ISIS has just taken Ramadi and is close to the ancient ruin of Palmyra. While Western leaders persist in denying that ISIS is Islamic, everybody should be reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s newly published manifesto, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Fourth Estate, 2015). It is a clarion call we all need to hear and heed. Her argument that Islam needs a Reformation – on the model of the 16th century Reformation in Europe – is problematic. She is actually calling for an Enlightenment to descend upon Islam. But she has what might be called a genuine moral compass. Her bold polemic should be read as widely as possible and discussed.
‘For years, we have spent trillions on waging war against ‘terror’ and ‘extremism’’, she writes, but ‘we have not bothered to develop an effective counter narrative, because from the outset we have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam.’ The counter narrative she suggests is that the ideas in question are rooted in Islam, not in socio-economic conditions, and that Islam needs a fundamental overhaul if it is to live in peace with the modern world and with itself. She is right, but the Reformation is the wrong model for her thinking.
She calls for at least five fundamental changes in Islamic belief and practice:
(1) renunciation of Muhammed’s semi-divine status and the claim that the Quran is a pure revelation from Allah (especially parts dating from Muhammed’s time in Medina, when he became violent);
(2) a shift from investment in the imagined after-life to concentration on life in the actual world;
(3) the abandonment of sharia law in favour of civil law;
(4) the abandonment of the practice of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’ which empowers vigilante gangs and obsessive individuals to harass others in the name of strict religious codes;
(5) a radical revision of teachings about jihad, to remove the calls for Islam to be spread by force against infidels.
She is absolutely correct that these changes are needed, but they are not what an Islamic Luther or Calvin would have called for. They are the equivalent of saying to the Catholic Church in the 16th century that it should renounce the divinity of Jesus and the idea that the Bible was the revealed word of God; give up an emphasis on the afterlife; meld canon law in to civil law; renounce Papal authority and institute freedom of conscience and religious belief across the board.
The only one of these that Luther and Calvin brought to the table was the rejection of Papal authority. The changes she wants to see are what a Locke or Voltaire called for in the 17th and 18th centuries. She tacitly concedes this by quoting them, not Luther or Calvin, when it comes to freedom and civil law.
Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s, with his trenchant text Milestones, was a Muslim Calvin in his way. Tariq Ramadan, author of The Messenger, in 2006-07, has actually been hailed (in the Washington Post, no less) as the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’. Yet they call for very different things than what Ayaan Hirsi Ali would like to see. They are critics of falling away from Islam and the secularization of Muslim societies. This has genuine parallels with the Reformation. What Hirsi Ali is calling for does not.
Reason, not blind adherence to the Quranic verses or the hadith (the sayings attributed to Muhammed), must guide Muslims to a better way, she insists. Reason is the Devil’s whore, declared Martin Luther; and what is required is unquestioning faith in Biblical revelation. The consequence of the Reformation was one hundred and fifty years of religious war in Europe that tore Christendom apart, climaxing with the Thirty Years War (1618-48).
We are seeing something like that right now in the Middle East and Africa, not only in the atrocities of ISIS and Boko Haram, but in the regression of Turkey, the aggression of Iran and the growing commitment of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to war against both ISIS and Iran. None of this is progress. All of it bodes ill, both for the Middle East and for the rest of us.
Hirsi Ali is taking a necessary stand; but she is the same kind of heretic as Walter Kaufmann, author of The Faith of a Heretic, who renounced his parents’ Lutheranism and then the Judaism of his grandparents, while remaining interested in and appreciative of the better elements of the Jewish and Christian religions. Hirsi Ali is not a believer. She is free and liberal minded. The dissidents within Islam or in the Muslim world that she champions should be championed, also, by us; but they are the equivalent of Giordano Bruno or Michael Servetus, not Luther or Calvin. Both were burned at the stake as heretics: Bruno by the Roman Inquisition; Servetus by Calvin in Geneva.
Hirsi Ali does not want to revive Islam as the ‘true religion’, but to see Islam reduced to a quiet cultural relic, like Christianity in Europe; with all the dogmatism and harshness stripped away. She claims that Muslim Reformation is coming, but it is already upon us. We should, all the more, as she urges, support dissidents in the Muslim world as we supported dissidents in the Communist bloc during the Cold War – but not in the name of a ‘pure’ Islam.
One of the finest current dissidents is the young Pakistani school girl, Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to kill. She wrote: ‘The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them…They think that God is a tiny little conservative being who would send girls to Hell just because of going to school.’ Quite so, but the adherents of this tiny, little conservative deity, are many and on the warpath. We misunderstand our dilemmas if we believe that they are not really Muslims.