A man enters a barren hotel room, a coiled wire training from his ear, and demands ID. I comply, and then demand his. “Toronto Police Service — VIP protection.” I am deemed not to be a threat. The all-clear is sounded and moments later in walks the Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
“Controversial” doesn’t begin to cover the feather-ruffling world of Hirsi Ali. The Somali-born author of Infidel and Nomad has made a career of critiquing Islam. But her new book, Heretic, goes even further, calling for nothing less than a reformation of Islam to reconcile the religion with modernity.
With full police protection (paid for by her publisher, not taxpayers), she explains her position.
That’s some serious security. What can you tell me about it?
It’s the only subject I can’t talk about, for my own safety. But yes, I realize it is the subject everyone wants to talk about.
You are calling for a reformation of Islam, effectively rewriting the DNA of the religion. How and why did you come to this?
Since 9/11 we have been grappling with the questions, ‘What has Islam got to do with any of this violence?’ and ‘Are there several types of Islam?’ I take the position that no, there is only one Islam — but there are several types of Muslims.
We are talking 1.6 billion people, one-fifth of humanity. Huge. I see three groups — Mecca Muslims, Medina Muslims and the Reformers. Mecca Muslims, by far the largest group, believe but don’t practise what they believe. The Medina Muslims believe — and want to apply — the Prophet Muhammad’s example and the Qur’an. To live by Sharia law and jihad. They cherish life after death instead of life before death. And finally, this third, emerging group — different individuals who understand something has to change within Islam to come to terms with modernity. This is an interesting, exciting group because of the simple, urgent questions that they ask. And I am putting myself in the shoes of the reformers in writing this book, to spark a conversation about what needs to change.
Three kinds of Muslims seems a bit absurd, when there are many, many dozens. Where, for example, do mystical, peace-minded branches like Sufi Muslims fit into your world view? They claim adherence to the roots of Islam. Why would their claim be any less legitimate than those you call Medina Muslims?
Obviously I can’t write a book so bewildering it grapples with 50 or 100 sets of different Muslims. I take groups like the Alawites, the Ismailis, the Sufis — I place them under the Mecca umbrella because they do not want to emphasize the political sides of the doctrine. The Medina Muslims, on other hand, whether they are Shia or Sunni, their objective is to establish Sharia. Some of them have local ambitions, very local, maybe just their own village or town, and others have global ambitions. Which is why so many of us are having this discussion.
We’ve seen different outcomes in different places with Islamic rule. Hamas, for example, which has strictly regional ambitions. But it has struggled to maintain popularity after taking over the Gaza Strip.
It varies from place to place but the tendency is that once this whole utopian ideology is applied, it becomes far from a utopia. You see crimes against humanity, you see the subjugation of women, you see human progress taken back centuries, with attacks on schools and heritage. Whether it is Boko Haram, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, even Hamas — I don’t care what brand you apply, they are all pursuing politics in the name of religion. This is why this emerging group of reformers is beginning to say, Sharia is not the answer to our problems.
You say you want to open a conversation, but early reaction to your book suggests you may be slamming it shut. Time magazine, for example, condemned it an “evisceration of Islam’s fundamental principles, akin to taking a giant eraser to the bits about justice and liberty in the preamble to the American Constitution.” How do you answer such widespread criticism?
Well to begin, that is comparing apples to pears. The U.S. Constitution is a man-made document, and not a very old one. Whereas the Qur’an is over 1,400 years old, there hasn’t been a single amendment in all that time, and in places where it is applied politically, we see atrocities like those committed by the Islamic State. We can sit back and avoid the battlefield of ideas and let the Islamic State be the only ones doing the recruiting and the inspiring and the mobilizing. Or we can get involved in that battlefield of ideas, challenge the ideas of Sharia and jihad. That’s what I’m trying to do.
How would this challenge you describe apply to a place like Canada, for example?
Education. In order for young impressionable Muslims to reject this extremism, they have to learn to think critically. They have to learn to accept such ideas as freedom of expression, we have to teach them why that is so valuable. I propose that this can happen while still upholding the traditional “five pillars” of Islam that is so central to the faith.
Your sharpest critics say your critical error is that you simplistically confuse correlation with causation. You look to the roots of Islam to explain the violence. As opposed to looking at all the contextual reasons, including decades of Western support and complicity for the kleptocratic dictatorships that so failed the Muslim Middle East.
I’m not saying all the violence we see happens in the name of Islam. I’m just saying there is this ideological Islamist force that we cannot ignore, one that is able to inspire, unite and mobilize people to establish Sharia-based governments. And that needs to change.
But yes, of course, the U.S. and their allies have pursued incredibly short-sighted policies with these absolutist monarchs and dictators. Saudi Arabia is just as evil as ISIS, except their killing is hidden. And they have a tonne of oil. And all the money in the world.
When you look at how the hope of the Arab Spring has melted away, with Egypt back in the hands of military dictatorship and the sustained agony of war in Syria, to name just two, what do you see?
You know what, the thugs learned a lesson. The Egyptian people communicated that. But the region had no experience in secular, democratic governance and it’s going to take a very long time.
But we should all look to Tunisia and how much it has accomplished so far. Yes it is super-fragile. Yes it needs more time. But what Tunisia is showing is that Arabs and Muslims are not immune to the call of a democratic, liberal governing system.
That, to me, is what we have to nurture in every way we can. Whatever help the West can offer to the region today, it has to be with a much firmer, clearer message to those in power — let civil society prosper.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.