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To Medina and Back

I reviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Heretic, for this month's issue of Commentary magazine. Here's the first part.

In April of last year, Brandeis University offered Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree for her tireless campaigning for women’s rights in the Muslim world. But little more than a week after announcing that she would be honored at the university’s commencement ceremonies, Brandeis rescinded its offer owing to Hirsi Ali’s record of bluntly criticizing Islamic oppression. “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” read the official withdrawal statement. The sad irony of this cowardly betrayal is that Hirsi Ali would soon write a book arguing that Islam is not an irredeemable theology of hatred and violence and that the key to its integration into the modern world lies in the religion’s vast majority of peaceable adherents. That book is Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, an important work whose impact will depend on its acceptance from Western thinkers and dissemination among Muslims across the nations.

Hirsi Ali knows whereof she speaks. She was raised in a strict Muslim household in her native Somalia and continued to bear the brunt of Islamic violence in Saudi Arabia and Kenya before fleeing to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage. In the West, she became an outspoken atheist in the mold of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Though her polemical style has mellowed recently, her sense of purpose has not wavered. In Heretic, her third book, she calls for nothing short of a Muslim reformation.

While Hirsi Ali maintains that most Muslims are peaceful, she points out that the actions of the violent minority are nevertheless sanctioned by the religion itself, and she quotes the relevant verses to prove it. There is much brutality in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, of course, but worldwide movements in which Christians and Jews cite scripture to justify mass murder or crimes against humanity simply do not exist in the 21st century. These older religions have reformed or interpreted the brutality out of their traditions.

Much of the Muslim world, by contrast, rather than scrutinizing and nullifying scriptural barbarism, either embraces it or pretends it’s not there. “The majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims,” Hirsi Ali writes, “are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.”

Westerners, of course, habitually deny it as well. When Mohammed Bouyeri assassinated Hirsi Ali’s Dutch colleague and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, he used a knife to pin to his victim’s chest a five-page letter addressed to her. “Islam will be victorious through the blood of the martyrs,” it read. And yet a number of academics, activists, and journalists ignore those blood-stained words and proclaim Islam a religion of peace and terrorism a function of “socioeconomic deprivation.” Hirsi Ali will have none of it. “We should at least discuss the possibility,” she writes, “that he means what he says.”

Read the rest in Commentary.

 

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