When Blasphemy, Heresy and Apostasy are Necessary

Book review: Heretic, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

On ______, a group of ______ heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a ______ in ______, opening fire and killing a total of ______ people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”

Speaking at a press conference, President ______ said: “We condemn this criminal act by extremists. Their attempt to justify their violent acts in the name of a religion of peace will not, however, succeed. We also condemn with equal force those who would use this atrocity as a pretext for Islamophobic hate crimes.”

As I revised the introduction to this book, four months before its publication, I could of course have written something more specific, like this: 

On January 7, 2015, two heavily armed, black-clad attackers burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, opening fire and killing a total of ten people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”

But, on reflection, there seemed little reason to pick Paris. Just a few weeks earlier I could equally as well have written this: 

In December 2014, a group of nine heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a school in Peshawar, opening fire and killing a total of 145 people.

Indeed, I could have written a similar sentence about any number of events, from Ottawa, Canada, to Sydney, Australia, to Baga, Nigeria. So instead I decided to leave the place blank and the number of killers and victims blank, too. You, the reader, can simply fill them in with the latest case that happens to be in the news. Or, if you prefer a more historical example, you can try this:

In September 2001, a group of 19 Islamic terrorists flew hijacked planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., killing 2,996 people.

That’s how Ayaan Hirsi Ali opens her most recent book, 2015’s Heretic. Many people dislike her for many different reasons. Some because she’s a woman who dares speak up about taboo topics, some because they think she’s Islamophobic, and most because she’s a former Muslim who not only left the religion, but speaks out about what’s not working within. She lives under the regular lobbing of death threats, has seen a colleague killed for his collaboration with her, and is regularly put down and challenged for her criticisms. She’s controversial, to be sure, but she’s a deep thinker with a remarkable gift for words and a strong desire for social justice.

I would argue that she’s not Islamophobic, as she’s often accused of being, rather she was raised in the religion and at one point even started down the path to extremism, so she’s seen from the inside how badly this can go if the conditions are right. She introduces herself and her qualifications for dealing with the subject, for those who aren’t familiar with her work and writing, as “…the perspective of someone who has been at various times all three kinds of Muslim: a cocooned believer, a fundamentalist, and a dissident. My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan, and to the idea of a Modified Islam.”

Her backstory is that she abandoned Islam after escaping a forced arranged marriage by traveling to Holland, there claiming asylum and working her way from welfare and cleaning jobs to the Dutch Parliament (it’s only touched on in passing here; read her first book Infidel for the whole story; it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the past year, maybe ever.) She grew frustrated with the stubbornness of some of her fellow refugees and immigrants who neglected to use the privileges of the Western world to better themselves and their families and leave behind the sharia law-dictated failing societies of their homelands, instead clinging to the linked political/religious system and beliefs and isolating in self-imposed, insular communities.

In Heretic, Ayaan strays from telling her own story and focuses on problems within Islam and interpretation of the Koran. The problem, she argues, is that extremists can find justification and instruction for everything they do in the Koran’s verses. And unlike Christianity and Judaism, it’s never undergone reformation. Hirsi Ali argues that it’s desperately in need of one, asking: “What hope can there be to reform a religion that has resisted change for 1,400 years?” 

She argues that it’s not a “religion of peace” as is claimed, and it’s not a stretch to find verses and chapters in the Koran to justify the viciousness that’s often perpetrated in the name of the religion. The thesis of the book is that other major world religions have undergone countless reformations in their thousands of years of existence, only Islam has remained staunchly unchanged thanks to the belief that everything laid down in the Koran is already perfect so impossible to be changed or updated.

Would-be reformers are threatened or bullied, “and the method has been to return, always, to the Qur’an. Because the Qur’an is inviolate, timeless, and perfect, they argue, what is written in it cannot be criticized, much less changed. That explains why, in Islam, reform has never had positive connotations and innovation is at all costs to be avoided…In other words, “reform” is simply not a legitimate concept in Islamic doctrine.”

“When I wrote my last book, Nomad, I believed that Islam was beyond reform, that perhaps the best thing for religious believers in Islam to do was to pick another god. I was certain of it, not unlike the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, who wrote in 1987 of his absolute certainty that the Berlin Wall would endure. Two years later, the Wall fell. Seven months after I published Nomad came the start of the Arab Spring. I watched four national governments fall – Egypt’s twice – and protests or uprisings occur in fourteen other nations, and I thought simply: I was wrong. Ordinary Muslims are ready for change.”

Honestly, as a non-Muslim, a non-religious person actually, and with only a superficial understanding from a limited selection of books as to what the religion actually dictates and demands, I’m hesitant to offer an opinion on these topics. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but there it is. But I can say that everyone should explore Hirsi Ali’s works with an open mind.

I agree with her on most points, and I think the highlight of her writing and speaking (look up some clips of her making her points and shutting down some ill-informed opposition) is how intelligent and well-spoken she is in making her arguments. She presents well-argued cases and impactful examples and to put it quite simply, she’s got a point.

In the current global political climate, especially in the United States with Trump’s idiotic and embarrassing “Muslim ban”, this topic, although sensitive, isn’t one we can afford to dance around any longer. Extremism of any kind is dangerous, a proverbial powder keg. That goes for Christian extremism too – let’s not forget the wormy white boy shooting up a black church or the guy who believed too much Fox News propaganda and shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, as two out of a number of recent examples.

But it is a significant problem that”lone wolf” terrorists emerge, fired up on emotional rhetoric and venting their frustrations and misguided beliefs in ways that we’ve seen far too often and I don’t need to rehash here. It goes without saying that the situation in IS-affected lands in the Middle East, where civilians suffer unspeakable horrors in the name of fundamentalism, is inhumane and unallowable. Banning them from seeking refugee status or even entering America certainly isn’t the answer, it’s not even close. I can’t pretend to know what is, but it’s better to let Ayaan explain, she knows what she’s talking about.

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

published March 24, 2015 by Harper

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