One day while perusing the New Testament, Thomas Jefferson decided to take a razor to its pages and strip away the passages that promoted wickedness, bigotry, or superstition. This effort to cull the distilled essence of “the life and morals of Jesus of Nazareth” left the Good Book considerably diminished in length but immeasurably enhanced in quality. Ever since, it has been known as the Jefferson Bible.
A few brave souls have suggested that the Quran might profit from similar treatment. In the light of its innumerable verses enjoining violence, the pseudonymous apostate Ibn Warraq once asserted, “There are moderate Muslims, but no moderate Islam.” This sentiment contains more than a kernel of truth, but unfortunately some of its strongest advocates appear to view history as static, holding that Islam is forever condemned to be a fanatical faith.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali disagrees, and the book she released this week, Heretic, proposes a path for Islam not quite as radical as Jefferson’s for Christianity, but one that could be of immense importance, not only for Muslims but for the whole world.
Most NR readers will be familiar with Hirsi Ali, but for those who aren’t: She is a Somali-born women’s-rights activist who fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. While serving in the Dutch Parliament with the center-right Liberal Party, she contributed to a short film, Submission, that documented misogyny in Islam. In response to the film, a Muslim brigand murdered its producer and issued a death threat to Hirsi Ali. In a sordid twist, the Dutch state briefly revoked her passport and forced her out of parliament, prompting her to decamp to the United States; she has since become an American citizen.
The argument in Heretic, Hirsi Ali’s fourth book, is straightforward: Islam is in need of a radical transformation. Islam itself, that is — mainstream Islam, not “radical” Islam. This is a thorny proposition: How to reform a religion whose adherents believe its central text was dictated by Allah Himself? But when the behavior of millions is guided by a religion whose sacred texts frequently justify intolerance and cruelty, something must be done.
Denial of this fact has become de rigueur both within the world of Islam and beyond. A plethora of special protections have been extended to Islam — “blasphemy” laws in Muslim countries and “hate speech” laws in non-Muslim countries. What these have in common is that they seek to spare the religion any rigorous intellectual challenge. In addition to flatly contradicting liberal principles, these constraints retard the needed deliberation and debate over the main texts of Islam.
Unless the discussion is free and unconstrained, it is hard to see how the crisis of religious authority now roiling Islam will ever be resolved in favor of the reformers. Hirsi Ali, no doubt thanks to her personal experience, is adamant on this point. If sporadic “blasphemy” leaves those who engage in it exposed to lethal danger, only relentless “blasphemy” will raise enough pressure to spark a genuine reformation.
To this end, Hirsi Ali proposes five amendments to Islamic doctrine: dethroning Mohammad as an infallible prophet, and scrapping a literalist reading of the Quran; elevating the rewards of human life over those of eternal life (with the ancillary purpose of delegitimizing martyrdom); replacing the most barbarous parts of Sharia with practical man-made legislation; promoting concerted action to stigmatize those tempted to take religious law into their own hands; and, last, repudiating the theological warrant for jihad.
This line of argument has, of course, not endeared Hirsi Ali to the Muslim masses, but neither has it earned her appreciably more credit in the West. In the salons of Western liberalism, even daring to suggest that there is a problem with Islam qua Islam is a kind of heresy of its own. There is a habit among pseudo-liberals to present Islam as the faith of the wretched of the earth, which fosters considerable deference toward its followers. Mere criticism of its ideas — the subordination of women, say, prescribed in the Quran and the hadith — is widely construed as an ignorant and irrational fear of Islam: in a word, Islamophobia.
A typical case was that of Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, who in 2010 warned Amnesty that allying itself with an Islamist front group, CAGE, amounted to a betrayal of its mission. “The human rights movement must maintain an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights,” she said. For daring to suggest an incompatibility between human rights and theocratic barbarism, Amnesty sacked Sahgal.
The sympathy for reform among Muslims is at once more widespread and more contested than many in the West care to admit. Hirsi Ali shrewdly distinguishes among three different groups of Muslims.
By far the largest group — which she calls the Mecca Muslims, after Mohammad’s early efforts in Islam’s holiest city to persuade polytheists to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger — consists of pious believers who are not inclined to practice violence but remain at odds with the modern world in crucial ways.
The second group — which she dubs Medina Muslims, after Mohammad’s later mission to spread Islam by the sword — “are the fundamentalists who . . . envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version,” and seek to impose this theocratic regime by force.
The third group — the smallest and most vulnerable — are the Muslim dissidents. A few of these, like the aforementioned Ibn Warraq and Hirsi Ali herself, have left Islam altogether. But many more count themselves believers seeking to reform the faith from within, the most famous of whom may be Maajid Nawaz.
It is fairly clear, as between the dissidents and the Medina Muslims, where the West’s sympathies should lie. The influence of the Mecca Muslims, however, is far from benign. They may not be flocking to fight under the banner of the Islamic State, but many still manage to believe that the appropriate punishment for apostasy and blasphemy is death.
Of course, this is nothing compared with the menace presented by the Medina Muslims. Hirsi Ali cites Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations as estimating that only 3 percent of the world’s Muslims subscribe to militant Islam. On the basis of reams of polling data that indicate staggering levels of support for terrorism in majority-Muslim countries, she doubts that the true figure is this low. “But out of well over 1.6 billion believers . . . ,” she concludes, “that 48 million seems to be more than enough.”
One especially significant yet often overlooked element in this discussion, however, is the fierce resistance to Muslim totalitarianism in the lands of Islam. Not all indigenous resistance to Islamism is supplied by liberals, to be sure, but the liberals must be feeling sorely put upon when their oppressors are aided by the outside world while they are not. As long as this malign neglect persists, the prospects for Hirsi Ali’s enterprise will be gloomy indeed.
By pretending that an Islamic reformation is unnecessary, the West has allowed itself to withhold from the reformers even modest support. We have, in short, disowned the dissidents’ cause by denying that there is anything in contemporary Islam to dissent from. This attitude has ominous portents for the American-led world order. If the cause of a Muslim Reformation should fail or be defeated, as Hirsi Ali warns, “the rest of the world too will pay an enormous price — not only in blood spilled but also in freedom lost.”
Hirsi Ali’s project of stripping away Quranic fanaticism deserves widespread attention and support from the West. How close we are to the birth of an enlightened Islam is very hard to say. But when we reach it, as it seems we must, historians may look back to find Hirsi Ali holding the razor blade.