SHORTLY after a US jury sentenced Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his part in the 2013 attack that killed three people and injured 264, prosecutors described him as an adherent of al Qaeda’s militant Islamic views, but stressed that this was not representative of mainstream Islam.
This is now a familiar disclaimer — a repudiation of the view that Islam is an inherently violent religion. In a speech in London in April 2014, the former British prime minister Tony Blair warned that Islamic extremism represented the biggest threat to global security. He was quick to add that this extremist ideology “distorts and warps Islam’s true message”.
In her book The Mighty & The Almighty, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said: “We should be encouraged that the nihilism that infests al Qaeda-style thinking is about as appealing — even to most Muslims — as dry rot”.
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Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and author of Islam: A Short History, states that “Islam is not addicted to war, and jihad is not one of its ‘pillars’ or essential practices”. This benign view of Islam, or a view that distinguishes between moderate Islam and Islamism (the latter being a radical ideology in which religion provides the justification for violence) is common.
What if Islam itself is the problem, what if there is a predisposition towards intolerance and violence at the very core of this religion? This is very much the central thesis of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, a new book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In it she boldly challenges centuries of theological and political orthodoxy. At the very outset, she writes: “Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace.”
She is well placed to make this assessment. Although she is now a fellow at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the best-selling author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason, has had a chequered personal history. And her experiences have been life changing.
Born in 1969 and raised as a Muslim in war-torn Somalia, she later lived for a time under virtual house arrest in Saudi Arabia. From there she was banished to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. She was being sent from there to Canada for an arranged marriage, but en route switched flights and arrived in the Netherlands in 1992 where she was granted asylum.
After the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC she renounced her religion, declaring she was no longer a Muslim. “I could not overlook the central role the terrorists had attached to Prophet Mohammed as their source of inspiration.”
She went on to become an increasingly outspoken critic of the faith she had been born into. She also got a lot of media attention — an attractive black woman who was a fierce critic of Islam. That put her life in danger. “I was being set up for murder,” she said later.
She had good reason to be fearful. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker with whom she had collaborated in making a film about Islam, a feminist critique, was murdered on an Amsterdam street in November 2004 by a Muslim extremist. Hirsi Ali, who had received death threats, had to go into hiding and was given police protection. When this was withdrawn, she moved to the US.
In The Caged Virgin, published in 2004, she had concluded that Islam — a religion that has resisted change for 1,400 years — badly needed “a true Muslim Reformation”, drawing a parallel with the 16th-century Reformation sparked by Martin Luther that was to transform Christianity.
In that book she had a chapter entitled ‘Let Us Have a Voltaire’, urging that Islam required a period of enlightenment and modernisation.
“Where is the biting criticism of Islam from within?” she wondered. “Does Islam need a Voltaire to call Muslims to break free of superstition, to use their minds and not their emotions, to take note, as he did in the 1800s, that ‘Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense’?”
The reality, as John Laffin emphas-ised in a much earlier book, The Dagger of Islam (1979), is that “criticism from within Islam is rare — and dangerous”. Laffin’s book, written long before 9/11 and the rise of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic State, Boko Haram, and al Shabaab, was really a warning to the West.
Hirsi Ali’s new book echoes that warning, while calling for a radical overhaul of Islam. She identifies five key areas where there must be reform:
- Mohammed’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist readings of the Quran;
- The investment in life after death instead of life before death;
- Sharia law, the body of legislation derived from the Quran;
- The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;
- The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.
“All these tenets must be either reformed or discarded.” There is, she argues, a need for serious discussion of these issues among Muslims. “That would represent a first step, however hesitant, towards the Reformation that Islam so desperately needs.”
For 13 years, she says, ever since 9/11, she has been making a simple argument in response to such acts of terror. “My argument is that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of radical Islamists can be divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them.”
However, the woman named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world is under no illusions about the obstacles in the path of an Islamic Reformation. “Innovation of faith is one of the gravest sins in Islam, on a par with murder and apostasy.”
She stresses that it is important for people in the West to understand what makes Islam fundamentally different from other 21st century monotheistic religions. The starting-point must be the recognition that unreformed Islam is not a religion of peace.