Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of the most renowned, and most controversial, religious commentators of our day. Her straightforward critiques of radical Islam have drawn admirers and detractors on both sides of the political spectrum, and she has become a hero to some and an enemy to others. She experienced the horrors of religious extremism growing up in Somalia, and she later moved to the Netherlands, where she rose to a seat in the Dutch parliament before immigrating to the U.S. In this year’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, she argues for a wholesale critical reexamination within Islam. She brings her life story and firebrand politics to the Granada Theatre this Saturday.
How has your year been so far?
In 2014, Brandeis [University] rescinded the invitation for an honorary degree, and soon after that, all these events started to unfold pretty quickly. We had the headlines around the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and at just about the same time news of the woman in Sudan who was sentenced to death for being a Christian. Fast forward to ISIS and Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the schools in Pakistan, the shooting incidents in Canada and here in the U.S.… It’s as if before that, what I was saying to many people was hypothetical. It was as if there are some crazy people sometimes, and some of them do things that are bad, but there’s really nothing to worry about. What happened is people started piecing together all of these events and the motivations of people doing very nasty things, especially Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and all of a sudden what you have to say is it’s serious and it’s related to this religion.
In his first decade in Mecca, Muhammad originally went from door to door, telling people to accept him as the prophet and said, “Please believe in one god.” Then he moved to Medina, and the next 10 years are dramatically different. He is still a man of religion, saying that there is one god and he’s the messenger, but he’s also a legislator, a warlord, a military man, and he starts to wage war. As his following gets bigger and bigger, as he conquers more and more places and more and more people, he understands he has to make rules and laws. That is Sharia law. He’s saying, “This is revelation; it’s God. It’s not me who makes these rules; I’m merely the messenger.” The people we see today who want to emulate him in his conduct in Medina are groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab.
My book says it’s actually quite possible to reform Islam, to accept Mohammad as an icon in his Mecca period and repudiate much of what he did in Medina. You can see his laws at a historic moment, a historic development, but you must not try to apply them. Otherwise, what we get is what the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is doing: You have to establish Sharia. Those were the laws that he designed for a 7th century context. We are living in the 21st.
At points you have advocated the crushing of Islam, but now in your new book, Heretic, you offer ideas for reformation. What changed?
I haven’t changed my attitude toward the crushing and defeating of the Medina edition. This is what our government is doing. President Obama said we have to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, and Vice President Biden said we have to chase them to the gates of hell. They are trying to destroy only one brand of Islam. My point is, if you take the Medina ideology and you apply it, then you’re going to be at war within Islam and at war with the world, and that is what we are seeing. The only way is to defeat them not only militarily but also on the battlefield of ideas.
In my book Heretic, I’m pointing out the largest number of Muslims are Mecca Muslims. They pray, they fast, they’re not really much interested in politics, and they don’t look to religion for answers if they are interested. That’s a different subject. We need to separate the doctrine from the people. They are a very, very diverse people. There are over 1.5 billion of them in the world, one fifth of humanity. They’re diverse in age, gender, geography, language, and income.
In this book, this umbrella term I call the Mecca Islam. If you’re following Muhammad’s example in Mecca, you’re merely praying and fasting and observing, and for you religion is a source of spirituality, a source of community. It is pretty much how we understand religion in the West. It’s a form of worship, and as long as you worship and follow your rituals and it’s very clear to you that you cannot use your religious beliefs to harm others.
You have said that extremist terrorism is embedded in Islam. It seems to me most religions and religious texts have been used as a pretext for violence. Is it really so unique to Islam?
It’s not unique to Islam. Christianity or Christians have used Christian scripture to justify incredibly inhumane bad acts. Christians in the South invoked the Bible to justify slavery, Christians in South Africa invoked the Bible to justify Apartheid, and some Christians have used it to subjugate women and for the mistreatment of gays and the LGBT community. It’s the same as in Islam — it has happened with literally every faith. Human prejudices and human faith, the way that humans use religions to do things good for their group and bad for the other group, it’s the natural path of the human being.
When it comes to Islam today versus Christianity, Judaism, and other religions today — what you see is these faith communities, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition, have been subjected to years, if not centuries, of questioning and critical thinking. Of course, this process Christianity went through was quite bloody and long.
The reality of today is most Christians, particularly in the heartland of Christianity, Europe and America, have come to accept the separation of religion from politics. Over time they have accepted, really grudgingly, the rights of women and gays and other religious minorities. The people who were invoking the Bible to justify slavery, they lost. What I’m advocating for in Heretic is for Islam to undergo such a process of critical thinking and searching so that the majority of Muslims can accept, even if scripture dictates otherwise, the rights of other human beings.
In the times we’re living now, there is a considerable minority of Muslims who are doing exactly that. They are making a clear, hard choice between their conscience versus the command of Muhammad and God. They are saying, okay, I’m fine with being a Muslim, but I don’t want Sharia law, and they’re doing it at great risk to their own lives.
Just last week, a man in Bangladesh, a blogger, a man of science, a man of freedom, who wrote the idea that reason should be welcomed into society and we should not have religious or divine laws to settle conflicts or political problems, he was butchered by Muslims in Bangladesh. The thing about Islamic extremism is, it’s not somewhere in a museum or in the annals of history. It’s happening now, and it is affecting millions of people, mainly Muslims.
It’s not enough to condemn violence. It’s crucial to go after the ideals, to stop and examine what exactly it was that Mohammad taught, what is it that he did, and see how we can develop a counter-narrative.
You now identify as an atheist. Can you speak to atheism as a political force?
I think, first of all, I want to share with you that I’m aware of how loaded the term “atheism” is in the U.S. In Europe it doesn’t mean a movement. When you have a discussion asking, is there a God? Was God created by man, or was man created by God? If you fall on the side that man created God, then you’re an atheist. That doesn’t mean anything beyond stating there is no evidence that there is a God.
Many Americans think of it as quite negative and immoral, and they look at it as a movement. I’m not really aware of it as a movement; for me the term is still pretty much a part of the Enlightenment. I’m not part of a radical movement in some way. It’s an attitude to organized religion, of which I am not a part.
But I grew up in Islam, and it’s the religion I know the most, and the one that is capturing all the headlines in the world today. My contribution is to say I would like non-Muslims to look at Muslims and see them as different individuals, not groups. And I would like Muslims to look at Muslims and see them as individuals endowed with reason. One Muslim would be attracted to the appeal of ISIS, while another one is attracted to Richard Dawkins. And it’s very well possible that those two people could have grown up in the same house, and they could be male, female, and of any social category.
Listen, if you are attracted to the appeal of ISIS, as far as I’m concerned you are much more worrying and alarming than if you are attracted to Richard Dawkins, or New Ageism, or any of that. Even if it’s a minority these extremists form within Islam, the question is, why do they form? And if we find an answer to the why, and then, how can we influence that?
You consider yourself a classic liberal, yet others, even other liberals, have criticized you for promoting discriminatory or even hate speech. Why do people try to censor you?
I think what happens, and by the way it’s not only Islam, but the reason all anti-liberal movements hate liberalism — and I’m talking about classical liberalism, the liberalism of critical thinking, and individual rights — when a radical ideology is questioned, the leadership gets very nervous. They impulsively just want silence because they don’t want those questions; they know exactly where they will lead to. When I was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and I would ask a question, my teachers would get so angry; it seemed as if the anger came from nowhere. I was a teenager; I didn’t understand the effects of my questioning. When I would ask a question — if Allah is merciful then why should we stone people? — the answer was surely Satan has captured your head; you’re not sane. That’s their way of silencing you immediately, and that happens to people who are in it or who are having a hard time finding a way out of that sphere.
The use of violence is of course chilling. But when family members say we’re going to disown you, you’re not one of us, ostracization is even more chilling. As Muslims or ex-Muslims are debating, it is easy to get terms such as you’re a traitor, you are an enemy. That type of rejection is in its own way a chilling force of critical thinking. I feel extremely lucky I can see it that way.
I was debating with [British activist] Maajid Nawaz right before the Arab Spring … Before the Arab Spring, he was defending the position that Islam is a religion of peace, a decade before that he was a jihadist, and he now belongs to a group that distances itself from jihad and campaigns for a Muslim Reformation. I know it’s a long process, but it gives me strength and hope, and gives me courage to keep carrying on asking these questions. It’s an ongoing battle.
We must wake up to the fact that Medina Muslims, like any other sectarian movement, rely on fear — whether fear of losing family or fear of losing faith, or fear of actual violence, it’s fear. You don’t come to a position because you thought it through; you come to a position because you’re scared — you’re scared of hell, etc. All we need to do is target these Mecca Muslims and tell them to quit being scared. Of course violence is scary, but not being scared is the only really peaceful way. If they [the Medina Muslims] can’t recruit anymore, can’t inspire anymore, they’re going to wither and die.