Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

My interview with scholar, activist, author, and “heretic” Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

[Pre-order Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, 'Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women's Rights': HERE.]

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-born, Dutch-American scholar, former politician, author and activist, is also one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. She is known for her critiques of Islam, and her intransigent devotion to freedom of speech. She is the author of numerous books. Her latest is Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

Hirsi Ali is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the founder of the AHA Foundation which is a non-profit organization for the defense of women’s rights. The organization fights against female genital mutilation and forced marriages.

Hirsi Ali’s life is proof that grit, tenacity and an exalted vision for one’s life can result in the achievement of greatness. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1969 and raised as a devout Muslim before later leaving the religion, Hirsi Ali spent her childhood among her birthplace, Saudi Arabia and Kenya where she learned English. She fled Kenya for Germany pending an arranged marriage she had no choice in formulating. Alone, but armed with a heroic spirit and a belief in life’s better possibilities, she quietly boarded a train from Bonn to Amsterdam. There, she ended up in a refugee camp, was granted asylum, and worked for a while cleaning factories. Hirsi Ali learned and mastered Dutch from scratch within a year. She eventually earned a university degree in political science and, at age 33, was elected to the Dutch parliament.

She fled Holland after receiving death threats for working on the film Submission with Theo Van Gogh, who was shot eight times and murdered by a 26-year-old Dutch Moroccan Islamist terrorist.

In Heretic, Hirsi Ali makes several uncompromising statements about Islam. She writes that violence is inherent in Islam, and that Islam is not a religion of peace. She submits that this does not mean that Islamic belief makes Muslims naturally violent. Rather, the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Hirsi Ali argues that this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by a number of offenses including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and threats to the honor of family and Islam itself.

A dignified human being with a rarefied mind, and possessed of an almost preternatural calmness, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, while preparing for the publication of her new book Prey, granted me the pleasure of this interview.

Jason Hill: Ayaan, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. It has been an intellectually exhilarating experience to re-read your books, but on the fifth anniversary of HERETIC: WHY ISLAM NEEDS A REFORMATION NOW, I must ask: how optimistic are you about that reformation today in 2020 as you were in 2015 when the book was published?

Hirsi Ali: Since 2015, I have been heartened by the efforts of individuals such as Elham Manea, Seyran Ateş, Asra Nomani, Yahya Cholil Staquf, and many others—think of Abdullahi an-Na’im-- to reform Islam. These “reform” Muslims are diverse.

Some are what you would call “religious figures” who were formally trained in religious matters, such as Yahya Cholil Staquf or Abdullahi an-Na’im. Others are authors and intellectuals with a deep knowledge base who are not formal religious figures.

As such, these “reform” Muslims defy easy categorization: some are more progressive, others more conservative. On foreign policy, too, they differ.

What unites them is the recognition that traditional Shariah law simply cannot go unreformed. It has to be fundamentally—no pun intended—reformed. The Qur’an, and in particular the political and military activities of Islam’s formative Medina period, and the activities of the Prophet Mohammed, all have to be put in a historical context.

There is an excellent new book out by Krithika Varagur titled The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project. The book describes the tens of billions of dollars and countless man-hours that have gone into disseminating the Wahhabi/Salafi (and there are differences between these two) strands of Islam across the globe over the past five decades or so. Although the subject matter of tracking funding flows is opaque, today it appears the Saudis have begun scaling back this effort a bit as the Saudi Crown Prince (MBS) is seeking some kind of religious moderation in order to help Saudi Arabia modernize more generally.  

Can you ask yourself: what if reformist and humanist Muslims today could benefit from the same scale and scope of support that extremists have over the past five decades? What could be accomplished if reformers, humanist and dissident Muslims were supported in terms of organization, infrastructure, steady funding?

If reformers could reach out to young Muslims who are targeted by extremist preachers? We—the Western world— cannot hope to defeat extremism by weapons. We need to counter the ideology that creates the violence. The Yemeni-Swiss political scientist Elham Manea has a good book on this very topic that will be released in English shortly. 

Disappointingly, one of the main impediments to this reform effort is the “woke” assertion, widely prevalent, in the West that Islam needs no reforms and that raising the issue of Islamism is “Islamophobic.” When, at the time Heretic was published, I encouraged the U.S. to engage in the battle of ideas, one expert scoffed that “funding Muslim reformers is not the solution.”

I suppose we should let reformers twist in the wind? Of course, I acknowledge that Islam can only be reformed by Muslims—whether they live in the West or in other parts of the world—but reform Muslims need all the support they can get given the threats, the lack of support and the ostracization they face. They face a difficult, steep climb.

In many ways, the purse strings of American and European grant-making foundations that could make a difference remain tied today. Many Western donors and grant-making foundations are extremely uncomfortable wading into religious issues, even though the battle against Islamism is the battle that will define the future of the Islamic world and our relationship with them.

To answer your question: I am optimistic in the sense that there are many Muslims who support reforms and are seeking a better path, but pessimistic that there is little support for them.

My optimism is tempered by a concern we are letting a great opportunity go to waste. Remember also that today, considerable numbers of Muslims in the Arab world appear to be leaving the faith entirely as religious extremism has left them profoundly shaken and disillusioned.

HILL: You gave some pretty chilling statistics regarding the beliefs of Muslims in your book. Three-quarters of Pakistanis and more than two-fifths of Bangladeshis and Iraqis think that those who leave Islam should suffer the death penalty. At the time of your writing, two-fifths of Muslim immigrants between then and 2030 will be from those countries. What do you say to hardliners who would say such people could be regarded as national security threats given their reluctance to also assimilate to Western values? With the infusion of such illiberal traditions and beliefs inside our republic, should we not have a moratorium on immigration vis-à-vis immigrants from those countries?

Ali: A general moratorium on immigration is in some ways an admission of defeat: that we are not capable, with all our resources, to determine who is suitable to enter the United States.

A total moratorium is also not fair in an ethical sense. Think of the many Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to help U.S. forces in Afghanistan under harrowing circumstances with the steady risk of Islamist violence. It’s not moral to just leave them behind. They’ve taken real risks for American troops.

I do favor a far more selective immigration policy, for the U.S. and other Western countries in the face of Islamism. It should not be enough to come from an economically disadvantaged part of the world to be admitted.

There are two key questions that tend to be missing in the current immigration debate in Europe and the United States:

  1. How many immigrants can the host society successfully assimilate without becoming fractured, that is to say, without its social cohesion being jeopardized?
  2. Which immigrants have the best prospects of assimilating and becoming productive members of the host society?

Right now, these questions are rarely a meaningful part of domestic immigration laws. In answering these two questions, Western countries can certainly continue to receive refugees from the poorest parts of the world, but values and cultural differences have to be considered. Who is best able to assimilate?

Under no circumstance should Western countries let in people with Islamist views who seek to establish a parallel society. This is not in the interest of women’s rights, of the open society, of religious and sexual minorities. It’s not xenophobic to refuse entry to Islamists.

Certainly, people can lie about their convictions and their worldview. But there are some indicators of where people’s loyalties lie. We have to dare to ask these questions of prospective immigrants, even of asylum seekers and refugees, and do our best to ascertain how successful an admitted immigrant is likely to be.

It is not so much “success” in the financial sense I am concerned with, but successful in the sense of becoming a productive member of society, a person who shares the values of the host society and lives in harmony with this society. Those immigrants who do not share a commitment to pluralism, to the free society, to fully respecting women in the public sphere—I do not think such immigrants should be admitted, even if they happen to be “refugees” fleeing a conflict.

Thinking about it in this way would mark a considerable change in immigration policy in many Western countries, which at the moment tends to be quite legalistic rather than value-focused. It has to be said that many legal frameworks surrounding refugee policy are not suitable to the present era and are in need of revision.

Being discerning in terms of deciding who to admit does not mean leaving people in war zones to fend for themselves, by the way. One can do both while upholding humanitarian principles. It’s a matter of policy choices, of being sensible and lucid.

HILL: How dangerous a threat is political Islam to America? Also, more particularly, how worried are you about the likelihood of, say, as we find in parts of Europe where some Islamic communities are governed by Sharia law, that the same thing could happen here in the United States?

Ali: To begin, let me address your first question. Political Islam is a considerable threat to America because Islamists control much of the “official” infrastructure for American Muslims. Islamists purport to speak for all American Muslims, in the sense of saying to policymakers: if you want to do anything related to, say, extremists, then you have to somehow go through us, and then we will decide what happens. You’d better not upset us either, because then your “connection” to Muslims will somehow “disappear” It’s a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse.

These are groups such as CAIR with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist ideology, that are not recognized as such by many U.S. policymakers. The U.S. government has made many errors in judgment with regard to such outreach partners. I cannot say it often enough: officials tend to be focused on violent groups, but have done little to address groups that foster the ideology that paves the way for future violence.

For about two decades there have been a lot of fairly senior “mid-level” officials in various U.S. agencies who do not appear to fully grasp the nettle with regard to Islamism in the United States. There have been a lot of mistakes made since 9/11.

In the prior Administration, Islamist lobbying groups successfully insisted on changing training materials pertaining to radical Islam, and counter-terrorism trainers and lecturers employed by U.S. intelligence agencies were fired for accurately describing the nature of the threat. We have not yet fixed that damage, certainly not at the level of career officials.

The current Trump Administration is complex. There is not always policy synchronization on this issue. I know, for instance, that Secretary Pompeo does understand the strategic challenge posed by ostensibly “non-violent” Islamism. With other officials, it depends. Within the FBI, it depends. Within the CIA, it depends. There is “wokeism” even in those agencies.

At the top level, the promised “commission on radical Islam which will include reformist voices in the Muslim community,” for instance, has still not materialized. I am not sure if that is a lack of interest from the top or a matter of other issues appearing more urgent.

With regard to your second question on Shariah law and “parallel” communities, I continue to receive requests for help from Muslim women in serious distress through my work with the AHA Foundation. We know that there are radical Imams in American who are committed to a type of separatism, hailing from various backgrounds. We know that FGM in America is sometimes justified in the name of religion, and that the legal system in America is not able to meet this challenge, as a recent ruling in Michigan has shown.  We know that forced marriages take place in the United States.

Yes, I am deeply concerned about this. Women’s rights advocates have to engage. Those committed to the open society, to pluralism, have to engage to counteract this type of separatism. Out of a reluctance to engage in “stigmatization,” many of these human rights issues pertaining to American Muslims do not really attract the attention of journalists. That, too, has to change.

HILL: What are your thoughts on President Trump's travel ban?

Ali: The initial “travel ban” was, as I said at the time, clumsy. I thought that it was simultaneously far too broad and yet too narrow in terms of its purported focus.

The third iteration of the “travel ban,” the one that was upheld by the Supreme Court, was in that sense considerably better in terms of its focus. It simply stated that there are some countries, nationals of whom cannot (yet) be adequately vetted. It also established clearly that the U.S. government had to regain a measure of control over what had become a porous immigration process.

As someone who comes from an immigrant background and grew up Muslim, I would say that the diversity of the human condition has to be respected. Among Muslims there are humanists, moderates, dissidents and, of course, ex-Muslims. “Muslims” as human beings should not be defined primarily by their religious identity.

At the same time, as someone who is intimately aware of the nature of radical Islam, we have to be clear-eyed about the risks of letting in people without proper vetting and scrutiny. We cannot maintain, against hope, that every Muslim will assimilate to the open society in America. We have to be discerning without being hostile.

It is a matter of developing a much savvier immigration policy—what works best for the benefit of all those involved — rather than a strictly legalistic one where issues of social values and social cohesion are almost an afterthought, where it is a matter of jumping through legal hurdles and exceptions to “win” an immigration authorization or residency.

My hope is that the policy with regard to Islamism and immigration will continue to improve regardless of who wins the elections in November. I am deeply concerned that “wokeism,” identity politics or political correctness—however you refer to it—that these ideologies will hobble public policy in this regard. 

Hill: And, finally: a personal question: What brings you joy and vitality in this world? Are you an optimist by temperament? 

Ali: By temperament, I would say that I am an optimist. There is a resilience in the philosophy of liberalism and a strength in our institutions. They are currently being tested but American values are strong and I remain optimistic about our future. My friends and family are the main drivers of this hope. They bring me joy and happiness.

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

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