, is Mecca Muslims, the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Hirsi Ali suggests that people in this category are often caught between the siren call of Islamic revivalism and the rising tide of Western-initiated modernity, a contention explored by the venerable Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong (2002) and The Crisis of Islam (2003). Can anyone, acolytes of the doubtable Edward Said and Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers excepted, seriously claim that echoing Bernard Lewis’s line of reasoning constitutes a hate crime?

In her earlier book Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilisations (2010), Ayaan Hirsi Ali self-identified as a full-blown apostate rather than a latter-day heretic. In Heretic she is, theoretically at least, back in the fold and demanding far-ranging reform. Her program for a “true Muslim Reformation” comes in—modestly enough—at ninety shy of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses. The five beliefs and practices she identifies that need to be abandoned are:

• Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Koran, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;

• The investment in life after death instead of life before death;

• Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Koran, the hadiths, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;

• The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;

• The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

Paradoxically, perhaps, critics and apologists of Islam alike have questioned Hirsi Ali’s call for a Muslim reformation. If the predominance of Muhammad and the importance of life after death are to be eschewed, muses Peter Smith in the article “Hirsi Ali’s Quixotic Tilt at Fixing Islam”, then the question arises as to “what Muslims would pray for”. Interestingly, apologist Haroon Moghul, in his article “Ayaan Hirsi Ali is hurting Islam: Why her radical reformation is in desperate need of reform”, argues that no Muslim would accept Hirsi Ali’s five theses as reasonable or even workable.

Critic and apologist might also agree that Hirsi Ali’s call for a Protestant-style reformation is inapt. For critics such as Daniel Greenfield, it amounts to a futile attempt to separate the political from the religious and the public from the personal in an ideology or phenomenon that can best be defined as a fusion of the political and the religious, the public and the private. Literalness in this case—in contradistinction to Martin Luther’s translation and close reading of the New Testament—will not be emancipatory. A fresh or even radical encounter with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, carpenter and iterant preacher, is not going to be the same as re-engaging with Muhammad, military commander and founder of a religio-political system.

For Haroon Moghul, on the other hand, the Protestant Reformation might have “upended Europe, opening the door to secular, rational societies” but we cannot ignore the fratricidal chaos that occurred between Luther and the advent of let-and-let-live cosmopolitanism. The violent, apocalyptical millennialism of the 1534-35 Münster Rebellion springs to mind, and that’s just for starters. Moghul’s best rejoinder to Hirsi Ali’s reformation agenda is this: “Now, Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists, Islam must have its Reformation. Now. Except Islam already had a Reformation. Its Air Force is bombing Yemen.”

While Haroon Moghul’s missive is a vitriolic assault on Heretic—“This isn’t one of the worst ever written about Islam. It’s one of the worst books, period”—there is one moment of accord: he shares Ali’s concern for “the direction of much of the Muslim world”, although obviously they “differ on solution—and origin”. What the Muslim world requires, reasons Moghul, is not a reformation but a counter-reformation. The institutions and instruments of the Ottoman Caliphate, the closest thing to an Islamic Papacy, thwarted the first wave of a Muslim reformation, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s late-eighteenth-century revolt against Sunni and Shia orthodoxies: “the Ottomans dispatched Muhammad Ali, modernizing governor of Egypt, to put down his blasphemous uprising”. The dissolution of the Caliphate in 1923, Moghul insists, gave the Islamic reformation—we might call it Salafism—a second wind.

Moghul references Caner Dagli’s article “The Phony Islam of ISIS”, to corroborate the claim that the driving force of Islamic revivalism is not so much “literalism”, a faithful reading of the Koran and the hadiths, but the “exclusivism” of the Wahhabists and their even more extreme successors. Indeed, this obsession with tawhid al-ummah, the unity of the Muslim community, has been expertly addressed in Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon (see “The Long War Comes to Lebanon”, Quadrant, April 2015). Dagli wrote his essay as a rebuttal to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants”, which declared: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic” and “derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam”. Dagli, along with Moghul, scorns the idea that the violent, apocalyptic millennialism of the Islamic State derives from coherent and learned interpretations of Islam, and yet even if we agree that the existential crisis in the Muslim world is not “literalism”, we are still left with the red-alert calamity of “exclusivism”.

Moreover, Moghul descends into a case of special pleading. There is always some special reason why young Muslim men turn to “extremism” and it never has anything to do with Muslim supremacism. If the Ottoman Caliphate had remained in place, maybe the Islamic revivalist movement might have been kept in check. Then again, perhaps if the Ottomans had not gone to war on the side of the Kaiserreich, the Caliphate might have survived. And were the Ottomans, in the end, so peaceable? What about the Armenians? Besides, if the “Islamic Papacy” had everything under control in the first place, what was Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s revolt all about?

At one point in her narrative, Hirsi Ali makes this admission: “I left Islam, and I still think it is the best choice for Muslims who feel trapped between their conscience and the commands of Muhammad.” Heretic, in essence, is an attempt to flesh out a third option, something between going to war against modernity by embracing “radical Islam” and leaving Islam behind altogether: “A choice that might somehow have reconciled religious faith with the key imperatives of modernity: freedom of conscience, tolerance of difference, equality of the sexes and an investment in life before death.” Not the least problem with the “third option” is that there might be a serious shortage of Muslim Modifiers—as defined by Heretic’s five theses—and, indeed, there is every possibility that Ayaan Hirsi Ali does not really fit the bill.

You do get a sense that in her heart of hearts Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains an apostate and her true sympathies are for those who, like herself, are daring and fortunate enough to escape. Consider the case of Abdul ‘Ala Al-Ma’arri (973–1058), the provocative rationalist of his time who considered the recorded speeches of prophets to be “forgeries” and “impossible” and was, to the very last, sceptical about all religious claims, Muslim, Jew and Christian alike. He was also quintessentially modern in an unmodern world, a strict vegetarian who argued for animal rights, and today loved (in a necessarily circumspect way) by apostates and atheists across the Muslim world. But a thousand years after his death, still Al Ma’arri cannot not escape the wrath of the fanatics: two years ago members of the al-Nusra Front beheaded his statue.

Towards the end of Heretic, fortunately, Ayaan Hirsi Ali uncovers a different kind of Muslim Modifier, one who does not fit her original definition but seems impressive enough—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The President of Egypt has dealt a serious blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist allies, including Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Hamas, and there is a genuine hope that he will destroy the Al-Qaeda affiliates that emerged in Libya after President Obama’s “model intervention”. Hirsi Ali expresses few reservations about President Sisi’s call for a “religious revolution”, especially since he made it at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the pre-eminent institution of Sunni religious learning in the world: “It is precisely institutions like Al-Azhar that stand in the way of a Muslim Reformation. If the Egyptian government is prepared to take on Al-Azhar, the times are indeed changing.” There is, though, no reason to doubt that Sisi is a pious fellow. In other words, his position on “Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status”, let alone any expectation for life after death, is inconsequential to his desire to embrace modernity. The same might be said about Rojava’s freedom fighters (the YPG and YPJ) who saw off the IS group’s 2014-15 offensive against Kobani, and the patriotism in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and the 55 per cent of Israeli Arabs content to be citizens of the State of Israel, and so on.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali would have profited from situating her critique of Islamic revivalism in particular and Islam in general within the framework of humanism instead of Martin Luther’s Reformation. It was the European Renaissance, as Robert Irwin insists in The Lust for Knowing (2006), which marked a turning point in human history when the dangerous creed of freedom took on a whole new meaning. What to do when the dynamics of the external world challenge the traditional consolations of the inner world? The way forward, in the opinion of early Renaissance philosophers, including Petrarch, was a combination of boldness and humility, retaining equanimity by losing neither one’s feet nor one’s soul.

The concluding chapter in Heretic deals with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The January 2015 outrage—and people’s short-term (and longer-term) response to it—will serve as a kind of marker for some time to come. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as might be expected, commended various Western leaders, including Canada’s Stephen Harper, for connecting the Charlie Hebdo attack with the “international jihadist movement”. She would, obviously, be less sanguine about the six prominent novelists, including Australian Peter Carey, who protested against the French satirical magazine being honoured with a freedom of expression award. Carey was quoted in the New York Times:

A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.

In striking contrast, President Sisi—with both boldness and humility—responded to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by condemning it outright and two weeks later admonished Muslim supremacists: “No one can monopolise the truth. No one should believe their ideas are better than others.” How unexpected, sometimes, are our allies in the War of Freedom.

Daryl McCann has a blog at


7 thoughts on “Can Islam be Reformed?

  • pgang says:

    Sisi’s comment was relativist nonsense. He Should have said, ‘Muslims should not believe their ideas are better than others.’

    Why? Because we can easily measure and compare the real effects of Muslim belief against Christian reality.

    • says:

      Had Sisi said what you suggest, it would have been to his further credit. That in no way means that what he did say was nonsense.

  • en passant says:

    I have read one of Hirsin Ali’s books, but have never read Carey (I tried to, but found his style pretentious) so what Carey says is of little concern to me.
    Despite the ostrich policies of almost all politicians in the West, we are in a war of survival, yet only the ‘unacceptable’ countries frowned upon by the UN are taking ‘appropriate’ action to deal with the relentless infiltration and attacks. Those fighting back include Egypt, Bulgaria, China, Japan, Russia, Myanmar, Angola, Vietnam and Israel. Australia cannot do what is necessary due to our subservience to the UNHCR conventions
    Weak Western politicians still cling to the belief that ‘they are just like us’ when they are clearly not. Blind and deaf to reality, they march us on to the edge of the cliff with irrational, Orwellian policies.
    How far will we go before we realise the error? Well, probably too far if you consider ideas like Stuart Roberts ‘thought-bubble’ gleaned no doubt from his indoctrination by the Left-wing academics at ADFA and his slogan of ‘Strength through Diversity’ and his directive that the ADF actively seek to recruit more muslims to weaken our military and unit cohesion. Hint: the correct term is ‘Strength through Unity’ as Diversity is a killer (sometimes via a bullet in the back) but in Robert’s mind that does not compute as that is not what he was taught by armchair academics.
    For once I am glad I am old, but I apologise to my children for the world and the political numpties I will bequeath to them.

  • says:

    Reduced to its most basic, the problem is axiomatically simple: Islam. It is useless theorising trying to define different varieties of Muslims. Certainly, the vast majority of Muslims are not involved nor are planning to be involved in violence. While that is of considerable comfort, it does not mean that all of them disown the violence by others and almost certainly none of them disown the motivation of their violent brethren. One never hears from any Muslim, leader or the common garden variety, the denial of the fundamental tenets of Islam, such as the indisputable perfection and superiority of the faith and its aherents; the inevitability of it conquring the world; that dying in defence of Islam earns fabulous rewards in heaven; that men are vastly superior to women and so on infinitum. While such poisonous attitudes are held privately and not acted upon – whether by open and violent or surraptious means – is objectionable enough, the very existence of such sentiments will for ever remain a slow burning fuse, likely sooner or later to culminate in a conflegration. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some final showdown between Islam and the rest of the world is inevitable.

    Bill Martin.

  • IainC says:

    Much as Islam requires reforming, I cannot see Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Five Proposals ever gaining support. They are Foundation Pillars of Islamic belief and practice. It would be like reforming Communism by removing the requirement for state control of production. My own suggestion is a more subtle reformation protocol – keep the framework, but modify the working interpretation of it. One example relates to the fundamentalist legal protocol that “a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s”. This could be retained in “spirit” (at least until true progress in centuries to come allowed it to lapse entirely) by allowing women to submit testimony twice, thereby giving it equal weight. A root and branch exercise to modernise the entire canon in this way would take an army of scholars, but may allow accommodation between the modernists and traditionalists (which are by far in the majority at present)

  • says:

    Sometimes the words and the definitions say more than they were meant to. Since the critical appraisal of the radical Islam’s adherents’ actions is inevitably branded as an “Islamophobia” by the occupants of the high moral ground, the meaning of the word should be made clear or, at least, logically deconstructed.

    This composite word consists , in my understanding, of two components: An Arabic word Islam, meaning submission and a Latin word , “Phobia” borrowed from the Greek “Phobos”, meaning fear .
    Phobia, mostly used in psychiatry,to denote an irrational fear towards an object or an action.

    a combining form meaning “fear,” occurring in loanwords from Greek ( hydrophobia); on this model, used in the names of mental disorders that have the general sense “dread of, aversion toward” that specified by the initial element:
    < Latin < Greek, equivalent to -phob (os) -phobe + -ia -ia Unabridged
    Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015."

    So far , so good. We have a term , which denotes the fear and an aversion towards an ideology which allows slavery, subjugation of others, suppression of women, killing of dissidents and many other disagreeable, violent activities. Judging by the well documented evidence, this ideology contains a lot to be afraid of. The question which remains unanswered for me is as follows:
    What is so irrational in this fear? And why people, who do not wish to be affected by the tender mercies of this ideology should not be afraid of it?

    • gardner.peter.d says:

      We fear it, I suggest, because our politicians seem unable to control it and in some cases unwilling. Quite the reverse, they afford it privileges of exception in law and policy. Were people generally free to debate it and accept or reject it as individuals we would not fear it, we would simply loathe and reject it, its adherents would be a minority with no power to impose it on anyone against their will. However, our politicians seek to prevent us from expressing our loathing and rejection. So a logical reaction to Islam is transformed into a phobia by the environment in which logic no longer holds sway as in a bad dream or a creation of Franz Kafka.

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